For years, he'd freamed of going a few rounds with Ray Leonard. Then came a close encounter with the champ

IN FEBRUARY 1979, SNOW COVERED EASTERN NORTH Carolina. In places, the white stuff measured more than 20 inches. Public transportation did not run. The town of Greenville, where it typically snows no more than once every 10 years, didn't have the equipment to clear the roads.

My wife, Lynn, and I had been married a little less than a year. Drifts beside the house trailer we were renting measured deeper than six feet. For several days we weren't able to drive. Being newlyweds, we did not mind.

It was while stranded by that snow that I first saw Sugar Ray Leonard. Saw the wink, the smile; saw hands so quick they seemed to make the air sing.

At the time, I was in college at East Carolina University in Greenville. In addition to attending creative writing classes, I taught karate two nights each week and was hoping to become a champion kick-boxer. When I switched on the TV in those days, I almost never turned to boxing.

I believed that the only boxer from whom there was something to learn was Muhammad Ali, whom I saw as transcending not only boxing but all of sport. Ali had recently retired, and my youthful opinion was that there was no one else worth studying.

On the nightly news, I saw film of Leonard training for an upcoming world welterweight championship bout with Wilfredo Benitez. Even though the fight occurred nine months later, in November, I made a point of watching. Leonard knocked out the previously unbeaten Benitez in the 15th round. Leonard's flashy, hands-dropping style indicated that he had learned much from Ali. But unlike Ali, Leonard seemed to me no force of nature, no genius, not genuinely great. There was something in him -- or maybe in me -- that made me dislike the man. And I had a fat enough ego in those days to believe that if trained properly and given the chance, I could go a few rounds with him myself.

But time brings mutations we can't expect. Although I was a pretty good athlete, and I even kick-boxed professionally for a short while, I never did become a champion. And over the past decade, I have become a huge Sugar Ray fan. When he fights at his best, he's much as writer Terry Davis describes Pele in his novel Vision Quest. "He can lift himself, and the rest of us sad-ass human beings, up to a better place, if only for a minute."

A couple of years ago, I became a contributing editor -- specializing in boxing -- of Sport magazine. When I finally met Leonard, we found we had a few things in common. As kids, we'd both collected comics by the hundreds. As adolescents, we'd tried to emulate Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee of kung fu movies fame. We both still consider ourselves Ali and Lee fans. We've often spoken about the foundation of Ray's defensive techniques -- he says he learned much of his defense from watching Bruce Lee.

To report on Leonard's upcoming bout with super welterweight Terry Norris, scheduled for February 9, I knew I'd be spending several days with Leonard, watching him train. Again my ego took over, and I dreamed that I might get the chance to box with him a little. For the first time in nearly a decade, I started seriously training. For two full months, early in the afternoons, regardless of the weather, I stepped out to my garage, where I did four to five hard rounds on the heavy bag and two to three on the speed bag, and shadowboxed 30 straight minutes per session. In the crisp autumn afternoons, as I was dancing around the heavy bag, trying to rip through its canvas, I'd see Leonard's face in front of me. Not the Ray Charles Leonard I knew as an adult, the one I had interviewed and whose fighting skills and style I admired, but my seminal Sugar Ray, the one with the rounded, shining halo of hair and the cute sailor suits, the one that as a late adolescent I had wanted to box and had fantasized I could whip.

Oddly, I also found myself dressing to impress Ray Leonard. I bought several elegant jackets and sweaters, many pairs of slacks, dozens of collarless casual shirts, a couple of expensive pairs of new street dogs, all in the deep ripe colors I had often seen Ray wear.

On December 6, I packed much of this stuff, and some workout gear, into the back of my car. I then began the long drive from Winston-Salem, N.C., to Palmer Park.

RAY LEONARD ROAD IN PALMER PARK. A young, skinny, long-legged dog trots between a fading, wine-colored velveteen sofa and a rusted-out, mustard-yellow washing machine, both of which have been decorated with multicolored, flashing Christmas lights. The dirt-brown hound crosses the road right in front of us, turning its head in our direction. It grins supplicatingly, then ambles up a knoll to lift its leg by a short, white picket fence that encloses two sides of a less-than-1,000-square-foot wooden cottage that has been painted red, white and blue.

"That's it," says the athlete who has earned more than $110 million from boxing alone. "That's the one I grew up in."

