Former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard describes how aging affects athletes
By Laura Hambleton,
Sugar Ray LeonarDwas a young fighter from Prince George’s County who jabbed his way to the pinnacle of the boxing world. By the time he was 20 years old he had won an Olympic gold medal, three National Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union championships and the 1975 Pan-American Games crown. Then he turned pro, winning world titles in five weight categories. Today he’s a baby boomer who takes a more moderate approach to physical activity. Even former high-performing athletes feel their age at some point. Now running the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation, which raises funds for juvenile diabetes research, giving motivational speeches and doing some acting, Leonard talks about his life, how aging affects athletes and what it’s like to be Sugar Ray at 55.
— Laura Hambleton
How are you?
There’s nothing I can’t do. I do things more in moderation. I listen to my body a lot more than I used to. When my body tells me to slow down, I heed that advice.
Mentally, spiritually, I’m in a very good place right now. I have been five years sober. My relationship with my kids is wonderful, and with my wife, it is amazing. I am in a good place. You know what I found out? That the simple things are the most important things in life. I really smell the roses.
Do you stay in your boxing shape?
I am getting older. As a boxer, as an athlete, I was in super-superb shape. I think I feel that we as individuals, if we took better care of ourselves, we’d live a better life. We neglect our bodies for the fortune. Now I understand there has to be a balance between monetary and physical things, that’s your body. Your body is a great asset.
When did you notice when you were less agile, your response time was slower?
I talk about that all the time, to young, up-and-coming athletes. I felt that way when I turned 40, because I was not as focused. I didn’t have the same commitment that I had when I was in my 20s or maybe 30s. I was preoccupied with other things instead of what I call tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is total focus. It’s like looking through the tunnel, you see straight ahead, and you’re not distracted or deterred. I was at my best when I had tunnel vision.
Why did you lose your tunnel vision in your 40s?
I was at a point in my life, at the time, that I allowed myself distractions, whether that was because of my marriage, about being with my kids, a bad deal, all those things are factors.
You mean substance abuse — drugs and alcohol?
All of the above.
What are you doing now?
I give motivational speeches around the world and use fighting as a metaphor. We are all fighters, even outside of the ring, because we need great corners, or a great stab. Everything that allowed me to be a world champion inside that ring gives you that same success outside the ring.
Tell me how you balance your day.
All the years I dedicated myself to boxing, I always ran about 5, 5.30. I still get up early, about 6. I don’t want to disturb my wife. I tend to go downstairs. I read or open all the windows to let the sunshine in. I work out in my home gym. I have a bunch of punching bags in my house. I do anything to break into a sweat within 20 minutes. I am still trying to convince myself to stretch more, which we all should do as we get older: We lose our flexibility. I haven’t totally convinced myself.
I see my dogs. I have a miniature schnauzer and Pekingese, and a dog that is a mixture of things. We go outside and I give them love. And then I wake my daughter up who is 14, Camille. I take her to school. I come back, make all my phone calls, go into the office, have breakfast. I like my life now. I miss the camaraderie with all my boys, the training camps, and my mother and father cooking for me. That was wonderful. But when all is said and done, I love this more. I am more at peace. My life is more controlled now.
What have you learned about aging well?
The wisdom I give to people is: Don’t expect things to be handed to you. Don’t expect entitlement, work hard for what you want, and work hard for what you dream for. Give yourself every opportunity to make those dreams become a reality. There are no shortcuts. The way you age gracefully, as far I am concerned, is to always give 100 percent.
What do you enjoy doing now that you are retired from boxing?
I love golf and tennis. I play sporadic golf now because of my travels. When I do play, it is wonderful.
Your memoir was published last spring. In it, you reveal some very personal incidents. Tell me about the book.
Writing the book helped me make amends with people I harmed and to apologize. It was very cathartic and therapeutic for me. I wasn’t ready to be as transparent, but the more I talked about it, the more I got it off my chest, the better I felt. My wife didn’t want me to do that, because she felt people would judge you and look at you a different way. I understood her concerns. We still have little kids in school. It’s not about them. It’s about me cleaning my plate.
Have you spoken to the Olympic trainer who abused you?
Oh, no, he passed away.
Have you followed the allegations at Penn State?
I was the same way. These kids, these young boys, were victimized because they believed in those coaches as someone they looked up to and someone they trusted. I can’t think of a word that describes how horrible or horrendous those acts were. What those boys have to deal with and are dealing with as we speak, and it’s not their fault. For me, it took me almost 30 years to talk about it. Without question, I don’t cry anymore.