Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxer who came out of retirement to win world titles in five weight classes

Michael Eli Dokosi May 29, 2020 at 04:00pm

May 29, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

May 29, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Sugar Ray Leonard via chla.org

The boxing gods ushered in a unique period in the 1980s when some of the memorable moments in boxing history involving four great champions was unleashed. The rivalry spanned the decade from the welterweight to the super middleweight divisions.

In 1980, Sugar Ray Leonard, the WBC welterweight champion was an emerging superstar. Roberto Durán had ruled the lightweight division with his hands of stone. There was ‘Hitman’ Thomas Hearns who had neutralized opponents in his path to the WBA welterweight title. Then there was ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler, who was the newly crowned undisputed middleweight king.

It set the stage for a fearsome four way rivalry. In their WBC welterweight championship on June 20, 1980 in Montreal Canada, Durán shocked boxing fans when he defeated Leonard, who was defending his title.

But in typical Leonard fashion, Sugar Ray produced a strategic performance causing Durán to surrender the title in their rematch in the 8th round. That fight also produced the term associated with Durán for life No más (in Spanish means no more.)

On September 16, 1981 in Las Vergas Nevada, Leonard took on the might of Thomas Hearns in their World Welterweight championship. Hearns tall with a good reach would prove a competent warrior in the ring leading a commentator to call the fight a battle of attrition. It wasn’t for nothing that Hearns was also called the ‘Motor City Cobra’. He worked Leonard’s body and face with powerful shots but Sugar Ray dug deep and dished equally devastating shots to the hit man. It is to his great credit that he was still on his feet when the referee called in the fight in favor of Sugar Ray. Despite taking a pummeling in the 14th round, Hearns showed guts soaking it in, looking for an opening. By 1983, Sugar Ray Leonard had already come out of retirement to face Hearns earning his second championship.

Durán meanwhile had won his third world title in 1983 rising from the ashes of No más. Marvelous Marvin Hagler meanwhile continued his undisputed reign over the middleweight division.

Although he began by learning from Joe Frazier’s fights, the man born Ray Charles Leonard ditched Frazier for Sugar Ray Robinson’s style. Leonard’s reverence for Robinson ran so deep that he eventually took the nickname “Sugar Ray.”

The man born on May 17, 1956, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, began as an amateur who took an Olympic gold medal in the light-welterweight class at the 1976 Games in Montreal.

As an amateur, he won 145 of 150 bouts and garnered two National Golden Glove championships (1973, 1974), two Amateur Athletic Union championships (1974, 1975), and a gold medal at the 1975 Pan American Games.

After his Olympic victory in 1976, he announced his retirement from the sport enrolling at the University of Maryland as “I didn’t plan to become a professional boxer,” he noted years later.

But boxing forced his hand as his dad was hospitalized for diabetes prompting him to turn pro to make money to pay the bills. He was the fifth child of Gertha and Cicero Leonard’s seven children. He re-entered the ring as a professional on February 5, 1977.

But having seen legendary fighters taken advantage of financially and having nothing to show for their work, he was introduced to an attorney who showed him how to structure his fights in a way that allowed him to control his life and legacy, an approach which was unprecedented at the time.

A constant feature with Leonard’s career was his retirement from the sport which he often came out from. He retired from prizefighting in 1982 and again in 1984 but was enticed to return in April 1987 to face Marvelous Marvin Hagler, whom he defeated to capture the WBC middleweight title in what was considered one of the greatest professional boxing matches of all time.

Leonard retired again in 1991 after losing a WBC super welterweight title bout, but he returned to the ring once more in 1997, at age 40, and lost by a fifth-round technical knockout. He retired after the fight with a record of 36 wins (25 by knockout), 3 losses, and 1 draw.

He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame and after his final retirement, served as a boxing commentator and television host.

During his 20-year career as a professional boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard won world titles in five weight classes, became the first in his sport to earn more than $100 million in prize money.

Years later Leonard explained he often came out of retirement because of his cocaine and alcoholic addiction as it was in the ring he felt in control of his life.

The Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation gives funds to organizations making inroads against pediatric diabetes.

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