18 insightful extracts from Sugar Ray Leonard’s autobiography

Sugar Ray Leonard is in most peoples pound for pound greatest of all time list. In a stellar career he defeated the likes of Wilfred Benítez, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler. He has experienced highs and lows such as forcing Duran to quit in their rematch, enduring alcohol and drug addictions, producing his best ever performance against Hearns, suffering form sexual abuse at an early age and becoming one of the most memorable boxers in the history of the sport.

Here are some extracts from his autobiography ‘The Big Fight’.

The ring is where men try to do great harm to one another, and where I felt the safest.

Leonard performed with elegance not just in the ring but outside it too. Here he discusses how he learned to become a great communicator for the media.

Years later, after turning pro, I spent a few minutes almost every day with a dictionary, picking up as many new words as I could.

Boxing is a poor man’s profession. It always has been and always will be. The drugs were not accessible in the gym, but on the streets, Derrik (Ray Leonards brother) could obtain any controlled substance he desired.

Here Leonard reflects on why he adopted the name Sugar Ray.

I did it out of respect for the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, whose fights I knew almost punch by punch. Robinson, the welterweight and middleweight champion in the forties and fifties, was the most complete prizefighter in history. He could attack. He could counter. He could dance. He could do everything. Some boxing writers later took me to task, arguing that there can only be one Sugar Ray. But Robinson, in his fifties, told me he considered it an honor that I adopted his nickname, and his opinion was the one that counted.

It is remarkable what one is willing to tolerate if the goal means that much.

One of the most difficult periods of Leonard’s life was after winning a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics.

I could have called a lot of friends to be with, but for once I didn’t gave a damn about doing the right thing. I had done the right thing in representing my country, in bringing home the gold, and what good had it gotten me? I wasn’t a hero. I was a nigger. And if I was a nigger, I might as well hang out with the other niggers.

Why the early stages of a fighters career can be crucial in dictating their future in boxing.

If that meant a delay in vying for the crown, so be it. Ali didn’t take on Liston until his twentieth fight, more than three years after he turned pro. A loss to any combatant at an early stage could derail a young promising boxer for years to come, and perhaps cause irrevocable damage to his fragile psyche.

For the first time in decades, since perhaps the original Sugar Ray, nonheavy-weights made headlines.

Here Leonard demonstrates what a brutal sport the sweet science can be.

I was not one to hold back when my opponent was in trouble, no matter what chance there was of inflicting permanent damage. Fights can turn in a matter of seconds, and the next thing you know you’re the one who is getting beaten up, and believe me, the guy doing it will not show you any mercy.

This is what Leonard believes distinguishes a great fighter from a good one.

Most boxers don’t go that deep, and it’s not because the will can’t be summoned. It can. The hesitation comes from the pain one must tolerate to do it. You become exhausted and convinced you’ve given your last possible breath. As Ali memorably put it, in referring to the “Thrilla in Manila,” you feel you’re on the verge of death. That, however, is precisely when you must give more of yourself, no matter how much it hurts. That is what separates the good fighters from those who make history.

What does Leonard miss most about boxing?

When I reflect on what I miss most about my boxing career, it isn’t the noise in the arena or the articles in the papers or the camaraderie in camp. I miss the hours an hours of searching for the ways to exploit my opponents weaknesses.

The dangers of having certain people in your entourage and the perils of boxing.

Every fighter is aware, or should be, of how damaging it is to be surrounded by a group of yes-men who wont pose the questions that have to be asked. The danger, of course, is that the boxer, oblivious, will take on the next assignment and the one after that, and who will ever know which blows were the ones that made him an invalid for the rest of his life? For Muhammad Ali, was it Joe Frazier who gave him Parkinson’s? Earnie Shavers? Leon Spinks? Larry Homes? Ken Norton? Who? If I said, at the age of fifty-four, that I was thinking about coming out of retirement to fight Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr, some of the boys would say, “Go for it.” I’m half serious.

Leonard on the one and only Muhammad Ali.

The trick to Ali’s prefight bragging, besides the fact that he usually backed it up, was how he injected humour into each situation with his silly playacting and clever rhyming. He could make the most outrageous predictions and say the most demeaning things about the proud warriors he fought and somehow seem endearing.

Who got inside Leonard’s head the most? 

Never did another fighter penetrate my psychic space as much as Duran, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The sad reality for some great fighters after retirement.

Thirty years later, the fight (first clash with Hearns) remains my defining moment as a fighter. I was at the peak of my abilities, and so was Tommy. I’ve run into him many times over the years and the affection between us is genuine. Which is why it deeply saddens me to see him go through rough financial times and it is painful when I have to tell him that we’re not living in the 1980’s any more.

A poignant conversation between Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns years after their wars.

“Lets do something together,” Tommy suggested last year. “We can both go around the country doing exhibitions. The people love us.”

“The people love us, Tommy,” I said, “but they don’t want to see two old guys in the ring with gloves and headgear on. I don’t want to get hit by you and I don’t think you want to get hit by me. Lets leave the past where it belongs.”

And what a past it was.

Our sport will always keep on rolling and producing phenomenal talents. 

Boxing didn’t stop when Joe Louis retired or Muhammad Ali retired, and it wasn’t about to stop with Sugar Ray Leonard on the sidelines.

Marvin Hagler was always in Leonard’s shadow. But what an outstanding champion he was.

Hagler received a lot of credit for the rise and, in time, a lot of money, although never enough of both in his opinion, and I was the person to blame. I made 40,000 dollars in my pro debut, he made 50.

Liam McInerney

Colour writer for world section of irish-boxing.com. A Sugar Ray Robinson biography inspired me to be a boxing journalist. Twitter- @_LiamMcInerney