Sugar Ray Leonard is dancing. Circling sparring partner and cousin Odell Leonard with light, springy steps, he alternately weaves, jabs and flexes his lean, sculptured body. Both boxers grunt against the pain.
Wet with sweat and Abolene cleansing cream -- their bodies glisten like polished bronze. The crowd leans expectantly toward the ring. A flurry of short, hard uppercuts an hooks flicker from Leonard's arms with the rapidity of a viper's tongue. He gives -- and takes -- a shower of body blows.
The crowd loves it.
Seated on gray-metal chairs around the ring, Leonard's admirers come in all ages, colors and sizes: Curly-haired tots. Gray-haired old men. Fathers and sons. Black. White. Minature Sugar Ray clones accompanied by their mothers -- Delfis (The Little Stallion) Worthy Robinson, 11, and Harry (The Hawk)Brashears Cook, 9, among them.
They grin their approval. Applaud. Express delight in conversational whispers. And a few enjoying this day's outing at Sugar Ray Leonard's training camp get outright loud.
"That's a good one there," shouts a youth near the ring.
"Ooh God! Ooh Wow'" exclaims his buddy.
"A body punch!"
At ringside (Sting) Ray Kates, a middleweight pro from New Jersey, skips rope while waiting to ask Leonard's help in launching his career. Claude (The Juice) Boger, a former pro turned boxing instructor, intently watches the action with a cadre of young boxers and instructors.
At the height of the exhibition the air is thick with the dull thuds of boxers pummeling each other under the mesmerized gaze of some 70 spectators. Frozen in enamels, a colorful displlay of sports figures, riding on a black-and-white-striped wall, watch the action from murals.
Prominent in the mural is a faintly smiling Leonard wearing an orange-and-white USA Olympic jacket, his gold medal around his neck.
No one scrutinizes Leonard's performance more closely than the men standing on the perimeter of the ring: his trainers -- Janks Morton and Dave Jacobs -- and manager Angelo Dundee, who managed 10 world champions, including Muhammad Ali.
"All right! Good shot!" cries Jacobs, watching Sugar Ray's moves.
Nearly four years ago, Jacobs ushered him from the obscurity of the Palmer Park Recreation Center to Olympic gold and acclaim. In Montreal he captured the hearts of millions, dancing to victory with a photo of his sweetheart Juanita Wilkinson and their baby son strapped to his ankle.
Twenty-four pro bouts later, the 23-year-old wunderkind is training for his first world championship fight.
On Nov. 30, Leonard will try to take the World Boxing Council welterweight crown from Puerto Rico's Wilfredo Benitez. Already a millionare, Leonard should earn another million from the bout, Dundee estimates.
While the Olympics made Sugar Ray Leonard a household name, his disarming charm made him renowned as Maryland's boxing sweetheart years ago, ringside admirers said.
"It's like this everyday," Jacobs said of the crowds, which included nearly as many women with their sons and daughters as men.
For more than a week now, Leonard has held the free exhibitions to near-capacity crowds at the Oakcrest Community Recreation Center where he is training. The training and exhibitions should continue at the center, at MarlboroPike and Capitol Heights Boulevard, until Nov. 27. The center is about a mile east of Bening Road SE and Fort Dupont Park in Prince George's County. The crowds will come as long as there is a Sugar Ray Leonard, Jacobs said.
Willie Bryson is among them. He made the 25-mile drive from his Maryland home to the center three times last week, he said. Saturday he came with his 7-year-old son Kevin who watched the action wide-eyed from his father's lap. The family followed Leonard's career long before the Olympics, Bryson said.
It remains a toss-up as to who is most enamored by the Leonard mystique, adults or children. Women, who onced regarded boxers as violent clods, says Leonard is an articulate, intelligent man with disarming shyness and charm. Carolyn Robinson, the mother of the young fighter, Delfis, The Little Stallion, is a Leonard convert. Another is Cathy Cook -- mother of Harry The Hawk. She recently scored her first amateur fight as a judge, Cook shared.
The men speak admiringly of the sophisticated boxing style used by the 5-foot-9 welterweight. Always generous with his time for children, he's known to be an attentive big brother to local youths.
It's like this, "He's nice to us. He comes over and sees us and tells us when we're doing something wrong," Harry Cook said. Robinson proudly added that after he won a recent AAU bout, Leonard bought him a trophy.
Leonard's dicision to forego college and turn pro in order to support his ailing parents and six brothers and sisters has become a major chapter in Leonard folklore.
In recent years, he bought his family a $65,000, four-bedroom, colonial home in Landover. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Greenbelt.
"The guy is a happy kid who wants to do for his mother and father," said Samuel Garrett, A recreation center instructor, offering his view of the Leonard mystique. "He's an all-American kid (that success) hasn't changed at all. The same old smile and everything, He's never changed."
Flashing the boyish grin that is his trademark, Leonard admits to the affect of success.
"I've gotten spoiled through having things I never had before," he said. "But as far as thinking I'm above people, no."
The hour workout is over. Tired, Leonard lounges casually on a chair at ringside drinking juice. For 30 minutes he signs autographs, talks to friends and plays with children -- many of them old friends who come by for a little rough-housing or an embrace. Among the tots is Ray Charles Leonard Jr., a miniature replica of his dad in poise and appearance.
Fitting a boxing glove on the tyke, Leonard gently coaches him.
"Come on, hands up.Protect your face. Bob and weave." To his dad's delight the 5-year-old stiffly bobs his head up and down like a doll on a spring.
"You notice he has his left hand up, too," Dundee notes.
Yeah," Leonard says proudly, acknowledging his son's natural boxing instinct to protect his face
By early 1980, Leonard will marry Juanita Wilkinson or "experience his first knockout," she threatens him teasingly.
With the workout over, the atmosphere in the gym is low key and relaxed. Men corner Jacobs to get tips on boxing and football. Dundee signs autographs and jokes with various people around the gym.
Leonard sits playfully pulling a tot's curls. "I think (the public) has placed this (wholesome) image on me," he says. I'm just being myself and they've accepted it."
He said he's energized by the crowds. "They motivate me. I'm highly generated through people. Kids are the biggest thrill. You find a lot of these stars who say, 'I want to work with the kids.' But I'm sincere about it. I really mean it. I recall how hard it was for me to get ahead."
He knows dozens of young boxers, are scrambling for a shot at the 1980 olympics, and recalls his own struggles for Olympic gold. It happens most, he said, "whenever I see amateur kids working out. Then it brings back memories."