NEW YORK, FEB. 9 -- Sugar Ray Leonard retired tonight for the fifth time. It looked like this was for keeps.
Showing all 34 of his years, he was virtually knocked into submission by a hand-picked opponent named Terry Norris, prompting a hasty but wise retirement statement from the ring to the sparse Madison Square Garden audience of 7,495.
Norris, 23, obscure and from Campo, Calif., near San Diego, inflicted terrible punishment on the once graceful master, flooring Leonard in the second and seventh rounds and viciously, fearlessly pounding his way to a lopsided decision to retain his World Boxing Council junior middleweight title.
"This is my last fight," a bruised and bleeding Leonard declared immediately after the judges' scorecards were read. The 12 rounds of punishment Leonard absorbed were about as decisive as it gets, and by far his worst performance. The scoring was 120-104, 119-103 and 116-110, Norris winning every round on one card.
"It just wasn't there," Leonard said. "He was just too quick, too smart. He was a young Sugar Ray Leonard. He's going to get better. If he maintains the same concentration and focus he had against me, he's going to get better. It's time for the young guys to take control."
When he had gathered himself, Leonard added: "It's time to call it quits. I had to find out for myself and I did. He showed me everything I used to show fighters. I knew from the start it wasn't there tonight. But don't anyone feel sorry for me. It took this kind of fight for me to realize my time is over and I have to find something else to do outside of fighting."
It took a courageous effort for Leonard (36-2-1) merely to finish on his feet, and he hurried to Norris's corner at the final bell to offer congratulations. "It's a sad victory," Norris (27-3) said, almost apologetically. "He's my idol. He's still my idol."
When he left the ring, Leonard was bleeding from the mouth and had swelling around his left eye -- the one that was operated on for a detached retina in 1982. Flatfooted and working on heart alone, he had coyly tried to gather his strength for one lucky knockout punch -- but his punches were weak and often missed.
Norris displayed first a calm, then a fearlessness against the man who has held titles in five weight classes and who will probably best be known for his dramatic comeback victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987. Near the end, Norris showed a cleverness that once was Leonard's trademark by staying clear of harm's way while piling up points.
The ninth round was when Leonard rallied to knock out his two last lightly regarded opponents, Kevin Howard and Donny Lalonde. But tonight the ninth round came and went with Leonard flailing at the air and flirting with being knocked out himself.
In the last seconds of Round 2, Norris caught Leonard with a left hook that put him on the canvas. As if for good measure, Norris threw in a right hand that landed on Leonard's face after he had fallen. Leonard, up at three, took a mandatory eight count that was completed after the bell.
In the final minute of the ninth round, a left-right combination again put Leonard down. Up at three again, Leonard awaited the mandatory count. It took all of his cunning to survive the round, as it did the 10th as the crowd began chanting "Terry, Terry," deserting the man they had cheered on entering the ring.
Leonard appeared at a post-fight news conference wearing dark glasses. His lips were still bloody from the beating he had taken in the ring. His longtime aide, Ollie Dunlap, asked aloud: "Why is everybody sad?"
Standing close by were his son Ray Jr. and manager Mike Trainer. "I feel happy I'm okay," Leonard said.
Early in the third round, Norris caught Leonard with a hard left and had him on the verge of knockout. Norris stalked Leonard, who suddenly looked slow, old and tired. Coming out for the fourth, Leonard was all smiles. But he was in for more trouble. Norris scored again heavily before Leonard countered to the body. Reaching back for all his cunning, Leonard traded lefts and rights with Norris. But Norris opened a cut inside Leonard's mouth.
In the fifth round, Leonard got Norris to make a big mistake. He went to Norris's body and Norris dropped his hands. But Leonard's key punch, a left hook, was only a grazing blow as Norris danced safely backward.
As Leonard pressed forward, still bleeding from the mouth, Norris landed a hard left to the head at mid-ring with a minute left. Norris followed with another left that tested Leonard's jaw with 30 seconds remaining. At the bell, Leonard smiled, but at this point he was behind.
"Ray took a bad beating," Norris said, "and that bothered me. He hurt me a couple of times to the body, but he couldn't keep it up. I expected him to be faster than he was, but he slowed down."
Almost to a crawl late in the seventh. After Leonard had gotten to his feet, Norris went to finish him off. He scored with almost every punch imaginable: a hard right, jabs, combinations. He backed Leonard against the ropes. Never lacking for the deepest will to prevail, Leonard now needed his every resource just to survive.
At the end of the ninth, he swung himself off balance and ended up against the ropes with Norris in pursuit.
Leonard opened the 10th round with his best hope -- a lead right hand that surprised Norris and hurt him momentarily. But Norris was much too strong and shook off the blow. Rallying almost instantly, he landed a haymaker right on Leonard's chin. Leonard backed into a corner, where he took lefts and rights to the body. Again, he survived.
In the 11th, Norris again landed at will and piled up points. Leonard coyly tried to land one mighty sucker punch, but Norris himself was too smart. He boxed steadily through the final two rounds, not giving Leonard the chance to pull a Houdini.
With 1:20 remaining in the fight, Leonard gasped for breath. He could hardly find any. With 30 seconds to go, he landed a left, but it had no steam. The only question then was, would Leonard ever be foolish enough to try something like this again?
That was answered sooner than expected, when Leonard made his pronouncement from the ring. It was the latest in a long line of retirements -- but surely this had to be it. He retired as an amateur after the Olympics, saying that he was going to pursue an education and career outside the ring. In the midst of his great pro career, he retired three more times.
In 1982 he called it quits after surgery for a detached retina. In 1984 he came back against Howard in Worcester, Mass., only to retire after the fight, saying he no longer had it. But in retirement, he proved restless, always wanting Hagler. After beating Hagler in his '87 return, Leonard called a news conference and retired for a fourth time.
But now he ran into an opponent who had studied him carefully and even copied his style, right down to finishing each round with conviction. "That's another thing I learned from Ray, " Norris said, "to finish up strong in the last minute of a round."
It could have been worse, but not much. As Leonard said: "The only thing I wanted to do was finish." And, just barely, that was all the once great champion could do.