The show Leonard put on was, more nights than not, unforgettable, starting when he won gold at the 76 Games, in Montreal, with a picture of his three-year-old son, Ray Jr., taped to his shoe. Leonard's choirboy smile lit up the place, but it was a smile that belied his taste for blood and public executions. It was that remorseless Leonard who, in November 1979, trapped the artful Wilfred Benitez, then welterweight champion, in a corner with piston-quick hands in the 15th round and, throwing blows from all points of the compass, knocked him out on his feet to win that first belt. This was the Leonard who, in June 1980, not only survived Roberto Duran's beastly, maniacal attack but actually turned the fight his way the last few rounds. He lost the decision and the welterweight title that night in Montreal, but his effort to fend off Duran's onslaught—one that would have buckled and broken most men and that caused Leonard's then wife, Juanita, to faint dead away in her seat—first revealed the depth of his fortitude and will.
Those qualities were never more apparent than in his two most dramatic victories. On Sept. 16, 1981, in the 13th round, against Thomas Hearns, Leonard, his left eye swollen shut, was losing on all three judges' cards when he struck a right to Hearns's temple. Then, in what seemed an endless flurry, Leonard raked Hearns with 25 straight punches. The bout was stopped in the 14th as Leonard, pressing the attack, again unloaded on Hearns at will.
On April 6, 1987, against middleweight champ Marvin Hagler, Leonard came out of a three-year retirement and gave what was surely the most remarkable performance of his career. Hagler was one of the hardest punchers in the division's history and had not been defeated in 37 bouts over 11 years. Few people thought Leonard could win against the bigger and stronger champion. Yet Leonard stunned the boxing world that night with his superior athleticism, skill, nerve and endurance. In the frantic final round, with the fight close, he twice looked doomed as Hagler pinned him to the ropes, but both times Leonard escaped with a flurry of punches. In the end the crowd came roaring to its feet when the judges awarded Leonard a split decision and his third world title.
Friends and family urged him to quit then, at the most transcendent moment of his career. He did retire briefly but then fought four more times over the next three years, including the ill-fated bout with Norris. Leonard was being beaten so badly in that one that by the end of the 10th round, his father, Cicero, was pleading in vain with Ray's cornermen: "Stop the fight! Please, stop the fight!"
Leonard lost by decision and murmured to himself, "I don't need this." So he rode off into that longest and most troubling of all sunsets, the one that blinds every athlete who cannot face leaving the world that gives meaning to his life and laces his blood with passion.
Yet here it is, six years later, and Leonard is back again—not only ready for another adrenaline fix, but also eager to take advantage of the sport's increasingly moribund state. "There's nothing really out there," Leonard says.
Except large pots of money for a marquee name. Leonard is a "crossover icon"—a term copromoter Bernie Dillon uses to describe Leonard's broad appeal in and out of boxing—and will receive the lion's share of the guaranteed purse, $4 million to Camacho's $2 million. Each fighter will also get a percentage of the pay-per-view money. For Leonard, it is a hefty payday for taking minimum risk. A light puncher, Camacho is himself 34, not to mention 158 pounds, making him 10 years and nearly 24 pounds past the days when he was a whippet-quick lightweight out of New York.
Leonard was the first fighter in history to win $100 million in purses, and he claims that he is an eight-digit millionaire with no financial needs. "I don't need the money, but $4 million is a lot and this is a business too," he says. "It's all relative. I would not fight for $100,000."
At the core of why he is fighting again is the fact that he never found his niche in life beyond boxing. Oh, he endorsed some products here and there, such as Callaway golf clubs, and has been a fight commentator. He even took acting lessons and played the role of a grave digger on Tales from the Crypt, but that's about as deep as he dug. Like most athletes of enormous talent and skill, Leonard found himself sparring with that most melancholy of fates—that of the young adult confronting a lifetime in which he would never be as good at anything again as he was when he was young and inside the ropes. Whatever he tried, nothing ever came remotely close to engaging him as fully and passionately as playing the living role of warrior-king. That is what he missed most of all.
"It is wonderful," Leonard says of boxing. "It truly is. It is the only thing that is real! It's you against me. It's challenging another guy's manhood. With gloves. Words cannot describe that feeling—of being a man, of being a gladiator, of being a warrior. It is irreplaceable."