Can Sugar Ray Leonard Make a Comeback? Don't Even Ask

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sugar Ray Leonard pulls a sweatshirt over his finely muscled torso, then laces up his white high-top sneakers. He is getting ready to trade punches with one of his seven sparring partners, and, not surprisingly, Marvin Hagler is much on his mind.

"Yeah," Leonard says, "I have a fear of the event. But that little nervousness is a good sign. I mean I'm not going in there to play Scruples with Hagler. We goin' in there for the real thing." The real thing being the middleweight boxing championship of the world. Hagler, 32, has won 62 pro fights, lost two and drawn two; he owns the title. Leonard, 30, a 1976 Olympic champ, has won 33 and lost one; he wants to take it away. On April 6 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the two meet to thrash out their differences.

Few fights have aroused such anticipation—and such dread. Leonard, having fought only once in almost five years, is a 3-1 underdog. Boxing analysts and fans have raised troubling questions about this golden boy emeritus. Though his smile is boyish, his face as yet unmarked, people wonder if, like countless fighters before him, he has gone broke. They wonder how his surgically repaired left eye would stand up to the kind of pounding Hagler is capable of administering. They even question Leonard's basic grasp of reality: Without so much as a warm-up bout, he expects to beat Hagler, one of the most savage and skillful middle-weights in history. Even Leonard concedes, "As far as logic is concerned, I guess, Hagler is supposed to win."

Despite his still easy laughter, such questions clearly trouble even Leonard—so much so that at his training camp in Hilton Head, S.C., Ray's publicity man, Charlie Brotman, gives reporters a list of four proscribed questions. "Best not to ask them," he whispers. "Ray's just sick of them."

As well as telling people what questions not to ask, Brotman tells them the answers if they did ask. What follows are those four questions, excerpts from Leonard's prepackaged answers in Brotman's handout and expansion thereon:

In 1982 you underwent surgery to repair a detatched retina. Aren't you concerned about losing your sight?

"I have no concern about my eyes in any way," Leonard says, insisting he runs no greater risk now of incurring a blinding injury than any other fighter. He has in fact been examined by top experts in ophthalmology, such as Dr. Louis Angioletti of New York, who says: "I do not find that Mr. Leonard will be subjected to any unacceptable risks."

Leonard's more immediate physical problem is a malady known in boxing circles as "ring rust." After his eye operation and retirement in 1982, Leonard tried to come back in 1984 against Kevin Howard, a journeyman welterweight. The man who once danced like Baryshnikov and punched hard enough to kayo Tommy Hearns seemed like he had lead in his shoes and pacifism in his heart. Leonard won by a technical knockout—but looked awful. "I have retired for good," he said after the fight, in which he suffered the first knockdown of his career. "I just can't go on humiliating myself." His reflexes had dimmed, his desire to hit and willingness to be hit seemed gone. This, remember, was three years ago.

Do you need the money?

" Money is not my motivation," Leonard says. Mike Trainer, Ray's friend, attorney and financial adviser, claims his client "would fight Hagler in a garage for nothing." No chance of that happening unless someone has a garage that seats 8,000 or 9,000. In Las Vegas, Leonard will be guaranteed $11.5 million to Hagler's $12 million.

Certainly Leonard, whose net worth hovers around $20 million, is showing no apparent signs of destitution. He owns a Ferrari, a Rolls, a Mercedes, a BMW, a '69 Volkswagen and a Taurus station wagon to tote his children around. He, wife Juanita and sons Ray Jr., 12, and Jarrel, 2, share a minicastle complete with turrets in posh Potomac, Md., a Washington suburb. Trainer has put him into a varied range of investments. "Basically he can live off the interest," says Trainer. Leonard's deal as an HBO boxing commentator earns him a reported $150,000 or so a year. Chump change compared to $11.5 million, maybe, but on the other hand it's not really that bad for a Navy cook's son from Wilmington, N.C.

Why do you want to fight again?

"I've been away from boxing awhile and I miss it," is Leonard's pat answer. "It's that simple." It has never been quite that simple for a great performer to just walk away. Ask Willie Mays or Dave Cowens or Ali—or Sinatra. Larry Merchant, Ray's broadcasting partner, puts it this way: "Ray is one of those rare highfliers. He was cruelly grounded by an eye injury. Now he wants to recapture that feeling of free flight."

As for Hagler, Leonard says, "He was inevitable. He's the last chapter in my book." Maybe, if the book happens to be Moby Dick. For years the two have been obsessed with each other, though it has never been clear which was the arrogant white whale and which the stubborn Ahab. Every time Leonard worked a Hagler fight on TV, he seemed to scrutinize his subject. Did he see a stylistic weakness he can exploit? "I did my analysis of Hagler," is all Leonard will say. "I know I can win." Marvelous Marvin has responded: "Nobody's going to want Leonard when I get through with him. He probably won't talk no more, might not see no more... I like to mess up them pretty faces."

What does your wife think about you fighting again?

"She's my best friend and biggest fan," Leonard says. "She readily gave her full approval and active support."

"I respect Ray's decision," Juanita told the Washington Post. "But I don't want him to fight.... I really don't." Then Juanita admitted, "I like both of them...I think Hagler's a pretty neat guy." If truth be told, so does Ray. Last January he invited Hagler and his wife, Bertha, to Jameson's, a Bethesda, Md. restaurant Leonard owns a piece of. Bertha and Juanita discussed family. Marvin and Ray talked shop. "It was the first time we actually relaxed together without being intimidated by each other," says Ray.

Leonard is in the ring in Hilton Head and, for six rounds, he is the sweet scientist of old. He dances, he hammers his sparring partners with blindingly fast combinations, then dances away. Looking on is his trainer Angelo Dundee. "This won't be a war of attrition," says Dundee. "It'll be the war of a technician. Leonard will knock him out within 11 rounds." Merchant, Leonard's friend from HBO, isn't so sure. "I don't think he'll win," he says. Still, Merchant hedges: "With a genius like Ray, you have to respect the possibility of the improbable."

So much for the pre-bout bluster and hype. In a quieter moment, Leonard recalls that as they finished their third bottle of Dom Perignon that night at Jameson's, he and Hagler fantasized about the fight they'd never had. "We talked about it like the biggest fight in history," says Leonard. "We created the scenario. The people. The tension. It was fascinating. But we never mentioned who would win."

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