Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Charles Leonard : A Biography

Sugar Ray Leonard

DOB: May 17, 1956 – Wilimington, North Carolina
Gym: Palmer Park Recreation Centre & Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Gym
Location: Palmer Park, Maryland
Boxing Career: Amateur, Professional, Analyst
Nickname: ‘Sugar Ray’ 
Height: 5 Foot 10 inches. 178cm
Reach: 74 inches
Stance: Orthodox
Weights fought at: Lightweight, Light Middleweight, Middleweight, Super middleweight, Light heavyweight.
Professional Record: 
Total Fights: 40
Wins: 36
Wins by KO: 25
Losses: 3
Draws 1
Notable Fights: “The Brawl in Montreal”, “No Mas”, “The Showdown”, Leonard vs Hagler, Leonard vs Hearns II, “Uno Mas” Leonard vs Duran III 

Sugar Ray Leonard: Overview 

Sugar Ray Leonard is a former American professional boxer, turned boxing analyst, motivational speaker, and occasional actor. Universally regarded as one of the greatest of all time in a career that spanned two decades from 1977-1997, Ray won five titles in five weight divisions; the lineal championship in three weight divisions; and the undisputed welterweight championship of the world. In a period considered one of the greatest boxing eras of all time, Ray was a member of a group known as the “Fabulous Four”. A group of similarly talented boxers who fought each other throughout the 1980’s in some epic fights and rematches that enthralled the world. The other fighters, legends in their own right were: Roberto ‘The Hands of Stone’ Duran, Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler.  

Sugar Ray Leonard: Early Life 

Born to parents Cicero and Getha Leonard, Ray Charles Leonard was named after his mother’s favourite singer and the fifth of seven siblings. Ray was said to be a notably shy child and apart from a time when he nearly drowned in a creek during a flood, Ray had an uneventful childhood.

His mother was quoted as saying, “He never did talk too much. We never could tell what he was thinking. But I never had any problems with him. I never had to go to school once because of him.”

Sugar Ray Leonard: Boxing Background

Amateur Career

In 1969, Ray Leonard started boxing at the Palmer Park Recreation Center. Inspired by his older brother, Roger, who had started boxing first and helped start the boxing program there.

By the end of his amateur boxing career, Ray Leonard had an incredible record of 50 wins (16 KO’s) and only 4 losses. There are some notable events however that happened during this time which should be drawn attention to. 

In 1972, Leonard boxed in the Eastern Olympic Trials even though at 16, he was too young to compete. The rules stating a boxer had to be 17 years of age to compete in international competitions. Leonard, only 16, lied about his age and made it to the lightweight semi-finals. Whilst Ray would lose in a disputed decision to Greg Whaley, Whaley took such a beating from Leonard that he was no longer allowed to continue in the trials and indeed never boxed again!

Here-in also lies the etymology of Leonard’s famous nickname “Sugar Ray”

Then assistant coach of the US Olympic Boxing Team, Sarge Johnson, said to Dave Jacobs (Leonard’s manager at the time), “That kid you got is sweet as sugar”. Given his style and first name it was only a matter of time before people started calling him ‘Sugar Ray’ – a homage to a man many consider the best boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Leonard would win numerous ‘Golden Glove’ and ‘National’ titles (listed later) between 1972 and 1976. It was in 1976, however, that the story of Leonard’s legend really began when Leonard made the US Olympic Team as a Light Welterweight for the ‘Montreal Games’. The team also included such notable names as Leon and Michael Spinks, Howard Davis Jr., Leo Randolph, Charles Mooney, and John Tate. Indeed many consider the 1976 US team to be the greatest boxing team in the history of the Olympics but it was Leonard who was the star of the show! He won his first four Olympic bouts by 5–0 decisions. Facing Kazimierz Szczerba in the semi-finals, Leonard would again win by a 5-0 decision before facing the renowned Cuban knockout specialist, Andrés Aldama. Aldama in contrast to Leonard had won his way to the final by five straight knockouts! Yet Leonard was not fazed, wining the Olympic Gold Medal once again with a 5–0 decision in the process!

Afterwards, Leonard announced, “I’m finished…I’ve fought my last fight. My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school.” He was given a scholarship to the University of Maryland.

Sugar Ray Leonard’s incredible achievements as an amateur

  • 1973 National Golden Gloves Lightweight Champion, defeating Hilmer Kenty
  • 1973 National AAU Light Welterweight Championship runner-up, losing to Randy Shields
  • 1974 National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Champion, defeating Jeff Lemeir
  • 1974 National AAU Light Welterweight Champion, defeating Paul Sherry
  • 1974 North American Championships Gold Medalist, defeating Robert Proulx
  • 1975 National AAU Light Welterweight Champion, defeating Milton Seward
  • 1975 North American Championships Gold Medalist, defeating Michel Briere
  • 1975 Pan American Games Light Welterweight Gold Medalist, defeating Victor Corona
  • 1976 Olympic Light Welterweight Gold Medalist, defeating Andrés Aldama

Olympic results, a perfect record!

