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Eight Months Later, Leonard Remembers the Glory and Doubt

December 27, 1987|WILLIAM GILDEA | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Sometimes in the evening, when it's quiet, Sugar Ray Leonard will put on the tape. The tape of The Fight: himself and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Leonard has a perfect place to watch it; on the top floor of his Potomac home is his own theater. He watches it "all the time."

"It's like a cup of coffee," he said. "It's energizing. For me, it's like a shot of caffeine. Kind of gets me pumped up.

"I mean, I look at that fight, and it's almost beyond the odds." The odds had said he would lose, but to Leonard, "I was doing something that I believed in."

Like Hagler, Leonard can't get last April's fight off his mind. But Leonard's mood is the flip side of Hagler's. The split-decision defeat turned Hagler morose; no victory was sweeter for Leonard. As Hagler still broods, Leonard, in retirement again, savors the night he stole away with Hagler's middleweight crown.

Leonard keeps busy these days. He runs and plays tennis. He advises three boxers, and sometimes works in the ring with them. He travels, promoting various products. He does boxing commentary for HBO. But during lulls, he looks back to April 6--and the whole year leading up to it. It's understandable, given the preparation Leonard put into that fight.

He described it recently as an ordeal marked by doubts that he would ever be ready for Hagler, by his often unraveled nerves that caused him to lash out at close associates and by punishment from sparring partners that surprised him and fueled the doubts, but which ultimately made victory possible.

There was the time when his lawyer and wife told him he wasn't training hard enough, that he'd have to do more to beat Hagler. He didn't want to hear that.

Another time, his closest friend told him the same thing. For a while, Leonard stopped speaking to him.

There were days when Leonard thought the routine of his isolated training camp in Hilton Head, S.C., would drive him crazy.

When he got to Las Vegas, believing he was ready to fight, he was "rocked--really rocked good" by a sparring partner just days before the fight. Talk about a stunned fighter. And a stunned fighter's camp.

Leonard winced as he recalled the moment. He was passing a slow, rainy day at the Bethesda office of his lawyer, Michael Trainer.

It was Quincy Taylor, a southpaw imitating Hagler, who hammered Leonard with an overhand left. Leonard "wobbled," his "knees buckled." Shocked, Taylor fell into a clinch with Leonard to give Leonard a chance to recover.

"I was upset with myself," said Leonard. "So I went back to my house in Vegas and watched the tape. When I saw what happened, I was more pleased." But that punch "kind of hit home with some of my people, too. 'Hey, man, you OK?' It looked like all of a sudden my guys who were so confident that I could win were thinking, 'Geez, it's over.' "

Who could blame them? It was one of the few times Leonard had ever been "rocked" in the ring.

"I tell the truth when it comes to being punched," said Leonard, relaxed in red sweater and jeans. "I've been hurt a number of times--I mean hurt--by certain people. (Roberto) Duran was one of the few guys who really rocked me, Marcos Geraldo rocked me, Hagler rocked me, Fireball Rodriguez rocked me." That's Willie (Fireball) Rodriguez of Allentown, Pa., from whom Leonard won a six-round decision in his second pro fight in 1977. Fireball Rodriguez might have put Leonard's career on a different course.

Hagler "rocked" Leonard in their fifth round.

"After he hit me, it was just a matter of me waiting to see how it felt. When I regrouped real fast, I said, 'I punch just as hard as he does.' I rocked him, too, but it was not as visible, I guess, because he's a much bigger man, and he doesn't get knocked off balance as easily. His weight would knock me back. Keep in mind, I was losing a pound a round."

Sometimes when Leonard watches the tape, he sees an opening he wishes he had taken advantage of. It's like when he looks at the big photograph on the wall of Trainer's office: Leonard is landing a left hook to Hagler's right temple. Perspiration is flying off Hagler's bald head from the force of the punch. Both of Hagler's hands are on the right side of his face, as he covers up. The left side of his face is wide open. "A right cross," said Leonard's friend, Ollie Dunlap, "and it's over."

"I guess that's where 'ring rust' comes into play," said Dunlap. "Four years ago, Marvin wouldn't have lasted five rounds with Ray.

"When you look at the tape, you see the difference in foot speed. Marvin is so much slower."

In the ninth round, Leonard--for one last time, he believes--played with Hagler's mind. Having felt uneasy around the glib Leonard, Hagler had eschewed the prefight hype, had bolted from the two fighters' publicity tour. "The ninth round," said Leonard, "was a very significant round because I backed him up a few times. He thought it was doomsday. He thought he had me in the late rounds, and all of a sudden I came back. I retaliated.

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