Come Saturday night, Sugar Ray Leonard will be getting his wish -- at long last he can fight a main bout in Madison Square Garden. For all his 14 years of wins, renown and the five titles and fractions thereof along the way, Leonard has never shed his robe and advanced to center ring in boxing's most famous temple of the art.
Of his upcoming fight in the Garden with Terry Norris, Leonard has said, "I will be fulfilling a dream." And when he emerges from his reverie, Sugar Ray will be fulfilled in another way. He will be clutching a $5 million paycheck, give or take a million, and there will be some folks, perchance, so crass as to suggest it is the spinoff that motivated his dream.
There is also a word of caution for Leonard as a Madison Square Garden neophyte: Pay no heed to that big clock that overhangs the Garden ring and ticks off the minutes of each round. The late Fritzie Zivic could have told him about its perils. Years ago, in explanation of his sudden knockout of Bunny Davis, Zivic recalled for me: "I'd had 14 main bouts in the Garden, and all my life I'd waited for some fool to look up at that clock. Bunny did, and that's when I whacked him."
There has been some evidence since the Norris bout was signed of a big leak in what is called Leonard's charisma. His name used to be magic, and filled stadiums quickly. Not true, presently, and the TV commercials are also becoming rare. Last week, Newsday reported that only 2,513 of the Garden's 18,000 seats were sold for Leonard-Norris. Rushing in quickly to set the record straight was Mike Trainer, who said yesterday the sale had reached 4,000. But it hasn't altered the positive hint that Showtime cable, which is putting it on pay-per-view, is about to take a big red bath.
Perhaps it is a sign that Sugar Ray, with his retirements and unretirements, and some recent close encounters without decisive victories, is getting somewhat tiresome to fight fans. He has been popping up with jack-in-the-box regularity to fight at yearly or 18-month intervals. There's nothing evil about that, but it makes for a diminished interest.
And who is Terry Norris? In some references he is called the World Boxing Council super welterweight champion. In other dispatches he is hailed as the WBC junior middleweight champion. Is he leading a double life at 154 pounds? In this age it is difficult to get a fix on who owns what title. There are approximately a zillion of them, easily concocted to help any promoter who needs a marquee plug.
Used to be in a formerly simple world that there were eight bona fide boxing titles. Flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight. Everybody knew who was champion of what in this land of one-man one-vote one-title. No more. Champions have multiplied like pismire ants. We're crawling with them.
What a dreadful mix they've made of it. You can be champion of the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and on down through the IBA, WBO, never mind the regional NABF, USBA, etc.
To each his own. That enables promoters to multiply the original eight world titles by five. Then cutely split 'em and add "junior" or "super" in each class, and it doubles to, what, 120 titles. Need one more, throw in cruiserweight. It's a mockery.
Terry Norris will not be the favorite to lick Leonard. He has a nice 26-3 record, including a one-round knockout of John "The Beast" Mugabi. But also appearing in his record, seven months previously, was his own knockout in Round 2 by Julian Jackson. Julian Jackson? Sugar Ray never fights anybody he doesn't think he can lick.
There has been some evidence that Leonard is not quite the splendid fighting machine he used to be. Too many of his recent ventures say so. He was heroic when he licked Marvin Hagler, but that one was awfully close. Despite the draw they called it, he admits that Tommy Hearns licked him on a night when he was twice on the floor. In that third fight he beat the aging Roberto Duran, but at the battle's end his face required 60 stitches, prompting Larry Merchant to comment, "I never saw a winner look so bad in the face."
After his surgery for a detached retina, Leonard justified his return to the ring by differentiating his case from those of Ray Seales and Earnie Shavers, whose eye damage ended their careers. "They were old guys who fought too long," he said. He's probably right, but in May, Leonard, personally, will be 35 and inching toward an age when too many fighters answered a gong too many.