Members of the boxing community said yesterday that they hope the last punches of world welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard will be the ones he took in a makeshift ring in Buffalo while training for a title defense this week.
Leonard underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore yesterday for a partially detached retina in his left eye. For now, the ring is abandoned, the scheduled 15-round bout Friday against Roger Stafford is indefinitely postponed, and calls for Leonard's retirement are widespread.
Leonard, a native of Palmer Park, underwent two hours of surgery in the hospital's Wilmer Eye Institute to correct the blurred vision that his lawyer, Mike Trainer, said began about 10 days ago. Leonard had last sparred Tuesday and had limited his workouts since to skipping rope and other light exercise.
Doctors said that in 90 percent of the cases involving this type of surgery the anatomical problem is corrected, but it is impossible to predict what will happen with his vision. The retina is a tiny membrane that lines the eye and receives images from the lens.
Dr. Ronald G. Michels, who performed the surgery, said he is hopeful that Leonard, 25, will make a full recovery. Michels and Trainer said it is still too early to know about Leonard's boxing career. "The last thing on anyone's mind now who is connected with Ray Leonard is whether he will ever throw another punch," said Trainer.
Many in the boxing world--including Ferdie Pacheco, Floyd Patterson and Teddy Brenner--say they already know what their advice to Leonard would be.
"It ain't never going to be as good as God made it," said Pacheco, a boxing consultant for NBC and a sports medicine expert. "The world is full of old fighters who can't see right."
He said the nature of Leonard's vocation prevents a full recovery. The rigors of practice and periodic "combat" not only increase the likelihood that the retina would redetach, according to Pacheco, but it could "completely peel off and he could go blind."
Michels said it was impossible to be sure when and how the injury had occurred. The same eye was badly swollen after Thomas Hearns battered it during a title fight, which Leonard won with a 14-round technical knockout last September. Michels said the injury might have occurred then.
Leonard's left eye began swelling in the middle rounds of the Hearns fight and, from the 10th on, was gorged with blood. Immediately after the fight, Leonard appeared wearing sunglasses and said, "I was conscious of that eye the whole fight because it was bruised by a sparring partner's elbow in training and it wasn't completely healed."
Patterson, a former heavyweight champion and now one of three members of the New York Boxing Commission, said such injuries are most likely to occur during training because in a bout "it would be difficult to punch a guy right square in the eye."
Patterson said he would not advise a boxer with a detached retina to fight again. "Once you have created a weakness in the eye, it could very easily happen again," Patterson said. "You are taking a gamble . . . Two eyes are better than one."
Leonard's impact on boxing has already been tremendous, said Patterson, who said boxing stood to lose a tremendous champion.
Leonard turned professional in 1977, after winning the light welterweight title in the '76 Summer Olympics. He is 32-1 and last fought on Feb. 15, when he defeated Bruce Finch on a technical knockout in the third round in Reno.
Brenner, a matchmaker for Top Rank Inc. and former president and matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, agreed, saying, "It is a shame" that Leonard, whom he considers the top fighter in the world, faces the possible end of his career.
"I don't know the extent of the injury," Brenner said. "But my advice to him would be not to box again. I don't believe anyone with a detached retina should fight again."
He said he would fear, as Patterson suggested, that if Leonard reinjured the eye, it could not be corrected with surgery again.
Brenner said he advised Harold Weston Jr., who suffered a similar eye injury, not to fight again. Patterson said in Weston's case, another injury could have meant loss of vision. Weston, whose injury is attributed by some to punches absorbed during a fight with Hearns on May 20, 1979, no longer fights; he is now a matchmaker for Madison Square Garden.
David Jacobs, Leonard's early trainer and longtime associate, said Leonard should retire now because he doesn't need to fight any more--and his sight could be at stake.
"I hope and pray that he does retire," Jacobs said. "He doesn't have to fight to survive, and he has time to do something else. He can do anything he wants to do: commercials, movies, busi- ness . . . "
Although it may be difficult for fans to bid farewell to their idol, Jacobs said people have to think about what's best for Leonard.
Jacobs said that Leonard is a right-handed boxer who generally moves to his left. That makes him particularly dependent on clear vision from his left eye. Without it, Jacobs said, he wouldn't be the same Sugar Ray Leonard.
"I really hate to see (his career) come down to something like this. But I hope Ray Leonard never steps into the ring again," Jacobs said. "He shouldn't box again."
Truman Tuttle, another longtime associate of Leonard's and head trainer at the Hillcrest Heights Boys Club, said he has seen other boxers try to come back after a retina operation. He said they are seldom successful.
"This could end his career," Tuttle said yesterday. "Ray's family has been wanting him to retire. Now's his chance. He's set for life. And what the hell, he's still popular."
Tuttle said if he were handling Leonard, he would not allow him back into the ring. Leonard has been lucky, Tuttle said, and he shouldn't push his luck with something as serious as his sight.
"Ray hasn't really had any bad luck. It looks like everything he's touched has turned to gold," Tuttle said. "Sometimes, down the road, you run into an obstacle. I guess this eye is one."