Few would argue that Sugar Ray Leonard's success as the richest, most famous boxer in the world has inspired many Washington-area youngsters to don gloves and seek their fortunes. Home-town heroes make compelling idols.
One would expect that now, in Leonard's hour of darkness, the gyms where his imitators toil would buzz with questions and worries about the eye injury that may halt the champion's career prematurely. Not so.
At Hillcrest Heights, at Round One in Hyattsville and at the Capitol Boxing Academy in Capitol Heights what you hear instead is the thunder of the speed bag, the whistle of jump ropes and the grunts and explosions of breath that accompany a pounding of the heavy bag.
These are the timeless sounds of the boxing club, where the sweet dreams a Sugar-man inspires translate into the drudgery and discipline of two hours a day, five days a week, no smoking, no profanity, no distractions and no time to waste contemplating other folks' woes; where the frustrations of city life pour out in sweat and sometimes tears and sometimes blood.
We are waiting outside Capitol Boxing Academy for Dave Jacobs, Leonard's trainer until two years ago, to open the iron-barred door for the 4 p.m. session. The club is in the basement of a mom and pop store and pool hall on the forgotten side of the Anacostia River.
We are sitting with some street dudes and a half-dozen young boxers on a battered Pontiac parked on the sidewalk, listening to a boogie-box, when a woman comes out of the store swinging a broom. "Find somewhere else to camp out," she shouts, "or next time I'll spray you with the hose."
Dwight Pinkney, 14, who will fight this weekend for the right to advance to the regional Junior Olympics in Baltimore, eases away from the automobile and says he once met Leonard's bodyguard. His mother drove him over to Landover to see the welterweight champion's house. The bodyguard shooed them away.
And the house? "Beautiful, man. Really nice."
A glimpse of this idol is all most local boxers can claim. Leonard has not involved himself in the amateur program from which he emerged. Says Richard Trindle, head of the local Amateur Boxing Federation chapter, "He really hasn't lifted a finger, except in isolated incidents where he lent his name or donated some equipment to individual gyms. He hasn't taken an active part in amateur boxing here."
If anything, said Trindle, Leonard's departure from pro boxing if he decides to retire "might be an inspiration because here is a guy who knew when to get out and was so successful he could retire at 25. And now maybe he could devote more energy to coaching and working with some of the young kids."
Jacobs, who was with Leonard when he won the Olympic gold medal and the welterweight championship, is convinced that when Leonard's ring career is over the boxer will return to the local gyms to work with youngsters.
"That's the way it works in this game," said Jacobs. "I looked at him (Leonard) and saw myself in him. I know he'll come back and see himself in some young man."
It's not hard to find youngsters who started boxing in hopes of being like Leonard. "That's the only reason I started," said 15-year-old Albert (Loopy) Gartrell of Palmer Park.
"I was watching the fights and how good he was. I saw him working out down at the Palmer Park rec club and since I didn't have nothing to do but waste time, I went down and worked out, too."
Today, Gartrell's dream remains the same as most young boxers'--win a gold medal at the Olympics, then become a pro champion. Whether Leonard retires or stays in the ring will not affect that aim or Gartrell's likelihood of achieving it.
Should Leonard retire, he said, "There's a lot of other people to want to be like, too."
Over at Round One, Adrian Davis' gym in a Hyattsville garage, Irish Mike Baker is training for his nationally televised bout May 23 against Mark Holmes, heavyweight champ Larry Holmes' younger brother.
Baker, a pro for a decade and an eloquent spokesman for the fight game, said that while retirement by Leonard could have a negative impact on boxing in general, around Washington it might help the pro game.
Leonard's overwhelming presence "hurt other fighters in this area looking to make a name," said Baker. "Ray overshadows everybody. It's demoralized a lot of the pro fighters."
Davis, Baker's trainer, said Leonard helped make boxing respectable. "He's a clean liver so he brings in the parents. My mother didn't want me to fight because boxing had such a bad name. But with Ray Leonard, they don't like him, they love him. He's such a cute little nice-looking boy. He can talk out of his mouth and he isn't all tongue-tied."
Davis said the year before Leonard won his Olympic gold there were fewer than 400 entries in the local Golden Gloves tournament. The next year it jumped to over 600 "and stayed there," said Davis.
As a result of Leonard's clean image, "I have mothers and fathers trying to get their kids in the program," said Vardell McCann, volunteer director of the Hillcrest Heights boxing program where Leonard had some of his earliest amateur fights.
But with boxing, as those who have experienced it know, getting involved and staying involved are very different things.
Bobby Brown, an 18-year-old from District Heights with a 73-13 amateur record, said, "A lot of kids come in because of Sugar Ray. But when they find out how tough it is--bloody noses and the blows to the face--they get out in a month."
Glenda Buckley has been boxing four years with only one bout. By working out with Jacobs over the years she came in occasional contact with Leonard.
"He tried to get me to smile because I looked so serious," said Buckley, 24. She smiled.
"They like Sugar Ray," said 13-year-old Mark Miller, talking of people less experienced than he. "They're trying to be like him. I just like to box. I'm not thinking about anybody else. I'm just dealing with my own self."