"I never knew my father was a fighter until I was already a fighter myself. I was about 14 or 15 and we went back to North Carolina. I heard all my father's old buddies talking about how good he used to be. He's something. Hey, put this in the paper -- I can still whup him ." -- Sugar Ray Leonard, laughing.
First thing Sunday mornings, Cicero Leonard drove the iron stakes into the dirt.
The stakes made a triangle.
The big old oak tree in the front yard made the triangle into a square, the square maybe 25 feet a side.
Just a youngster then, a sharecropper's son in South Carolina, Cicero Leonard drove the stakes into the ground and then he went for the plowlines.
Weekdays he walked the fields behind his daddy's mule, Belle, and he tugged at those plowlines to keep Belle between the rows,
Sunday mornings, he took one end of the plowlines and wrapped it around the oak tree.
Then he lashed the lines to the top of each iron stake.
The square became a ring.
A boxing ring.
This was 1935. A sharecropper's son from Alabama, Hoe Louis, was the heavyweight champion on those Sunday mornings when Cicero Leonard, dreaming, put on his boxing gloves and went into his plowline ring. Newspaper pictures of Louis taught Leonard how to hold his hands up. What the kid could see on the radio, what he felt through the radio when Louis fought -- that's how he threw his punches, the way Joe did it.
Sunday mornings, 40 kids came to the Leonard place. They brought their gloves.
Cicero Leonard was a little tiger, never more than 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds.
He would fight four or five times on Sunday morning, two or three rounds each time. He fought all comers, no matter their size.
The champ of his front yard.
If he needed it, and most times he did (even Joe took one in the nose now and then), Cicero's mother fixed up the bleeding on his face.
Then they would go to church, the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, a mile and a half away, just outside Mullins, S.C., a little farm town near the coast.
The Leonards worked a farm growing tobacco, cotton, sweet potatoes and peanuts. The fighter's father, Bige, a giant 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, could knock down Belle with one punch. Cicero saw him do it a lot. "Sent that mule right to her knees," the little tiger said 45 years later. "Was I scared of Poppa? Wouldn't you be?" Sally, his mother, picked 200 pounds of cotton the day after giving birth to Cicero's baby sister, Sally lived to be 102.
Cicero quit school after the fifth grade. If you were one of 12 children of a sharecropper in the '30s, you learned how to run a ribbon binder. Never mind reading and writing. Bige would tell Cicero to drive that ribbon binder down the road and cut and bind (with ribbon) the oats for old Walker Walters.
Old Walker Walters. Even today, a generation later, Cicero Leonard remembers that name. He was supposed to stop at Walters' place one day. But he drove past to another fellow's farm to help him out first.
A storm struck, and Cicero couldn't get to Walters' oats that day.
Next day came a letter saying Cicero was to report to the U.S. Navy.
It was 1942.
"Never did do Mr. Walters' oats, and, boy, was he mad," Cicero Leonard says today. Thirty-eight years after the fact, Leonard still felt bad about driving past the Walters oats.
Sunday mornings, he put on the boxing gloves. Saturday nights at the little dance hall on Clyde Davis' farm, he put on the gloves. Cicero Leonard took the gloves with him everywhere in his old Ford, stringing them over his shoulder when he alighted. "Guys would be drinking and they'd say, 'Cicero, I know you're the best, but I gotta try you,'" Leonard says.
The champ of the dance hall.
The closest Cicero Leonard ever came to being a professional fighter was in the Navy. In his four years as an officers' cook, he also was fighting in the U.S. Navy's 156-pound division.
Lost once in 47 fights.
"Only fella who beat me was a little fella from Philadelphia called Little Red," Leonard says. "I could hit harder than him, but he was faster."
Back on the farm after the war, working for his daddy again, Leonard drove down that road that goes past the old Walters' place.
Saw a pretty girl.
She sat in the swing in the front yard under a big shade tree.
Prettiest girl he ever saw.
So he sent his first cousin to talk to her.
Found out her name was Getha Elliott.
Then Cicero told his first cousin this: "I'm gonna take that girl Getha away from you,"
And he did.
Getha was fresh out of high school. She didn't work in the fields. She told her nother she couldn't stand the heat. She just didn't want to pick cotton. She had her own ideas. She did the cooking and cleaning. And she sat in the swing in the front yard, watcging that Cicero Leonard drive by every day.
She didn't know Cicero. She didn't go to the Davis dance hall. Nettie Elliott was a strict woman. Her little girl didn't go anywhere except to school and church.
So Cicero did this: he walked up to her car at church one Sunday morning and said he'd sure like to go out with her.
About time, she thought.
A year later, they were married.
They moved out of South Carolina, looking for work first in Wilmington, N.C., then Winston-Salem, finally Washington, D.C. Cicero had a younger brother working in Washington and the brother told him there was plenty of money to be made there. By then, Cicero and Getha had six children, with another one to come, and so they picked up one more time.
That was 1960.
Cicero worked in a wholesale grocery place. He became the night manager of a supermarket where he had to slip a knife under his belt for protection. A nervous man with a sawed -- off shotgun once killed a case of Coke in his store, the stuff fizzing like crazy while the bandit, who didn't mean to pull the trigger, beat a frightened retreat down the street.
Getha was a licensed practical nurse.
Better than picking cotton in the hot sun.
They survived, these children of sharecroppers did.
He is an old fighter so quiet, so modest he didn't tell his son he ever put on boxing gloves. . . a man who worked so honestly he didn't think a war was excuse enough for skipping Walker Walters' oats. She is a woman who worked and cooked and kept her family together even when families like hers were disintegrating. . . a woman who sings for joy that Saturday is her 32nd wedding anniversary -- "and to the same man."
Out of the Navy, Cicero Leonard had thought of fighting as a pro. Joe Louis did it. The newest star back then, a little tiger the way Cicero had been a little tiger, was the welterweight named Sugar Ray Robinson. "But there weren't any backers, so I just quit fighting,"
Leonard's sixth child, the last son, was born in Wilmington in 1956.
They named him Ray.
Sugar Ray Leonard.
Golden Gloves champion. Olympic champ. Pro champ. Millionaire.
Cicero met Joe Louis in person and told him how he used to listen on the radio on the farm. Their last son made Cicero and Getha quit work. He bought them a house. He gave them a grandchild, Ray Charles Leonard Jr.
Ray was fighting six months before I ever saw him. I never encouraged him. Boxing is tough. He just had it in him somehow. He was 12 or 13 and he said, 'Dad, I can box.' I said, 'You can't box,' So he got me to come see him. I saw him and said, "That's me. My God, that's me again.' And what's he saying, that he can whup me? Hmmmph." -- Cicero Leonard, proudly.