Sugar Ray Leonard stood on the sloping 18th fairway of the Casolwood Golf Course in Canastota, N.Y., sizing up his next shot and gazing at the crowd of boxing fans gathered around the green, 100 yards away. He adjusted his cap and look a practice swing with the fluidity one might expect from a five-time world boxing champion who often transformed his brutal sport into art. It was because of his brilliance in the ring that Leonard (right) was in Canastota, a town of 5,000, 20 miles east of Syracuse. He, former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres, promoter Don King and 10 others were to be inducted the next day into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The golf tournament was just one of several events, including lectures on the state of boxing, a 5-km run and an autograph show, held during the weekend. Sugar Ray's focus seemed to be on the links. At number 18 he dug in with his white-and-brown golf shoes, tugged on his pressed gray slacks, paused once more for drama, adjusted his glove and swung.
The crowd scattered like water bugs as Leonard's worm burner careered along the cart path before coming to rest 30 feet away, under a poster on the clubhouse promoting Tyson-Holyfield II. Leonard, alas, was perhaps the finest golfing boxer in the bunch of former pugs who played in the tournament. Maybe he was just nervous as he approached the 18th, near which his old rival Marvin Hagler was signing autographs. Leonard and Hagler had shaken hands amicably when they had met earlier in the day. "But we don't have them in the same foursome, that's for sure," said one Hall of Fame representative. A novice golfer, Hagler, looking as fit as he did when he fought Leonard in '87, went into the water on his first hole. "I'm gonna try this sport," Hagler said. "And everybody better just get out of my way."
Indeed, fans were bobbing and weaving all day at Casolwood, where cries of Fore! rang out every few minutes, causing the legendary boxers to flinch more in one morning than they had during their ring careers. Two years ago Hall of Famer Carlos Ortiz, twice a lightweight champ in the 1960s, was struck in the head by a ball. Before his wile could help him off the course, she too was hit by an errant drive. The next year Ortiz showed up wearing a helmet. "It's fun out there," he said. "But it's dangerous too."
This year former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney hit his tee shot on number 10 sideways across the 18th and 17th fairways. (He always did have a vicious hook.) When an approach shot at 17 got away from former welter-and middleweight champ and Canastota native Carmen Basilio, an onlooker inquired about the 70-year-old boxer's handicap. Basilio walked over and, with the same left arm that battered Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957, placed the jokester in a headlock. Basilio, who putts with his trusty left alone, guided his foursome to a third-place finish. "One guy I'm playing with today said he always had trouble with his hands in the ring," Basilio said. "I told him, 'Yeah, the ref kept stepping on them.' "
Basilio's nephew Billy Backus, a fellow Canastotan, held the welterweight title in the early 1970s. It was in searching for a way to honor the town's two illustrious sons—and for an attraction to draw tourists off the New York State Thruway—that the folks of Canastota, previously best known for growing onions, conceived of the Hall of Fame in '84. Now, life-sized bronze statues of Basilio and Backus greet visitors to the four-room wooden building, and, with the induction of Leonard et al., 178 fighters, managers and other fistic figures are enshrined.' Each year about a dozen former fighters play in the golf outing, at which old friends and legendary foes alike high-five each other on the way to the 1st tee and then continue their camaraderie in the 19th hole. "Once the spectators are gone, the fighters stick around," said Backus. "That's when the old war stories come out."
Given the action on the links, the bloodiest tales likely came from that day's rounds.