It has been five years since Ray Leonard wore Juanita Wilkinson's picture taped to his shoetop in the Olympics. She was his girlfriend, the mother of his baby son, and you had to figure a lot of married folks didn't like each other that much. It was lovely, that picture on Ray's shoe, a princess' scarf carried into battle by her knight.
You can try to dislike the Ray Leonard that time has made since the Olympics. When an early mentor, Dave Jacobs, quit the Leonard camp last year, someone asked what the loss meant. "Means one less paycheck," Leonard said, and in his frozen smile you could divine cruelty.
Bill Cosby asked Leonard on the Tonight show last week what he calls the members of his entourage. "Tax deductions," the fighter said slyly and, if you wanted to think so, with calculating insensitivity.
You can paint Leonard as an arrogant media-hype addict dandied up in pinstripe business suits. You can say he is a millionaire champion who taunts and belittles his opponents in an insufferable Ali impression. Skeptics hear a too-too sincere tone in his voice, and misanthropes believe that anyone who smiles that much is up to something. Roberto Duran wouldn't dance with him.
Ray Leonard, who meets Tommy Hearns for the undisputed welterweight championship Wednesday at Caesars Palace, is all that at 25, but he is much more. Time's flight has reinforced what we romantics learned five years ago. It is impossible to dislike Ray Leonard. As nice as it was to see a young, poor man announcing his love for the unwed mother of his baby son, it was nicer by far to see him marry her three years and a few million dollars later.
"A man shouldn't change because of a dollar," said Janks Morton, who knows Leonard better than anyone. For half of Leonard's life, Morton has been the fighter's trainer and, more important, his confidante/philosopher/advisor. Morton describes their relationship as "not father-son, not brothers, just human beings together." If Morton says it, Leonard agrees.
"I put a question mark beside people who change for a dollar," Morton said today. "If you took all of Ray's money away, he'd still be the same Ray. He has a smile for everybody, and it's a real smile."
What has happened, Morton says, is that some people have changed in their regard of Leonard. Morton's vision of that happening is dark and unpleasant.
"There is jealousy of Ray in the Washington, D.C., area," Morton said today. "They were happy for him as long as he was fighting for trophies. But you can't eat trophies. You can't take trophies to the grocery store and trade them for food. They were proud of him as long as he stuck to trophies, but when he started making money they didn't like him anymore."
Such jealousy "is just the American way," Morton said. "It was prepared for. I told him, 'The places you used to go, you can't go there anymore. The places you played basketball, you can't play there anymore.' "
"Because if he was playing basketball, he'd come back and his car would be scratched on the side because it might be a Mercedes 450 SL. We went to a shopping center, and somebody threw catsup all over his car."
Morton told Leonard about "the American way" before his first professional fight. "We've had a serious relationship since he was 13 and first came to the Palmer Park Recreation Center. He'd sit and listen and I'd tell him what to expect out of life, what to expect when the dollars came. It's a cold world, and the reason for Ray's sanity now is that nothing has happened that I didn't prepare him for."
The week Leonard returned from the Olympics, the media carried sensational stories out of Prince George's County reporting Juanita Wilkinson's paternity suit against the gold medal knight who carried her picture to war. The suit was a necessary technicality to get Wilkinson welfare money for her son, but it came off ugly. Janks Morton, who says he couldn't get the job he wanted coming out of college with a degree in the mid-1960s "because of the pigmentation of my skin," says he knows why so much was made of the paternity suit.
"Why do you think it happened right there in Prince George's County? Because it's America and he's a black man. He did all he could for his country, and he gets the paternity thing thrown up in his face. I told Ray, 'You keep smiling, I'll be the goat, the dirt.' "
By that Morton meant he would do the arguing and take the heat of the controversy off Leonard. Morton did it privately, never in the newspapers or on television, never going public until now.
"I don't want to make a black-white thing," Morton said. "America is still the only place to be. But if Ray had been a white American coming home from the Olympics, he never would have had to work again. He'd be on all the Wheaties boxes, like Bruce Jenner. He wouldn't have had to wait and work so long to get a soft drink commercial. We had one set up coming out of the Olympics, and then the paternity suit killed that. Why? He never denied his son. It was a beautiful thing, Ray and Juanita and Ray Jr."
Morton sat in the sun next to the pool at Caesars Palace. Five years ago, seven years ago, a decade ago, he slept two to a bed with a kid trying to be something. Now that the kid is Sugar Ray Leonard, surely something special, Morton says the most amazing thing is, "Ray's had enough to be bitter, but he isn't."
A few million dollars helps ease the bitterness, of course, but Mike Trainer, Leonard's lawyer, says the definitive characteristic of the fighter is his maturity at 25.
"Ray is a very intelligent young man," Trainer said. "Every major decision, business and professional, is discussed with him. Every month we go over the financial statements of the corporation and his personal net worth. We discuss tax deals with two sets of accountants. We talk about stock deals and real estate. It is not media hype to say that Ray, even though he's a very young man, could do all this by himself now."
Trainer's picture of the fighter as chief executive officer runs counter to stereotypes, especially in contrast to Muhammad Ali, whose idea of high finance seemed rooted in the belief that dollar bills multiplied in the night.
"That's why Ali's still fighting," Trainer said of the 39-year-old fallen warrior.
It is sometimes difficult, Trainer said, to remember that Leonard is only 25. He seems much older. He seems older, Trainer said, when something racial happens.
"I've never experienced discrimination," said Trainer, who is white, "but I've seen it with Ray. And he's never acted out about it. There have been times I would have, I really would have. Sometimes people treat him like he's an animal."
People will come to Leonard's table, Trainer said, and ask the lawyer if they can take a picture of the fighter. "They talk around Ray, like he wouldn't understand them," Trainer said. "It's a racial situation, along with the stereotype of fighters. Ray is sensitive to that, but he's a professional and he handles it without a fuss."
The other day, for example, a newspaperman at a press conference said to Leonard, "Ray, your vocabulary has really improved."
Trainer was furious. The newspaperman would never say such a thing to Jack Nicklaus, the lawyer said. The newspaperman would never ask Nicklaus if he had sex the night before the Masters, but Leonard often is asked about sex before a fight. Trainer says he might lash out in anger at such demeaning treatment.
"I read your column," Leonard said in smiling response to the newspaperman wondering how a young kid fighter uses three-syllable words.
"Ray knows who he is, in and out of the ring," Trainer said. "He says people say stupid things to him because they get nervous around him, and he overlooks it."
So where is our romantic knight at age 25, five years after Camelot? Right where he wants to be, the captain of his destiny. He has a big new house with a basketball goal, tennis court, swimming pool and golf practice net. Juanita wants him to quit fighting, but she comes along to all the fights. Ray Jr. is in the 7-Up commercial with his dad. Leonard is on the move constantly, doing commentary on TV fights and appearances for commercial products and charities.
"If you didn't have any sons," Janks Morton said, "you'd want one just like Ray Leonard. He's the all-America boy."
C'mon, Janks, fess up. Here in this city of iniquity, what kind of trouble is Ray getting into?
"We drive around in this big ol' van," Morton said, laughing now. "We don't have a Lincoln, we're poor people, we have a van and we go around to shopping centers. There are three malls here. Ray loves to play those electronic games where you shoot down space ships and stuff."
There you have it, folks, Ray Leonard is bad, sure enough, shooting up Martians with K-Mart laser beams. Spread the word.