  • 1/32: Defeated Ulf Carlsson (Sweden) by unanimous decision, 5–0
  • 1/16: Defeated Valery Limasov (Soviet Union) by unanimous decision, 5–0
  • 1/8: Defeated Clinton McKenzie (Great Britain) by unanimous decision, 5–0
  • 1/4: Defeated Ulrich Beyer (East Germany) by unanimous decision, 5–0
  • 1/2: Defeated Kazimierz Szczerba (Poland) by unanimous decision, 5–0
  • Finals: Defeated Andrés Aldama (Cuba) by unanimous decision, 5–0 

Change of Heart

The promise of lucrative endorsements following Leonards gold medal win did not materialise, largely chased off by the negative publicity he received from a paternity suit. Moreover, when Leonard’s father become hospitalised with meningitis and his mother suffered a heart attack, this in tandem with having to pay ‘child support’ saw Sugar Ray decide to become a professional boxer.

Leonard the Professional 

Early years and catching the eye of Angelo Dundee!

When Leonard turned professional, many of the people considered for training him demanded absolute control and a cut of 33%, the traditional manager’s fee. One Angelo Dundee saw something special in Leonard though and had a different proposition. He would prescribe the training procedures but would leave the day-to-day training to Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton. He would however choose Leonard’s opponents but Dundee would only take 15% of Leonard’s purse. Why? Dundee viewed Leonard as a smaller version of Muhammad Ali!

Sugar Ray Leonard made his professional debut on the 5th of February, 1977 at the Civic Centre, Baltimore before a crowd of 10,270. His opponent was Luis “The Bull” Vega, who he defeated in a six-round unanimous decision. It was not until his 14th professional fight however that Leonard would fight his first world-ranked opponent, one Floyd Mayweather Sr! who was ranked seventeenth in the world. The fight took place on the 9th of September, 1978 and Leonard won with a tenth-round knockout during quite a spectacular fight – take a look at some of the highlights!

Sugar Rays First World Title

On the 30th of November, 1979 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Leonard now with a record of 25-0 (16 KO’s) fought future International Boxing Hall of Famer, Wilfred Benitez 38-0-1 for the WBC Welterweight Championship of the World. A then capacity crowd of circa 4,600 would witness an epic fight.

In a highly competitive and tactical battle, Leonard was the more eye catching performer and though Leonard was dominant in the early rounds, ‘dropping’ Benitez in the third round with a sharp left jab. A quote from Leonard best summed how the fight changed;

“I wasn’t aware I was in a championship early because I hit him so easy”, Leonard said. “But then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror.”

The fight then proceeded to continue in a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ style, Leonard hurting and hitting Benitez with the better punches but unable to knock him out. A frustrated Leonard again showed ultimate respect for his opponent’s skills when he stated,

“No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that.”

Ultimately whilst unaware for sure he was ahead on the scorecards (137–130, 137–133 and 136–134) going into the final round, Leonard still went ‘toe-to-toe’ with Benitez, again dropping him late in the round with a left. Benitez would get up but after a few more punches, the referee stopped the fight at 2:54 of round fifteen.

Leonard would make a first defence of his title on the 31st of March, 1980. Knocking out the British challenger, Dave “Boy” Green, in the 4th round with a left hook of such devastating power, Leonard called it “the hardest single punch I ever threw.” 

Leonard and the beginning of the legendary era of the ‘Fabulous Four’!

Rays First Loss; ‘The Brawl in Montreal’

On the 20th of June, 1980, Leonard fought in a fight that would be a staple of his career – he would fight the best at their best. At the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, he sought to defend his title against Roberto ‘the hands of stone’ Duran. A former undisputed World Lightweight Champion for 6 ½ years with a record of 71 wins and only 1 loss, Duran was the #1 Welterweight contender and widely considered the best ‘Pound for Pound’ fighter in the world.

Though he was counselled by his trainer the legendary Angelo Dundee to ‘box and move’, Leonard decided to fight Duran at his own game stating, “I will not run.” But in this high intensity fight with Duran constantly attacking, Sugar Ray at times simply just  survived.

