Unbeaten Sugar Ray Leonard will seek to culminate his four-year quest for a world championship Friday night in the most important fight of his 25-year professional career.
He is the key figure in a tripleheader of world title fights which will be nationally televised from two sites from 8 to 11 p.m. Leonard's challenge of champion Wildred Benitez's World Boxing Council welterweight title is scheduled at approximately 10 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7). Leonard is a 3 1/2-to-1 favorite to lift the title from Benitez.
That bout will be preceded by Vito Antuofermo defending the universal middleweight championship against Marvin Hagler, also in Las Vegas, and Victor Galindez defending his World Boxing Association light heavyweight title against Marvin Johnson in New Orleans.
At a press luncheon today, Leonard was asked from the audience if his goal was to go down in history as the greatest fighter in the world.
"No," Leonard said in a unique respone, "My ambition is to retire, independently wealthy -- and unharmed.
"I do want to go in the books as something special."
Earlier, it mentioned to Leonard that Puerto Rican Benitez had said the challenger could not take a "big punch." Leonard said, "I can't take what? People criticize me for not taking a big punch.
"I'm not in this game to take a big punch. The guy in Louisiana (Marcos Geraldo in Baton Rouge) hit me so hard I wanted to quit."
Leonard survived several "big punches" in that May 20 bout and won a 10-round decision on the way to his present unbeaten record in 25 fights.
Tonight's purse will add $1 million to Leonard's wealth, previously estimated to be about $3.5 million, Puerto Rican Benitez will receive $1.2 million. He has only a draw marring an otherwise perfect record in 38 bouts.
Leonard, of Palmer Park, Md. will be reclaiming a world-wide television audience he captured as the gold medal winner for the United States in the Olympics in 1976 at Montreal.
In the Antuofermo fight, Hagler is a 4 1/2-to-1 favorite over the champion. The challenger from Brockton, Mass., the birthplace of late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, has a 46-2-1 record, with 38 knockout victories. Antuofermo, of Brooklyn has a 45-3-1 record, with 19 knockouts.
In the fight in the New Orleans Superdome, Galindez, of Argentina, has a 55-7-4 record with 34 knockouts; Johnson, of Indianapolis, has a 23-3 record, with 17 knockouts. Galindez is an 8-to-5 favorite.
Another bout from New Orleans may be shown if there is time, between Tommy Hearns of Detroit and middleweight Mike Colbert of Portland, Ore. Hearns normally fights as a welterweight and is ranked No. 13 contender for Benitez's WBC title and No. 4 for the WBA title held by Joe (Pipino) Cuevas of Mexico.
If Leonard wins against Benitez, Hearns may be his next opponent. Hearns is unbeaten in 23 bouts, with 22 knockouts. Promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank Inc., says he has an option on Leonard's next bout and it was confirmed here by Mike Trainer, Leonard's Silver Spring, Md., Attorney.
Leonard, a 23-year-old native of Wilmington, N.C., with a 74-inch reach, will have a four-inch advantage over Benitez, a 21-year-old native of the Bronx and a resident of San Just, Puerto Rico.
Leonard has said here that he will use that reach to "show Benitzer what a left jab is all about." Both have predicted knockouts. Leonard has scored 16 knockouts in 25 bouts; Benitez 23 in 68 bouts.
Benitez won a national AAU title at the age of 13 and the world junior welterweight professional title at 17.
Leoanrd won the Olympic title at 20.
Benitez's victory over Antonio Cervantes for the junior welter title is regarded as his biggest. Cervantes was a master of his craft in 1976, the year of the bout.
Benitez got off the floor three times in his first of two bouts with Bruce Curry and won the first of two decisions against that opponent.
Benitez hnocked out Randy Shields of Los Angeles in six rounds, who barely was outpointed by Leonard in Baltimore in 1978.
Benitez decisioned Carlos Palomino for the WBC welter title in January in 15 rounds. Palomino appeared to be out of condition, but although Benitez hit him with about 20 unanswered punches in the 14th round, he could not put him down.
Palomino said Benitez was "the lightest hitter I've ever been in with." Palomino shook up Benitez in the fifth round with a left hook. Benitez said afterward, "I was slow today."
Benitez decisioned Harold Weston in the first defense of his title in his last bout, eight months ago, on March 25.
Leonard scored his hardest punch, accidentally after the bell, when he knocked out Bobby Haymon in the third round at Capital Centre, on April 13, 1978.
Leonard put Haymon down earlier in the third round with a left that landed a bit high on his head. Then the third punch of a left-right-left sequence -- another left hook -- draped 32-year-old Haymon over the rope as the bell ending the round rang, and Haymon sagged to the canvas.
The referee said the punch did not land after bell. It would not have saved Haymon if the punch had been ruled illegal, because he was helpless.
His handlers scrambled into the ring and had to drag his dead weight to his corner. He lay on his stool as if his legs were paralyzed. He would been able to continue if he had been given an hour's rest.
It was a punch that was a reflex action and had the full force of Leonard's weight behind it.
That certified Leonard's ability to punch. His ability to cope with shields certified him as a surpassing boxer and his survival against Geraldo's heavy hitting indicated that he can take a punch.
Benitez will test the validity of those theories, as an opponent of much higher quality.