For anyone with any affection for boxing, last night in Capital Centre was a joy. The right fellows knocking hell out of each other still has large appeal, as the record crowd showed. And the sport's young Ali clone met his stiffest test and aced it.
Sugar Ray Leonard danced and stung Johnny Gant for seven rounds and then finished him off with a half-dozen rights, one of which sent Gan't's mouthpiece sailling to about the spot on the canvas Gant would hit moments later.
"He'd called me 'boy,'" Leonard said after the eight-round TKO. "I'm sure he understands now that this 'boy' can hit. And when he tried to go inside on me it was like a dream come true.
"They say Sugar Ray Leonard gets tired around the sixth round. I don't get tired. I'm just settin' a trap, luring him inside. I'm strong inside."
And at the gate.
As Leonard was nearing the end of his postfight press conference, his trainer, Dave Jacobs, took note of the sellout crowd in Capital Centre and spillover at the Armory, grabbed the microphone and said:
"I talked with Mr. (Abe) Pollin a while back and told him the only people who would fill Capital Centre were the young people fro, Palmer Park. We proved that."
Said the Capital Centre owner, realizing the enormous appeal of this unbeaten welterweight: "I'd like to see him fight all of his fights here. He's one of the greatest fighters I've ever seen."
It was not the greatest fight anyone had seen -- and one of the reasons is that Gant did not offer the sort of desperation his fans expected. He is 29 going back into oblivion once again after failing in perhaps his last shot at a five-figur purse.
Although he lasted until the referee pulled Leonard off with three seconds left in the eighth, the end for Gant began nearly with the opening bell. By the end of round two, Leonard was raising his hands high over his head. Later, he offered a small smile after taking Gant's best shots.
"Don't wait," yelled Gant's trainer, Ken Stribling, midway through the third round."Don't wait on him, baby. Let it go, Johnny." He meant the right hand that made all too infrequent appearances.
"Now you got to get it together", Stribling ordered just before the start of round five. Gant did for much of the round, but Leonard was mauling him in the final seconds.
Unseen in Capital Centre, though hardly unimportant, were factors that had as much influence on this special night as the skills of the fighters -- Muhammad Ali and ABC Television. During boxing's resuscitation, those two puffed harer than anyone.
In an extraprdomary career, Ali has pulled yet another coup; first boxer with a rich legacy while still active. Or at least still heavyweight champion in name.
Last night would not have been possible save for Ali, who kept boxing alive and then allowed it to bloom once again while his career was in decline. For several years now, customers have viewed the Ali undercards in relation to the champ's performances and said to themselves: "Those other huys can fight."
They have paid accordingly.
With two cons on Washington, against Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista in Capital Centre, Ali set the mood for a show that would outdo his considerable drawing power. If the area turned out 12,000 strong for an overweight and uninspired Ali, it surely would trip over itself to see a legitimate fight at nearly reasonable prices.
While Ali was making it possible for the Gants of boxing to still earn at least modest purses, ABC was making Sugar Ray a star, live and in color from Montreal in 1976.
Like Bruce Jenner and Feank Shorter, Leonard was given gold-medal coverage before the Olympics. Like Jenner, he lived up to his advance billing -- and converted his amateur success into the amount of fame and money the Gants rarely bother to consided in their giddiest moments.
Until they entered the ring, Leonard was carrying Gant. What is his appeal? Part of it is style, the flair for doing a seven-stroke dru, roll on an opponent's face and body without appearing to maim the poor fellow. And keeping his cheerful face mark-free all while.
Leonard also has Ali's gift for public relations. Ali taught boxers that the verbal jab usually is as important as the athletic jab, perhaps more so for Gant. Of the heirs to Ali's financial position in his sport, Leonard is the most clever outside the ring -- and the most wisely managed.
And he had to be coaxed into a professional ring, or so it seemed. A family that had sacrificed for his gold medal needed help -- and Leonard's fists were the quickest and surest income. Who could resist watching such innocent-looking talent test boxing's sharks on such a wholesome mission?
"I have respect for Johnny Gant," Leonard said. "I've been watching him since I was 14. But I hope he changes his tune from calling me boy.' Did we have words after the first round? Oh, yeah, all we said was: 'Finally, we meet,' Nothi' harsh."