Sugar Ray Leonard: 'Hearns seemed indestructible, so to beat him was my defining moment'

Brian Viner Interviews: Arguably the finest fighter of the last 40 years, Sugar Ray Leonard amassed a fortune, won world titles at five weights, and earned his place in history with epic victories over Duran, Hagler and Hearns. Now 50, he recalls the fights, the rivalries... and the drugs

In the cavernous lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Sugar Ray Leonard sits quietly, sipping a Coca-Cola. I watch him for a moment or two before we are introduced. There's not an acolyte in sight, no heavy jewellery, no flattened nose, just the occasional admirer doing a double-take and coming over to say hello. "Hey man, what's up?" he greets them. He doesn't look like the greatest boxer of the past 40 years, which is the unequivocal assessment of The Sun's veteran boxing correspondent Colin Hart, among plenty of others.

"People often ask me who's the best fighter I've ever seen," Hart tells me later. "I always say Leonard. He had a heart like a lion, a chin like granite, and he could do everything, things that Ali could never do." Maybe that's why Leonard hasn't ended up like Muhammad Ali, who was - and still is - his idol. At 50, he could easily pass for 10 years younger. There is no visible legacy of his epic scraps with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler. The face is boyishly handsome still, almost pretty. The hands are smooth, manicured, almost delicate. Are these the hands that won world titles in five weight divisions? It is hard to believe, yet it is true.

I sit down lumpenly in the seat opposite him. I have heard from people who have met the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov that just to be in his presence is to feel awkwardly lumpen, and Leonard exerts the same effect. I tell him, as if he needs reminding, that it is 25 years, give or take a week or two, since as World Boxing Council welterweight champion he fought the World Boxing Association champ Tommy Hearns at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. It is a fight that belongs, together with Leonard's two fights against Duran the previous year, in boxing's annals. A few years ago, Ferdie Pacheco, for 15 years Ali's doctor and a fight enthusiast since the 1930s, wrote a fine book called The 12 Greatest Rounds of Boxing. In there with Dempsey v Tunney, round 7, and Louis v Schmeling, round 1, and Ali v Frazier, round 14, is Hearns v Leonard, also round 14.

"To me it's like yesterday," Leonard says, smiling. "Or maybe five years ago. But 25? No! To me those were the great days of boxing, when there were rivalries, personalities, legends. There are no superstars now. Even if a guy was not a champion in my day, you knew his name. There was such an abundance of talent in every division. Now, nobody can even name the heavyweight champion of the world, because there are four of them. We need fewer organisations and we need network television back in boxing. Will it come back? I think it will. We've got to bring corporate America back into the game, and actually The Contender has done that." We'll come back to The Contender, the reality boxing show hosted by Leonard, but for now let's stick with the good old days: Hearns, Duran, Hagler.

"I have so many good memories of those years," he says. "Tommy Hearns seemed like an indestructible machine, so to beat him, I think that was my defining moment, the pinnacle. Those kind of match-ups don't come along too often, when on any given day one guy can beat the other guy." Which, I venture, is what happened with Duran: the brutal Panamanian won the thrilling first scrap - an encounter which every boxing club in the world should be made to watch, according to Hart - and a few months later Leonard won the rematch, taunting Duran and even whirling his arms like a South American bolas thrower, until his opponent famously gave up in round eight, muttering "no mas".

"Exactly," says Leonard, before lapsing into the third-person speak so beloved of boxers. "I knew that if Sugar Ray fights his fight, he wins. But in that first fight he got into my head, took me out of my game plan. The 'no mas' thing, I've never talked to him about that. I wouldn't even know how to phrase the question. It surprised me when the referee said 'that's it'. But I think he quit in frustration and humiliation. People were laughing, and he couldn't deal with that. It was spontaneous. He was so mad and angry, he threw his hands up without realising the repercussions. How could he explain that, a warrior like Duran? All he could say was that his stomach hurt. He had a very tough time for years after that."

I ask Leonard whether he still sees Hearns and Duran? "Sure I do. I was having breakfast in Mexico one day when Duran walked by. As a fighter he was so nasty and arrogant. I said, 'Roberto, come here, sit down. Did you hate me that much?' He said, 'No man, I was acting'. I said, 'Well, you were a damn good actor'." Leonard roars with delighted laughter. "But he's a friend now. Same with Hearns. He came to my wedding, he came to my birthday party. But he wants one more fight, you know. I said, 'Tommy, I'm 50 years old. I don't want to get hurt'. He said, 'Just body shots, man, just body shots'."

It took Leonard a long time, too long, before he knew when to quit. He finally called it a day in 1997, when he was easily stopped by the former lightweight champion Hector Camacho. But before that he had made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, albeit triumphantly in the case of the 1987 showdown with Hagler, following two operations on a detached retina that had friends fearing for his sight.

"Looking back, yes, I made too many comebacks. But each comeback I was 100 per cent sure that I would win. I never came back for the money, because I didn't need it. The adulation I was getting anyway in other spheres. But I'm a guy who likes to see how close he can get to the edge of the mountain, that's what makes me tick. I came back for the challenge. Even against Camacho, age was not a factor. There are people who'd debate that but my hands were still just as quick as most of the guys out there, my balance was great. What had changed was that I couldn't fight injured any more. When I was young I could do that."

Leonard - who was named after Ray Charles, not Ray Robinson - started boxing in his home town of Palmer's Park, Maryland, when he was 14. "I was not athletically inclined. I was very quiet, introverted, non-confrontational. "My three older brothers were athletes - basketball, football - but I was kind of a momma's boy. Then one day my brother Roger encouraged me to go to the boxing gym with him. I tried the gloves on, and it just felt so natural. "From that moment I became so embedded in boxing. I found a friend in boxing." A glorious amateur career - 155 fights, five defeats - culminated in a light-welterweight gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. That was when he retired for the first time.

