Boxing's Sugar Ray Seales Gambled His Eyesight on a Championship—and Lost
Sugar Ray Seales is visiting his mother's small clapboard house in the depressed Hilltop section of Tacoma, Wash. He is in the tiny living room, struggling with the long sheet of clear plastic draped, as a sort of dust guard, across the front of the cabinet that his mother has set up as a shrine to his career as a boxer. Finally, the Sugar Man gets his hand up under the sheet and directs it, by memory, to a six-inch winged figurine of Victory. "This here was my first trophy," he says, smiling behind tinted glasses. Then, rummaging once more, he locates the object of his heart's frustration and desire: the gold medal from the 1972 Olympic Games. "This," he says wistfully, "should have propelled me into something good."
Instead, it propelled him into seasons of futility and self-delusion. And finally, tragically, into delusion's physical counterpart: blindness itself.
After more than 400 amateur and professional fights, after seven eye operations and years of kidding himself that he was only a fight or two away from the world middleweight championship and that his surgically restored retinas would hold up until he got there, Sugar Ray Seales, 31, is all but in the dark. He has no vision in his left eye and only 10 percent in the right. "I can't read," he says. "I can't drive. Most I can do is walk with this cane." And gingerly, at that. A novice at not seeing, he steps too soon going up the stairs, he walks into glass doors, he has burn scars on his forehead from trying to put logs in the wood-burning stove in the rented house he shares with girlfriend Mae Howard and her four kids.
What's more, he is penniless. "He owns only what I give him," says Ed Garner, his equally destitute manager, who professes a lifetime commitment to the blind fighter. Worse still, Seales is $100,000 in debt to assorted doctors and hospitals. Even efforts to extract him from the abyss seem doomed—scuttled by the Fates, or maybe just by the ineptitude of the people who have surrounded him throughout his once-promising career. Hearing of Seales' plight, Sammy Davis Jr. brought his Las Vegas show to the Tacoma Dome last month for a benefit performance. "He's got all three Bs," said Davis. "He's black, blind and broke. I got two of them myself." Somehow, the benefit managed to lose $25,000.
Withal, Seales is unbowed. "We're waiting to see what we can do for our-self," he says, lapsing, as he often does, into the royal "we." The only thing, in this Olympic year, that seems to give him pause is the announcement that a younger and more famous Sugar Ray, former welterweight champion Ray Leonard, is returning to the hunt after his own retinal surgery. Together, Leonard and Seales offer an instructive tale of two Sugars, of to-have and have-not, of two careers as different as the two Olympics in which they were forged. Yet Ray Seales' story—one of naïveté, botched opportunity, exploitation and, especially, reckless ambition—should be required reading for Ray Leonard.
Growing up in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, Ray Seales was quiet, even reticent as a child. "I believe when my mother was carrying me she was working in a mortuary," he says. "I don't know, but I think it made me come out a little slim, a little fearful." The legacy of his father, however, offset his timidity. The latter was a soldier in the American Army who earned his stripes as a boxer. He didn't actually teach Ray how to box during his 15-day furloughs. His influence was more subtle. "We felt for each other," says Seales. "And what I felt in him was fighting."
It wasn't until 1964, when he moved to Tacoma with his mother after his parents' divorce, that Ray made good on his patrimony. He was 12 years old, and his newfound peers were merciless in taunting him about his island English. "I joined the Boys Club and learned to fight," he says. "They stopped picking on me."
On the verge of his teens, Ray stood 5'7" and weighed but 78 pounds. He was all arms and legs, and he had processed hair, which made him a dead ringer for the sweetest fighter of them all: Sugar Ray Robinson. As an amateur Seales lived up to his moniker, winning all but 12 of his 350 fights. In the 1972 Olympics he was a polished stone in a diadem that included such prized talents as Duane Bobick and James "Bubba" Busceme. Yet he was the only one to sparkle. "The Olympics," he likes to say, "was the greatest thing ever to happen to Sugar Ray Seales." Perhaps. But he was not able to convert Olympic gold into more negotiable currency. In 1973 he made less than $1,000 for his first professional fight; four years later Sugar Ray Leonard banked $40,000 for his pro debut—it was more than Seales would ever make for any fight in his entire 11-year career. The matter was beyond his control. Leonard came out of the '76 Olympics as the headliner of a boxing squad that captured the public's imagination, whereas Seales emerged from the sorry '72 affair, best remembered for the bloody massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. "I saved America by winning the only gold medal in boxing in 1972," says Seales, who to this day fails to understand why America never took him to its heart the way it did Leonard.
