The Comeback Kid: Legendary Sugar Ray Leonard
Welcome to the first in a new series of Phenom boxer profiles, where we’ll take a deep dive into the big names that have shaped boxing throughout its history. From the victorious to the notorious, we’ll explore the legends of this incredible sport.
First up, it’s “Sugar” Ray Leonard - a boxing legend once described as the “greatest living fighter”... but what earned him that reputation? And what led to him being called “Sugar”? (and no he wasn’t sponsored by Cadbury).
How It All Started: Overtaking His Boxing Brother (By A Long Shot)
Ray Charles Leonard, as he was known before adopting his sweet nickname, wasn’t really destined to be a boxer. Not until his older brother Roger, who’d been boxing for a while already, showed off his impressive boxing trophies. That was enough to spur a young Ray into the sport. Perhaps jealousy isn’t always a bad thing?
Ray soon KO’d his brother’s record, rising through the ranks and reaching the featherweight quarterfinals of the US National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Tournament. With Olympic ambitions, he boxed in the Eastern Olympic Trials aged 16, lying about his age to bypass the 17-year-old age requirement.
Joining “The Greatest Boxing Team in the History of the Olympics”... as a Teenager?
After winning the National Golden Gloves and the AAU Light Welterweight Championships in 1974 as well as a string of other amateur competitions, a teenage Sugar was selected for the US Olympic Team in 1974 as the light welterweight representative. The team he joined became known as the greatest boxing team in the history of the Olympics, with Sugar himself winning five Olympic bouts each with 5-0 decisions. In the final, he faced Andrés Aldama from Cuba, and after a dramatic competition that went down to the wire, Sugar won with yet another 5-0 decision.
At Last: How Sugar Became Sugar
So, why is Sugar Ray Leaonard called “Sugar”? While boxing his way to his first international competition, he made waves with the assistant coach of US Olympic Boxing Team, Sarge Johnson, who told Ray’s coach: “That kid you got is as sweet as sugar”. And the rest, as they say, was history.
The End of Sugar Ray Leonard (Not Quite)
Upon winning the Olympic title, Sugar declared: "I'm finished...I've fought my last fight. My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school.” While he did win a scholarship to the University of Maryland, Sugar Ray Leonard was far from finished.
The Shock Love Child That Changed Everything
Events soon took a different turn for Sugar, with his plans to go to university quickly dashed by news that his high school girlfriend was pregnant. While preparing for the Olympics, the soon-to-be mother of his child, Juanita Wilkinson, filed for child support payments without Sugar’s knowledge.
While Sugar pledged to support his new son, the news of the child support application reached the press, and during a time where a child born out of wedlock was still frowned upon, Sugar’s chances of being paid for commercial endorsements off the back of his Olympic title were dead in the water.
With a newborn son, and his parents struck down with illnesses, Sugar needed cash. He knew he could earn with his fists, and so decided to turn his back on studying and return to fighting.
The $21,000 Loan (And One Very Early Repayment)
Sugar’s potential after his Olympic triumph didn’t go unnoticed, and it didn’t take him long to find investors to support his entry into professional boxing. With a $21,000 loan behind him (to be repaid over four years), Angelo Dundee, known for his work with Muhammad Ali, became Sugar’s trainer, ensuring everything was set for success.
His first professional fight, in front of over 10,000 people in Baltimore, was a triumph. Sugar defeated his opponent, Luis “The Bull” Vega by a six-round unanimous decision, netting him $40,044, a life-changing sum in 1977. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to $196,923 today.
Sugar repaid his $21,000 loan on the spot. A storied professional career was just beginning.
Give It Back! The Welterweight Championship Tug of War
With his career moving at lightspeed, in 1979 he defeated the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight champion, Wilfred Benítez, before losing the title in 1980 after a notorious fight with Roberto Durán. Only five months passed before Sugar dramatically clinched the WBC title back after a rematch with Durán. He held onto the accolade, winning the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) equivalent welterweight title by defeating Thomas Hearns in 1981.
Welterweight, Middleweight, ALL of the Weights!
Well not exactly all of them, but a lot of them. While most boxers stay in their lane when it comes to weight classes, Sugar went onto dominate a few.
Sugar showed his versatility as a boxer with success in multiple weight classes, winning the WBA junior-middleweight title in 1981, knocking out Ayub Kalule after nine rounds. He also won matches as a light middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight. Phew. Sugar must have needed a good set of weighing scales...
The End of Sugar Ray Leonard (Again, Not Quite)
With legendary status already achieved, Sugar decided to bow out of the sport in 1982. But that was far from the end of his story.
Sugar returned to professional boxing in 1982, before retiring and returning twice over. Upon his third retirement in 1987, he alluded to his stickiness to the sport, telling the press that despite his most recent decision to retire, “...but you guys know me.”
A Return To The Ring (x4)
They did know him, because Sugar returned in 1997 at age 40, losing after a technical knockout in round five of his comeback match against 34-year-old Héctor Camacho. This was the last straw, with Sugar making his final departure from the sport that same year.
With 36 wins, 25 of them by knockout, Sugar Ray Leonard earned his place in the boxing history books, being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
Fame And Fortune
With such an extensive rap sheet, Sugar continues to enjoy the fruits of his labour, taking up multiple sponsorship and TV roles. Now in his 60s, he supports a host of charities, using his recognition to promote a variety of good causes.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s career originally wasn’t meant to be, but a twist in fate gave us all one of the greatest boxers of all time.
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