When the pain subsides enough to allow Sugar Ray Leonard time to think about the thousands of get-well messages from much of the country, including a call from President Reagan, a bemused twinkle just might glow from his good eye, the right one.
Had so many cared so much about him six years ago, Leonard would not be in this predicament. If half those who now want him to retire from boxing had been as enthralled about him six months after he became Olympic champion, Leonard never would have stepped into the ring as a pro.
People do not have to get poked in the eye regularly to suffer detached retinas, but it helps. And Leonard figured to punch and be punched less often than the writers who covered him once the '76 Games in Montreal had ended.
There were better ways to earn a living, and he thought one of them might be off his Olympian feats. A star before the Games, hyping and hobnobbing with Howard C., his glitter was close to the brightest then. The U.S. boxers were the hockey team of '76, and Leonard clearly had the most appeal.
As charming and articulate, as energetic and as fine an athlete in his way as Bruce Jenner, Leonard could command not a tiny fraction of what that decathlon champion earned. Almost certainly, it was because he was black.
So when he needed money in a hurry, Leonard reluctantly turned back to another, more primitive, form of entertainment--boxing. The world pays dearly to see one man crunch somebody else's brain cells, and when the crusher more nearly resembles an alto in a boy's choir it can't make him rich enough soon enough.
Leonard has commanded more money from one fight than most National Basketball Association franchises are worth. From his fists, Leonard might be wealthier than some obscure countries. Tapping his fingers while making business decisions, he shakes more gold than most of us ever contemplate.
Which means Leonard has a thousandfold more now than he ever wanted in the first place: money, glory, respect. So much that his dreams now and then include a stride from the spotlight, not being tugged so hard every which way.
But most of what he has seems tied up in a single word: champ. The endorsements, the analyst's jobs on television, the adulation, the phone calls from the president all come from being maybe the best ordinary-sized man ever to sling serious leather.
Having become at least close to being the richest man in athletic history, Leonard has been fighting for a place in boxing history for some time. Lots of us now hope he begins searching for an alternative that can bring him close to the unique pleasure he has drawn inside the ring without the sad, perhaps tragic, risks.
This time, the easiest answers are the right ones: he's used boxing in exactly the right way, elevated it in the minds of many, showed that a man blessed with special skill and will can cuff the sleazy middlemen who would deny him full due.
Now it's time to walk away, with his mind and his dignity flourishing.
Brighter than most fighters, Leonard may best know the proper time to leave. Perhaps the eye eventually will mend strong enough to blunt a jackhammer, or anything the fearsome Marvin Hagler might land. But the greatest athletes with the sharpest eyes rarely see the right time to start another life.
That's usually because one isn't readily available. Being addictive, athletics at the highest, Leonard-like level, are impossible to quit cold turkey. Much as they protest, insist they can survive without it, most cannot easily go from clamor to quiet.
It's what drove most of them to the top.
There is no more certain way to make the phone stop ringing, Sam Huff always says, than to retire.
But Leonard might just be the exception here again. Unlike his fall from fame after Montreal, Leonard now may have enough out-of-ring clout to hop into another entertainment area that could be satisfying. Sugar Ray as the sainted soul with rare common sense might be as adorable to his public.
I'd be more inclined to trust his judgment on soft drinks and other important subjects, in fact. Here's a man who knew how often to tap fate. John Houseman or economist Paul Samuelson, the pitchman for a moving company, would not inspire more confidence than a fighter who knew when to stop fighting. You vote for folks with that sort of wisdom.
Nothing in his character or management suggests Leonard will be party to anything similar to what appeared in yesterday's Wall Street Journal: "For sale. Boxing champion Joe Frazier's famous full-length white mink coat. Starting bids $8,000. Best offer takes."
We do know Joe lingered too long in the ring.
We also know why.
What has driven Leonard is not more complex than why he ought to quit. Anybody who does anything special wants to keep doing it as long as possible. Musicians. Writers. Politicians. Athletes. Only Sam Snead among our popular sportsmen seems forever young. Fighters only age quickly, never gracefully.
In good time, Leonard will make his career decision. I hope the eye heals well enough for one to be necessary. If he chooses to keep on fighting, if nothing beyond the ring stirs him, I will understand. And tag along to see what happens. I will not applaud