"His whole mistake," says Cus D'Amato, the fight manager who turned Olympians Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres into world champions, "was when he turned pro he remained with the fellows he was with in the amateurs." Seales' manager-of-choice was one George Yelton, who'd been good for an occasional five-spot when the Boys Club boxing team was on the road and who owned several taco stands in Washington state. Perhaps even more naive than his fighter, Yelton's idea of a major promotion was a banner strung across one of his Tex-Mex establishments: "Come See Sugar Ray Seales at Taco Time." Worse, he did not even know enough to protect his fighter. In 1974, after Seales had gained 20 wins against less-than-stellar opposition, Yelton agreed to come east to Boston for what was billed as a benefit for the United Way. "I thought it would be like an exhibition, where I could dance, get a chance to perform," says Seales. He remembers freezing at the weigh-in, then looking over to see a short, heavily muscled, shaven-headed warrior sweating with intensity. His opponent was the young Marvin Hagler, one of the most devastating punchers of our day, already 14-0 with 12 knockouts—and neither Seales nor Yelton were ready for him. They didn't even know who he was.
After this first loss, by decision, Seales fought Hagler twice more. Indeed, Hagler would become a sort of touchstone for his career, a measure of how much ground he had lost. Ray fought to a draw with him in a return war in Tacoma. Then in 1979, under new management, Seales fought Hagler again in Boston. Ray's corner was a circus. Two days before the fight, his new manager decided to entertain lady friends in his hotel room, which provoked Ray's trainer, George Wright, to threaten to leave for Tacoma. The next day somebody called from Alaska, claiming he owned a piece of Sugar Ray Seales and demanding to know what his purse was. Ray was hauled into the office of the Massachusetts boxing commissioner for an accounting. Finally, on fight day, it was discovered that Seales and Hagler were wearing the same color trunks, and Ray was hassled into changing his. Already beaten, the Sugar Man was knocked out by Marvelous Marvin before the first round was half over.
Shortly thereafter Seales hooked up with Ed Garner, yet another local businessman without clout or boxing credentials. By this time he was regarded by promoters as an "opponent," a stepping stone for some less tarnished prospect. Yet Ray was as game as ever. In early 1980 he eclipsed the hopes of Arthur "Tap" Harris, a 31-0 fighter scheduled for bigger things, with a sixth-round knockout. Then suddenly, in August, Ray was thumbed in his right eye, which filled up with blood. Two operations performed a couple of days later in Tacoma by Dr. Hsushi Yeh were deemed successful. For his part, Seales remembers Dr. Yeh telling him, "You could get hit in that eye twice as hard as before and nothing would happen." Says Dr. Yeh, "You want the true story? I told him, 'Personally, I think you should quit boxing right at this moment.' " Yeh remembers Seales replying, "Doctor, this is my life. I got only two or three fights before I can gain my championship!"
Seales, however, was deceiving himself. By this time Marvin Hagler bestrode the world. Undaunted, Seales and Garner plunged back into the heartland, starting a new round of one-night stands with local club fighters for as little as $4,000 a go. Then, late in 1981, says Ray, "We experienced something in our left eye. We experienced the ring getting farther away." Seales came home and had two more operations, which had to be performed by two new doctors, since Ray hadn't been able to pay Dr. Yeh and couldn't pay this time either. According to Dr. Yeh, a charitable man who would later resume care of the blighted fighter, this was a turning point. "It's my understanding," he says, "that the fighter still had 20/40 vision in his right eye."
It is remarkable that Seales fought thereafter in six different states—California, New York, New Mexico, Nevada, New Jersey and Colorado—and that he passed each prefight physical with ease. According to boxing commission physicians, Ray deceived his examiners by keeping his surgical history a secret and memorizing the eye charts. On the one hand, Seales denies that he was trying to fool the commission doctors and blames them for conspiring with promoters to use him as meat. On the other, he intimates that he was hoping to get caught. "I wanted someone to tell me," he says, " 'Hey, man. It's over for you. I can't let you fight in my state.' "
The end came quietly last March. Trainer George Wright kept changing the bulbs in the gym, but Seales could not shake the feeling he was in the dark. A few days later in Portland, Oreg., retinal specialist Dr. Richard Chenoweth took one look at the benighted fighter and said, "This kid has been blind for 18 months!"
Back in the days when the world was green and his career was in its first flower, Ray Seales had thought to win the world middleweight title, then return in glory to St. Croix and become governor. The dream seems remote now. But Seales is an incorrigible optimist, and he insists that his ambition has been merely deferred. "It's the strength, the power and the will that I have inside," he says, "that makes me project more light than there really is. Someday my eyes are going to be restored." He pauses and makes a gesture of dismissal with a long sleek hand that bears his ruby Olympic ring. "You know, we don't think of ourself as blind. We are going to stretch and become a champion at something else."
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