Sugar Ray Leonard
Photo by J-Squared Photography

Sugar Ray Leonard: “Whatever is needed to win, I will do that”

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Short Profile

Name: Ray Charles Leonard
DOB: 17 May 1956
Place of birth: Wilmington, North Carolina, United States
Occupation: Boxer, Olympic gold medalist, philanthropist

Mr. Leonard, apparently during your years as a professional boxer, you knew that you were going to win a fight if you looked in your dressing room mirror and saw Sugar Ray Leonard looking back at you. If you saw yourself as Ray Leonard, it was going to be a long night. How often do you look in the mirror these days and see Sugar Ray in the reflection?

(Laughs) I see him in the background sometimes! You know, I didn’t talk about this for years because people thought I was crazy, but it was just a matter of who's showing up today. Before a fight, when I'm in the dressing room, I look in that mirror, and I can determine who's gonna win the fight. For the most part, I would see Sugar Ray, the tough guy, but there were times I saw Ray the civilian, the guy who was so quiet, shy, introverted.

How was your mentality different as Sugar Ray?

My training and everything would kick in. It's about peaking at the right time: I trained for a fight for like, two months, maybe two and a half months. My trainers Dave Jacobs and Angelo Dundee, they would say, “All right, let's pull back.” So instead of running five miles, we’d run three miles. Everything is cut back so that I could peak at fight time. It’s all about timing.

“That fear and those thoughts of losing, they all come into play, maybe not all the time, but they do come into play.”

And what happened on those rare occasions you would see Ray the civilian looking back at you? Did that make you scared going into the ring?

That’s a really good question. Sometimes I’d be in the dressing room and there would be times where I felt a little bit like, “Can I really do this?” That fear and those thoughts of losing, they all come into play, maybe not all the time, but they do come into play. And that's a good thing! Because your body has to react, you have to be… Not scared, but concerned, in order for your reflexes to activate.

Pro surfer Laird Hamilton says that it’s actually good to be a little bit scared when you’re doing something dangerous because if not, that’s when you get lazy and you can get really hurt.

You have to be concerned! I mean, if you're fighting a Joe Schmo, you know, who has 12 fights and 12 losses, you’re like, “Ah, it's no big deal,” those are times when you get shocked, you get knocked down, and you will yourself to get back up. Boxing is a physical sport — but it’s also spiritual and psychological.

You once called your 1980 match against Roberto Durán one of your most important fights because it taught you how important the mind is in this sport.

Well, the thing about Roberto Durán is that he got into my head before that first fight. He was talking down to me, condescending; he cursed me, he cursed my wife. I mean, he did things that I've never experienced before. I was really, really mad, and really, really hurt that he said those things — not just about me, I could take that because those things happen in the streets — but when you say something about my wife…

Was that kind of pre-game talk not common in boxing at the time?

It was normal even then, they did it all the time! But I never received it that way. No one ever spoke to me that way. No one ever was so disrespectful me. It was like, “Oh, my God! I'm gonna beat you up!” It was psychological. And that's why, unfortunately, I stood toe-to-toe with this guy, for what? 13 rounds? It was a bad mistake. It was a mistake that cost me my championship belt.

Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran's 1980 rematch, known as the No Mas Fight.

But eventually you and Durán had a rematch that you ended up winning.

I was so ready, I wanted to get my title, my world championship belt back so bad! I was clear about what needs to be done and because of that, I choreographed the second fight. I knew exactly what my strong points, and my weak points were. I was moving around the ring using my hand speed, using my foot speed. I fought him my way, and I didn't let him get into my head. So you learn by your mistakes! You either become better, or you become worse. I became better.

Other than the physical training and choreographing, what else are you doing to prepare yourself for a fight?

When you walk from the dressing room to the ring, it is the longest walk in the world because you're feeling, especially if you're not a favorite, the pressure of what could happen. You have to compose yourself, you have to break it all down and be prepared. Because if you are in great shape and you believe you can do these things that are required to win, to nullify a guy; you will be okay. Floyd Mayweather, he never believes he can lose. And that, along with his natural talent, that's why he's such a great fighter, a champion. And that's something you really can't teach.

Earlier you described yourself as shy and reserved — what was it like for you to activate that fighter mentality?

I’ll tell you, sometimes I can't believe that I was a fighter because I'm 100% the opposite of what I used to do. But I have that killer instinct. I can't explain it. If I throw a good punch and I hurt you and you fall back or whatever, I will go crazy. I’m like Dracula if you start bleeding. It’s that deep.

Is it scary to watch old videos of your fights and see that other side of yourself?

No, I mean, you have to be aggressive when necessary. You have to have the mindset to want to win badly enough to go through it and deal with it. That fortitude, that power that you have when you're so exhausted, so tired, and you reach deep down inside your stomach and come up with strength. It's amazing.

“My life had become unmanageable. But I couldn't admit that because I'm Sugar Ray, I'm the champion.”

You’ve had more comebacks than almost any other professional boxer, and you’ve said this is because you felt you could control what happened in the ring — which wasn’t always the case in regular life.

(Laughs) I think I hold the record for the most comebacks! I just couldn't accept the fact that I couldn't control the atmosphere. I kept saying, “Well, if I go back in the ring, I'll be okay.” When I retired those few times, that's when my life got dark. Back in the eighties, I was introduced to cocaine and I used it so much, I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars… I was an alcoholic but didn't believe I was an alcoholic until my wife looked me right in my eyes and told me. She took me down to my first ever AA meeting. Put it this way, I knew that I was drinking so much that I couldn't control my life. My life had become unmanageable. But I couldn't admit that because I'm Sugar Ray Leonard, I'm the champion.

The confidence and pride that made you a champion was also almost responsible for your downfall.

It is a double-edged sword! Becoming a boxing champion and having celebrity, I think that was one of the one of the reasons why I ended up where I was. Now it's been almost 16 years I've been sober. And you know what? This might be crazy hearing me say this, but I'm proud of having been an alcoholic. Because I helped myself, and I can also help others by talking like this. Normally my publicist and people who are in my corner, they don’t want me to talk about this. But I am talking about this because this is so real. It’s like this Coronavirus… Should we wear a mask? Yeah, we should wear masks — maybe we should wear 20 masks! Whatever is needed to win, I will do that.

How has it been for you now that you’ve retired for good?

It was extremely difficult because I retired when I was 40 and it was tough for me. Sometimes it’s still tough even though it's what I want to do. Boxing’s going to be in my life forever — but I'm a fighter outside the ring now, and it's gonna be okay.