After the operation, they asked many questions of the distinguished surgeon who repaired Sugar Ray Leonard's partially detached retina, and the answers appeared encouraging: yes, the operation was successful, and yes, there was an excellent chance Leonard would recover good vision in his left eye. It was too early, he said, to determine whether Leonard could return to the prize ring after the healing process.
But there is no record that the surgeon was ever asked the definitive question: were he a fighter who had suffered a detached retina, would he resume a boxing career? A mass neglect by the swarm of eager reporters keeping the Sugar Ray Leonard watch at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Much more might have been learned about the advisability of Leonard returning to the boxing wars.
The subject was given a bit more of an airing the other day by another esteemed eye surgeon, Dr. Ernest W. Zimmerman, assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at George Washington University Hospital. Asked if it would be in Leonard's best interest to return to the ring, Dr. Zimmerman said, "My answer to that would be a prompt 'No.' "
Elaborating on the advisability of Leonard resuming a boxing career, Dr. Zimmerman said, "Further injury is likely to result in those who have a weakness of the tissue. A weakness in one eye indicates he may be anatomically predisposed to have a weakness in the other eye. The area that was ripped can be reinforced by surgery, but there are other delicate areas. I would say Leonard is a risk."
Other questions about Leonard's injury were raised by Dr. Zimmerman: ". . . was central vision lost as a result of trauma? If he has lost one-fourth of his vision in the eye could he miss seeing an uppercut that was thrown, or a blow from the left side?" He said Leonard could be more vulnerable to further retina damage.
From the other end of the spectrum let us now introduce a far less professional opinion, from one with no claim to ophthalmological expertise, but who has had first-hand experience with a detached retina, and is still fighting, although reduced to roles on the under card of big fights.
This is heavyweight Earnie Shavers, who is bereft of the many hundreds of thousands of dollars he once earned, has barely saved his home from mortgage foreclosure, and is now fighting out of necessity to feed and clothe and shelter his family with his repaired retina.
Shavers has voiced some advice for Leonard. Aware of the comfortable net worth of the welterweight champion--estimated at $20 million and up--Shavers said with considerable logic that if he were Leonard he'd call it quits. "I'd wait for my eye to heal, and then count the money I had."
Harold Weston Jr., now a matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, fought twice for the welterweight championship. His final fight, before he quit, was against Tommy Hearns. "In round four my left eye began to swell," he recently related to The New York Times. ". . . I could hear Hearns' corner yelling, 'Work on the left eye.' . . . I did not answer the bell for round seven." Weston was later operated on for a detached retina.
Left eye. Detached retina. Suffered by Weston in a fight with Tommy Hearns. Now recall Sugar Ray Leonard's fight with Hearns. Badly puffed left eye, swollen almost shut in the late rounds when Leonard was almost a one-eyed fighter. The coincidence is there.
Harold Weston went on, "I was ready to return to the ring but Dr. James Schutz, a renowned eye specialist, was against it. He explained the risks. In advice to Leonard, I am glad to have my eyesight. I don't have the millions Leonard has, but I have my eyesight forever . . . Since you don't need the money, Sugar Ray, guard your most valuable asset."
While awaiting the full healing process, Leonard hasn't said, yet, that he will return to fighting. But, significantly, he hasn't said no, either. Therein lies some belief that he is still minded to fight some more. That would be a sadness, a show of foolish pluck that would also invite the suspicion he wants more money than his monthly printouts show him to own, in the millions.
And back in the ring, Sugar Ray Leonard wouldn't be the same fighter. They'd introduce him as Sugar Ray, but there would be a difference. He'd be inhibited, protective of his damaged eye that would be the target of every man he fought. Remember, Harold Weston remembered that Hearns' corner men had yelled, "Go for the eye." There is grave doubt that Leonard would retain the aggressiveness that won him titles. The old ferocity would be gone, and tactics, too. They would introduce him as Sugar Ray Leonard, but there would be a difference.
Leonard has already proved everything the world could ask of a fighter, his immortality as a boxing champion assured. There was, for openers, that Olympic gold medal. Then the World Boxing Council welterweight title, then the junior middleweight title, then the unified welterweight title.
The only man ever to lick him, he made to quit in a return fight. Ah, there, Roberto Duran. He is the only man to knock out Wilfred Benitez, now a reigning champion. He is the only man to lick the vaunted Tommy Hearns. Knocked him out. He would give away weight and probably lick Marvin Hagler, the middleweight champion, too.
Sugar Ray has escaped the worst aspects of the violent business of boxing, and has maintained an intelligence and dignity rare to it. He has left nothing more to prove except his disinterest, as history's richest fighter, in making more money than he needs, in a high-risk situation.
Leonard's accumulated wealth is always cited as an argument in favor of retiring now. As my favorite philosopher, Bo Bregman, has often observed, "What can you do with $8 million that you can't do with 6?" He could have added that the rest is vanity.