NEW YORK -- Terry Norris is obscure only to those who haven't spent much time in his home town of Lubbock, Tex. He spends six days a week in the middle of California nowhere, 60 miles east of San Diego and five miles from the Mexican border, boxing in a barn. Imagine his surprise when Sugar Ray Leonard not only discovered he was alive but wanted to fight him.
One phone call and Terry Norris finds himself in New York, where he definitely isn't known. He's one of boxing's obscure champions, here to defend his World Boxing Council junior middleweight (a k a super welterweight) title Saturday night against Leonard. "Where's the champ?" asked a visitor to the Kingsway Boxing and Fitness Center, a second-floor walkup above a Burger King at 40th and Eighth.
A news contingent, if you could call it that, had assembled to meet Leonard's handpicked opponent: two writers and a Cable News Network crew (another example of CNN's growing reputation for turning up anywhere for a story). For the paltry few who had gathered, Norris confidently predicted victory (what fighter doesn't?).
But he did it in a thoroughly likable way; seemingly relaxed and adjusted to the big city, the 23-year-old spoke quietly of his unlikely opportunity. Five years in the barn and he was about to fight in Madison Square Garden. With victory, he could shed his obscurity.
"I guess he's been criticized for fighting old guys," Norris said of Leonard, sitting while having his hands wrapped before sparring, trying to fathom his possible stroke of fortune. "I think he wants to fight a young guy to get his credibility back. But he's probably only looking on the upside of this -- winning and getting back his credibility. I don't think he's looked at the downside, which I think he should have."
True, Leonard has considered the upside of fighting Norris. Leonard has been an open book in citing Norris's weaknesses: He drops his hands -- never a good idea -- and when he moves he tends to return to the same position. He telegraphs the right hand. Say what you will about Leonard, he doesn't hype his opponent.
Meanwhile, Norris and his more outgoing manager, Joe Sayatovich, who owns the 30-acre spread where Norris trains, insist that Leonard has his weaknesses. Cowboy Joe Sayatovich -- he wears jeans, boots and a big, tan cowboy hat -- does the heavy talking: "We don't expect to have any trouble with the fight."
"The odds favor Ray, but that'll be okay when I bet. . . .
"Terry has all the things Leonard used to have -- stamina, hand speed. He's fast. . . .
"He's trained nonstop five years for this fight. He hasn't laid off 14 months and tried to get into shape in six weeks. . . .
"We're going to press the stuffing out of him until his old legs get tired. . . .
"I think it's Leonard's legs that have deteriorated. It's been a slow deterioration. He's 20 to 25 percent slower than at his peak. You can see it in the films. There's a dramatic difference."
(Leonard's only concession on being 34 is that he's "more economical" in his movement, punches and training methods; some would say in his camp management too, since he's lopped off everyone except a bare essential contingent.)
Cowboy Joe, standing by a grand picture window overlooking the horrid poverty and greatly despairing street people south of the Port Authority bus terminal, sees a personally rosy dawn as early as Sunday. "We'll just sit back and let 'em come to us," he said. "We'll just thump Ray's tail and take some time off."
The manager and the fighter are quite specific about how Norris won his title by beating John "The Beast" Mugabi last March -- a faded Beast -- in Norris's best-known fight, which still brought him no fame. They both tell it the same way: They watched tape after tape of Mugabi throwing a right hand, worked hour after hour at rolling under the right and countering with a big left. They knew what they wanted. "We just got dumb lucky and caught him in the first round," Sayatovich said.
As for Leonard, both are more cryptic about his "weakness."
"He does it a lot -- he has in the last three or four fights," Norris said. "He's never got caught."
"Mugabi makes a mistake and Leonard makes one of them too," Sayatovich said. "We're going to catch him."
They could only be talking about Leonard's susceptibility to a hard right hand: Both Donny Lalonde and Thomas Hearns have put him down with rights. "I think he'll get up the first time," Sayatovich said, envisioning Norris dropping Leonard. "He's got a giant heart. He's a champion."
More docilely, Norris said he'll be happy with a 12-round decision.
What's pleasant about Norris, besides his modest manner, is the family he's brought along: His father, Orlin, is a trainer, and his older brother, Orlin Jr., is a heavyweight who also is in training. Orlin Sr. had about 25 professional fights, most in Odessa, Tex.
"I used to work with the boys when they were little, but it was their mother who actually got them into boxing," he said. "I came home from work at a cotton mill one day and I said, 'Where are the boys?' She said, 'I took them down to the gym.' "
Terry was 9. He grew up to be an outstanding high school baseball player in Lubbock as well and seemed bound for college and a promising career. But he said a racial epithet used by an opponent in a game led to a brawl, and after that he decided he preferred boxing.
The biggest blot on his record of 26-3 is a second-round knockout by Julian Jackson, a hard puncher but himself not well known. Norris, who is billed as "Terrible Terry," indeed, did terrible damage to Jackson in their first round: hammered him around the eyes (which points up the risk taken by Leonard, who's had a detached retina), smashed his cheekbone, cut him badly inside the mouth. Norris returned to his corner "real confident, too confident. I thought it was going to be an easy fight for me."
He came out in the second and . . . "I opened up and got caught with a good shot."
Norris recalled doing other serious damage, to one Clayton Harris and one Eddie Neblett?
"Neblett?" a man wondered.
" 'The Barbados Butcher,' or something like that," said trainer Abel Sanchez, looking up from wrapping Norris's hands.
Dressed in red -- a red shirt, red shorts -- Norris sparred six rounds, four with Willie Monroe, a middleweight and 10 pounds heavier. "He's going to be champ someday. He's going to be champ someday," said a man in a cap standing next to him.
Willie Monroe is the nephew of Willie "The Worm" Monroe, one of two men to beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler early in Hagler's career. The younger Monroe hits hard like his Philadelphia uncle.
Those four rounds showed that Norris can hit -- and be hit.
Sayatovich said he took a "gamble" in his dealings with Mike Trainer, Leonard's lawyer and the fight's promoter, opting for a percentage of receipts instead of a guarantee.
Given that the fight has stirred only modest interest, Sayatovich will need either a late rush for the turnstiles Saturday night or one of the major upsets of our time. Otherwise, he could find Sunday so dark he might wonder if morning ever came.