For impact, no sports story this year equaled the football strike, so Jack Donlan and Gene Upshaw, the Siskel and Ebert of labor negotiations, are candidates for Sportsmen of the Year. For the stupidity of what he said, and the pervasive prejudice it exposed, Al Campanis is on the short list, too. For inspiration, there was the splendid sight of young Jim Abbott carrying our flag and pitching flawlessly in the Pan Am Games. For prodigious achievement, there was Bo Jackson flowering in the grind of professional athletics, hitting 22 homers as a Royal and gaining 6.8 yards per carry as a Raider. For bringing all the right things to a sport -- zest, fellowship and talent -- then dominating it in a season-long ode to joy, there was Magic Johnson.
All worthy nominees, and in any other year, perhaps winners. But this year, for his vanity and audacity, for the foolish charm and hopeless romance of his quest, and for actually pulling it off, for fulfilling everyone's fantasy -- that you can make time stand still -- our Sportsman of the Year for 1987 is Sugar Ray Leonard.
What could challenge Leonard-Hagler? A seventh game of a World Series is always special, but few accepted the 85-77 Twins and the Cardinals without Jack Clark as the best teams in baseball. Once again the Super Bowl was lopsided. The Celtics and Lakers are perennial, not distinctive. Syracuse-Indiana was a taut game, but there'd been no clamor for it. Lendl-Cash? Come on.
Two sprints approached the breathless anticipation, the hoopla, the telescopic focus, the whole shebang of Leonard-Hagler: Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson racing 100 meters in the world championships in Rome, and Bet Twice trying to deny Alysheba the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. But as staggering as Johnson's record was, it happened 5,000 miles away, and it was over in a heartbeat. As for the Belmont, horses are horses, aren't they? They don't give you a lot to work with in the postgame locker room.
Leonard's was the sentimental journey of the year, if not a lifetime. Retired for three years, inactive for almost five, Leonard stood uncomfortably on the sideline as his prime drained away. Exiled from the work that defined him, satisfied him and so became him, he'd spent most of the 1980s at ringside wearing a tuxedo and a headset, close enough to see exactly what he was missing and missing it desperately. So he conjured a crusade, something noble and dreamy, dressed it up in spangles and took it where it belonged, Las Vegas, at once the most cynical and incurably optimistic place we have.
One fight. One spectacular roll of the dice. You owe me that, Leonard told the boxing world. I'm never going to be young enough to do this again. For the years I gave away, give me this one last whiff of glory.
What gall! What impudence! To think he could waltz back into a blood sport like boxing and challenge Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the fiercest fighter of his generation. Outside the Beltway they gave Leonard no chance. First, there was the matter of ring rust. Then, the matter of a callow welterweight stepping up against a real middleweight. Hagler would see Leonard as a pretty-boy dilettante who'd come slumming and destroy him.
The Sugar Ray Package is so slick, so easy on the eyes and ears, that people consistently underestimate his cunning and resourcefulness. He trained hard and seriously. When Leonard arrived in Las Vegas he was bigger and stronger than ever, a full grown handsome man. In a strange way, Hagler himself was the challenger. Every round Leonard survived would cement his credibility. Given Leonard's circumstances -- his long layoff, his mega-celebrity, the mystique that had grown around him -- Hagler probably had to beat Leonard decisively to win.
Nothing in sports is so compelling as the rare Big Fight, fresh air in a world choking on dependable scheduling. Its steady, rolling hype generates an anticipation so palpable that when the fighters finally enter the hall, your heart is thumping so hard you have to put your hand on your chest to keep yourself from exploding.
The moment Leonard stepped in the ring, wearing that white satin tailored jacket with its outrageous red peacock on the back, stutter-stepping side to side throwing combinations with dizzying speed, right then and there it showed what a seductive entertainer he was, how he'd be capable of overcoming Hagler's substance with his own style. Incredibly, all the Leonard brilliance, all the speed and savvy was still there, as if frozen years back and thawed out, fresh as a berry, just for this. After just one round Leonard was so confident in his superiority, he began taunting the invincible Hagler. Even in rounds five and nine, when Leonard was in real jeopardy, his escapist flurries off the ropes were theatrical enough to obscure Hagler's control.
"I beat him, and he knows it," Hagler complained after the decision. "You saw it. I took everything he had." But Leonard had something Hagler couldn't even touch: magic.
Leonard had the stuff of heroes, the combination of appealing personality and precarious situation that worked so well for Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker. If Leonard wasn't real, the movies would have invented him.
In January 1986, before the match was made, on a night in fact when Hagler was confident Leonard would never fight him, the fighters and their wives dined and drank together in Leonard's Bethesda restaurant. And late in the evening, very late, Hagler toasted what might have been, raising his glass and saying to Leonard, "Sugar darlin'," -- Hagler loved calling him that -- "Sugar darlin', you and me, wouldn't it have been something?"
And yes, it was.