For the record, it wasn't all that easy a fight for Sugar Ray Leonard, who added to his collection the World Boxing Association junior middleweight title with a ninth-round technical knockout of Ayub Kalule in Houston the other night.
To celebrate, and to show he still had vigor, and also to suggest that this had been just a piece of cake, Sugar Ray attempted a crowd-pleaser, an acrobatic forward flip in midring. It was a bummer. He wound up on his fanny instead of his feet.
For Leonard, his postfight pratfall was another surprise, even as had been his contrest with Kalule not the outcome of it but the high intensity of the battle Kalule gave him. There were moments, especially in the seventh round, when there was no certainty that Leonard was going to win this fight.
Not only did Leonard lose the seventh round on all score cards, but he was emitting signals he might not even survive it. Kalule fetched him up early in the round and Leonard went reckless beyond intelligence. He was a weary, punched-out and almost defenseless fighter near the round's end, a wide-open target for a sharper puncher than Kalule. A Thomas Hearns came to mind.
At the finish, Leonard did what nobody else had done. He licked Kalule, knocking him down with fierce right hands. There had been desperate moments because unintimidated Kalule had come to fight, and his left-handed style was also annoying Leonard more than a bit. But at the finish, Sugar Ray, as has been his hallmark, did what he had to do: he won the fight.
He won the fight, but how many more admirers Sugar Ray won to his side is questionable, and there could be numerous defectors, uncharmed by Leonard's new and overbearing attitudes. If Sugar Ray's increasing arrogance has been detected, it is unsurprising.His unnecessary hauteur toward Kalule before and during the fight, toward a refugee from Uganda, a decent-seeming and quiet-spoken visitor, qualified Leonard as last week's Ugly American.
These scoffs at Kalule were so many. This man, after all, had his own pride and was an unbeaten champion who had won more fights than Leonard. Yet Sugar Ray publicly berated him before the fight as merely "an advanced amateur." At the weigh-in he staged the old cornball stuff of trying to stare Kalule down. And on fight night, he insolently sashayed into Kalule's corner to jeer and hassle him some more. This, before the opening bell. All of it cannot be dismissed as a psych job.
After each round, Leonard waved his opponent off, in the language of the waved glove, as just a punk. But later he had to quit that stuff, because Mr. Kalule was teaching him manners. Sugar Ray wasn't winning all the rounds, and more than once he appeared in trouble.
The prefight hype that has become a mark of Sugar Ray also has become wearisome. He consciously studied it all under his model, Muhammad Ali, the arrogance, the insult, the Ali Shuffle and even the fake bolo. But he hasn't brought it off quite as Ali did.
There was a flippancy about it when Ali disdained Floyd Patterson as The Rabbit, and Joe Frazier as Mr. Ugly. With Ali, it was merely mirthful. With Leonard it leans to heavy-handed abuse. He already had delivered a hard taunt about Thomas Hearns, his September opponent: "If they do an examination of Hearns . . . they will find a great body and long arms . . . and no brains." There has been an obvious transition in Leonard, from All-American Hero who won the Olympic title for our side, to constant wise guy with a good understanding of his undoubted dollar-earning capacity.
The dollar sign has been increasingly evident in Leonard's moves, not a sin in itself, but in his case perhaps a bit tiresome. When asked why he was not meeting Hearns earlier, he said "Hearns' people say I was ducking him. I was ducking small dollars." It is fascinating that Leonard may be history's greatest box office draw: $20 million in purses since he turned pro, plus a guarantee of $8 million for his next fight, with Hearns, plus percentages.
It was significant that when they both fought on the same card at Houston, that Hearns, defending his share of the legitimate welterweight title, against Pablo Baez, could command only a $420,000 purse. But Leonard, challenging for a contrived junior middleweight-class title, could demand and get a $2.5 million guarantee.
When they meet in September, Hearns will play second fiddle again, getting a mere $6 million guarantee to Leonard's $8 million, despite holding an equal share of the welterweight title. It tells, thumpingly, who is box office and how much they all need Sugar Ray.
His appreciation of the coin of the realm is shared, it is indicated, by his attorney Mike Trainer, boxing's new genius who has put together boxing's biggest gates. When Hearns' camp suggested that in the upcoming fight, no special deference must be shown Leonard and that both fighters should enter the ring at the same time, Trainer was agreeable, saying, "All I care about is the money." Again, money's power to soothe.
Sugar Ray and Hearns have set one record, even though they haven't fought yet. Between them they got nearly $3 million for appearing on the same card, which was a bare-faced buildup for their September fight, or $3 million for a publicity stunt.
The junior middleweight title Sugar Ray won is a bit of a laugh, anyway. It's an invented title, as are all those "junior" titles that have never been honored in ring lore anyway. They've been made up to accommodate fighters who couldn't win a full title outright, and to serve the purposes of promoters who needed some peg to hang a fight on.
Leonard simply has another title to serve his purpose, if and when he loses his welterweight title. It was an estimable thing that he did, licking Kalule, who proved so tough, and it again showed Leonard has been underrated as a puncher. But still no tears about little Sugar Ray moving up out of his class to fight a bigger man. Like Kalule, Leonard weighed 153 pounds.
Hearns promoted himself well against Baez. Actually, Baez was tougher than he had been thought, and he shook up Hearns a couple of times (as Leonard could note) before Hearns went for the knockout and disposed of Baez on schedule in round four, and he did it with the kind of swats that have earned him the sobriquet of The Hit Man. What a wonderful monicker, The Hit Man, and oh how it will swell the audience for a Sugar Ray fight.
Who will win that one? Well, there is an awareness here that Leonard is that rare kind who can do anything he has to do. He's fast, and usually he's bright and he can move as necessary. Also, he, too, can hit. And that title is precious to him. Methinks Leonard will find a way to beat The Hit Man. He'll win in September. You don't have to be lovable.