We're sitting in the champ's long, champagne-colored Mercedes. "You know what I wanted when I was a kid?" he says. "I wanted to be a Boy Scout. We couldn't afford the uniforms, the fees. I went to the Goodwill Thrift Shop and they had a uniform. I bought it for 50 cents and wore it everywhere I went. And I was proud. I wore that uniform and told everybody I was a Boy Scout. I wore it so proud."

Today, as usual, Ray is regally dressed. He's wearing a purple, custom-tailored, double-breasted jacket, a bone-white silk shirt, a pair of knife-creased, soft yellow slacks and purple Chinese-looking slippers that have been hand-embroidered with red and gold-colored stitchery. This single outfit must have cost as much as his father made in many months when the family was living on this corner.

"I'll tell you the truth about this fight," he says, referring to the one with Norris, the 23-year-old speedster who currently holds the World Boxing Council super welterweight crown and who unabashedly admits that as a child the now 34-year-old Leonard was his idol. "This fight means as much as the Hagler fight to me. It means everything."

"This is the first time I've trained at home since 1984," Leonard says. "And I'm glad I'm finally getting to fight in the garden." The Norris fight will be Ray's first appearance as a pro in that holiest of pugilistic cathedrals, Madison Square Garden. "It connects me even more to the legends -- Ali, Robinson, Willie Pep. There's less glamour in this fight, more heart. This one's about coming back to my roots.

"Before, there was so much crap in my marriage that I had to deal with," says Ray, who has recently received a fairly quiet divorce from his childhood sweetheart and wife of 10 years. "In Vegas, before the {Donny} Lalonde fight, I'd go back to my room at 2 a.m., and I'd be thinking what to do. Thinking about the kids and wondering what to do. That's no way to train and no way to live. Now it's all over with Juanita. We're both happy, and this fight is happening at the absolutely perfect time. I can't tell you how much better I feel."

He wheels the car around and turns right at the corner, then drives about half a mile out to the main road.

"You got plans for dinner?" he asks. "I'm going to Mom's. You can come if you want. We can talk there."

As we pull into his parents' driveway, I decide to try out a theory I have about an additional motive for fighting Norris.

"What about Chavez?" I say, meaning Julio Cesar Chavez, the great Mexican junior welterweight who is undefeated in 73 professional fights. "Would you like to fight Chavez?"

Ray carefully places the car in park, cuts the engine and turns in his seat to face me. He then gives me that same wink and the how-can-you-not-like-me smile that have climaxed thousands upon thousands of interviews and at least one 7-Up commercial from the quickly receding past.

"I'll let you in on a secret," he says. "The biggest reason I want to be awesome against Norris is I want to take on Chavez. A lot of people think he's the best. There's a weight disparity {Leonard weighs in the 150s; Chavez's recent fights have been at 140}, but we'll work it out. He's a thinking fighter. I like him. He'd be tough to beat."

"How would you fight him?" I ask.

"Movement. I'll box his ears off," Ray says, and his eyes focus inward, imagining the contest. After a few seconds, he opens his car door. "Let's go on in."

WE STEP FROM THE CAR INTO THE LATE December afternoon. Off to our right, the sun is setting. The wind is up. A cold front is supposed to blow in tonight from the west.

Ray's parents' house is at the base of a hill in a subdivision of '70s ranch-style homes. Though it's a pretty average house, there is a long black Rolls-Royce parked in the two-car garage and a sizable speedboat, both of which, Ray says, used to be his.

We enter a side door to the kitchen. Before we have time to take off our jackets, the fighter who for more than two decades has whipped nearly every opponent who has stepped through the ropes with him, is pounced on in a way even Marvelous Marvin Hagler wouldn't dare.

"Ray Charles Leonard," chides his mother, Getha. "I wish you'd tell me when you're bringing somebody. All you have to do is pick up the phone."

Getha Leonard is wearing a red apron and is carrying a big spoon, which she has been using to stir a pot on the stove. Ray's dad, Cicero, is also standing at the stove, stirring. He has quite a reputation as a culinary artist. Like Ray, both parents look far younger than their years. Getha Leonard threatens her youngest son with the spoon, but quickly puts it down to shake hands with me. As Ray introduces us, he tells his mother that I live in North Carolina. She asks if I've been to Wilmington, where Ray was born. I tell her I lived there for a couple of years.

"They still want to claim him too," I say. "I've heard they'd like to have a parade in his honor."

Ray ushers me past his parents and into a small dining room. He tells me to take a seat. Soon, steaming platters of fried chicken and biscuits, big ceramic bowls of rice and summer sausage, a green-bean casserole and a sweating pitcher of sweetened iced tea are placed before us. Good Southern cooking.

