TO MANY OF the adoring fans in the United States and abroad, the Sugar Ray Leonard meteor has exploded into their boxing firmament only recently.
He is full grown. Dazzling. Magnificent. But trainer Dave Jacobs, who has been with Leonard since the first day he laced on a pair of boxing gloves, doesn't remember it quite that way.
One day recently, Jacobs sat in the lounge at Leonard's hotel sipping orange juice and recalling his first impressions 10 years ago of 24-year-old World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight champion, now 27-0 and facing a title bout Friday night with Roberto Duran in Montreal, his toughest fight of all.
"I was coaching kids at Palmer Park then. When Ray walked into the gym he was just an average kid off the block. I mean, there was nothing about him that day that made him stick out," Jacobs recalled.
"He came in and said he wanted to box. I said fine and I began training him. Well, he trained hard every day. And he stuck to it. It was about six months when I realized that this kid was really different.
"I walked up to him one afternon and told him that if he continued to work the way he was doing that one day he'd be a champion."
"Boxing for me was just one of those things you get into and you adjust to the work or you split. Fortunately, I stuck.I guess mayabe that's because I like individual sports. This was something I could be proud of and Jake has been an inspiration to me," Leonard said.
The curious thing is that neigher Jacobs nor Leonard thought past the amateur ranks.They worked together every day. They talked about the possibility of a championship. But they weren't dreaming the big dream. Not at first.
"After awhile I thought I'd enter Ray into some AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) tournaments," Jacobs said. "With that, though, your problem as a coach is picking the right tournaments and knowing something about the opponents the fighter might face."
Jacob's dilemma obviously did not prove insurmountable. From 1972-76, he guided Leonard to an amateur record of 145-5 with 75 knockouts. Leonard won 16 national titles and an Olympic Gold metal. "Still, I never thought seriously about going into the professional ranks."
Ten years ago Jacobs was still devoting much of his time to getting youngsters off the streets and into the gym so he could teach them the fine art of boxing. He didn't get paid for it. He just liked kids. He drove a delivery truck for a pharmaceutical house in Annandale to provide for his wife and seven children. He thinks of the Leonard camp in the same terms. A family.
Today, Jacobs is 47, his children are almost grown. He will celebrate his 29th wedding anniversary nine days after the Duran fight. He no longer drives that delivery truck. But he still works with young boxers.
"The way you groom a fighter is important," Leonard said. "You have to bring him up to the participation and competition in a certain way. There has to be unity. Jake possesses a lot of qualities and you can't just sum him up in one word. At least I can't. Jake is a combination of men. He builds confidence and courage in a kid and he adds a belief in God. He's rare."
Says Jacobs: "I used to watch Ray closely everyday. There were things I could see that reminded me of Sugar Ray Robinson in his prime and he was the best. Ray throws punches like Ali and he has the same moves as Robinson. Actually, he is a second Robinson. But he's still learning. "Everybody wanted to see Ray Robinson. Everybody wants to see Leonard now."
For a young fighter who turned pro less than 3 1/2 years ago, those are pretty impressive comparisons. And apparently there is no place for Leonard to go but up.
Although there will always be some discord in a camp, the Leonard camp seems especially calm by comparison. Leonard works at this the same way he does everything else. Hard.
"We have to work together as a family," Leonard said. "Even my mom and dad help. We're well-organized and everyone is knowledgeable in certain areas and we just combine the talents we possess. In turn, fortunately for me, I benefit."
Asked how Leonard managed to remain the same likeable, unobstrusive young man he was before he gained fame and fortune, Jacobs said: "Ray knows that boxing made him what he is today. It allowed him to do the things he's done for his family. And he thanks God for it all."
"Trying to keep my people down to earth also helps me keep my head on straight and keeps my priorities in order," Leonard said. "After all, money is nice. But I never really had much of it before. Money comes and it goes."
And what about his confrontation with Duran, the former lightweight champion who has lost only one of 70 professional fights, with 55 knockouts?
"Duran is a bad dude," Leonard said. "I mean, the guy is great. He even fights people with those eyes of his. People say he once knocked out a horse. fMaybe. But I think that anybody who goes around knocking out a defenseless horse is a jerk.
"When we get in the ring, Duran is going to find out that this horse isn't defenseless. This horse kicks butt."