Juanita Leonard sat beside a ring that no one would ever fight in. She was trying to act surprised. A friend leaned over and whispered, "No more passing out, no more crying at ringside."
Juanita Leonard nodded and smiled, her eyes glistening like the sequins on the dress her husband bought her. "I feel great," she said. "I'm trying not to scream and yell."
She could contain herself no more. "I got my wish," she said. "He's quitting."
She would wait another hour to hear her husband announce the decision she said he made last spring before Dr. Ronald G. Michels surgically repaired his detached retina. She has waited a long time to hear those words. How long? "When did he start fighting?" she asked.
Her son, Ray Jr., sat beside her looking noncommittal, bored, holding in his lap a cocktail napkin with Muhammad Ali's autograph on it. With the logic only an 8-year-old could muster, he asked why the ring was there. He knew there would be no fight.
A friend knelt before him and said, "He's No. 1 in the world, you remember that."
Little Ray looked perplexed by the tone of voice. This was a retirement party, not a funeral.
Then someone asked if he thought his father would fight again. He whispered, "No."
"He doesn't care," his mother said.
But his mother did. "I told him if he didn't quit, I'd break his fingers," Juanita Leonard said.
Once last summer, she said she was glad he had the surgery because she knew it was over then. Though her husband said he did not finally make his decision until tonight, she said somewhere inside she has known "since before the surgery. Whether he had gone through the surgery or not, he was going to quit. We talked about it. He wasn't into it like he was before. He didn't actually decide, but we discussed it.
"Before the Roger Stafford fight (was supposed to take place), we were talking about it. The eye surgery was the straw that broke the camel's back. It made it easier . . . There was no doubt in his mind what he wanted to do."
With coy asides, Ray Leonard managed to create doubts in many minds, doubts that will persist despite tonight's announcement. "Oh, he just wanted to keep everybody wondering," she said. "He just wanted people to come give up some money so the kids will have a great summer. It's not really enough to change things but Ray loves kids."
The money from "An Evening With Sugar Ray Leonard" will go to Baltimore's Blue Chip-In Fund, which provides summer jobs for youths in Baltimore.
It was the oddest night in Baltimore. Genuine emotion, a wife's joy, clashed with genuine tackiness. It was so jarring, so bizarre, you didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. "I'm telling you, it's something," said Marvelous Marvin Hagler, marveling at it all. He was supposed to be the icing on the cake, Leonard said, last week. "I'm not the icing. I just might be the cake," said Hagler. "You never know."
The champion arrived at the arena surrounded, as usual, by a phalanx of men who hustled him through the crowd. But tonight the ring was empty and they wore satin instead of sweats. There was no robe, no trunks. The champion wore a double-breasted tuxedo and yellow, not rose-colored, sunglasses.
A red carpet paved Leonard's way to the ring. He started to speak, and then started again and again. The microphone wouldn't work. He had to borrow Howard Cosell's.
Cosell, the emcee, climbed through the ropes accompanied by boos. "All right, quiet," he said.
He introduced everyone including Issac Hayes, who wasn't there; (former Colt) Bobby Boyd, "who is wearing a toupee worse than mine"; Dr. Michels, whose "hands are so delicate," and who tripped over the ropes climbing in.
Wayne Newton came, seemingly out of nowhere, to laud the champion, announce he was an Indian, and say, "Red rhymes with dead and that's not what I want to be when I leave here."
And then there was Ali. "Ali! Ali! Ali!" The man who could not quit had come to pay his respects and serve as a reminder for a man who could walk away. His face was puffy, his words slurred but kind. Perhaps they said more than he intended. He slipped through the ropes and said he had an annoucement to make: "I shall return--to California."
He talked about all the ways they are alike. They shuffled, they danced, they trained with Angelo Dundee, "who never called you boy," Ali said.
"Boxers have been known to be ugly but we are pretty," he said and patted Leonard on his smooth, unmarked cheeks.
Then Ray Leonard took the microphone and talked about a different kind of beauty and the ability to see it. He talked about his mother, Getha, who said, "What good is all that money if he can't see it?"
He talked about his friends, his son, his wife. "Beauty is a woman, a woman that deals with the criticism that society has made and stands behind you no matter what," he said.
And so Juanita Leonard's prayers were answered.
It ended as it began, with an empty ring in an empty arena. And that said it all.