The athlete chastises his mother a little for feeding him fried food. "Mom, I told you I'm in training," he explains. But he then grabs three drumsticks, several biscuits and piles his plate high. When he's downed that, he serves himself seconds.

While we're eating, he asks how I became a writer and if I went to school to learn the craft. I explain that while I was teaching karate, I met a girl who persuaded me to go to college and to write a novel.

"Did you marry the girl?" he asks.

"Yes," I answer, surprised at his question. "How'd you know?"

"I just figured. It's kind of like what happened with Juanita and me. You still married to her?"

"We were married in 1978, divorced in 1981, remarried in 1984."

"You married the same girl twice?" he says, sounding astonished. He laughs through his teeth and opens his eyes wide.

"She's the only person who can put up with me," I say.

He laughs again, but not as easily. We sit a short quiet time then. He picks a little at the scraps on his plate. Finally he says, "You know, we've talked before about how insecure I was as a kid. I was very, very into myself, withdrawn, because I felt I was pretty worthless. When people came to the house to visit, I'd go to my room and hide. The first person I didn't hide from was Juanita."

He stares briefly, lamentingly into the middle distance. "The wounds are still bleeding," he says. "We've got joint custody of the kids. Last Thanksgiving, I was training for {Roberto} Duran, and I missed the kids like crazy. This Christmas, they're with me. I asked Jarrel, my 6-year-old, what he wanted for Christmas. He said, 'I want us to be a family again.' Man, that gets to me . . . This is my 6-year-old.

"The last few years have been so rough," Ray says. "Through all this other stuff, I developed a fear of dying. Dying in a plane crash. I'd pray before I got on and off. I was freaking out and nobody knew it. I think what scared me about death is knowing I didn't have any control over it."

As we finish eating, we move back through the kitchen to the family room, which is dominated by a big-screen TV and many oversize framed photos of the famous son. Ray slides a videocassette copy of the last couple of days' workouts into a VCR. I take a seat beside him on the sofa. Both parents come in Both the kitchen. Getha Leonard stands beside me; her husband is slightly behind her, with his arms on her shoulders. They must've seen footage like this hundreds of times, but they still stand around and smile the same smiles you'd expect from parents who are watching a tape of an only child's commencement exercises from medical school.

The boxer studies himself closely. In the middle of watching the tape he says, "You know one thing I like about boxing. I can be an individual. I can have total control."

When the tape finishes, he says we need to be going. He wants to stop by Juanita's to see the kids, and he has to get up early for roadwork. I ask if he'd mind if I run with him.

"No, come on," he replies. "About quarter 'til 7. Let me get you directions." WHEN I REACH RAY'S HOUSE IN POTOmac, precisely at 6:45 a.m., the skies drop; rain begins falling in almost horizontal, silver sheets. I've brought plenty of nice sweaters on this trip, but wasn't smart enough to think of rainwear for running. The best I can do is an extra sweat shirt.

After a cold 10 minutes of bell ringing, Craig Jones, Ray's personal assistant, answers the door, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and a white tank top. He says to come in and make myself at home in the kitchen; the champ will be right down. I take a seat at a small breakfast table and glance into a large adjoining den. Built-in display cases line the whole of the rear wall. Until recently, these shelves were alive with family memorabilia. In the wake of Ray's divorce, they are empty. A large, bare, artificial Christmas tree is in the foyer to my left.

Craig returns, dressed now in neon orange warm-ups. He's carrying a black hooded sweat shirt and a knit cap that has a Los Angeles Raiders insignia on it.

"I thought you could use these," he says.

Ray is right behind him. The three of us are soon out on the road, smoking the air out in fluorescent-looking clouds and stretching and shadowboxing to get the juices flowing. This is the serious Ray Leonard, not the celebrity; there's nothing glitzy about his running apparel -- heavy black warm-ups, a longshoreman's cap, a thick, cotton hooded sweat shirt, a pair of new brown work gloves and worn leather brogans. Committed boxers do roadwork in heavy shoes that strengthen the legs.

"How far we going?" I ask, just before we start.

"We'll do three," Craig answers, meaning miles.

"I hope I can keep up with you guys," I say. "I haven't run in almost 10 years."

