To the surprise of no one except the man he decisioned , Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard won his first professional fight today. He looked good doing it, but at times must have felt as if he were slugging away at the Rock of Gibraltar.
Leornard,20, the charismatic junior welterweight from Palmer Park, earned a six-round unanimous decision over Luis (The Bull) Vega, who is unpolised but has a chin Prudential would love to own a piece of.
Leonard, fast, smooth and poised, with excellent ring presence, won all six rounds on all three officials' cards.
Referee Harry Cecchini and judges Tom Kelly and Terry Moore all saw the bout as 30-24, using the five-point-round system in which the winner of a round gets five points, the loser four or fewer.
But Leonard was not able to floor Vega, a game 5-foot-7, 141-pounder from Reading, Pa., via Ponce, Puerto Rico. Though his pro record is only 14-9-3, Vega has never been knocked down. He showed the crowd of 10,270 at the Baltimore Civic Centre exactly why.
Leonard hit him with everything but a Prince George's County dump truck, especially in the third and fourth rounds and the last 15 seconds of the fight. Vega snorted and kept staggering forward, reminiscent of another Latin "Bull," the late heavyweight Oscar Bonavena.
Leonard back-pedaled, pumping him with combinations that came with blazing speed. The few times that he came down off his toes, Leonard belted Vega with roundhouse lefts and rights.
Vega, his face growing increasingly red and puffy from the third round on, was cut under the left eye by a furious barrage of punches early in the fourth. He looked tired, but hardly wobbled and did not come close to falling.
Vega had been treated as what is known in the trade as "The Big O" for Opponent: a career walk-on elevated to supporting actor for the extravaganza that was promoted as "Sugar Ray's Big Day."
But he earned respect all his courage.
"The name 'Bull' fits him well," Leonard agreed. "That's exactly what he is.
"When I hit him with so many combinations, it was just a memory of the movie 'Rocky'" added Leonard, who saw the film Friday afternoon following his last workout. "It shows the determination of an underdog.
"I give Vega all the credit in the world."
Leonard, who weighed 141 1/4 pounds, had predicted a fourth-round knockout. But after the third, he looked out from his corner to a cluster of friends and relatives, who were even more vocal than the rest of the noisy crowd that was overwhelming pro-Leonard. For just a moment, he flashed his radiant smile, while was accentuated by the white mouthpiece covering his upper teeth.
He still looked supremely confident, as he had since he danced into the ring, wearing a red velvet robe with stars on the sleeves. But there was a hint of frustration in his expression.
"I saw the same people who I told he would go out in the fourth," he explained. "I told them, 'No way!'"
"I expected a tough fight," said Leonard's manager, Angelo Dundee, who has handled a fisful fo world champions, including Muhammad Ali. "I told the kid this guy wouldn't fall easy, and he showed that. Ray hit him with some Sunday shots, and the guy just stood there."
"Vega gave me the same stiff competition I had in the amateurs," said Leonard, whose Olympic gold crowned a five-year amateur career during which he won 145 of 150 fights, 75 by knockout, and Pan American crowns.
"I guess I had more confidence than he did because I had willpower, and my willpower came from my father, Cicero Leonard." He pointed to his father, who attented the fight in a wheelchair on a one-day pass from Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale. The elder Leonard is being treated for meningitis, tuberculosis of spine and a bladder ailment for which he will have surgery Monday.
Leonard, who once vowed never to box professionally, said the duration of his ring career would depend on his family.
"I want to help my family out financially, I want to fight as long as it takes to make them happy," he said. His dream is to buy a grocery store for his father and mother, who hopped into the ring just after the decision was announced and hugged him.
Leonard earned approximately $40,000 today, $30,000 from a live gate estimated to be $72,000 and $10,300 from CBS-TV, which televised the bout nationally as part of "CBS Sports Spectacular."
Vega earned $650.
Leonard wore a hooded velvet robe with stars around his name and U.S. and Maryland flags on either shoulder. On the side of each calf, he had a photo of his 3-year-old son, Ray Jr., taped to the socks that rose out of his blue shoes.
The difference in class was apparent early, though for the first 45 seconds of the bout the only punches thrown were Leonard left jabs as he circled his opponent in the center of the ring, feeling him out.
Vega is a plodder, ineffective with the jab. He likes to put his head down and make bull-like rushes to the corners, where he hopes to trap his man and catch him with a wild swing. But Leonard was too quick and clever.
Vega was like a petty burglar, who enters a house, knocks over a chair or two and leaves tracks of mud as he carries out the loot, only to get caught flat-footed. By comparison, Leonard is a cool international jewel thief who puts on silk gloves, makes his haul and slips away like a whisper in the night.
Leonard threw only two right hands in the first round, but showed the speed and silkiness in escaping the corner that would help him later. It was in the second round that he found how tough Vega is, tagging him with a good combination and getting only a grimace in response.
In the third, Leonard stopped smiling. He hit Vega with a couple of thundering lefts, but couldn't budge him. Vega did get in a few shots in Leonard's corner near at the end of the round, which ended with Leonard glaring at him and motioning him back into the corner.
The fourth was the really telling round, as they slugged like a couple of windmills almost from the opening bell as the crowd roared. The fifth round was fairly tame, but Vega pressed the attack again in the sixth, knowing a knockout was his only hope. Leonard pummeled him, his fists rapid-fire pistons in gloves, and gave him four furious left uppercuts in the closing seconds.
Vegas didn't crumble, and at the end Leonard could only embrace him admiringly.
"I'm glad it went the distance because it gave me a real first-class taste of professional boxing," said Leonar
"I have a home base now, my home is Baltimore," he said with evengelical fervor. He has another bout here April 2. The opponent will be chosen by Dundee from a list submitted by matchmaker Eddie Hrios.