WASHINGTON — The one-time and perhaps future welterweight champions met in a ring last Thursday at Palmer Park, Md., and the message they banged out with their fists was clear: It was a big hello to the United States from Canadian Shawn O'Sullivan, and a small reminder from Sugar Ray Leonard that he was once remarkable, and still is.
O'Sullivan used to be a sparring partner for Leonard. Now Leonard is a sparring partner for O'Sullivan.
Leonard, more importantly, is also a teacher, O'Sullivan his willing student.
Unlike most boxing teachers, Leonard can demonstrate better by putting on gloves than by shouting instructions from the ring apron. "I say, step to the right, then a right to the chin. . . . When he executes that, it's a great feeling."
A great feeling to be hit? For Leonard, success as a teacher means finding pleasure in taking a punch.
For the man who has brought the two boxers together, Silver Spring, Md., attorney Michael Trainer, the manager of both, these days of promise are reminiscent of eight years ago, when Leonard was where O'Sullivan is now: 10 victories, no defeats, unlimited possibility.
"I think he's going to be a champion," Trainer said of O'Sullivan. "I'd be terribly disappointed if he wasn't."
As he did with Leonard, Trainer is proceeding cautiously with O'Sullivan, 23, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist. "From a professional standpoint, he's ahead of (Leonard)," said Trainer, because Leonard at the time was still physically growing.
But O'Sullivan is behind as a U.S. media star: while O'Sullivan has fought from Halifax to Vancouver and become a hero in Canada, Leonard in his first 10 bouts had appeared on CBS once and ABC five times.
O'Sullivan's fame will grow in the U.S., said Trainer, "once I get him on network."
So while O'Sullivan is preparing for a March 27 fight in Nova Scotia, Trainer says he is working hard to close a deal with NBC that would put O'Sullivan on TV in June.
For O'Sullivan, "there are two ways to learn, the hard way and the easy way," and learning from Leonard clearly is an easy way.
"Ray is like studying under a good professor," said O'Sullivan after he went two rounds with Leonard's older brother, Roger, who hadn't been in a ring for four years and got very tired very quickly, and two rounds with Leonard, who still looked and hit like a champion.
"He's happiest when he's here," Trainer said of Leonard. "This is his home, the gym. What this does for him, if he ever gets an inkling (to come back), he gets it out of his system. It's very therapeutic."
What's more, said both Trainer and Leonard, sparring is of no danger to Leonard's left eye. In 1982, Leonard was operated on for a detached retina that prompted his retirement, and only a week ago Leonard said he passed a routine checkup at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "You can't be too careful," he said.
Leonard has been working out regularly and looks so good he is often asked about a comeback. The answer is still no.
"Mentally, physically" he can do it, he said, "but not spiritually--because that's a whole different dimension."
This May, Sugar Ray Leonard will be 30.