Sugar Ray Leonard was working the speed bag, his feet planted firmly on the ground and his trim and supple figure bobbing and swaying under the bag. He had already sparred a few rounds with quicker and much younger men, at times looking tentative and awkward as he tried to avoid being hit, and he had spent a brief purgatory with the heavy bag, slamming hard lefts and rights into its rock-solid midsection. By now, underneath a white tent filtering an early-afternoon Arizona sun, beads of sweat were coursing down his face and off the point of his chin. Eyes wide and afire, he was grimacing as trainer Adrian Davis exhorted him to lash the speed bag with a two-fisted attack.
"One more minute, champ!" Davis yelled. "Now throw the combination. Jab, right hand, hook!"
Leonard snapped off a left jab and slammed home a right. Pop! Thump! He unleashed a ferocious right hook. Whomp! "That's it," shouted Davis. "You're lookin' good, champ! Throw the hook!"
Leonard threw another and then another, his muscular shoulders rolling left and right as he fired, his fists snapping hard at the leather as Davis sang to him: "Good! Good! You're talking now, champ! Finish with that hook! Like the one you hit Kevin Howard with. Like the one you knocked out Dave (Boy) Green with!"
Leonard dropped his arms and turned toward Davis. The fighter's chiseled face glistened with Vaseline, and he smiled as he raised his left hand and made a fist. "I'm finding my hook," he shouted. "The feel is coming back. The timing. The instinct.... I'm finding my hook!"
That Ray Charles Leonard has reason to look for any of his boxing skills again—after a six-year absence from the ring—is the source these days of his radiant energy and contentment. On March 1, at the Atlantic City Convention Center, he is scheduled to challenge Hector (Macho) Camacho for something called the IBC world middleweight championship, and because Leonard was no ordinary fighter, this will be no ordinary comeback.
Of course, no boxing stereotype is hoarier than that of the old pug returning for one last stand—the spent, desperate has-been, chased from the shadows by the IRS—but there is no evidence of that here. As always, like a poet looking for the mot juste, Leonard offers intimations of the artist in search of art, of the boxer still gleefully looking for the perfect hook. Ever a tireless worker in the gym, he thrives in its highly structured world, one in which he feels focused and in control. Today, at 40, he is in command again.
During the past three months Leonard has been rummaging through his memory for the tools that once made him among the toughest, most charismatic fighters of the modern era. Between February 1977, when he turned pro, and February 1991, when he lost badly to 'lorry Norris and retired for the fourth time, Leonard went 36-2-1, winning five world championships in weight classes from welter to light heavy. There is no way of knowing, until the dancing begins, how much is left of the Leonard of old. The strength of this fight's appeal, though, lies in the hope, however quixotic, that he can move with occasional traces of the old grace and make it a show with his once magic hands.