Sugar Ray Leonard does not miss boxing. He does not need it economically, does not rely on it to define himself. Just 2 1/2 months after he was to defend his welterweight title against Roger Stafford, after he had surgery to repair a partially detached retina, he says, "I love boxing now as a spectator. I appreciate the talent. The love that I had, it's died out."
He is sitting in the summer sun at his home in Mitchellville, Md., just back from two weeks in Europe and a weekend in Detroit doing television commentary on a Thomas Hearns fight.
"I don't even think about it (fighting)," he said. "I don't get the urge. I don't get edgy. I can relate to what they go through. But the pistons don't budge. I thought the ultimate would be when I had to do color for CBS. If I didn't get up for that, if I didn't get the feeling for Hearns, I said, 'I won't ever get it again.' I didn't get it."
Little Ray, who is 8 and not so little any more, and makes you realize how long his father has been with us, was swimming in the pool shaped like a boxing glove. His father watched and spoke. "I am content," he said. "Every day I'm away from boxing, the chances are much slimmer I will ever consider going back."
He says the decision has been made. Perhaps he will change his mind. Either way, he won't announce it for two or three months. But four hours of conversation leave the unmistakable impression that the man does not intend to fight again. "That's a great observation," he said, smiling.
Leonard is smart enough to make this observation, too. "Whether I say, 'Yes, I will continue,' or 'No, I won't,' how much of the public will believe it? After the Olympics, I said, 'The dream is over' and I turned pro. They felt I contradicted myself. After Duran I, I said, 'This is it,' and I came back.
"My age (26) also has a lot to do with it and my profession. We're not supposed to rationalize, to be able to put things in perspective."
He will not be a martyr to competitive drive. A pathetic end is not in his plans. He will never be a washed-up fighter who can't stay away, and can't do anything else. He always loved it when "they said I couldn't do it." Now there are those who say he can't walk away from the glitter, the glory, the ego of it all. Don't ever tell him he can't.
"It's like being categorized," he said. "I never put myself in the position of other fighters as far as being stereotyped. People said Ali was the greatest, the smartest. Now he's considered just one of the other fighters. People look at him and say it was dumb to try and make a comeback once he had everything. They expect me to do the same.
"I can walk away. I don't rely on boxing. In '77, yes, I relied on boxing. It was mandatory, yes. I did it for love. The love is vanishing, diminishing. That's maybe a sign of retirement."
Sometimes he talks about the injury and the surgery performed on May 9 as a sign. For two weeks, the vision in his left eye had been blurry. After consulting two ophthalmologists in Buffalo, where he had been training for the Stafford fight, Leonard went to see Dr. Ronald G. Michels at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"It was such a freaky, scary, touching thing," he said. "I'm in his office with Juanita, Janks (Morton, his trainer), Mike (Trainer, his attorney) and my father. Michels said, 'Listen, you have a detached retina. Fortunately, gravity is on our side. It's tearing up instead of down. In a few days to a week, you will completely lose your sight.' "
Leonard looked across the table at his wife. "I looked at Juanita. Her eyes just watered up. She held it together. I'm looking at Mike, my father. He held it together. I wasn't really scared."
Not until they came with the sedative. And then not again until after the operation. "When I opened my left eye, it was like a television monitor, a split screen," he said. "On the top, I could see people. The bottom was like a little paradise. It was just a fraction of a second. It was symbolic. It meant something . . . Years ago, people would say, 'When will you know when to retire?' I said, 'When I receive a message.' "
About every three weeks now, Michels checks the pupil to see whether it is dilated and the vision (20/30 in the bad eye, 20/15 in the other). At first there were many restrictions on his activities. He was waited on at home. Then, one day, he asked his wife to give him a bath and she told him to knock it off. He went to Sweden for a superstars competition, a last-minute substitution for Gerry Cooney. He finished second to last. "I beat Pele," he said. "I got the award for being most stylish to receive an award for showing up."
