THIS IS THE STORY of a romance that began long ago in the summer of 1972 between two kids from large working-class families in Palmer Park, Md. What has happened to them is the stuff of dreams, of fantasies little girls fall asleep with, fantasies that transport them from the limits of their own lives into the land of fairy tales, handsome princes, money, fame, and most of all, true love. It is a story with a happy ending, a love story you believe in only when you are young.
For Juanita Wilkinson, the story began toward the end of the eighth grade when her girlfriend decided she wanted Juanita's boyfriend and realized that the tidiest way of negotiating this was to match Juanita up with someone else. Before long, Juanita was hearing a lot about a boy around the corner name Ray Leonard. He was a bony little kid with a big Afro, she recalls, and she was not particularly dazzled by him. But everyone else though he was cute, and when you're in the eighth grade, you can't afford to overlook that. So, the girlfriend sent Ray a picture of Juanita with her phone number on the back of it, and when he came home from his first Olympic boxing trails that year, he called Juanita. And, of course, she wasn't home.
It took her two hours to get up the nerve to call him back, and when she did it was four in the afternoon. They stayed on the phone, she says, until four the next morning. "From then on we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I'll never forget the last thing he said to me when we got off the phone. He said, "You've met your match."
Before long, they met one another and then he met her father, with whom she lived, and her sisters who didn't believe Juanita had landed Ray Leonard because as everyone knew, he was too shy. But she had, and they have stayed together through Parkdale High School, the birth of a son, the whirlwind of the Olympics, the fame and fortune that Sugar Ray Leonard has won, and finally their marriage in January.
It has not always been easy. Juanita says they've broken up a couple of times. They've had arguments. But they've remained together, she says, "because of the love and respect we feel for each other," and because of their son. "Ray didn't want our son to grow up without us being together. "You want him to have the best, and you can't have the best with a mother here and a father there. We talk about little Ray's future a lot. That's something I don't think he'll have to worry about."
Juaniata Leonard is a petite, pretty woman, with a warm smile. She talks about growing up fast, and she has. She has the poise of a mature refined woman. But when she talks of the future, you realize she is still only 23, still unwilling to leave her family and Prince George's County for the glitter of cities like Hollywood or Las Vegas that the Leonards can now well afford. "I would be too homesick," she says simply.
There was, she says, never any question about whether to have the baby, Ray Jr., who is now six. "We did it. It wasn't meant to be, but we had to deal with it. We were going to do out best to do what was right.We tried to be adult," she says, with a wry smile, "but at the age of 17, how adult can you be about something like that?" She says Ray took her to the hospital to have the baby and found himself with other men in the waiting room. Some of them were smoking. He, the youngest, was chewing gum.
They didn't have any money and were dependent on parents who didn't have much either. This led to the famous paternity suit, which really wasn't a paternity suit at all, but was an effort by welfare authorities to establish that Leonard could not support them and that Juanita and the baby were, indeed, eligible for welfare. "We had nothing to hide," she says. "He had no money to give me." But the whole episode became public two days after he returned from winning a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and our instant local hero turned into an instant villain, a selfish boxer so hell-bent for glory that he wouldn't go to work to support his child, much less as they say, marry the girl.
A lot has changed in the four years since then. Leonard turned pro, which he had not intended to do, after both his parents became ill -- his mother with a heart condition, his father with spinal meningitis. He has surrounded himself with competent advisers who have turned him into a million-dollar property. Leonard will take home around $1.4 million from his fight Monday night at the Capital Centre with Englishman Dave (boy) Green, and he wants $5 million to fight Panamanian Roberto Duran.
"It's been a change coming from nothing to everything," says Juanita. "A lot of people say, "Oh, you're rich now.' I say I don't have a penny. Ray's rich. He's the one who gets up in that ring. I have it if he gives it to me, but I'm not rich. Keeping that attitude has helped," she says, smiling. Pause. "Of course, what's his is mine."
What's his these days includes an eight-acre parcel of land in Glenn Dale on which they are building a $700,000 house that will eventually include such amenities as a sauna in the master bedroom bath, a basketball court, a tennis court, a swimming pool, a gym in the basement, five bedrooms, and a space invader pinball machine.
There is also the new Fiat convertible Ray bought to replace her 1979 Camaro and the black Mercedes sedan he bought to replace his convertible Mercedes sports coupe. The new Mercedes, custom order after he saw one like it in Las Vegas, had black interiors, tinted windows and a telephone.
And he bought his parents a home in Lanham. "He's done everthing for them," says Juanita. "They're not working now. He doesn't want them to work because they've had so many problems with their health. I tell little Ray, when I get that age, you're going to support me, too."
She and Ray lived together three years before they were married. "People said, 'you ought to go ahead and get married.This man has all this money. He can support you and your child.'" But he was not ready, she said. "He knew whenever he was ready I would be ready." She said he decided he was ready last December after he won the World Boxing Council welterweight championship.
Not long after the wedding, she was standing in a supermarket checkout line and overheard a customer ahead of her gossiping with the cashier about the Leonard wedding. "They said it was ridiculous, that the big wedding was a put-on, that it was ridicuous having our six-year-old son be the ringbearer. At first I was in shock. I never heard anyony talk about our situation like that. So I'm standing there the whole time, thinking I should say something, but then if I do, it could end up in a whole fight.
"The person I used to be would have jumped up and made a big fuss," she says. But Juanita Leonard is keenly aware of what she calls "a man in Ray's position" and is not about to embarrass him. She said nothing. "I came home to Ray and told him what happened. He said he was really proud of me."
Juanita says she is more secure in her relationship with Leonard now than before, but she's not about to take chances."I can't have too many girlfriends my age who are single. I don't know what it is about women. They're attracted to me, and some girls tend to say, 'Hey, regardless of who Juanita is, I lke this man.' I find myself having older women friends.
"If I weren't sure about this relationship it would be harder. Before we were married, I used to be insecure.I wasn't sure he wouldn't go on out with somebody else. But as time went on, and we got closer, I started feeling, well, if he hasn't changed this far, no way he's going to change any time soon."