Life since the 1976 Olympics has been a bundle of good things for Sugar Ray Leonard. The gold medal he won has been serving as more than proof on a necklace that he beat them all at Montreal and became amateur lightweight champion of the universe. For Sugar Ray, it has been a passport to a whole new world of giddy wonders. A $40,000 payday for his very first professional fight. His adoption by a rich and doting TV network. And even dreamy notions that he might become America's next folk hero, or something.
As a newborn pro fighter, Sugar Ray got off to a winging start last Saturday in Baltimore. He did the necessary thing by winning big under the scrutiny of nationwide television. He grabbed every round of the six agaisnt Luis (the Bull) Vega, who was sadly outreached and exactly styled to warrant that little of a disastrous nature would befall Local Hero.
CBS, which threw $10,000 into the pot for Sugar Ray, got exactly what it wanted for its own purposes. Right now, Leonard is a property. A new and engaging young fighter, a face to exploit agaisnt ABC's sucessful Wide World of Sports and pump up the ratings of its own imitations, the weekly CBS Sports Spectacular.
The network is planning much more work for Leonard. So far, it has been pretty heavy stuff anyway, for a kid who said he couldn't afford to go to college. Last month they whooshed him out to Las Vegas, first cabin, as a CBS commentor on a fight show. Next assignment: color commentary in Puerto Rico at another CBS-TV fight. In between, there was his own first fight as a pro.
In his unveiling as the clever Olympic champ-turned-pro, he didn't let his network and his friends down. He was a winner, a crowd pleaser. He showed flash and speed and also indicated he could punch with style, putting together good combinations. He showed he had studied the foot speed of Muhammad Ali, an obvious idol.
All together, he showed some class. But the extent of it might yet be plumbed by somebody more threatening than Luis, the sacrificial bull.
Vega is a sturdy type built like a fire plug and with all of that commodity's evasive skills. He bore in steadily and just far enough to get within punching range - for Sugar Ray. Rarely able to position himself for a big punch in his own behalf, Luis was displaying why, after 25 pro fights, he couldn't command more than a $650 payday for himself.
CBS, for shame, couldn't spare another dime for Vega, who had made his own deal with the Baltimore promoters. Technically, it was none of the network's affair how much Luis was being paid. But he was still 50 per cent of the cast of the two-man show CBS was beaming coast to coast. For that, he was getting nine-tenths of 1 per cent of the gate.
It might have occurred to somebody, perhaps, to sweeten the pot just a tad for a poor, beaten-up chap who was taking home only $650 from the day's $73,000 handle. Maybe that's show business, for certain, it's not very pretty.
There were occasional frights for Sugar Ray and his concerned friends even on an afternoon when he won big. Exposed was his abysmal greenness in those situations when Vega crowded him into a corner. As yet unlearned by Leonard are such fundamental skills as how to tie up an opponent, how to box his way off the ropes.
In those situations a clear and justified panic did show on Leonard's face. He knew he could get nailed. He had to get out of those predicaments quickly lest all of CBS's plans for him be shattered by the next punch. Lest it be a dream spent. His only recourse was to flee in an undignified sidewise gallup unbecoming a professional. But he had learned no other escape route. Once, the referee unaccountably pulled Vega off him, a distinct favor.
There is high suspicion that at this stage of his development there is a boatload of 140 pounders who are already ringwise pros and could take Sugar Ray out at their pleasure.
They have the speed to match Leonard's, because the 140-pound class native speed is a basic necessity, and the lack of it unhealthy. The speed Sugar Ray showed against Vega would not set him apart from the pack of Latins who dominate the lighter divisions, and have more savvy than he. They are in a different league than the 150 amateurs Leonard fought on his way to the Olympic gold medal.
But Leonard has demonstrated that he can learn quickly. The same bunch of lightweights and junior welters who would have him for one-course lunch in early 1977 could find him a totally different customer a year hence with enough pro fights to his credit.
A couple of other things are in Leonard's favor. He had the prescience to pick the name of Sugar Ray for himself. Instant connotations fo the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, a plus in the fight business. Then he won Angelo Dundee to his side as his handler, or corner man, or perhaps manager. Dundee gives him instant credibility.
The Ali influence is apparent. The high, white shoes. The hands down, perimeter dance. The snarl through his mouthpiece. Sugar Ray, a showboat himself, has added another if not original gimmick, the come-on-in-and-fight gesture with which he beckoned Vega. For a kid in his first pro fight, that was bush.
The fellows he will have to lick later would welcome, right now, that invitation from Sugar Ray to move closer. But a year later the picture could be totally different if Sugar Ray gets proper on-the-job training. As a prize fighter, not as a color commentator inured to the high style of the network space cadets who never fly economy and who have made room service a way of life.