Question for Sugar Ray Leonard: With classy lightweight champion Alexis Arguello preparing to fight rough-tough junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor on Nov. 12, "Would you fight the winner?"
Two-word answer from the undisputed welterweight champion of the world:
Ray Leonard has fighting on his mind.
Ask him about tactics or training, motivation or the middleweight title he long has coveted and an undisguised sparkle lights his eyes -- even the injured eye that still may end his career while he's in his prime. The more you listen to Leonard talk -- and he talked this week to The Washington Post -- the more you think he will fight again.
He won't come out and say it, not directly. He won't say anything official until Nov. 9, when before a crowd of VIPs and fans at the Baltimore Civic Center he will announce his intentions: To box again or not to box.
No one really knows what Leonard will say.
Some people think they know. Newswires buzzed this week with the information that Boxing Illustrated magazine had nailed down Leonard's intention to retire. But the publisher, funny-hatted Bert Sugar, admitted he was taking a stab based on what he saw as signs. "We're 80 percent sure," he said.
Turn the question on Leonard himself, the wealthiest boxer of all time, the once-skinny kid from Palmer Park who has made millions, who lives in a mansion behind a guarded steel gate, who stands to make another $15 million simply by lacing on the gloves once more to face middleweight champion Marvin Hagler.
Will he fight?
All right then, how would he feel about fighting at 160 pounds, the middleweight limit, instead of the 147 that is his ideal fighting weight?
"When I fought (Ayub) Kalule at 154 pounds (for the junior middleweight crown) I ate four times a day," said Leonard. "I hit this big man, BOOOOOOM, and he wasn't going anywhere. It took a barrage, an accumulation.
"I hit this guy with shots that should have knocked a building down. He didn't move. That's when I realized that, gee, if I fight at middleweight it would be even tougher.
"And it will be."
Leonard is the darling of enlightened fight fans because in addition to being the best welterweight of his time he is bright, good-looking, gentlemanly and articulate. He is articulate enough to know the difference between the conditional "would" and the definitive "will." He chooses to use "will."
The facts: Leonard last fought Feb. 15, defeating Bruce Finch in a welterweight title defense. He was scheduled to fight Roger Stafford in Buffalo May 14 but the bout was canceled when vision in his left eye blurred a week before the fight.
Leonard was rushed to Baltimore, where he underwent successful surgery to repair a partially detached retina, an injury not uncommon to boxers. The recovery period, about six months, is winding down; Leonard's recuperation has been uneventful. His vision is normal though the eye still gets bloodshot easily. His doctor, Ronald G. Michels of Johns Hopkins, has given him a clean bill of health and the freedom to decide for himself whether he will box again.
Leonard plans one final visit to Dr. Michels before his Nov. 9 announcement.
It is unlikely that anyone, save perhaps his wife Juanita, has been taken into the 26-year-old fighter's confidence about his career intentions.
But the way Leonard answers specific questions about fighting, the way he carries himself, the way he stays trim and fighting sharp, all are indications that the champion may not yet be ready to say farewell.
The scene: In Silver Spring, the spare, second-floor walkup offices of Leonard's attorney and principal adviser, Mike Trainer. The champion enters, resplendent in a brushed leather jacket so severely tailored he battles to get the wrist snaps undone.
He is healthy and rested.
"My weight is great," says Leonard. "Right now I weigh 145, 146, and normally I walk around at 160."
The key, he says, is "running and eating. I just eat breakfast and dinner. No desserts. I eat out of necessity, not just because it's there in front of me."
Even in the pink of health he has wondered if his powers were diminished by the layoff. So he tested them.
"I trained in Detroit (where he went a week ago to do television commentary on a welterweight fight) just to feel myself out. The speed is still there, my timing, everything. I was even surprised with myself because I was able to still have that same movement."
And the eye? He shuts his undamaged right eye, picks up a newspaper, holds it at arm's length and reads aloud the body type from the middle of a story at the bottom of the front page. "Could you do that?" he asks.
Most of the boxing community expects Leonard to announce that he will never fight again. They have reasons. One is the nature of the event at which the pronouncement will come.
It started out simply. "He said he wanted a press conference early in November, so I checked around for a Washington hotel," said Charlie Brotman, his publicist.
Then Leonard suggested a grander event that fans who had supported him over the years might attend, free of charge. Trainer suggested the Baltimore Civic Center, where Leonard's professional career began Feb. 5, 1977, with a six-round victory over Luis Vega.
