Last February Ray Leonard took his wife, Juanita, to White Flint Mall and told her she could have anything she wanted in the whole place. When they left a few hours later, Juanita had one pair of shoes. Ray had $3,000 worth of clothes.
When Leonard defends his welterweight title against challenger Roberto Duran in Montreal Friday, he stands to collect a possible $8 million, enough to pay for many more shopping sprees. But even with her husband looking forward to that kind of payday, Juanita still goes out and finds a job when she wants to save enough money to buy a Christmas or birthday present for Ray.
The love story of Juanita and Ray Leonard is an extraordinary one -- happy and poignant and full of obstacles conquered. Most of the boy-meets-girl steps are out of sequence. And the struggle-to-riches steps -- which came slowly, then with blding speed -- have left pretty Juanita Leonard just slightly out of synch with her famous husband, the man with the electric grin.
Theirs is the story of a romance between two teenagers who had a son six years before they were married and endured the embarrassment of a misunderstood paternity suit over the child; a couple who went from the obscurity of Palmer Park, Md., to his instant recognition on television, including a recent commercial featuring their son; from owning almost nothing to being able to own virtually anything; from having only each other to having everyone wanting him and his time. And it is the story of how they have adjusted to it all.
The adjustments have been numerous. For Ray, it has meant getting used to the constant attention, the lack of privacy. For Juanita, it has meant learning to fill her days now that she does not have to work. For both of them it has meant finding their way in a whole new world that has opened to them because they have money. Lots of it.
A thousand dollars is automatically deposited in Juanita's checking account each month "just for spending, or maybe I'll buy food. Sometimes Ray will go to the bank and get out, maybe, $2,000 and come home and give me $500 of that, too."
"But she's really cheap," says Tina Queen, a friend who sat in on the interview at the Shearton Lanham. "We'll go shopping and Juanita will see a blouse that's $50 and she won't buy it because she thinks it's too much."
Ray, on the other hand, buys without looking at the price tags. "If he sees something he likes, he gets it. He'll pay $200 for a shirt. I tried that once . . . shopping without looking at the prices. I only got five or six outfits for Little Ray. I took them to the cash register and when the lady said '$273,' I just about fell out. After that I started looking at price tags again."
Juanita Leonard is light brown with high cheekbones, her jet black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Despite being the wife of one of the most popular boxers in history, she has an unassuming air. "My sister said to me, 'You have an interview today. Aren't you going to dress up and get your hair fixed?' I told her I just wanted to be myself."
She is wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, V-neck T-shirt. On the back the words 'Sugar Ray' are embroidered in big red letters. On the front it says 'Sugar's wife' on the right, 'Juanita' on the left. Ray had the shirt made up for her, something he wouldn't have been able to do just a few years ago.
They started going together when she was 14. She got pregnant at 16. It was rough for both of them. Ray went to school in the day and trained in the evening. Juanita had to drop out of school and work for four months to provide for their baby. At one point she worked in a service station and used to come home smelling like gasoline. But they were determined to make it on their own.
"We made a pact. One night Ray told me he didn't want me to ask my father for anything and that he wasn't going to ask his parents for anything. He said that one day they would be coming to us asking."
Ray's parents now live in a home he bought for them in Lanham, Md. Juanita's father still lives in the house where she grew up in Palmer Park.
Little Ray was 6 years old when the couple finally got married -- after a series of ups and downs, including a much-publicized paternity suit that was actually a legal formality to establish Juanita's eligibility to receive public assistance.
"I was ready. I had been ready, but I told him when he got ready to just let me know." He let her know last year.
In the six years between the time Little Ray was born and Juanita and Ray married, Ray was coming into a new life. "I didn't understand it then, but I understand it now," says Juanita. "He was just beginning to be able to travel and to do things he hadn't been able to do before. It was a period he had to go through."
In the meantime, she held various jobs. She worked as a substitute teacher, but quit after constantly being asked to secure Ray's presence at various functions. Year before last, she worked at Garfinckel's for a couple of months but again quit after her connection to Ray caused co-workers to question why she "didn't let somebody who really needed the job have it."
Juanita and Ray were married on Jan. 19, Juanita's 23rd birthday. It was not the sort of carefree, joyous occasion for the bride that one usually envisions. The 400 guests who had been invited to the ceremony at the Highland Park Baptist Church turned into 800.
"I was really glad when the whole thing was over. The best moment of the day was when the limousine carrying Ray and the ushers to the church passed the limousine carrying the bridesmaids and me. I was trying to hide so he wouldn't see me, and then it hit me, 'Hey, I'm really getting married!'"
