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Q&A with Sugar Ray Leonard: The temptation of the comeback, how he got sober and figuring out how to beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler

Geoff Edgers and Sugar Ray Leonard on April 9 on Edgers’s weekly Instagram Live show “Stuck with Geoff.” (The Washington Post)

Like so many, arts reporter Geoff Edgers has been grounded by the pandemic. So he decided to launch an Instagram Live show called “Stuck With Geoff.” So far, it has included Annie Lennox, Anthony S. Fauci and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. Recently, Edgers chatted with boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. Here are excerpts from their conversation. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Q: I see Mike Tyson in the ring. You've already announced that you're not coming out of retirement again. But can you explain to me why these guys are fighting now and why you would never consider any kind of exhibition or anything like that?

A: There’s a number of reasons guys come back. First of all, it’s financial. And then it’s like I missed that hurrah, raising my hands, beating the odds, shocking the world, and we never want to see ourselves being old or being fat or out of shape. There’s so many reasons.

Q: But then it's heartbreaking when you go just a bit too long.

A: Yes, there is a reality to coming back. I’ve contemplated a couple of times, well I proved that when I first retired, I don’t know, some 100 years ago, I came back because I missed being the best and again, beating the odds. But at some point, there is a reality. You can’t do what you used to do some 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Q: In boxing, you mention the importance of the physical and the psychological. What I'm really struck by in your memoir, "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring," is how you talk about looking in the mirror and you go, "Oops, I'm not there." And it's fight night. Or somebody will say something to you and it'll rattle you and you know you're in trouble.

A: We as fighters, myself included, we don’t want to be looked upon as being afraid or being scared or anything like I’m not looked upon as being the best. But walking from the dressing room into the ring is one of the longest walks ever, especially when that moment prior to fighting, you look into the mirror. And I don’t see Sugar Ray Leonard. I see Ray Leonard. Words can’t describe the feeling. I want people to know that I was scared. I mean, very scared, afraid, nervous in that ring.

Q: My son is 10 and we've been watching the "Rocky" films. Were those movies good or bad for boxing? Because I also showed my kid the Hearns, Hagler fight, which I remember seeing when I was 14, and it was the most insane thing I'd ever seen. But I don't think my son understands that because he's used to that moment in "Rocky" where they're just beating each other viciously for 12 rounds in ways you could not.

A: “Rocky” was a plus for boxing. Again, things were exaggerated. The punches were exaggerated, but I personally felt it opened up boxing and showed the guys who were just starting out, who don’t have the fame or the fortune. I thought it was great.

Q: When I was growing up, I would watch you and think you were perfect. You were smiling all the time. You psychologically outwitted everybody. But you were also deeply damaged. In your book, you talk about drinking vodka in your hotel room. And you had a hard childhood. How did you keep the public image and the private image so smoothly when things were crashing like this?

A: The worst thing for me was to admit I was an alcoholic, to admit I was a drug addict. People ask me all the time who hit you the hardest, who hit you the hardest. That third shot of vodka, you know.

Q: How did you turn it around?

A: Well, my lovely wife, Bernadette, she told me I was an alcoholic. I got so angry. She took me to my first AA meeting and I was a nervous wreck. I was hyperventilating. I was so nervous and I put a little cap on, sunglasses on, and people were saying, “I’m Bob and I’m an alcoholic.” “I’m this, I’m that.” And it came to me and I just said, “Hey, I’m Ray.” It took me months before I became humble enough, willing enough, to admit that I was an alcoholic. Now, you know, I do motivational speaking, and every now and then, I’ll toss a “By the way, I’m an alcoholic,” and the place is quiet. And I’m like, “Oh, I said the wrong thing.” Or then there’s a roar of claps and cheering. Then people come up to me and say, “Hey, man, thank you so much for talking about this. And I’m dealing with this kind of thing.” You know, I made an impact in the ring. I want to make an impact outside the ring by doing things of this nature.

Q: We need to talk about your 1987 fight against Marvin Hagler. I've never been so angry during a fight because my friends and I were Marvelous Marvin Hagler fans. And you drove us insane. But as I got to be an actual human being and grew up, I realized how brilliant that fight was. You were in great shape, but you outwitted the man.

A: You know, when Hagler fought John Mugabi prior to fighting me, I was at that fight and called my business partner and said, “I want to fight Hagler.” He said, “Ray, are you drinking?” “Yeah, but that doesn’t really make a difference.” I was ringside and I saw in him something that I could take control over. And when the fight was made, I knew I had a chance of winning. But if you look good in the gym, that’s one thing. You have to look and feel good in that ring. And the first thing that happened, I threw a jab, pow, and my hands were still there.

Marvin Hagler made a clean break with boxing, and that’s why he never got his due

Q: I believe you saw Hagler in Las Vegas a year later, and he wouldn't talk to you. He was furious.

A: If Hagler had lost to [Roberto] Durán or Tommy Hearns, that would be less painful. When you lose, period, it’s just painful no matter who it is. But Marvin was a very proud guy and didn’t get his just dues until the later part of his career. Marvin was ambidextrous. He could use both hands. He can knock out either left-handed or right-handed. I miss him. I truly miss him.

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