Bill Nack perhaps best summed up the fight with the following appraisal:

“It was, from almost the opening salvo, a fight that belonged to Durán. The Panamanian seized the evening and gave it what shape and momentum it had. He took control, attacking and driving Leonard against the ropes, bulling him back, hitting him with lefts and rights to the body as he maneuvered the champion against the ropes from corner to corner. Always moving forward, he mauled and wrestled Leonard, scoring inside with hooks and rights. For three rounds Durán drove at Sugar Ray with a fury, and there were moments when it seemed the fight could not last five. Unable to get away, unable to counter and unable to slide away to open up the ring, Leonard seemed almost helpless under the assault. Now and then he got loose and countered—left-right-left to Durán’s bobbing head—but he missed punches and could not work inside, could not jab, could not mount an offense to keep Durán at bay.”

Durán correctly won the fight by unanimous decision. Leonard would say of the fight, “I did the best I could, I think I pretty much fought from the heart.” A famous rematch however was on the scorecards!

“No Mas” 

The infamous rematch between these two great fighters was billed as “Stone vs Sugar” and was held on the 25th of November, 1980 in New Orleans in front of 25,038 fans. Though his trainer Dave Jacobs disagreed and indeed quit over Leonards decision to take an immediate rematch, his fears were proven to be unfounded when Leonard in absolutely scintillating form forced Duran to quit in the eighth round. Leonard this time had changed tactics, unlike the fight in Montreal, Leonard used his superior speed and movement to outbox and confuse Durán. In Leonard’s own words,

“The whole fight, I was moving, I was moving… And Voom! I snapped his head back with a jab. Voom! I snapped it back again. He tried to get me against the ropes, I’d pivot, spin off and Pow! Come under with a punch.”

Indeed, by round seven Leonard had started to taunt and humiliate Duran with amongst other, Leonard throwing his most memorable punch – a version of the Bolo Punch. Leonard wound up his right hand as if to throw it, before snapping out a left jab which caught Durán flush in the face. Leonard continued the humiliation by constantly sticking his chin out for Duran to hit before ducking out the way. 

By the closing seconds of the eighth round, Durán couldn’t take it any longer. He turned his back on Leonard and quit, saying to referee Octavio Meyran, ‘No Más’ or‘No more’ in English. Take a look at the following video and you might understand why!

Leonard was declared the winner by TKO at 2:44 of round eight, regaining the WBC Welterweight Championship. 

– No Mas Fall Out

Duran would go on to claim he quit because of stomach cramps and whilst later in the night he was admitted for an overnight stay in hospital for stomach pains, this was an excuse that ‘washed’ with few. Especially as he retired from boxing directly after the match.

Universal condemnation followed, Duran’s veteran trainer Ray Arcel was so angered he stated,

“That’s it, I’ve had it. This is terrible. I’ve handled thousands of fighters and never had anyone quit on me. I think he needs a psychiatrist more than he needs anything else.” 

Durán’s manager, Carlos Eleta said, “Durán didn’t quit because of stomach cramps. He quit because he was embarrassed”. 

Leonard stated, “I made him quit. To make a man quit, to make Roberto Durán quit, was better than knocking him out.”

Leonard would go on to defend the title against Larry Bonds in 1981, before moving up to Junior Middleweight in the same year to win a second World title from Ayube Kalule (36-0) with a TKO win in round 9.

Sugar Ray’s next great bout was now imminent. 

Sugar Ray Leonard: The Showdown with the Hitman!

Sugar Ray Leonard fought Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns on the 16th of September, 1981 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas in a 15 round fight to unify the World Welterweight Championship of the world before a crowd of 23,618. To say it was one of the most eagerly anticipated fights of all time is a gross understatement. It was one of the few times the two best boxers on the planet met in their prime. Hearns came into the bout with a fearsome reputation and a brutal record: 32–0 with 30 knockouts! With that in mind, it was no surprise the fight had been labelled ‘the boxer vs the puncher’.

The fight followed a predicted pattern, Hearns stalked Leonard for a knockout blow with his long reach and sharp jab whilst Leonard used his trademark fast feet and fast hands to ‘stick and move’. By round 5, Hearns’ tactics were effective and he had built up a considerable lead on the scorecards. Leonard would rally and ‘batter’ Hearns in rounds six and seven, but Hearns would regroup, also ‘stick and move’ and start to pile up points again, winning rounds 9 through 12. Angelo Dundee was so concerned between rounds twelve and thirteen he famously yelled at Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it”!

The rallying call worked. Leonard, renowned as a brilliant boxer capable of launching flurries of brutal combination punches started to do just that. In round 13 despite a badly swollen eye, Leonard put Hearns through the ropes and though it was not declared a knockdown, Leonard did officially ‘drop’ him when he got up. Round 14 saw Leonard similarly pin the ‘Hitman’ against the ropes, whereby, he unleashed another furious combination of punches which prompted referee, Davey Pearl, to stop the contest and award Sugar Ray the Unified World Welterweight Championship. 

*Note, Hearns was actually leading on the judge’s scorecards at the time 124–122, 125–122, and 125–121.

