In his heart of hearts Ray Leonard wants one more fight," said boxing promoter Bob Arum. "Everyone thinks it's Marvin Hagler. I can tell you that it is certainly not Marvin Hagler."
It is an auspicious time for boxing. Hagler just defended his middleweight title, Larry Holmes is preparing for a heavyweight title fight against Tex Cobb Nov. 26, Wilfred Benitez risks his junior middleweight title against Thomas Hearns Dec. 3, and lightweight champion Alexis Arguello fights junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor here Friday.
With titles on the line everywhere and no pro football to gab about, people are talking boxing as they haven't in years. But more than anything else they're talking about the one champion who isn't fighting: Sugar Ray Leonard.
Leonard, the sport's wealthiest and most popular champion, will announce Tuesday whether he will box again or retire. The announcement will come in an elaborate press conference at the Baltimore Civic Center.
Three months ago few expected Leonard to fight, figuring a multimillionaire with a work-related injury that threatened to blind him in one eye would do the logical thing and stop working. Now, abetted by Leonard's own whimsical comments, they think differently.
To Arum, in Miami to promote the Arguello-Pryor bout, the question is not whether Leonard will fight again, but whom he'll fight.
Arum saw Leonard in late October when both were in San Remo, Italy, for the Hagler-Fulgencio Obelmejias fight. Leonard weighed 142 pounds, five pounds below the limit for welterweights and almost 15 pounds less than his normal "walking-around" weight. Arum saw that as a sign.
"If he was really thinking about (fighting) Marvin Hagler he'd be walking around at 155," said Arum.
"My feeling," said the promoter, "is that Ray will announce his retirement Nov. 9, leaving open the option that he may come back for one more fight. He'll abandon his welterweight title and then come back, probably next June, at 140 pounds and fight the winner of Arguello-Pryor for the junior welterweight title."
Arum's scenario of a retirement followed by a comeback is shared by many.
Emanuel Steward, Hearns' trainer, said last week that he expects Leonard to retire and then announce within a year his intention to fight. So did No. 1 welterweight contender Milton McCrory, who said he didn't expect Leonard to return as a welterweight because "there's no money in the division now."
Jay Edson, who has refereed 45 title fights, said Leonard "will retire but he'll keep his options open and probably come back in six months. Most boxing people agree with that. It's a tradition. You retire, then you come back. Look at Ali, Joe Louis, Joe Frazier . . . "
Presumably only a big-money, prestige fight he felt he would win would lure Leonard back to work.
With Hagler the rewards are high, but so are the risks. Leonard could earn $15 million; he might also get clobbered. Still, at the Hagler-Obelmejias fight, Leonard told his attorney over the HBO airwaves, "Sign me up" for a Hagler fight.
Arum thinks Leonard-Hagler is an impossibility.
"I'm certain that Hagler is too big and strong for him. The one thing Ray Leonard doeesn't want to do is go out a loser. Ray had trouble with (Ayub) Kalule at 154 pounds," said Arum. Hagler is a solid 160.
"I think now what he's doing is testing his body to see if he can make weight at 140. And the answer is obviously he can."
Arum said the ideal situation would be for Arguello to defeat Pryor on Friday, setting up a showdown between two perfect gentlemen of the ring, Arguello and Leonard.
"The fight has much greater value to Ray Leonard if Arguello wins," said Arum. "It would be the two ringmasters; a Latin versus an American and the two gentlemen of the fight game."
Also, a victory over Pryor would make Arguello the first boxer in history to hold titles in four weight classes; a subsequent bout with Arguello would give Leonard a chance at his third title, and if he won he'd be only the eighth fighter in history to accomplish that feat. With these selling points, the commercial prospects of the matchup are impressive.
A Hagler fight still would mean more money, "but I'm talking practicality, not dreams," said Arum.
And if Pryor should defeat Arguello the matchup would be appealing, too. Pryor is everything Leonard is not -- a ferocious brawler, an undisciplined slugger and a man with a mean streak.
Against Arguello, said Arum, "Leonard might not win but I have a gut feeling there would be no real loser, like the first Leonard-Duran fight. It would be a great fight."
Against Pryor, "I'm confident Ray could win," said Arum.
How do the boxers feel about a Leonard return?
Arguello, who stands to make far more from a Leonard return than he's made for any other fight in his life, is distressed by the prospect. He wants Leonard to retire and stay retired.
"That's the best thing that could happen to boxing," said the Nicaraguan who has held the featherweight, junior lightweight and now the lightweight titles. "He would set an example for the whole boxing world."
If he returns to the ring, "It's a bad example," said Arguello. "We're playing with our lives. If I was in his place, I'd quit. I don't care if I have to go into the street to work.
"He has a lot of money; what does he have to prove? A payday is good, but your vision, to be able to see, what is that worth?
"Let him be an example, so if in the future a doctor says to a young fighter, 'You have to quit,' the boy would say, 'Okay, Ray Leonard quit. I can quit too.' "
Pryor shares none of Arguello's high-mindedness.
"I want him next, when he fools the public Nov. 9," said the junior welterweight champion. "I know he's going to fight again. It will definitely be me. He owes me something from 1976."
That was the year Pryor failed in a bid for the Olympic team that launched careers of Leonard and a number of other U.S. fighters. Pryor says that year he introduced a gimmick, swinging his right hand over his head as he prepared to launch a bolo punch.
Leonard "stole it and showed it to the world," said Pryor. As a result, "He got all the publicity and I was back to being a $100 fighter."
Pryor said in his troubled days in the late 1970s he even asked Leonard for help -- a spot on the undercard on one of Leonard's big televised bouts so he could earn a decent paycheck.
"He told me, 'Aaron, I had to make it on my own.' "
If Arum's scenario bears out, only one fight now stands in the way of Pryor's chance to get even.