- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

The young boxer from Palmer Park became a media darling even before collecting Olympic gold in the light-welterweight division at the 1976 Montreal Games.

Sugar Ray Leonard was handsome, articulate and moved about the ring with a speed and grace reminiscent of his famous namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson.

And he fought with a heartwarming picture of girlfriend Juanita Wilkerson and their son on his socks. Putting it in pugilistic terms, ABC boxing commentator Howard Cosell and much of the viewing audience were totally knocked out.

Nor was Leonard the only U.S. fighter to earn hourras from French-speaking spectators. Four other Americans won gold medals, including brothers and future heavyweight champions Leon and Michael Spinks.

“This is the greatest night in the history of amateur boxing for America,” said U.S. team manager Rollie Schwartz, and there were no dissenters.

Oddly, in retrospect, the 20-year-old Leonard wasn’t supposed to be golden. The light-welterweight favorite was Cuban knockout artist Andres Aldama, who had flattened all five of his previous foes in Montreal.

Yet when they met July 31 in the gold-medal bout, Sugar Ray took charge swiftly. Dancing about the squared circle like the young Muhammad Ali, he floored Aldama with a left hook in the first round and battered him so severely in the last that the referee twice forced the Cuban to take a standing eight count. Leonard won the lopsided bout 5-0 and then knocked reporters for a loop during a subsequent news conference.

“This is my last fight,” Leonard said, announcing that he planned to major in business administration at the University of Maryland. “The journey is over, the dream fulfilled.”

In years to come, Leonard would retire and unretire “more times than Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand combined,” as boxing historian Bert Sugar put it, but this first incidence stunned boxing fans everywhere.

Leonard had hoped to cash in on endorsements, but the potential bonanza evaporated when Wilkerson filed a paternity suit against him in an effort to get food stamps and his father became seriously ill. Showing considerable smarts, Ray enlisted the sharp Mike Trainer as his business manager and attorney plus Ali’s former trainer, Angelo Dundee, to mastermind his career in the ring.

Leonard won the WBC welterweight title in 1979 by stopping Wilfred Benitez in the 15th round and had a pro record of 32-1 when he encountered Thomas “Hitman” Hearns in September 1981. Hearns lived up to his nickname by dominating the early rounds and hammering Ray’s left eye almost fully shut by the end of the 12th.

Warned by Dundee that he was blowing the fight, Leonard turned slugger and battered Hearns almost at will before the referee stopped it in the 14th. Other memorable bouts followed against Panamanian slugger Roberto Duran - who quit abruptly in the eighth round of their infamous “no mas” meeting - and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Through most of the 1980s, Sugar Ray was the biggest attraction in a declining sport. But like so many other renowned athletes, he stayed around much too long, eventually becoming an object of pity rather than admiration.

Hampered by increasing wear and tear and a detached retina in his right eye that required surgery, Leonard lost to journeyman Kevin Howard in May 1984 and promptly retired, saying he didn’t have it anymore.

Of course, it didn’t take. Nearly three years later, at 31, Leonard took on the fearsome Hagler in what promoters billed as “The Superfight.” Surprisingly, this proved to be no exaggeration. In a brutal bout, Leonard won a split decision bitterly protested by Hagler and his camp.

Not until 1997, when he was 41, did Leonard finally and permanently hang it up after being stopped by Hector “Macho” Camacho. If you’re keeping score at home, Sugar Ray won six titles in five divisions and retired three times - or was it 103?

Since then he has headed a boxing promotion company and acted in several TV series. But never again will he be as pure and promising as he did on that bright night in Canada 33 years ago when somebody draped a gold medal around his neck.

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