Protected by proper gear, I find the December rain stimulating. It feels good on my face, and even though my eyeglasses are soon dotted with raindrops, my vision is not obstructed. We all throw punches along the way, and we run backward and sideways for probably about half a mile. Ray's face is nearly expressionless. During his daily runs, he imagines Terry Norris in front of him; he sees attacks and counters. With about a quarter-mile left to home, Ray opens up in a hard sprint. I manage to hang with him, stride for stride, until, with about a hundred yards left, he drops his transmission into a gear that simply wasn't included with my vehicle.

As we're walking around the block cooling off, I'm pleased with this performance. Hell, I was able to stay with Sugar Ray Leonard until almost the end of his run. Which must be why I feel nervy enough to ask my big question.

"What about the possibility of getting in the ring and boxing with you for a round or so?" I ask. "Is it anything I should even remotely consider?"

He immediately shakes his head from side to side. "No way," he says emphatically. He looks me directly in the face. "I'd hurt you. I wouldn't mean to . . . But I would hurt you."

The way he has said this persuades me not to bring up the subject again. THE WINDOWS AND DOORS OF THE Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in Palmer Park are all completely covered by sheets of white newsprint to keep onlookers from peering inside.

The first thing you notice upon opening the door is that the large, square, garishly lit room smells slick and sweet with the musk of worn leather, old sweat and oft-used liniments. Two rows of black leather heavy bags -- 16 of them altogether, each a 90-pound hulk -- hang sure and straight and silent, ready to test even the quintessential warrior.

To the right of the heavy bags is the ring. Squashed insect-looking splotches of dried blood dot the salt-stained canvas. In one corner is a red N.C. State plastic water bottle on which someone has written "Ray" in thick black letters.

This will be the fourth day of sparring. Today, Leonard looks like the very ideal of a boxer. There is nothing flashy about him, no play in his demeanor. He is dressed in black trunks and gloves, a plain white T-shirt. He is genuinely classic: Ray Robinson of the 1940s.

He paces past me probably a dozen times before it is time to begin boxing. I can tell that he does not see me. As he parts the ropes and steps into the ring and as he begins to loosen up and then to pirouette around the canvas, heat rises shining from his cinnamon-colored torso. He aches with beauty. Which is to say that although Ray Leonard is a fine-looking man, he was not born beautiful. Instead of simply being beautiful, he creates his beauty.

On this afternoon, he is what the Jamaicans call a high-stepping razor. It is the first day he has been "on" in training. Until now, his fast, young, talented sparring partners have been tagging him pretty well. Today he is a ghost in the ring.

None of the sparring partners can find him. Between rounds, he is genuinely jubilant. He and his trainer, Jose "Pepe" Correa, cannot hide their smiles. "Beautiful, beautiful," Correa keeps calling from the apron. "Yes, yes," he exclaims as his fighter continues to box with elegance.

After Ray is through sparring, he blisters the speed bag for several rounds, then polishes off the session with six mercurial minutes of jump rope. He then goes with Correa to the exercise table for his stomach work.

Pepe Correa is tall and lean and muscular. At 50 years of age, his hair and mustache are graying only slightly. His long, serious face is both hard and soft: There is street life all over Correa's countenance, but also a gentleness. Before the beginning of each exercise, Correa closes his eyes and seems to pray or to meditate, to try to place his soul, his energy, in his fighter's body. As Ray does repetitions, Correa becomes monastically myopic, squinting intently at the movement of every muscle group being used in the particular exercise.

Ray has suffered a fairly bad rope burn in today's sparring. The back of his T-shirt is a little bloody. Pepe strips it from him, asks him to turn around. He then produces a bottle of rubbing alcohol and pours it directly on the wound. As the alcohol makes contact, the great world champion, who has been knocked down so few times in a career of almost 200 fights and countless sparring sessions, goes immediately to his knees. He can scarcely suppress a scream.

When he recovers, he lies on the table and is massaged by Correa for nearly half an hour. Or, more precisely, his body is sculpted; one can see it metamorphose under the trainer's skillful hands.

After Correa finishes, Ray goes upstairs to shower. I wait downstairs about five minutes, then follow and take a seat on a small legless sofa.

"Good run this morning," he says, stepping from the shower.


"Hey, what do you think Bruce Lee died of?" he asks, seemingly out of nowhere.

"You know the intensity you'll train with for the next 45 days?" I say. "I wonder if he didn't die from training that way all the time. Everybody who knew him says the guy never let up. It was 24 hours a day for him. Why'd you ask?"

