The door to Sugar Ray Leonard's dressing room has a hole in it, one of those little holes you put your eye against the glass and look inside and everything looks six miles away, like you were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Only the glass is gone and it's a plain hole. So all the girls pushed and grunted and put their noses against the door to look into Sugar Ray's dressing room.
Sugar Ray Leonard is 21 years old. He's a certified hero. You saw him on television from the Olympics in the summer of 1976. The engaging handsome kid from Palmer Park, Md., won a gold medal and he did it with a picture of his girl friend taped to his sock. He told us then that he was done with fighting, that he didn't like it and would enter the University of Maryland.
Unless, he said, he needed to turn professional to make money for his mother and father. In Sugar Ray Leonard, people with money saw a way to make more money in time he was convinced to turn pro, convinced he could make big money quickly and be a world champion, too. He could help his family better that way than spending four years in college and giving up the gift of talent that could make him rich and famous. So did it.
And how he's undefeated in five pro fights. You've seen him on television, those flashing hands at work, that wonderful smile sharing his victory with you. Could any other fighter blow kisses to the crowd, taking time to do it in a full circle, without being laughed at? Come Saturday at 5:45 p.m. at the D.C. Armory. Leonard goes in against Hector Diaz, a Dominican who has won 17 of 26 fights.
"I'll get'em away from there," said Tommy Hearns, Leonard's sparring partner. "Listen at them." He meant the girls. They were squeeling outside the dressing room. Through the door, you could hear someone saying. "Oh, Shooooo-ger babeeee."
"Leonard sat in an easy chair. He woke a three-piece suit, gray with subtle pinstripes. You could see a gold watch chain. It went nicely with the gold stickpin in his tie.He is 21 years old and he's making a lot of money and this fighter could pass for a banker.
"Leave them alone," Leonard said to the sparring partner who could shoo the girls away. Leonard smiled, lighting the corners of the room. Someday this guy will do television commercials and we'll buy stuff we don't need just because he looks so good telling us we need it. "The noise, it makes things more real," Leonard said.
The noise that makes life more real began for Leonard, really began, in 1976. He'd been a fighter five years by then and everyone knew he'd be a good one, but 1976 was an Olympic year. "That was the year everybody said Sugar Ray would win a gold metal," Leonard said. "The pressure built up and up. You've got to win a gold medal, because so many people expect you to."
Because we demand new feats from our heroes, the pressure is no less on Sugar Ray Leonard today. We expect him to become a world champion and he says that's his goal and he's working hard at it. He's now the No. 9-ranked welter-weight in the United States, but he's moving up a weight class Saturday, fighting as a welterweight (147 pounds) for the the first time. The welterweight champion is Carlos Palomino. We expect Sugar Ray to take his place someday. Someday soon. Pugs don't wear gold watch chains. Champions do.
"Diaz, all I know about him is he's a good fighter with a lot of fights," Leonard said. He stood in front of a full-length mirror. They put a piece of tape over the hole in the door and Leonard put on his boxing trunks. His T-shirt had his name on the front. He threw a punch of the mirror. "Until you get in with 10-round guys, you don't ever know much about them," he said. "You don't see them on film."
This is an eight-rounder Saturday night, to be televised nationally (but blacked out locally). For the Olympics a year and a half ago, Leonard was on a constant high, a dreamer about to transform imaginings into reality. In his dressing room yesterday, with the tape over the hole in the door, Leonard was a workman going about the routine preparations for another day on the job. Eight-rounders are not the stuff of dreams, and if the giggling girls hadn't been outside his door. Leonard might have forgotten why he was dressing in a litte room at the top of a dark stairway in a sullen-gray armory.
"Bad for the blood," Leonard said of the girls, smiling. "Especially during training."
The tape over the hole in the door fell loose. Someone had stuck a pencil through a hole.
"Ooooh, mannn," a girl's voice said. "He's in his shorts."
Tommy Hearns replaced the tape.
Leonard laughed."A little baby," he said. "Not a girl, a little ba-beee, she came up to me today and said, 'I got your autographs, now I want your phone number.' A little babeee.'"
Then it was time to work and Leonard went to a ring on the armory floor. There he sparred six five-minute rounds. That morning he'd spoken to students at Eastern High School, across the street ("I told them to set goals in life and try to reach them"). And he invited them to watch him work out. Maybe 200 students came.
Tawamma Smith, 18, a senior at Eastern, said Muhammad Ali was her man, but she liked Sugar Ray, too. "He got a standing ovation at school," she said. Nometha Gunter, 19, a senior, handed Leonard a hair pick when the fighter took off his headgear. When Leonard gave it back, she slid it down the neck of her dress and said. "He used my pick, he used my pick.'"