The picture that comes to mind, the one that clings to memory, is of the flattened figure of Sugar Ray Leonard, dunked on the canvas of a Worcester, Mass., ring, and groping for a return of his senses.
That was the night of shock, May 11, 1984. Leonard was down and being counted over, this startling scene the fallout from a right hand thrown by Kevin Howard, who supposedly was the easy mark carefully chosen to usher in Leonard's return to boxing.
In the fourth round, Leonard had walked into that right, stupidly is the word, and his comeback appeared in smithereens, with his handlers poised to pick up the debris. But he managed to get a leg under him at three, and rose to take an eight-count and survive the round against a relentless Howard.
He fought the rest of the bout as a desperate man and in the ninth round of the scheduled 10 he bravely pummeled Howard into a technical knockout. But Leonard had not salvaged much except the victory. This wasn't the same Sugar Ray who had won two world titles, who had stared down Roberto Duran and scorned Thomas Hearns by faking bolo punches.
He had been tentative against Howard from the start, weary to the point of looking scared and showing none of the attack-dog tactics that had been his mark. Perhaps he was overprotective of his once-detached retina. Perhaps he wasn't sure of all his reflexes after a two-year layoff. Surely this was another Ray Leonard, and not the dashing one.
He confirmed it all in a retirement statement after the fight, after telling his wife he had been wrong; that his comeback was a mistake. To the public he announced, "I just can't go along humiliating myself. I had a feeling I didn't have it anymore. I reached the decision to retire when I was knocked down in the fourth round."
Logic would say that this is hardly the chap who, two years later, should be fighting Marvin Hagler, an armed fortress of a man, unbeaten in eight years, and one of whose recent feats was to dispatch in three rounds Hearns, the man who carried Leonard to 14 and was leading on points before he was stopped.
Reason also rejects the three-tiered Leonard plan of a one-fight comeback. Of a conquest of Hagler and a third world title, and then a third retirement. One-fight comebacks are an illusion; they lead to more fights. An even harder promise to keep is the one that calls for licking Hagler. The only certainty is a third retirement.
The irony is that three to four years ago, Leonard was the only man in the world who probably would have beaten Hagler, even conceding him five pounds or more. Leonard was the complete fighter who would find a way, as he usually did, confident of his own defensive skills and leaping to opportunities faster than any other man of his time.
The true Sugar Ray would not have been in awe of Hagler, nor would he be euchred by Hagler's subtle shifts from right-hander to southpaw that suckered so many of his opponents. Leonard would know how to handle that stuff, and personally Hagler would be paying a price for such arrogance. It must be remembered that Leonard, too, hits hard, and that he was an executioner no less than Hagler.
His near-thing against Howard seems not to be disturbing Leonard now. No fighter ever was more calculating than Sugar Ray and, if he has the belief he still can lick Hagler, it has to be honored. Nobody was closer to Hagler's fights than Leonard as an HBO commentator, and if there were flaws no one could better detect them than Sugar Ray, who is a student of the game.
Other factors could be influencing Leonard in his comeback plan. He isn't quite the reigning public figure that he was as the retired hero-champ of four years ago. Time can diminish stature. The visibility on HBO three or four times a year may not be enough. The TV commercials are fewer. He was becoming less of the present than of the past. Beating Hagler could give him a quick fix in those departments.
His exact wealth has not become public knowledge, but estimates run to $10 million and more, a splendid bracket. A Hagler fight promises at least another $10 million for a one-night stand, a rate of yield far more pleasant than that of his government bonds and tax exempts. It is not remote that such could have a fascination for him.
The most fatuous of all the remarks has come from the Leonard camp, which says it hasn't heard from Hagler, and that he is supposed to be yachting somewhere in the Caribbean, and that no plans can be made until Hagler accepts the fight. For $10 million will Hagler fight a Sugar Ray Leonard who has been in the ring, seriously, only once in four years? Next question.
As an explanation of his decision to come out of retirement again, Leonard has said, "The fire was turned down but the pilot was always burning." And who is there that would not wish him well in his new resolve?
But there also is the companion sentiment that Leonard has trespassed on the faith of so many that he would not falter; that his last retirement speech was registered in heaven, and that he was the shining exception to all those who have answered too many gongs.