"Because when I'm in training, I learn from Bruce Lee . . . He gets me energized, makes me more explosive. When I was a kid, he totally amazed me. I was in awe. I used to come back from the movies and go into my mom's back yard, and he fired me up so much, I took my fist and drove it into the ground until I made a hole three or four inches deep. Now, watching him as an adult, I see him from another level. He's almost all-powerful."

When Ray is through toweling off, he pulls on a one-piece olive military jumpsuit and a pair of black combat boots. While he's lacing his boots, I talk to him about his relationship with Correa. "You and Pepe seem to have a real tight bond, a kind of marriage, that you couldn't have possibly had with Angelo Dundee."

Ray says, "I respect Pepe, he respects me. It's give and take; it is like a marriage. He understands the way my body works because he's a hell of an athlete . . . There's no other trainer like him in boxing. People don't understand. They say, 'Angelo this, Angelo that. Couldn't you have used Angelo Dundee against Hearns?' Angie's a great guy, but with Pepe we automatically understand each other. We have similar experiences. It's a kind of collaboration."

When he's through tying his shoes, we start for the steps. As we move out into the main gym, I tell him, "You looked terrific today. You had your legs under you for the first time. Pretty soon, you'll be a totally tuned man."

"My legs are there now," he agrees. "But you wait and see. In another two weeks, I'll be able to catch guys with right hands like this."

There's a wall a half-step to our left. In one movement, he falls to the wall, slaps his shoulders against it, rocks on his heels for leverage and springs a punch a couple of inches past the right side of my jaw. As he rips the right, he allows its momentum to carry him behind me, where there's no way I'd be able to counter. The punch is so hard and fast that it makes the air near my ear pop. It's a sound I'll not forget. And it lets me know that, even on my best day, I'd never have had any business boxing Ray Leonard. I spin and look at him. His eyes are snappingly bright. His face is beaming and round and open. It is obvious in this moment why he continues to fight. He is the very best boxer alive and he doesn't have to say so: Every inch of his body states it for him. Ray Charles Leonard was born to box, the body says, and, oh, sweet Jesus, does he love it.

"Watch this," he says, snaking his open right hand past my raised left fist, but much more slowly now, across the shoulder and behind my neck, which he lightly clasps. His hand is small; the palm is smooth, uncalloused. The act is so gentle it seems almost a gesture of friendship. Until he pulls my head down into a left uppercut, which he stops no more than half an inch from my jaw.

"What do you think?" he says.

"It's easy, yet deceptive," I answer. "I like it."

"After that, you could try this," he continues, powdering my hips and abdomen with a patented Sugar Ray body combination. I don't see the punches, but I feel them, as they explode lightly to my torso.

"That wouldn't be natural for me," I say, pretending not to be in awe and not telling him what he, of course, already knows: that there are very, very few people who can even imagine the combination he's just thrown.

"What would you do?" he asks, moving back a little and watching me closely. He's testing me -- he intends to find out exactly what I do and don't know about his art.

"I think I'd try to angle a hook over here, then maybe push him off like this, here at the shoulders, probably jab behind it to finish the combination or open him up for something else."

I place my palms high on Ray's chest and shove him back about 18 inches. He keeps good position and balance. In the act of pushing Sugar Ray Leonard, I have now gone with him to a world beyond words, to a universe that is so intimate and honest that it scares me.

As soon as I push him, I see the look he wants to hide, but which he can't. He's wearing an ever-so-slight smile. This says that something in the way I pushed Ray has told him so much more about my limitations and vulnerabilities than he could have learned through many hours of verbal sparring. In the interminable moments of facing off, fighters never want opponents to know what they can or cannot do. In this way, boxing is always about lying to the man in front of you. But now I am standing naked in front of Ray Leonard, and I know it.

I study him. He looks relaxed, satisfied. I'm sure I must look less than confident. I feel a little embarrassed.

"When I was still a kid," I tell him, "I didn't like you. It took me years before I knew it was because I was envious. I wanted to become who you already were. I guess finally I don't need that anymore."

He gives me a look that is only a little less than stunned. But then he slips an arm around my shoulders. I ask him to sign a couple of pairs of boxing gloves for me. We find a black marker, he signs, hands me the gloves and pats me lightly on the back. "We'll see you down in Florida after Christmas," he says. On December 26, he's moving his camp to Safety Harbor Spa, right outside Tampa. "I'll have more time down there. Less pressure. Maybe we can go eat some Chinese food."

Davis Miller is a contributing editor of Sport magazine.