Fight fans make a mistake when they confuse Sugar Ray Leonard the man with Sugar Ray Leonard the fighter. They see the handsome, youthful face, the sweet smile and the gentle manner, and they're afraid for him when he goes into combat. Hardly anyone seems to see the Leonard with the cold eyes, the cruel warrior ready to spring forward at the first call of the bugle, the first roll of the drums. And it was Leonard the fighter who was seen circling the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Nov. 7, his blood heated by battle; yelling a curse at someone in the crowded ring; and slamming his gloved fists against the shoulders of his friend and member of his entourage, Juice, driving him back, angered because his fight with the bigger and stronger Donny Lalonde of Canada had ended.
Across the ring, Lalonde lay on his back. Blood dripped from one of his closed eyes, and beads of sweat ran across his body. His head rolled slowly from side to side. His mouthpiece, pink with blood, rested on the floor just above his head. Lalonde tried to speak to his manager, Dave Wolf, who was kneeling beside him. Wolf put his right ear close to Lalonde's mouth. "Let's keep fighting," said Lalonde, his voice hoarse from a blow to the throat.
"It's over," Wolf said softly. "The fight is over."
The end came like a savage storm. Leonard, who had been knocked down by a right hand to the left side of his head when caught off balance in the fourth round, faced a furious assault in the ninth. His chances for world titles four and five—the WBC super middleweight championship and Lalonde's WBC light heavyweight crown—suddenly appeared dim as Lalonde threw 31 straight punches, although most lacked power or precision.
When Lalonde paused, Leonard attacked. As he came out of the corner, he launched three hooks to Lalonde's head and a hard jab to his nose. A right snapped Lalonde's head back, driving him into his own corner, where he took a savage battering. Leonard slammed fist after fist against Lalonde's head before dropping him with a hard left hook.
His expression grim, Lalonde struggled to his feet. He nodded at Leonard, as if to say, "O.K., you win." When referee Richard Steele waved Leonard forward, Lalonde grimaced and exhaled sharply, sending a bright red spray into the night air. His eyes widened as Leonard moved swiftly to resume his assault. He hammered a right against Lalonde's head, and Lalonde, who had held his title for not quite a year, tried to clinch, but his strength was gone, and he backed away against the ropes. Leonard set himself and fired a right from the floor that narrowly missed Lalonde. Then, tapping Lalonde's chest gently, almost contemptuously, with a measuring left hand, Leonard cracked him with another right and sent Lalonde to the floor with a hook. It was over.
A few hours later Leonard sat quietly in his third-floor Caesars Palace suite. He had just returned from the hospital, where four stitches had closed a cut on the left side of his nose. He held a gray ice bag against his left ear, which he said had been battered by Lalonde's elbows and shoulders. There was a yellow plastic hospital band on his right wrist.
"I got tough with him," Leonard muttered. "I knew he was a big guy [Lalonde had come down from his customary weight of 175 to 167; Leonard weighed 165], but I couldn't get motivated. But something happens when I get into the ring. That's all the motivation I need. It's the competition. I love the competition. People say it's the money. The center stage. My ego. It's none of those things. It's the competition. And I love to win. I really love it."
Exhaustion was etched on his handsome face. His voice was gentle. His smile was warm, mischievous. It seemed natural to dread that Leonard the man would fight again. But Leonard the fighter probably will.