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer had the idea of charging $1 and $2 general admission and opening a $100 VIP section, proceeds going to charity youth programs. Approved.
Now a frothy, celebrity-roast affair has evolved, with Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Johnny Carson, Diana Ross and Richard Pryor among the invited guests, with a ring (but no boxing) as the stage, with films of Leonard's triumphs, Howard Cosell as master of ceremonies and invitations en route to all major current and recent fighters, as well as all of Leonard's teammates on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.
"Would he invite all those people just to tell them he's going to continue fighting?" asked Bert Sugar.
Tasteless as it might seem, maybe.
"I think he's toyed with the idea of one more big one," said Eddie Futch, veteran of a half-century in the fight game and trainer of Arguello and heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. "Sure, there's speculation that he could retire, but he could be preparing a bombshell, too."
Even Brotman conceded, "If he announces he's going to continue it would be a pretty good platform."
Attitudes have changed in the six months since Leonard's injury and the news he might never fight again. Initially, the nearly universal advice of admirers was to quit, to cash it in. He was too smart, they said, too appealing and too valuable as a role model to fall into the familiar trap of a fighter who didn't know when to say, "Enough."
Dave Jacobs, the home-town trainer who handled Leonard from his earliest amateur days through acquisition of the welterweight title, offered that advice. Yet this week he said, "Sugar Ray Leonard is right at his peak and I don't see any welterweights around that can give him a problem.
"Sugar Ray Leonard has made enough money," added Jacobs, "but if he was lost boxing would be losing a great fighter and a great box office attraction. I look at fighters like Earnie Shavers, who I worked with after his (similar) injury, and they aren't bothered by it. I look at Ray Leonard now. Whatever he decides I would go along with."
Adds Angelo Dundee, who works Leonard's corner, "The decision is as it should be, his. It's his life."
Attorney Trainer and fight promoter Bob Arum say Leonard's payday for a Marvin Hagler fight would be $15 million, the most any fighter has ever received for a bout.
"The question," said Arum, "is whether he wants to fight for that. This is not someone who needs the money."
Arum thinks Leonard's decision could go either way, but he expects retirement. "He would take it (the Hagler fight) because it is $15 million and that's a lot no matter how much you have. He'd refuse it because he's accomplished what he wanted to and because he's a wealthy man, and wealthy men don't take money to get in the ring with dangerous men like Marvin Hagler."
For his part, Trainer has maintained all along that he would rather see Leonard retire than risk further injury, even though Dr. Michels has said the repaired eye is as strong or stronger than before.
Why then, does doubt still exist? Why wouldn't Ray Leonard quit? For the same reasons, said Futch, that fighters historically have fought after they no longer need to and in some cases after they no longer should.
"It's the same thing that brought them in," said Futch. "They love to fight. They don't go in knowing they'll be champ. They stick, they take their lumps whether there is compensation or not. Believe me, some of the early fights for nothing are harder than later on.
"The lure that attracted them in the first place is still there, augmented by the roar of the crowd, the spotlight. It's hard, after you've tasted that wine, to put it down."
There are at least three big fights left for Leonard should he choose to go on, said Arum: One with the winner of Pryor-Arguello; one with whoever emerges as the ranking welterweight (Milt McCrory, Marlon Starling or Donald Curry); and the biggest, the monster, with Hagler for the middleweight title, which would be Leonard's third crown if he won.
Hagler's people want it. The middleweight champion is the most underpaid undisputed champion in boxing, say veteran ring observers. A big payday for him is less than $1 million. Against Leonard he could pull down seven times that.
"I am confident that if Sugar Ray Leonard steps back into the ring it will be first and last against Marvelous Marvin," said Steve Wainwright, Hagler's attorney. "From my talks with Mike Trainer I'm convinced there is a lot of interest on Sugar Ray Leonard's part to get into the ring, fighting for Marvin Hagler's title."
Leonard sits back and rolls that thought around. "He's a hard, hard guy," says Leonard. "He's the Rock of Gibraltar."
Can you take him?
"No problem, because I feel it. I know I have what it takes to beat a guy like Hagler, speed and . . ."
His thoughts trail off, then resume. "I study fighters and look to see whether he can break that fine line of sane and insanity. It's something that can click that thing off.
"What I'd do is hit him, hit him, hit him and not let him hit me. Upset him, whereas he'll get mad, lose his composure and I'll capitalize on his mistakes."
And if it doesn't work?
"If that doesn't work, I'll do whatever comes to mind."
Future tense, of course.
And Sugar Ray Leonard smiles.