“Sugar” Ray Leonard: Better Amateur or Professional?
By Ken Hissner (Oct 24, 2010) Doghouse Boxing  
The question is was “Sugar” Ray Leonard a better amateur or professional? As an amateur he won 5 national titles. Besides that he was the 1975 Pan Am Games and 1976 Olympic champion. He was also the Olympic team captain.

Leonard had an amateur record of 145-5. He started boxing at the age of 13 at the Recreation Center in Palmer Park, MD, right after his brother Roger started boxing there. He lost twice in 1972 and twice in 1973. One of those losses was to Randy Shields in the finals of the 1973 AAU title bout. They would meet later as professionals. Leonard won his first major title in 1973 winning the National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship defeating Hilmer Kenty, future WBA lightweight champ.

In 1974 he won the Golden Gloves again but as a light welterweight. He also took the AAU title that year. In 1975 he won the AAU title for the third straight year. At the Pan American Games he won a Gold medal. At the Montreal Olympic game’s he defeated opponents from Sweden, Soviet Union, Great Britain, East Germany, Poland and the Cuban in the finals all by the scores of 5-0. “Although it was a great accomplishment to win a gold medal, as soon as they put it on you, that’s it; your career is over,” said Leonard.

Some of Leonard’s Olympic teammates whom I interviewed had the following to say to him: Chuck Walker: Ray is one of those guys who had it all. Extreme talent, ambition, courage and charisma. His win over Marvin Hagler is, in my view, one of the very most remarkable athletic achievements of all time. I am very proud to call him a friend.

Leo Randolph: Ray was a persuader. He would want us to get some ice cream knowing he wouldn’t put on an ounce, but we would. He was the kind of guy you wanted to be around. He was a real leader and that is why we voted him team captain.

Louis Curtis: I remember Ray saying we are a team. If they want one of us, we all have to go. Howard Davis, Jr.: Ray and I sparred the most being we were the closest in weights. Charles Mooney: Ray and I were roommates and when he slept he had dreams of fighting and would pound on the wall waking me up.

So, as you can see Leonard had a fabulous amateur career and had no plans to continue his boxing but go to college. His girl friend became pregnant prior to the Olympics and the publicity back then prevented him from getting any lucrative endorsements. Both parents became ill which put him in a position that how else to raise money but to box.

Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton were his amateur trainers. Morton went to his friend Mike Trainer, an attorney for advice. Trainer managed to have twenty-four friends and clients underwrite Leonard’s career with $21,000, to be repaid within four years at 8% interest. This brought about Sugar Ray Leonard, Inc. of which Leonard was the sole stockholder.

Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer was brought in to become head trainer and manager in order to pick Leonard’s opponents. Dundee would have Jacobs and Morton do the training with Leonard staying in his home state of Maryland with Dundee in Miami Beach. “Boxing is the ultimate challenge. There’s nothing that can compare to testing yourself the way you do every time you step in the ring,” said Leonard.

Leonard would make $40,000 in his debut and paid back his investors after one fight. “Boxing was the only career where I wouldn’t have to start out at the bottom. I had a good resume,” said Leonard. It was February of 1977 when he defeated Luis Vega, 8-11-2, over 6 rounds in Baltimore. His next opponent was Willie “Fireball Rodriguez, 10-1, who Leonard would refer as one of his toughest opponents in his career. On one undercard appeared future champion Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor Though Pryor and Leonard would never meet there was always talk of it happening. “Aaron Pryor wants to get into the ring with me. He wants to be able to retire, and he will. For health reasons,” said Leonard.

In his fourteenth fight Leonard defeated Floyd Mayweather (Sr.), 15-1, stopping him in the tenth and final round. He had Mayweather down twice in the eighth round. Just 4 weeks later in October of 1978 Leonard met one of the five amateurs to have defeated him in Randy Shields who was already 31-4-1. Leonard took the decision by scores of 49-43, 47-44 and 48-45.

At the end of 1978 world title challenger Armando Muniz, 44-13-1, was brought in. He would stay on his stool after the sixth round due to tendinitis in his left arm. To start off 1979 they picked Johnny Gant, 44-11-3, who had won 8 of his last 9 fights. Gant was dropped in the sixth and stopped when the referee halted the bout in the eighth of a 12 rounder. Leonard improved his record to 23-0 when he defeated Pete Ranzany, 45-3-1, for the NABF title, dropping him twice in the fourth and last round.

After 25 fights Leonard finally got his title shot at the WBC Welterweight title held by unbeaten Wilfred Benitez, 38-0-1. They didn’t like each other and it was a classic. Leonard would stop Benitez with 6 seconds to go in the last round with the referee stopping it due to a cut. Leonard was ahead on all three scorecards. “No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that,” said Leonard.

In June of 1980 in his second defense Leonard would fight Roberto Duran, 71-1. It would be held in Montreal where Leonard won the Olympic title four years previously. Leonard made the mistake of fighting Duran’s fight and wanted to prove he could still beat Duran. Leonard lost by scores of 145-144, 148-147 and 146-144 along with his WBC welterweight title. It was the first loss for Leonard in 7 years.

