There are very few happy endings in boxing. Hardly anyone leaves when he should, hardly anyone can keep his legacy intact, hardly anyone can preserve his dignity. It almost always ends badly. But for Sugar Ray Leonard, whose arrogance has outlasted his legs by a decade, it ends badly over and over.
True, nobody really banked on his many retirements. This was a guy who found a reluctant style early in life; the 1976 Olympic golden boy retired from boxing at the age of 20, before his first pro fight, if you remember.
But doesn't he learn? What could have been more final than that night in Madison Square Garden six years ago when the unknown Terry Norris dismantled Leonard, embarrassing him to the point that he announced his fourth retirement as a pro, while still inside the ring? Could last Saturday's bout have possibly been any more final: Popgun artist Hector (Macho) Camacho suddenly looking like Joe Louis, flooring Leonard, battering him against the ropes in the Atlantic City Convention Center until the fight was stopped in the fifth round, to the absolute relief of everybody?
Sadly, the end of the line for Leonard came all too late. For many, the five-time champ will now be fixed in history as the man who couldn't quite defend himself against a boxer whose principal creation has always seemed to be a high-grade irritation. No matter that Leonard was 40 when he tried yet another comeback; the allowance for age will be forgotten as time goes by. For many, this was Willie Mays stumbling after a fly ball, then trying to explain it all away in a cheesy setting just off Atlantic City's boardwalk.
Leonard's final exit couldn't have been much worse, or more unnecessary. He has earned more than $100 million in the ring, kept most of it and retained his hold on the public. Even after the Norris humbling, he continued to enjoy a celebrity wholly predicated on his ring persona, equal parts charm and bravado. How many times over the course of his career did his fans watch in fascination as his smirking, winking visage gave way to that cold glare?
Nothing, not even the loss to Camacho, will diminish that career entirely. But last Saturday, Leonard subtracted a little more from it. In the end, it will be remembered, he had more ego than heart—or at least sense. The whole promotion, all his talk about challenges and history, came off as cheap vanity. Imagining that boxing was this easy, that he could come back after six years and challenge a skilled professional, demeaned his profession and himself. It was foolish.
Most unnerving was that Leonard was still not persuaded of this, even after Camacho, who was himself considered faded, overwhelmed him. From the start Leonard had difficulty keeping his feet beneath him, tripping once, almost stumbling to the canvas a second time. He couldn't move. Afterward he explained why: He had a torn right calf muscle.
While this was no doubt true, and contributed to his lack of mobility, it had a disturbing resonance. Leonard had, over time, come to believe that had he not injured a rib in training, he would have beaten Norris. Now, here he was, developing another alibi.
He was insistent that nobody take it as an excuse. "Do not write that this was the reason I lost," he said. Yet he had been quick to bring it up, saying he had received shots of lidocaine 90 minutes before the fight and had not sparred in the two weeks preceding the fight because of the injury. While praising Camacho, he left no doubt that the severity of the injury greatly compromised his performance.
Leonard also revealed that he had lied in denying a rumored hospital visit on Jan. 31, when he first injured his leg while training in Chandler, Ariz. At the time Leonard said that his son, Ray Jr., who was trying out for a local Arena Football League team, had been the Leonard in question. Mustering his old smugness, Leonard challenged a reporter to prove that he'd been to the hospital.