Sugar Ray Leonard talks about Usher, Muhammad Ali and singing in the shower
He still can’t watch the last fight of his career
Twenty years ago, Sugar Ray Leonard, 40 years old and more determined than ever, stepped into the ring for the first time in six years in an attempt to strip Hector Camacho of his International Boxing Council middleweight title.
The energy in New Jersey’s Atlantic City Convention Center kicked into high gear as fans anticipated the start of Leonard’s first bout since his loss to three-time world champion Terry Norris in 1991. It would be a redemption of sorts, and was broadcast live on pay-per-view. Leonard needed to prove to himself, if not to the world, that there was still some fight left in him.
At least that was the plan.
Today, the 60-year-old boxing Hall of Famer still can’t bring himself to watch the last fight of his career.
“I have not seen the film,” Leonard said. “I have not watched the tape of the loss. I put it on, and the minute they announced my name, I turn it off. I swear to God.”
In the fifth round, Leonard was rocked by a blow to the head, followed by three left hooks from Camacho. Leonard fell flat in visible pain and stumbled as he returned to his feet. Leonard continued on, but the fight was stopped soon after as Camacho pelted a defenseless Leonard with a barrage of punches to the face.
“It’s tough because I’ve always worked so hard and I’ve always overcome many obstacles,” Leonard said. “This was one, it was like Father Time. It was time for me to hang the gloves up and I pushed the envelope. And I paid for it, but put it this way: Do I regret it? No, not necessarily, because I am who I am because of my life, because of what I’ve endured. It’s pretty cool. It’s a weird thing, but pretty cool.”
Leonard first announced his retirement in 1982 after undergoing surgery to repair a detached retina in his left eye. He would return two years later to win four bouts, with one draw, until his loss to Norris. Leonard retired for good after that fight, carrying with him a record of 36 wins, three losses and one draw.
One thing retirement couldn’t do is keep the Olympic gold medal-winning boxer from the sport he loved. Leonard continues to stay close to boxing as an analyst, most recently as a color commentator for the welterweight title bout on March 4 between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia — a unification fight that ended with Thurman getting a victory by split decision over Garcia.
Leonard sat down with The Undefeated to discuss his thoughts on the state of boxing, how he overcame the hardest moments in his life, his relationship with Muhammad Ali, and what it was like transforming Usher from R&B singer to prizefighter.
How do you feel about the state of boxing today as opposed to when you first started?
It’s not like it used to be. If you really think about it, nothing is like it used to be and that will always be the case. But I’m an optimist by nature. [The Thurman-Garcia] fight was a major fight of this magnitude in a lot of years. Maybe 20. Unification of the title. I’m just happy to be a part of it. It’s wonderful to be a part of this time, part of history. I’m just gonna enjoy it.
When you’re watching today’s fighters as an analyst, what emotions come up?
Doing broadcasting, especially at this point in my life, I’m 60 and I’ve done this for 50-something years. It’s such a part of me, it’s such a part of my life. There’s such an appreciation of what I’ve accomplished. It’s such a blessing of what I’ve been able to do with my parents and loved ones. Now, sitting better than ringside doing commentary with CBS is — I’m like a kid. I’m like a kid because I love the position, I love the sport, I love the fighters and I see a lot of myself in these young fighters trying to achieve greatness, so it’s a very special time for me.
Are there any fighters who remind you of yourself?
There’s a number of young guys who, from just a personality standpoint, remind me of myself, because when I was young in my 20s as a professional fighter, I look back on my videotapes and I was pretty cocky. I talked a little trash, but I was able to back it up, so that was pretty cool. And I also like to see these young men as they continue to graduate and grow and develop, and not just as great fighters but great men, great people, great individuals. And once they reach that level of greatness, that they give back to those that need it.
Was there some apprehension at first when you heard an R&B singer would be portraying you in a film?
It’s funny you ask that question about Usher. He called me one day and he said, ‘Ray, can you help me be you?’ I said I think I’m pretty good at that. But I was very impressed with Usher because he worked hard, extremely hard. He wanted to make me proud of him. I thought he did a fantastic job. One funny thing is the fact that he had like an eight-pack and I only had a six. I said take two of those off. He trained hard for that position, for that role. I actually think the movie was great. It didn’t get great reviews, but to me, personally speaking, I thought it was fantastic.
What was it like coaching Usher through a portrayal of yourself? Was it weird trying to teach someone how to be you?
The weird thing about it, and the tough thing about it, is Usher never boxed, per se, but because of his timing and his rhythm, being a dancer, having that ‘thing’ that’s hard to define, he had that and he’s a guy that works hard at whatever he does. I thought he could do it, but wasn’t too sure. I thought he pulled it off.
How do you feel about the young female boxers like Claressa Shields coming in and making names for themselves?