Leonard wanted an immediate rematch that was arranged for 5 months later at the Superdome, in New Orleans. His assistant trainer Dave Jacobs left the camp because he felt Leonard should have a warm-up fight. Leonard knew Duran would balloon up between fights and felt the sooner the better.

Leonard had his jab working snapping back Duran’s head. By the seventh round Leonard, well ahead, started taunting Duran, like only Leonard or Ali could do. By the eighth round Duran turned and said “no mas” (no more) and quit to the shock of all the fans.

“I made him quit. To make a man quit, to make Roberto Duran quit, was better than knocking him out,” said Leonard. “At the end of the fifth round I got cramps in my stomach and it kept getting worse. I felt weaker in my body and arms,” said Duran. Duran was admitted to the hospital with stomach pains that night and discharged the next day.

After one more defense Leonard stepped up to the light middleweight division taking on Ayub Kalule, 36-0, for his WBA title. Suddenly a left and right combination dropped the champion. Kalule beat the count and the referee signaled the end of the fight. Leonard was ahead on all scorecards in a close fight when the fight ended at 3:06 of the ninth round declaring Leonard the new champion.

The showdown between 2 of the greatest welterweights in the history of boxing came on September of 1981 at Caesars palace, Las Vegas. Leonard dropped back to welterweight after winning the light middleweight title that he would never defend. His record was 29-1 to the WBC/WBA welterweight champion Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns, 32-0.

This was a battle that seemed to have Hearns boxing and Leonard being the aggressor. By the fifth round Leonard had quite a bit of swelling under his left eye. Hearns with the longer reach did well boxing Leonard and was ahead on all scorecards going into the thirteenth round. His trainer Angelo Dundee told him after the twelfth round “you’re blowing it son.”

In the thirteenth round at the halfway point Leonard landed a solid right hand that made Hearns leg’s wobble. There were over 20 unanswered punches as Hearns went through the ropes more from exhaustion at that point.

Out for the fourteenth round Leonard I but was on the attack landing a vicious uppercut and forced Hearns to the ropes where again he fell through but grabbed the top strand with both hands. Referee Dave Pearl had little control of this fight in the late rounds. Leonard seemed to do what he wanted but with just thirty seconds gone in the round Hearns started moving and boxing. A glancing overhand right caught Hearns along the ropes and Leonard immediately held his hands in the air.

He went after the exhausted Hearns and landed over a dozen punches with the last one’s digging into the body but Hearns managed to move away. Halfway through the round Leonard again had Hearns on the ropes digging in several left upper cuts to the body. Hearns threw several weak punches back and Leonard landed a left to the body and followed with a left to the head as the referee stepped in with Leonard still firing away.

The end came at 1:45 of the fourteenth round and no complaints from the Hearns corner. Hearns was ahead after thirteen rounds by 125-122, 125-121 and 124-122. “I think I’ve become one of the best finishers in boxing; if I hurt a guy, I normally take him out,” said Leonard.

Leonard was back five months later defending his WBA/WBC welterweight titles stopping Bruce Finch, 29-3-1, in Reno, in the third round. It was discovered he had a detached retina. It looked like his world was coming to an end. It was a tough two years for him at 26 until he was medically sound and able to fight again.

Leonard was off from February of 1982 until May of 1984 when he took on Philadelphia’s Kevin Howard, 20-4-1, a light middleweight fight. Leonard was boxing well when in the fourth round in backing up he got caught with a right hand by Howard on the left side of his face below the ear and down he went. He managed to get up and go on to stop Howard in the ninth round. He would retire for almost 3 years.

Hagler’s people knew they could make a big payday with Leonard as an opponent. They also knew he had been off for three years and wasn’t having a warm-up fight. They seemed to have everything going their way. Leonard had stayed in good shape during the three year absence from boxing. The fight was set for April 6th 1987.

For Hagler it had been little over a year since he stopped John Mugabi in the eleventh round in 1986. It was his only fight that year. In 1985 he only had one fight and that was with Thomas Hearns. Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was the venue. Leonard’s plan changed 5 days before the fight due to a sparring session with Quincy Taylor. “He almost knocked me out,” said Leonard.

Leonard moved and boxed well causing Hagler to follow him and fight his fight. Hagler did very little in the first 2 rounds. In the sixth round Hagler was frustrated and would switch to orthodox from his normal southpaw. Leonard was too quick for him. Most of Hagler’s jabs were reaching jabs with little on them. Even in the ninth round when Leonard stayed in a corner allowing Hagler to hit him he would suddenly put a shoe shine on Hagler to the thrill of the audience.

Hagler thought he did enough to win and so did Leonard think he won. Leonard had his share of trainers but it was Angelo Dundee in the corner for most of them. Leonard and Hagler each received a vote of 115-113. The final vote was 118-110 for the new WBC middleweight champion “Sugar” Ray Leonard! Hagler wanted a rematch but Leonard was not interested which brought about Hagler’s retirement from the ring in June of 1988. Off to Italy went Hagler.