But Juanita says that not everyone accepts her as actually being Ray's wife, rather than still being just his girlfriend. "He stayed at the Sheraton for two weeks while he was training for the Duran fight. The night before he left for Montreal, he called and asked me to come stay at the hotel with him and I went over. The next morning people were upset because I had slept with my own husband. I felt like asking them, 'Where did you sleep last night? With your wife? Well, then.' Some of them treat me like I'm just one of the women who hang around, rather than really being his wife."
The "women who hang around" are the groupies who follow any star and his entourage. Juanita has come to terms with them. "I except him to have dealings with women. I accept the fact that they will want to grab on him. But I won't accept his being intimate with another woman because he doesn't have to. That's the point at which he should stop and say 'no.'"
It's not hard to say 'no' to some of them. "Once when Ray went to see a fight in New Orleans he called and told me that there was a 300-pound woman who had followed him there. She told him that she just wanted to go to bed with him."
The thought of other women, more attractive than the 300-pounder, can't be laughed off so easily. "When he's away I think about it all the time, and whenever I do, I call him. My sisters joke and tell me that he's in the room when I call but that he's probably got the maid up there with him. But I know that when he's in training, his trainers aren't going to let anybody even get near him.
"When I got ready to move in with Ray he told me, 'I know you're jealous, but you have to understand that in the position I'm in now, there will be a lot of people around. You just have to understand that this is business and that's where the money comes from.'"
Ray's business means that he and Juanita aren't able to spend as much time together as they would like. "He's always off doing this or that. I keep saying, 'Let's just go away and spend some time together,' but we don't get to do that very often. Sometimes, but not as often as I'd like."
They don't go out a lot. Recently, they began taking tap-dancing lessons, a way of spending time together.A friendly competition has developed between them. "Ray says we're about even now, but I think I'm just a little bit ahead."
They enjoy going out to dinner, usually to small restaurants. "The bigger the place where we go, the more problems we have. We went to see Angela Bofill at Constitution Hall and they announced that Ray was in the audience and put the spotlight on him. After that, people started coming up for his autograph. This one woman came up and said, 'I don't want no autograph. I want a kiss.' Ray's brother said, 'That's his wife sitting right there.' She said, 'I don't care about his wife. I just want a kiss.' And she stood there for about a half an hour."
At the other swing of the pendulum from the women who would gladly knock her down to get to Ray are those who criticize her for not being more aggressive in asserting her claim. "We were coming out of the building where we take tap-dancing lessons and a crowd started forming around Ray. I usually step aside when that happens because my toes get stepped on and I get pushed and I don't like it. So I just waited by the building for him to finish signing autographs. Then I heard some women saying, 'That stupid b----. If I was her I'd be right up there with my man, on his arm.' I was really mad. I told Ray I was going to say something to them, but he told me I should just ignore it. I know I should, but it's not easy."
It isn't easy either when she "can't reach him. He doesn't open up enough.
I've been around him so long that I know when something's wrong. I'll ask him what it is and he'll say nothing. But I know better.
"Sometimes he gets depressed and there's nothing I can do to make him feel better. That makes me feel helpless, like I don't have any purpose. But I know that I really do."
Part of that purpose, as Juanita sees it, is keeping Ray from being bored.
"Sometimes he'll come home and be real restless after we eat dinner. So I'll suggest that we go to a movie or just go for a walk." She also used to change the furniture around a lot so that things would look different when Ray came back from a trip or a fight. "He gets bored with the same thing real quickly."
Is she afraid that he'll get bored with her? "After nine years? No. I know him and I do little things to keep him from getting bored."
Juanita feels more secure about their relationship now that they're married. "I take my vows seriously. When I said them, I meant them." However, when asked what would happen if they were to split up, she says firmly that she is "quite capable" of taking care of herself.
They are both religious. They go to church together and pray together before fights, as well as at other times. They both view his boxing abilities as a God-given talent.
She says that she and Ray are closer now, that they haven't had any serious problems in the five months they've been married. "We used to argue about some other woman -- somebody telling me they saw Ray do this or that -- all the time. But we don't anymore."
One thing they don't entirely agree on is when they should have more children. Ray is talking about having more now, but Juanita isn't quite ready. "It was a real mental strain when I had Little Ray, being so young and all. I'm not ready to go through that again. People say, 'Well, it would be different this time,' and I know that. But I tell Ray that when he's settled down and is able to take half responsibility -- getting up for the feedings and taking the baby to the doctor regularly -- then we can have more. It hurts Ray that he isn't able to spend much time with Little Ray now as he would like."