Sugar Ray had pulled off a miraculous comeback. The fight was named “Fight of the Year” by ‘The Ring’. Leonard was named “Fighter of the Year” by ‘The Ring’ and The Boxing Writers Association of America. He was also named “Athlete of the Year” by ABC’s Wide World of Sports and “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.

Ray Leonard: Retirement, Return, Retirement!

Leonard defended the unified title by knocking out Bruce Finch in the third round of their fight in 1982. However, whilst training for his next fight, Leonard started to see ‘floaters’. On seeing a doctor, Leonard discovered he had a detached retina. Leonard undertook surgery to repair the retina but on the 9th of November, 1982, he would announce his retirement from boxing, stating a bout with Hagler would unfortunately never happen.

But box on he would; returning to the ring after initially postponing his fight with Kevin Howard to fix a new loose retina. Leonard would find himself on the floor for the first time ever in his rearranged fight with Howard before rallying to win by stoppage in the 9th round and surprising everyone at the post-fight press conference in announcing his retirement yet again stating, ‘he just didn’t have it anymore’.

Ray Leonard vs Hagler and more comebacks!

Whilst ringside in 1986 for Hagler vs John ‘the beast’ Mugabi, Leonard decided he could beat Hagler! Subsequently on the 1st of May, 1986, Leonard announced he would return to the ring to fight Hagler. Hagler took a few months to decide but agreed to the match. The fight took place on the 6th April, 1987, at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas and was promoted as “The Super Fight” and “The King of the Ring”. Hagler was also a heavy favourite at 4–1. What followed was the stuff of legend and simply cannot be articulated in words. You’ll just have to seek it out and watch it, so you too can join the everlasting debate as to who actually won the fight! With the boxing World split to this day as to whether Leonard deserved the decision.

You really need to watch the whole fight to decide but some electric highlights are provided here:

All this writer will say is that the blistering combinations Leonard put together when he appeared to be in severe trouble were enough to convince he was the rightful victor. Though many disagree, arguing, whilst every time Hagler scored and Leonard came back with something more eye catching, these salvos were not as effective and just a flashy tactic at the end of rounds to steal them from the minds of the judges. Watch it and make up your own mind! 

Further notable fights.

Sugar Ray would continue on to fight in some further notable fights.

  • On the 7th of December, 1988, Leonard would defeat Donny Lalonde by stoppage in the 9th round of a ‘Catchweight’ 168lb fight for the Light Heavyweight Championship and the newly minted, Super Middleweight Championship.
  • Leonard would vacate the Light Heavyweight Championship but on the 12th June, 1989, defended the WBC Super Middleweight Championship in a rematch with Thomas Hearns at Caesar’s Palace. Leonard would see himself floored twice in this fight but somehow earned a draw. Later in life, the flashy but honest and humble Leonard would admit Hearns deserved the decision.
  • In ‘Uno Mas’ on the 7th of Dec, 1989, Leonard would again defend his title and take on Duran for a third time. Winning in a heavily lopsided unanimous decision.

The final two fights of Leonard’s career did not end as well. An aging Leonard in September 1991 would take a quite a beating in his only appearance at the Mecca of boxing – Madison Square Garden, from a young and hungry ‘Terrible’ Terry Norris (26-3-0). Indeed in announcing his retirement (again) afterwards Leonard would say,

“It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time…Tonight was my last fight. I know how Hagler felt now.”

Shame ‘Ray’ did not stick to his words as in taking on Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho (62-3-1) 6 years later in 1997, Leonard would suffer the only stoppage/TKO of his career. The referee stopping the fight in only the fifth round. Sadly, a glittering career was now truly at an end with two final defeats on his record that could have been avoided. Leonard’s fans arguing, that the only time a prime time Leonard really lost therefore was in his first fight with Duran. Few would argue.

Sugar Ray Leonard Living Legend

The list of successes, accolades and achievements Sugar Ray Leonard earned in his career are literally endless. So I’ll just summarise some of his most important and you can check his record for the rest! 

In addition to what has already been stated before:

  • Sugar Ray Leonard was the first boxer to earn more than $100 million in purses. 
  • Was named “Boxer of the Decade” in the 1980s. 
  • Saw ‘The Ring’ magazine name him Fighter of the Year in 1979 and 1981. 
  • Saw the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) name him Fighter of the Year in 1976, 1979, and 1981.
  • ‘Box Rec’ vote him as ‘pound for pound’ the 23rd greatest boxer of all time.
  • ‘The Ring’ in 2002 vote him as the ninth greatest fighter of the last 80 years.
  • ‘The Ring’ in 2016 also voting Leonard the greatest living fighter.

Arguably the greatest showman of all time to grace the boxing ring, “Sugar” Ray Leonard was inducted into the International Boxing Home of Fame in 1997, the same year he retired!