Claressa, she’s amazing. I’ve always admired her. She is really one tough cookie, and I like the ways she’s developed in her mindset. She’s an amazing lady.
If you weren’t a boxer, what would you be doing?
I’m almost embarrassed to answer the question, but I’ve always wanted to sing. I’m so bad at it. I’m so fricking bad! My name is Ray Charles and I wanted to sing. I used to sing in church, but I can’t sing. I’ll tell you what, I’m a closet singer because I put my music on when I’m in the shower and I sing my butt off. I sound good to me.
What professional athlete would you never want to trade places with?
I’ve never been asked that question. Any athlete in lacrosse, I guess. I heard it was pretty tough.
What’s one of your proudest moments as a boxer?
I’ve been blessed to have had quite a few, but the Olympics. Nothing compares to the Olympics, because it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about fame. [I was] representing myself and my country. But I’ve had a number of significant fights with Tommy Hearns back in 1981, the ‘No Mas’ Duran fight in November 1980, and Wilfred Benitez in 1979 and Marvin Hagler in 1987. I trained hard, I worked hard. People may see the finished product, but what went into me being successful is that I had determination, heart, discipline and I believed in myself.
Are there any fights that, even today, you look back at and think you should’ve done this differently or that differently?
All the ones I lost, yes. I should’ve done this, should’ve done that. There are three fights that I had that I lost. The first Duran fight back in June 1980. I lost that fight to Duran because he took me out of my game plan. Terry Norris, who beat me. That was some time ago. And then Hector Camacho beat me, my last fight back in 1997.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to watch?
Hopefully, I will. I don’t have to.
What was one of the hardest parts of your journey?
Fame and fortune is very seductive, and it can take you out. It can kill you and that’s been proven. When I first retired, I was like 25 or 26, at the top of my game. And I retired because I suffered a partially detached retina and I, all of a sudden, started finding new friends who were involved with cocaine. I drank and I did cocaine for a number of years, trying to cushion my sadness. It sounds crazy that I was having all this success and still not happy, which proves money doesn’t really buy happiness. It helps, no question about that, but what brings happiness is that when you have substance in your life, and I didn’t realize that until it was almost too late. But thank God I pulled out. I stopped doing drugs. I stopped drinking. I’ve been 10 years sober and my life is so amazing. I’m still doing commentary all these years later. It’s déjà vu and it’s something that I enjoy participating in and working ringside with my friends. I’m truly a blessed man.
I’m listening to you and I don’t think you realize how much of a legend you truly are.
You know, I just have to feel good inside. I have to feel good about myself instead of being just Sugar Ray Leonard.
Today, we’re seeing a lot of athletes in contact sports who love the game, but wouldn’t want their kids to participate. Were you that way with your kids? Or were they free to do whatever and be whomever they wanted?
I’m no different. I don’t want my kids to do that. Boxing is dangerous as most contact sports are because of the trauma that comes with it. I mean, they can train. But to actually fight, because fighting takes a test of fortitude, it takes heart. And when you’re at your lowest, you have to reach down. But if you’ve never been knocked down, you don’t have it. My kids, they don’t box. Especially with their styles, they can’t box. It’s not a pretty thing. If they want to and they show me that they have the passion and the talent, I’ll support them. I support them no matter what. They’re old enough to understand what it requires.
How did the passing of Muhammad Ali affect you?
It was bittersweet. I knew Muhammad was not healthy, but I loved him so much. To me, he was like a part of my family. And as that disease, Parkinson’s, was taking a piece of him each day, he was still so strong to have endured as long as he had because he’s a champ. He’s the greatest. And when I heard of his passing, I didn’t accept it. For a couple days, I didn’t believe he was gone. It wasn’t until I went to the funeral services in Louisville, Kentucky, that it really hit me that he had left us. But, you know what, he was so special. They call him the greatest of all time, and it doesn’t just apply to in the ring. He opened so many doors for so many people. Because if there wasn’t Muhammad Ali, there definitely would not be Sugar Ray Leonard.
If there was a message that you could deliver to your younger self, what would that be?
Be a leader. I would definitely say that, because for so long, and it happens to millions of kids, people, that we are affected by peer pressure. If your friends do it, you’ll do it no matter what it is. I’ve learned to, later on, be a leader. I tell my kids that, too. I tell my kids, if your gut tells you it’s wrong, nine times out of 10, it is wrong. Your gut is saying, ‘Why are you so nervous?’ You’re nervous because it’s not right.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received that still guides you today?
My parents always told me treat people like you want to be treated, because the same people you meet on your way up, you’re gonna meet on your way down. I’ve always wanted to be respected. The greatest thing that has happened to me, that I made possible, is that I’m respected. You may not even like me, but you respect me.