Boxing: Sugar a slave to dangerous pride

The controversial comeback: One of yesterday's legends is still driven to risk his tomorrows. Harry Mullan reports
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The Independent Online
It is typical of Sugar Ray Leonard that he should wait until the requisite five years had elapsed since his last fight - thus qualifying him for election in 1996 to the Boxing Hall of Fame - before announcing his latest comeback. Leonard's case for admission to the Hall was unchallengeable, but would not have been enhanced by his reappearance as a past-it-40-year- old.

The timing may, of course, be coincidental: Leonard always gave the impression of being more concerned with his immediate future than with his place in history, and his return to action may be for reasons no more complex than the $4m he will receive for facing another of yesterday's heroes, Hector "Macho" Camacho, in Atlantic City on Saturday.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. One of the oldest of boxing's cliches is: "The last thing a fighter loses is his punch." It is not true: the last thing he loses is his ego, which in Leonard's case is gargantuan. It was ego rather than money which persuaded him to defy medical advice and come back after suffering a detached retina; it was ego that made him end a five-year retirement with an impertinent challenge to the seemingly unbeatable Marvin Hagler in 1987, and it was ego that brought him out of a two-year retirement to make a misguided bid for Terry Norris's light-middleweight title in his last fight in February 1991.

He looked like an old, shot fighter that night in Madison Square Garden, New York, when the only reminder of what made him a world champion at five weights was the unflinching bravery which hauled him off the floor to take a relentless beating from a man who, while a top-grade performer, would not have lived with him in his incandescent prime. The speed was gone, the reflexes were slow as a Highlands thaw, and the punching power which brought him 25 inside-schedule wins in 36 victories was only a memory. If he was that bad at 34, what on earth makes him think he can be any better at 40, after six years of leading the soft and comfortable life? In boxing, pride is a useful servant but a dangerous master.

But boxers are adept in the art of self-delusion, which is why so many of the stars of the Seventies and Eighties continue to shuffle around the circuit in a gradual downwards spiral of defeats and diminishing purses until they eventually fade into obscurity. A fortunate few of that group, like the former heayweight champion Larry Holmes, are sharp and intelligent enough to remain in control of their careers and acknowledge that they are doing it purely for the cash returns, but the rest linger simply because they are unable to accept that the years have eroded their talent to the point where they are risking more than just their reputations by fighting on.

Leonard belongs to that sad, deluded majority. Even after a costly divorce and a cocaine habit which he had the courage first to acknowledge and then to defeat, there must surely be enough left of his fortune to render Saturday's $4m no more than a welcome little bonus. He was the first boxer at any weight to gross more than $100m, and it is still doubtful whether, six years after his last fight, anyone other than Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has out-earned him. Whatever draws him back to the ring has its roots in his soul, not his bank balance.

When Leonard chose to have what we assumed would be his last fight in the Garden, it was seen as a nod to the famous arena's unique place in boxing tradition, and the manner of his defeat formed another heroic and deeply moving chapter for the Garden's long history. There was a satisfying sense of rightness about the episode, like watching Martina Navratilova take her leave of Centre Court on that emotion-charged afternoon. Atlantic City, a battered old town where even the garish Boardwalk casinos manage to look tatty and depressing, is an equally appropriate setting for this clash of faded super-stars. The resort was in its prime 60 years ago, and not even the legalisation of gambling there was enough to slow its decay.

Camacho, unlike Leonard, is at least a lively relic. He won legitimate world titles at super-featherweight, lightweight and light-welter in a career which began in September 1980, and also acquired the dubious International Boxing Council versions of the welterweight and middleweight titles, the latter of which is at stake on Saturday. His three defeats in 67 fights (one draw) were all on points, to Greg Haugen for the World Boxing Organisation lightweight title, Julio Cesar Chavez for the World Boxing Council light- welterweight belt, and the fierce-hitting Felix Trinidad for the International Boxing Federation welterweight title. That was his last loss, 20 fights ago, and his recent victims include Roberto Duran, a warrior of even earlier vintage than Leonard. Those are impressive credentials, and it is to Leonard's credit that he did not seek to ease his way back by knocking over a nonentity.

But the southpaw Camacho, 34, is also a clever choice: he is strictly a boxer rather than a puncher, so even if Leonard is beaten he is likely to be spared the indignities Norris inflicted on him. The Macho Man is a much more appealing personality than the egocentric Leonard, whose "niceness" always seemed contrived. Of course, as Naseem Hamed has recently demonstrated, niceness is not a prerequisite for success, and whatever his character flaws, at his peak Leonard was a magnificent fighter. Where Hamed - and, for that matter, Camacho - show their genius in outrageously unorthodox technique, Leonard was a supreme exponent of boxing's textbook skills.

The years, and his recurring spells of inactivity, had already blunted those skills beyond recall when he lost to Norris, and the still-speedy Camacho ought to be able to outpoint him. That would be a kindness: better that reality be brought home by Camacho's southpaw jabs than by heavier- fisted, ambitious youngsters out to make their names off a once-great fighter's ego.

The sweet and sour years of Sugar Ray

1976: Wins Olympic light-welterweight gold medal in Montreal. Announces retirement.

5 February 1977: Turns professional

30 November 1979: Wins World Boxing Council welterweight title from Wilfred Benitez, as the first challenger in history to earn $1m.

12 August 1979: Wins first professional championship, stopping Pete Ranzany in four rounds for the North American welterweight title.

20 June 1980: Loses world welterweight title to Roberto Duran in Montreal. Announces retirement

25 June 1980: Regains title from Duran, forcing the Panamanian to call "No mas" in the eighth round.

25 June 1981: Stops Ayub Kalule to win the World Boxing Association light- middleweight title. Promptly relinquishes it.

16 September 1981: Stops WBA champion Thomas Hearns in the 14th round of a classic fight to unify the world welterweight title.

March 1982: Announces retirement after discovering he is suffering from a detached retina.

11 May 1984: Makes a one-fight comeback, and is floored by the unknown Kevin Howard. Gets up to win. Announces retirement.

6 April 1987: Outpoints Marvin Hagler to win WBC middleweight title. Announces retirement.

7 November 1988: Stops Donny Lalonde for WBC light-heavyweight title after compelling Lalonde to weigh in at 12st so that the fight could also be for vacant WBC super-middleweight title.

12 June 1989: Gets a fortunate draw with Thomas Hearns in a rematch for the WBC super-middleweight title. Announces retirement.

7 December 1989: Settles superiority over Duran by outpointing him in super-middleweight title defence in Las Vegas.

9 February 1991: Floored and outpointed by Terry Norris for the WBC light- middleweight title. Announces retirement.