On Nov. 12, Sugar Ray Leonard, at the age of 26, announced his retirement after a six-year ring career that made him the wealthiest boxer in history.
The native of Palmer Park, Md., won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 and went on to capture the welterweight and junior middleweight titles as a professional.
He suffered a detached retina in his left eye in training last May. The decision to retire came after a successful six-month recuperation. Angus Phillips is a sports writer for The Washington Post.
Q: Last week as a TV announcer you watched two fights in which fighters were rendered defenseless -- fights in which fighters were in danger of losing their life. The South Korean fighter Duk Koo Kim is going to lose his life. Alexis Arguello was defenseless, got pounded 20 to 22 times by Aaron Pryor in the 14th round and then Kim was knocked to the edge of his life by Boom Boom Mancini. As a fighter, what goes through your mind when you see fights like that?
A: I am a competitor and if I was there I would be doing the same thing. I'd be punching these guys' lights out, too. I wouldn't stop. You can't stop. That has a lot to do with me making my decision (to retire). No, it doesn't, because if I was in there I would do the same thing. I would be punching those guys lights out too.
Q: After seeing that, did you feel better about the decision that you'd made or did it have no effect on you?
A: None whatsoever. (My wife) Juanita, or my father and brothers say, "I'm glad you quit just in time." Juanita would say "Well, you see, those things can happen." I don't think about those things. If that was the case I would never have been a professional fighter. I can't afford to think about those kind of things. I hope those guys recover, but no. I don't think about those things.
Q: In six years you made -- the generally accepted figure is $40 million. You were the biggest box office draw in boxing. You made fighters rich. (They) were making $100,000 per fight, suddenly they were making a million or two million dollars per fight. You're gone. What happens to boxing without the biggest box office draw? Who's going to fill your shoes?
A: They've asked me that time and time again. If I knew I would say. But there are guys that are capable. Aaron Pryor -- I was so impressed with him. I think (he) will be of value as far as money is concerned. It's hard to pinpoint one particular guy. If I could, I would invest in him.
Q: You really feel that Aaron Pryor could be a Ray Leonard?
A: No, I don't think anyone could be a Ray Leonard. But I think they can be themselves. We've started to talk now from a commercial standpoint. Who can be a marketable commodity? I don't know what they look for now. They don't want older kids, they want younger kids. They want kids that have more personality, more charisma. I don't know what they want. They might not want me tomorrow. Who knows?
Q: You said that you were going to retire and that you weren't going to fight anymore. Obviously the detached retina had a little to do with it, but evidently it wasn't the most important factor in your decision?
A: No one believes. I know it's tough to believe that I made the decision right then and there, Tuesday night, in Baltimore, in the ring. I just made it. I've been turning things around. I said yes. I said no. Said maybe. But really I mean that decision was actually made that night, that night in the ring. I've never been so damn nervous in my lifetime. In my whole career. I paced the floor. Anyone can verify that I paced the floor in the dressing room, prior to going out. They say "What's wrong with you? Ray, this is your night." I say yeah, I understand this is my night, but I want people to understand that I'm sincere this time. That it's no ifs, ands or buts. I really didn't know what I was going to say. I stood in the ring. I was so, so nervous. Hopefully it didn't show. When (Howard) Cosell went down the line and introduced some of the dignitaries and personalities in the arena, it made matters worse.
Q: Evidently five to seven days before that announcement was made, you sat down with Pat Putnam and you wrote an article, "Why I have decided to retire." It was going to be the cover story (of Sports Illustrated.) They had a picture of you with a pair of gloves hanging up. Sugar Ray hangs them up. How do you explain the fact that you spent that time with Putnam and gave your word to this prestigious national magazine that this was your decision and then could have changed your mind?
A: I could have. I guess it was almost two weeks prior to (the announcement) when I talked to Pat. I was sincere. I said, "This is it, Pat. No more." Hell, at that point, yeah, I was going to retire. A few days before the announcement, (Sports Illustrated) kept calling. They called the offices practically every day and I said "Hell, pull it. Pull this whole article." I can't let no one dictate to me what I should do.
Q: You didn't want to feel trapped to make your decision based on what you had told Sports Illustrated?
A: Yeah. At that time, I was really serious about retiring. Then all of sudden I said, "Well man, I feel good." I've been working out. I said I just don't know at this point.
Q: So you say then that Sports Illustrated was sticking its neck out 100 miles by sticking to its plan to run that article?
A: No one really knew what I was going to say.
Q: How close did you come to saying I want to fight one more time?
A: I was there. I was on the ledge. If I had had a hat on I would have tipped over. It was that close. I mean hell, I'm just a human. Ask me a question Monday, then ask me the same question Friday. Quite naturally, you feel differently Monday than Friday.
Q:If you were that close to saying that you would fight again, how firmly must we now believe you when you say I won't fight again?
A: It is over now. I have options. Things were being thrust at me, thrown at me, constantly.
A: Yeah. Every day. It created such a ball of confusion that I didn't know what the hell I was saying sometimes. I would say some things, and I would contradict myself. And they'd say Ray what do you mean. And I'd try to explain. I'd try to elaborate on certain things but I can't, because I didn't know what the hell I was saying.
Q: There are people who feel that you were deceptive and that the fight game involves hype. You build up a fight. You say you hate Tommy Hearns. And you don't hate Tommy Hearns. Everyone knows you don't hate Tommy Hearns. You say you're going to knock Marvin Hagler's block off. That you're afraid you're going to kill him. But that's fight hype. Is this the same thing?
A: No, this is more sincere, because this is a matter of me saying something that would stick for the rest of my life. This is more sincere than a fight. You can't compare the two. I can hype, I can pump a fight up like it's the greatest fight in the universe, but for decisions of retirement or one more time --. No I couldn't do that.