"I'd been fighting for eight years, my hands were hurting, and I'd seen the movies. I knew boxing could break you. But then my father got ill. He had spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, and right after the Olympics he went into a coma. The hospital bills were astronomical, and we had very little money. He was the manager of a grocery store, my mother was a nurse. At Christmas we got Salvation Army toys. So I turned pro, paid off the bills, and he got better."

As soon as he turned pro, Leonard hired Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. "I'd met Ali the night he lost to Leon Spinks in New Orleans. He said: 'Sugar' - he called me 'Sugar' before anyone else did - 'if you ever turn pro you need this guy in your corner'. I loved Ali. He spoke so eloquently, he was so beautiful. From the start I said, 'That's the guy I want to emulate', and I studied him so much, not just his boxing, but his mannerisms, his idiosyncrasies. Watching Ali so closely helped me watch my opponents. I observed them even out of the ring, what they liked, what they didn't like. Maybe they didn't like people standing too close, so I'd be sure to stand close." He laughs, then gets serious again. "The Thrilla in Manila, that scared the hell out of me. The Rumble in the Jungle, I'd seen Foreman annihilate Norton and Frazier. I was so afraid for Ali, I thought George was going to kill him. When he beat George I thought, 'Oh man'."

And to see Ali now, the eloquence muffled forever, the beauty long gone, doesn't it break his heart? "It makes me feel sad, sure," he says. "But I feel sad that they say it's because of boxing. Sure, boxing doesn't help. But women have Parkinson's disease too and they don't box. Michael J Fox, he doesn't box. I know about pugilistic dementia, but Parkinson's, I don't know the correlation. Of course it doesn't help being hit for all those years, but I don't feel bad about boxing. It gave him so much."

It has given much to Leonard, too. He lives in some splendour in Pacific Palisades, California, with his second wife Bernadette - whose late father was one of the original Platters - and their two young children. He has two grown-up children from his first marriage, which began to disintegrate when, really for the first and only time in his life, he lost control over his destiny.

"I had a drug problem. I'd go to parties, take a leak, and there was cocaine right there. I was 25 when it started, rich, famous, and retired. My wife said, 'The drugs are killing you, you shouldn't hang with those guys'. But then I'd be with my guys, so who do you listen to, the guys or your wife? Then I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot, my skin was breaking out. I said 'enough'. I started crying actually, and that's when I decided to come back and fight Hagler. Most sportswriters said I was crazy. Why, because I'd been out with them. They'd seen me partying. But I knew if I got rejuvenated I could still beat anybody. It took me over a year to get the toxins out."

These days, he limits his recreational activities to tennis and golf. Bill Clinton is an occasional golf partner. He is said to have made $100m (£53m) from boxing and has kept most of it. And although he still climbs into the ring, it is only as the host of The Contender. However, it's a controversial show among some boxing purists, who say it makes a mockery of the game, building up second-rate fighters and presenting them as world-beaters. Leonard demeans himself with his involvement, they say.

He begs to differ. "I've heard that. A couple [of] times people have accused me of selling out. But it gets an audience who aren't necessarily boxing fans. It gets corporate America involved, like I said earlier. Yes, the first season was more Hollywood, because Sly [Stallone, one of the producers] is seen as Rocky. But the second season is more about sport. It's become more credible in boxing society."

What he doesn't add is that much of its credibility comes from him, perhaps the only boxer who ever matched Muhammad Ali for beauty and eloquence, who surpassed him for ringcraft, and whose only burden is his name, because he might be one of the greatest boxers who ever pulled on gloves, but he's not quite the greatest Sugar Ray.

I tell him that the cab driver who delivered me to the Westin Bonaventure - a "writer-director" when he's not driving taxis - wants to make a film about Sugar Ray Robinson and wants Leonard in the title role.

He laughs and says: "I'd like that. Sugar Ray Robinson was probably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time. My top five would be Robinson, Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and... and..." Himself? Another laugh. "Maybe not quite. But I'd be pretty close."

The Contender finale is on ITV4 at 9pm on Monday 9 October

Sweet reading: Sugar Ray Leonard's professional career record

Name: Ray Charles Leonard

Born: 17 May 1956, in Wilmington, North Carolina

Professional debut: 5 Feb 1977 in Las Vegas (bt Luis Vega, rsf, 6th rd)

Major Title Fights

30 Nov 1979: bt Wilfredo Benitez tko 15th (won WBC world welterweight title)

20 June 1980, Montreal: lost to Roberto Duran, pts (lost WBC world welterweight title)

25 Nov 1980, New Orleans: bt Roberto Duran, ko 8th (won WBC world welterweight title)

25 June 1981, Houston: bt Ayub Kalule, ko 9th (won WBA world Junior middleweight title; vacated July 1981)

16 Sept 1981, Las Vegas: bt Thomas Hearns, ko 14th (won WBA, retained WBC world welterweight titles)

6 April 1987, Las Vegas: bt Marvin Hagler rsf 12th (won WBC world middleweight title)

12 June 1989, Las Vegas: bt Hearns D12 (retained WBC super-middleweight title)

7 Dec 1989, Las Vegas: bt Duran, pts (retained WBC super-middleweight title)

9 Feb 1991, New York: lost to Terry Norris, pts (for WBC junior middleweight title)

Career Record:

Total fights: 40. Wins: 36 (25 knock-outs). Losses: 3. Draws: 1.

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