NEW YORK -- Sugar Ray Leonard was given a beating Saturday night like a gift. Outside a woodshed, there has never been a kindness that smarted so or was so smart. It helped him a lot more than it did Terry Norris. When it ended, and Leonard was bumpy and bloody but okay, a sigh turned into a cheer. For sure now, he will never fight again.
Until Saturday night, Leonard was the only great boxer, besides Cain, Abel and John L. Sullivan, who never fought in any of the many temples that have been called Madison Square Garden. He is certainly the only maestro to conduct his debut and swan song simultaneously.
The Garden is finished too, but doesn't know it. The Stork Club, the real Toots Shor's, the bulldog editions, Jimmy Cannon -- all the subtler ingredients of New York prizefighting -- are gone. Leonard is still alive. It is New York boxing whose time has passed.
In the beginning, 1976, when Leonard was the Olympic hero, the 7-Up kid and the darling of ABC, the Garden offered Ray the short price and warned him that every fighter who ever made it big was forced to play ball with the Garden. Let it be written, above all the titles, that Sugar Ray Leonard never played ball with boxing.
A large part of this was attorney Mike Trainer, his friend and manager. Trainer negotiated for upward of $100 million in purses, but his greater service to the client was not allowing young Leonard to ignore his own portfolio. Bright athletes of every hue have stupidly put their fiscal affairs on automatic pilot. (Basketball stars Jerry Lucas and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come to mind.) Leonard's distinction is not that he kept his money, but that he is in charge of it and understands it.
As the last fight wound down, ringsiders again were reminded of Muhammad Ali. Leonard always was the miniature Ali, the only welterweight who ever succeeded a heavyweight at the top of the pyramid. They shared some of the same poetry in dance. "It's the Holmes fight all over again," someone gasped during the 10th round. But it really wasn't the same.
For his second-to-last fight, against Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner, Ali did not train so much as he simply reduced. He cooked the spinach in a pot but then threw away the spinach and drank the juice. He dyed his hair. He looked fabulous. But he couldn't run from here to there.
Angelo Dundee, who also was Leonard's old second, begged Ali to fight back. But he had nothing to fight back with. All he had was the mystical ability not to be knocked out. Leonard had much more than that, but he had that too. Leonard made a fight. He landed some real blows. They just weren't enough.
In his hotel room after the Holmes bout was stopped, Ali received a telephone call from Joe Bugner in London. Bugner is a Hungarian, although Britain thinks he's a Brit and Australia thinks he's an Aussie. He killed a man in the ring once and, typically, turned docile. His only claim to fame is that he went the distance twice with a pretty good Ali.
"Why are you calling me, Joe?" Ali asked.
"Because I'm worried about you," Bugner said. "Because I love you."
"Don't be calling me," Ali said. "I'm not champ anymore. I'm nothin'."
That evening, as the Las Vegas headlines screamed the next morning, Ali's father was robbed by a prostitute. He's dead now. Think of it: He watched his son take a horrible whipping and then went off to the Strip. Some things around boxing are too sad for words.
Even in dark glasses and with a cherry red smile, Leonard did not look all that sad. The bluejeans he wore to the postfight news conference had a wonderful effect of normalcy. His untragic son stood by him, wearing a high school football letter jacket, looking like an extra from "Good News."
Anytime Leonard puts on sunglasses, one is reminded that his full name is Ray Charles Leonard. A boxer named for a blind man would bring a chill to a cynic even if the boxer's retina had never sprung like a window shade. "My journey's ended," the retina said Saturday night. All of our dreams are fulfilled.
One of boxing's appeals and paradoxes is how gentle the fighters themselves can be. Norris was gracious and sweet afterward. He's strong and young. At practically every touch, Leonard reeled backward. But occasionally Norris got lost in the ring, and once or twice he mislaid Leonard. When he did, Norris covered his eyes and hoped for the best. It is not surprising that, at 23, he already has been knocked out.
At nearly 35, Leonard never will be. Think of that today, Sugar Man.
Some years ago, long after the last of his many retirements, Sugar Ray Robinson was brought back to Madison Square Garden, ostensibly to be honored, actually to hype a show. He was presented the original old gloves he had worn for his first main go there. He cried at their sight.
But then a photographer suggested he put them on. Both were left-hand gloves.
If you got to play at Garden parties,/ I wish you a lot of luck./ But if memories were all I had,/ I'd rather drive a truck.