A month later Leonard announced his comeback to fight Donny “Golden Boy” Lalonde, 31-2, with 26 knockouts, for the vacant WBC super middle and Lalonde’s light heavyweight title. It would be 19 months since the Hagler fight. There was a dispute with his head trainer Angelo Dundee. Leonard was going to pay him approximately 2% in which Dundee insisted on a contract. “My word is my bond,” said Leonard. In place of Dundee Janks Morton and Dave Jacobs would serve as his trainers.

In the fourth round a glazing right hand from Lalonde dropped Leonard. By the sixth round Lalonde was slowing down. In the seventh Leonard was landing more punching than at any other time in the fight. Lalonde would come back to take the eighth.

In the ninth Leonard was controlling the round with his jab. Suddenly halfway through the round Lalonde was scoring with punch after punch. A lead right by Leonard turned it all around as Lalonde was obviously stunned. Over a dozen punches went unanswered with the final punch a left hand that dropped Lalonde. As he got up he walked toward the corner and turned around with his hands down. Referee Richard Steele never asked him to raise he gloves. He simply quickly wiped them off.

Leonard was on him like a cat nailing him with a right hand. A straight right followed up by a left and down went Lalonde. Steele finally waved it off as Lalonde tried to get up but rolled over on his back for several minutes. Leonard now had won 5 divisional titles. It was obvious he wouldn’t be defending his light heavyweight title. For Lolande it was the second time he had been stopped in 34 fights. Leonard was ahead on two scorecards 77-74 and 77-75 while Lalonde had the third one 76-75.

Just 4 days previously Thomas Hearns had won a majority decision over James Kinchen for the WBO super middleweight title. It was an obvious rematch ahead for both Leonard and Hearns with both now holding titles. They would meet in Las Vegas, in June of 1989, almost 8 years since their first fight. Both fighters by fight time were middleweights with Leonard making 160 and Hearns 2 ½ pounds heavier.

Hearns dropped Leonard in the third round. In the eleventh round Hearns landed his long jab and followed with a right hand that hurt Leonard. Another right followed by a left hook and down went Leonard for the second time in the fight. In the twelfth and final round Hearns was controlling things with his jab when Leonard went on the attack 1 minute into the round. The rest of the round was all Leonard. Hearns did all he could do to stay upright.

This writer had it a draw at 113-113 while most people had Hearns the winner. Leonard and Hearns each got scores of 113-112. The final vote was 112-112 making it a draw. Hearns would fight 10 months later defending his super middleweight title before moving up to 175 and winning the WBA titlel.

Leonard would be back 6 months later for the rubber match with Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, 85-7, in Las Vegas in December of 1989. “Duran always disturbs me. The guy is just weird. Before our first fight, both Duran and his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard.

Duran had won the WBC Middleweight title in his previous fight from Iran Barkley in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. This time Leonard’s super middleweight title was on the line with Leonard at 160 and Duran at 158. Leonard did suffer a cut over his left eye, but dominated Duran by scores of 119-109, 116-111, 120-110. This is definitely when Leonard should have stopped fighting.

The Duran fight was December of 1989 and in February of 1991 Leonard drops down to light middleweight to fight the WBC champion “Terrible” Terry Norris, 26-3, with 15 knockouts. In the second round Norris dropped Leonard with a left hook in almost a sitting position with only his gloves touching the canvas. Norris proceeded to run to Leonard and hit him with a right hand. At that point referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. should have disqualified Norris. Leonard’s corner screamed to no avail.

Norris took the fourth big but Leonard came back. In the seventh Norris continued to be on his bicycle almost fighting like the old Leonard. Just before the bell a right hand dropped Leonard for the second time. Leonard came back to take the ninth. In the tenth it seemed old age set in on Leonard. If Norris would have put more pressure on him he may have been the first boxer to stop Leonard in his 39 fight career. The decision was a formality. Scores were 119-103, 120-104 and 116-110.

Leonard would come back in March of 1997 after being out of the ring for 6 years. His opponent was Hector “Macho” Camacho, 62-3-1. It was listed for the IBC Middleweight title. He hadn’t lost in 3 years since losing to Felix Trinidad winning 21 times. Pertaining to Leonard’s condition he pointed to new trainer Adrian Davis. “He’s a great trainer, a throwback. He has helped me get ready,” said Leonard.

The bout took place in Atlantic City. From the start you could see Camacho was quicker. He also got warning after warning from Cortez for holding behind the head with no points taken away. In the fourth round it didn’t look like an accident as he came in with his head into Leonard’s left eye causing a cut.

In the fifth a right hook to the head, a left behind the head and a left uppercut dropped an exhausted Leonard with a minute to go in the round. After Leonard got up Camacho charged him and landed over 20 punches. Cortez stopped it at 1:08 of the fifth round. For the first time in his 40 fight professional career Leonard would not go the distance. Leonard could not beat time.

Leonard’s final record was 36-3-1 with 25 knockouts. He held the WBC/WBA welter, the WBA light middle, the WBC middle, super middle and light heavy titles. He was a 5-division champion. In losing the last 2 fights of his career he was not the Leonard of prime time. His loss to Duran was the only time he lost in his prime and some say he beat himself that night.

He was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1997. You be the judge. Was he a better amateur or professional?

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