Q: So there's no option in your mind about ever putting that hat on and tipping over that edge.
A: No. I'm flatly on the surface. I'm solid. I'm stable. No.
Q: And did you feel that the minute you made your announcement?
A: They said well what about regrets? No regrets whatsoever. It was something I had time to evaluate -- how hard it was for me to get up to a certain fight. The worst time I was hurt in the ring was by Bruce Finch, a guy people consider a nobody. He really hurt me. And the reason he hurt me was because I was not not mentally prepared.
Q: Did you ever feel like you were a prisoner of your own career? Is that the idea?
A: Well in a sense. I had to start fighting -- beating -- like, gods, for someone to say hey, that was a good fight.
Q: I've heard people say, after you announced your retirement, that this was the final demonstration that Ray Leonard doesn't have heart, that he's going to step out of the ring at age 26. How can you defend yourself against accusations like that?
Q: Well for someone, for anyone, for someone to say that -- . They should just jump off a ledge and commit suicide. Jesus Christ! Of all things, me not having heart! To fight a Hearns? Or a crazy guy like Duran? That's crazy. What I did, what I've accomplished in the ring, without question it took a great deal of heart and desire and determination. No one could just say that.
Q: Do you worry about the loss of your prestige and your adulation, your adoring fans?
A: No. If that was the case I'd be fighting Hagler in a couple of months. I've gotten my share. I went in with one desire in mind -- to get as much as I can out of it. Then, all of a sudden, I said, well, now this is it. I've defeated all the big guys. Now it's time to quit. Ray Leonard wants to quit. Not (trainer) Angelo Dundee, not (trainer) Janks Morton, not (wife) Juanita. Ray wants to quit. I got out.
Q: You wanted to quit after the Olympics and did and then things were hard. Obviously, you had family problems, you needed money and you went back into professional boxing. You don't forsee anything like that ever happening again?
A: We're starting to sound like a psychiatrist and his patient, you know. Trying to look deep into the whole little ball. This is what I feel now, this is what I'll feel tommorrow and I know full well this is the way I'm going to feel the rest of my life. I'm content.
Q: Many great fighters, wealthy fighters -- Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali -- have been in a position of financial security and somehow have turned up two or three years later on the skids. How will you guard against it?
A: I have a wife who's very conservative. I know fully well now that the career has come to a halt. Things don't come as easy as they used to. You gotta be realistic. I mean, if I want a certain car -- a car can't make you go bankrupt. But I won't buy 20 cars and say, hey, look what I have. I don't get off on that.
Q: Your son, little Ray, is in commercials sometimes, flipping gloves around and looking fast with the hands. Would you ever let your son be a boxer?
A: If he really wanted to do it. It would be a pain for him. People would expect him to be just like his father. "Hey, your father threw more punches, your father knocked more guys out." He don't need that. And he doesn't want to particularly. He doesn't care for it.
Q: What about you? What do you want to do with the next five years?
A: Well, you know, I was working with CBS, HBO. I never applied myself. I never did my homework. I was so preoccupied in doing what I was doing best. And that was doing something very significant, making close to $20 million in 45 minutes. I mean, hey, who am I kidding? But now that I feel that that is history, now I can apply myself. I can become more professional in the journalist field, in broadcasting. To say that this is what I want to do the rest of my life, I really don't know. I'm going to do it up until I feel that I don't want it anymore. You know, I'm just 26.
Q: Do you feel like that gives you the kind of satisfaction you want from a career? To be on television? Or are there other things you want to try to do? Physical things, for example.
A: I guess I don't want to do anything else physical because I've pushed my body to that limit. I pushed my body to a point physically that it maybe takes two years away from your lifespan. Like muscle spasms in the places you never use it. You say what the hell is going on? The public is naive as to what actually takes places when you go "beyond." The Hearns fight took me "beyond." The first Duran fight I went "beyond." Your body can't take it so much anymore.
Q: When you say "beyond" I gather you mean that you've reached the limits of what your body can do and then you pull it up from somewhere else and push your body beyond itsslimits.
A: Yeah. I'm not saying anybody can't do it, but your body's not used to doing that. It's just like running the marathon and you've completed 25 miles and all of a sudden someone says okay, now, one more mile tn o go and you say, damn, I'm tired. But knowing that that accomplishment is so great you push yourself. So you went beyond that.
Q: You can't go to the well more than so many times?
A: No, you can't. Physically you can't go to the well but so many times. See, I understand the sport. I understand the anatomy of the body. I understand certain things that I really can't elaborate, explain, in layman terms that people understand what I'm saying.
Q: Well it sounds to me almost as if you're saying that you're able to call up a kind of reserve that maybe I or somebody else who doesn't fight for a living would only have to call up if his life or his family were threatened and yet you're calling it up for a pay-day.
A: And I'm not saying that's supernatural. I think it's for real. The fact is if a parent saw a kid trapped under a car she'd probably lift that car up to get her kid.
Q: And you could do the same thing in the ring?
A: Exactly. It's the same thing. It's terrible. I think it's just the same thing but just in a different field.
Q: Did you ever in your ring career feel that you were in danger of rendering a guy the way Kim was rendered?
A: Only twice. Once was with Davey Boy Green at the Capital Centre, I really thought I hurt that kid seriously. And the fight with Bruce Finch when I had a premonition that I was going to kill him. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks with me but with Dave Boy Green, that was real. I really thought I'd hurt him seriously.
Q: If you had to list five main reasons why you decided to retire, what would they be?
A: Desire. I lost the desire to get back in that kind of a shape to push myself "beyond."
Q: There weren't guys that the public thought could beat you that were out there waiting to fight you?
A: Yeah. Family.
Q: It doesn't have to be five.
A: I know. The eye, the eye had something to do with it.