It is a mistake to think of Sugar Ray Leonard as nothing but show biz. The guy is a great athlete. Once a gymnast and wrestler, even today he plays basketball. "A great shooter," said his trainer, Jan Morton. "Throw Ray the ball, you don't see it back."
Whatever Ali brought to the ring, so does Leonard: speed afoot, the wonderful hand-eye coordination that sends punches unerringly to target, strength to endure punishment and, in common with all great athletes, an instinct for survival so strong as to be palpable.
Marcos Gerardo butted Leonard.
This was May 20 in Baton Rouge, Leonard's 22nd fight. Some of Leonard's people didn't want the fight. They said Gerardo, nearly 160 pounds, was too big for Leonard, then 150. A championship fight was coming up for Leonard, they said, so why take a chance against a bigger man, especially a bigger man known to be brutish in the ring.
Early on, Gerardo butted Leonard.
"I saw three of him," Leonard said. "I was trying to distinguish who was who and then, pow, pow, he hit me with his best shot."
Leonard took it standing up. Back in his corner at the break, he told his boss, Angelo Dundee that he was seeing three Gerardos.
"Take the one in the middle," Dundee said.
Angered by the butt, moved by the prospect of defeat, Leonard dominated Gerardo the rest of the way to win a unanimous decision in 10 rounds.
Forget the Sugar Ray business. That's for show, the Sugarman. Forget the Ali mannerisms: the shuffle, the windup uppercut, the come-hither taunt with his gloved hand. They are mind games. The dazzling smile and charm and inviting brightness of Leonard make him unique in a cruel game but they also have caused stoneheads to suggest Leonard is a fraud, all style and no substance, a show of lights.
This guy is a rock.
In the ring, he is mean. No Dr. Pepper commercials in the square jungle. Leonard is as deadly a predator as moves there.
"Determination," he said, trying to explain why he turns killer. "The drive. I'm keyed up. I want to get in and get out safely. I couldn't really tell you what happens to me. It's just something that comes over me.
"The ring -- this is my domain; this is my territory."
And the opponent is invading Leonard's territory?
Invading my face," Leonard said.
He smiled charmingly.
Leonard has won all 24 of his fights, 15 by knockout. He takes on Andy Price a veteran welterweight, on Friday night's Larry Holmes-Earnie Shavers heavyweight championship card at Caesars Palace. Probably as much as the heavyweights, Leonard is reason that ABC-TV will do the fights. The guy sells.
Come Dec. 1, Leonard will fight Wilfredo Benitez for the welterweight championship. Leonard's share of the purse is expected to be $1 million. Never has such a little man earned such big money in fighting. And Leonard is combining his attributes -- his athletic skills, his show biz instincts -- to make sure that the money keeps coming.
"I wish it was that easy," he said when it was suggested Andy Price was a pushover. Price is no pushover. At 25, he has a 32-5-3 won-lost-draw record that includes victories over welterweight stars Carlos Palomino and Jose Cuevas.
So why fight a Price now with a $1 million fight coming up?
"I want people to realize now that I'm trying to dominate in the ring," Leonard said. "I want them to see that what I've been saying is not hogwash."
Because he believes in telling people what they are seeing, Leonard says, "At times, people are awed at what I can get away with. I'm not trying to be Muhammad Ali. There's only one of him. I combine the talents of Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. I have combined the talents of all these great fighters and made myself."
Leonard's charm is so immense that he can utter such sentences without offending. A listener finds himself nodding in agreement at so patently outrageous a judgment. The guy could sell engineer boots to Ann-Margaret. Ask Leonard what he sees when he watches film of his fights and he says, "I see a hot dog."
A hot dog growing richer. The Fight will be Leonard against Roberto Duran. Like advertisers who create a need and then get rich by promoting a product to fill that need, first Ali and now Leonard build purses by talking about fights before they happen. In two years, Leonard will be the welterweight champion, with Duran the No. 1 contender. Hands of stone, they call Duran, who destroys opponents.
"Duran right now is not profitable," Leonard said. "It would be just like another fight. Two years from now, maybe we can talk business. It would be one of the biggest fights in history."
"$5 million," Leonard said.
Split between the fighters?
"For me," Leonard said.
Angelo Dundee, who has trained seven world champions, including Ali, says Leonard can do things previously accomplished only by Ali, maybe the greatest athlete ever to fight. "Since Ali, who can do this?" Dundee said, and he turned his fists into a right uppercut followed by a left uppercut. "The only fighter who could hit with a left uppercut was Muhammad. And now Ray."
Dundee has prepared a scouting report on Andy Price. "Gets hit uppercut either hand . . . Strictly left hooker, right hand is a swing . . . Legs bad, push him . . . Feint jab, wait for left hand, then counter with your own . . . Everything works."
Leonard has read it. No show biz here.