Little Ray lives a fairly normal life, according to his mother. He was in private shcool but he didn't like it, so his parents put him in public school, "where he's getting A's and B's," says Juanita. "His classmates treat him just like the other kids. It's the kids who're not in his class who tend to think of him more as Sugar Ray's son. Sometimes they call him 'Little Sugar Ray,' but he just ignores them."
Juanita's family sometimes thinks that Little Ray, as the son of a celebrity, should be watched more closely. She worries about him, too, but doesn't want to keep him "bundled up, like he's in a package and can't get out. dKids like to sneak around and do little things. How can he sneak if somebody's watching him all the time?"
She says Little Ray is full of innocent mischief, like the time he took some of the laundry off his aunt's clothesline and dressed her dog in a halter top, a pair of shorts, socks, and a pair of shoes. And, apparently, he's developed his father's affinity for precious metals since he was found digging a big hole in the ground a few weeks ago and promptly announced that he was "digging for gold."
A 7-Up commercial featuring Little Ray imitating Big Ray in the boxing ring ran for the first time last Friday. In it, a crowd of admirers gathers and says, "It's the champ." Ray hugs his father and says, "No it's not. It's just my dad."
Juanita says that's the way it is in real life, too. "Sometimes we'll call him and say, 'Your father's on TV.' He'll say 'okay' and just keep playing."
And Juanita likes it that way. She wants him to have as normal a life as possible.
She wants a normal life for herself, too. She has one close friend, Tina, whom she's known since they were both 11 years old. And she spends a lot of time with her sister. But she hasn't really enlarged her circle of friends since her life has changed.
The people she went to school with react to her in different ways. Some suddenly wanted a much closer relationship after Ray brought home the Olympic gold in 1976. Others try to paint a picture of her as aloof now that she and Ray have hit the bigtime. But Tina says it was actually the other way around.
"The other girls never liked Juanita much when we were growing up because she was always pretty and they were jealous. But I figured that I looked just as good as she did." Laughter from both women. The kind that expresses a shared joke between friends who go back a long, long way.
Tina jokingly calls herself Juanita's "substitute husband" because they keep each other company while Ray is in training and Tina's boyfriend is in the service. Often, when Juanita is visiting her father, who lives next door to Tina, she stands outside waiting for her friend to come home from work. "I sometimes fail to realize that she's just pulled an eight-hour day and probably would like to at least get in the door and sit down before I start asking her what she's doing that evening."
Juanita's days begin at 5 or 6, when she gets up with Ray, who goes running. She has breakfast ready when he finishes. He goes back to sleep, but she can't. So she gets Little Ray off to school and does her housework. bThen she'll often go over to her father's house and wait until Tina comes home from work. If Ray is in training, she goes to the workouts but doesn't really get to spend any time with him until the evening, after he's given interviews or made his appearances for the day.
Sometimes they go over to check on the $700,000 house they're building in Glendale, Md. "It's beautiful. It's brick. There'll be five bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths. There's a family room, a dining room and a living room; and there'll be a gym in the basement so Ray can work out, as well as a game room where we're going to put a pool table, a built-in fish tank, and Ray's Atari game."
The new house won't be finished until August. In the meantime, they're living in a three-bedroom split-level in Lanham.
Juanita would like to go back to college -- she took classes at Prince George's Community College for a while -- to study business administration. She wants to open a shop of some kind to give her something of her own to do.
A large part of what she does these days is act as Ray's No. 1 fan. "Duran can forget about even wearing that [welterweight championship] belt. Ray just got it and he's not going to let it go that fast. I think he'll quit before he lets anybody take the belt." She says Ray has assured her that 1981 will be his last year of boxing. But she's not quite sure she can believe that because he's been promising her for some time that he is going to end his career. Once a fight begins, she admits, she's "scared everytime he gets hit," but for now, she's enjoying the excitement connected with the big bout in Montreal.
She's especially looking forward to seeing the look on his face when she presents him with the Father's Day robe she made for him to wear into the ring. "He knows I'm making it, but he thinks that I can't really sew and that it'll be kind of tacky." Instead, she has had it enbroidered with his name on the back. On the front it will say "1976 Olympic champ" on one side and "good as gold" on the other -- the phrases she came up with to remind the fighters of his '76 victory, as if they needed any reminding.
"When we were there for the Olympics in 1976, we were so poor all we could do was window shop. We saw a fur coat in one window that cost about $5,000. Ray said, 'One day I'm going to come back and buy that for you.' I asked him about it after he got up there last week, and he said that it's summer now and I don't need it. But he did tell me that the first thing he's going to do when I get to Montreal is to take me shopping."