He swims, plays basketball (with goggles "more stylistic than Kareem's"), runs maybe three times a week but does not spar. No contact is allowed, or apparently desired. "It's been long enough to say, 'Let's go back to the gym.' That's always been me."
The injury interrupted the whirlwind cycle of expectations and fulfillment. Perhaps it could make the decision to retire easier. "It's given me time to lay back, see what I want and don't want," he said. "I'm in a place on the map. I have time off to say, 'This is okay, this is not.' "
There is time to think about other things--Hollywood, school, having another child. Already there is television, advertising, promotions. Because of all that, Leonard said, he would never ask himself, "Could I have gone back at 30 and still have all my assets, because I will know all this has taken a toll on me?"
Attention? "It will be there for a few more good years," he said. "By the time it declines, my nerves won't be able to take it, anyway."
Laughter makes a pause. "I've been living at such a fast pace, I haven't realized what I've accomplished, what I've put in the bank. I never knew the true significance of Sugar Ray Leonard. When people call like Aretha Franklin, President Reagan, the Jackson brothers, Richard Pryor . . . I'm lying in my hospital bed and saying, 'Geez, years ago these people were so far from me.' I never dreamed I'd be friends with them."
Everyone offered advice; one man offered a cornea. There were cards, and letters and a consensus: "Seventy percent said, 'You don't need it, you're rich, you beat Thomas Hearns, you can't buy another eye.' These things I already know, but I appreciate them showing me concern."
Juanita Leonard, who long has wanted him to quit, said nothing. "I didn't say, 'You should have stopped,' " she said. "I was just glad it happened. Have you ever heard a wife say she's glad her husband had an eye operation? It really made me happy. I knew once it happened it was all over."
She glanced at her husband. "I feel it's all over," she said.
Leonard says he has known since Duran I in June 1980 that he can live without boxing. He was secure financially and in the way he had conducted himself. For 15 rounds in Montreal, he fought Roberto Duran on his own terms. "It was the street in me," he said. "It was my inheritance, to stand my ground and show him, 'You're going to respect me, too.' I was satisfied. I knew I lost and it didn't bother me. My corner was upset. I did that for me."
The second fight, in November 1980, "was more tasteful, gentle, effective," he said, in an airy, elegant tone. "The second fight was not physical at all. It was something choreographed, the steps, the moves. It bothers me that I can't get it across to people. I studied the films. I said, 'I'm going to do this, do that. I'm going to fake and sidestep. He won't touch me.' I did it in the basement with Little Ray. I said, 'C'mon, turkey.' When I got in the ring, I felt confident. My mind went back to Little Ray. I said, 'My son can't hurt me. Duran can't hurt me, either.' "
Then there was Hearns, and the 14th round in Las Vegas last September when Leonard overcame pain and exhaustion and won. "I don't know what came over me," Leonard said.
But could he do it again? "No," he said. "I don't think it would mean as much to do it again."
Leonard has always relished being different from the fight game, "not going by the book." It was "a must, it was mandatory to be Ray Leonard, to own myself," he said.
He would not undermine everything he has stood for: "an intelligent fighter, a person who is involved in fisticuffs and made the business better."
People always ask, " 'Well, Ray, how do you want to be looked at when you retire?' " Leonard said. "I just say, 'Different. Unique.' "
Now he has the chance to show he is different enough, self-possessed enough to quit and go on living, not reliving the past. He smiles that smile. "Like beating the odds," he said.
This is a feat many athletes are not secure enough to manage. Their careers are so circumscribed by time and ligaments. "I think that's why people look at a successful athlete and say, 'Well, this is the way it's written. He's not supposed to stop.' I'm going to change the history book."
Ray Charles Leonard says he will do the right thing. Don't tell him he can't.
"Now I realize I have established myself, my little spot, my mark," he said. "This will help me make the decision. I made a mark and it's vivid. It's there."