It worked as a slingshot does. The more his energy and thoughts turned inward, the more he drew all his anger and joy and desires inward...the more tension gathered on the strap, screaming to be discharged, if only Ray would let go. His brother Roger kept tattooing his head; his brother Kenny kept bringing home basketball trophies and goading Ray to find himself a sport, to put away his comic books and be a man; a car killed one of his dreaming buddies, his dog King; a no-pets rule in the lease of the apartment his family moved into snatched away his other pal, Duke. Pull it back further, Ray, stretch the strap tighter. And when it finally happened, when Roger harried him into the ring in the Palmer Park (Md.) Recreation Center gym one day when Ray was 14, when he put on a pair of gloves, pulled back his fist and let go, it all shot back the other way, all the years of unvented fear and want and dreaming, all the temper of his mother and the wildness of his brother and the silent strength of his father and his father's father—the one who folks said knocked a mule cold on a South Carolina farm with one punch—all the confusion and ache Ray had buried in the cellar, all the wallop waiting in the blood. The first two opponents he sparred with landed on the floor and slid. Then came Roger, the atomizer of order, the archenemy of Thor. Ray busted Roger's ribs and nose. Sweet Jesus, it was almost like a dream.
Yes, that was why the boxing ring felt like home to Ray, even at the start. Because he was so gifted as a fighter, in such control, it was the closest approximation to his fantasy that he had ever found in real life. It was the arena of the absolute, it was the air and terrain of the superhero. A man with talent and will and a terrible need could do it here. A man daring enough could live a dream.
There was one hitch. The moment a great boxer stepped out of a ring, he was hounded by hustlers and promoters, by con artists and chaos, by a hundred different hands trying to remove his quest from the realm of the dream, to rub it in spit and dirt and grease. Other fighters reveled in the elemental nature of the sport, loved to wallow in its mud. Ray Leonard would have to build a capsule in order to have a righteous dream, to fly over the mud, to remain in the clouds.
How would he do that? He would give things different names. He would hire people to carry his water buckets and his towels in camp, to travel with him and make him laugh, as other boxers did—but he would refuse to call them his entourage. He would hire trainers such as Janks Morton, Dave Jacobs and Angelo Dundee—and then decide he didn't really need them. He would use promoters to stage his fights—but never, like other fighters, would he become affiliated with them. He would smash the stereotype, create a public image unlike any other boxer's, un-smudged by scandal or excess, by temper or lust or blood.
He would stay a little aloof, a little alone, a little distracted. He would never lean on anyone. The entire first year of his relationship with Trainer, Ray never spoke to or looked at him. Yes, Ray Leonard, the glib one, the Olympic gold medalist who, right before meeting Trainer, had smiled into the eye of the camera and made all of America feel warm. He looked at the walls of Trainer's office, at the ceiling, at the window, at everything except the lawyer. After Ray was gone, Trainer would get a call and a list of Ray's questions from Morton. All of Ray's doubts would come from other lips. That was how he kept the capsule airtight, how he kept control.
And the moment the capsule leaked, the moment the dream lost its altitude, its purity—he quit. Box for money? For dollar bills? An hour after he won the Olympic gold medal for light welterweights in 1976, he said it: I quit. Get your face bruised, discolored? An hour after he lost to Roberto Duran in 1980, as he looked in the mirror, he said it: I quit. Knocked down by Kevin Howard in 1984? I quit. I quit.
And yet, he always came back. A manipulator? A spoiled millionaire? No—beneath that tuxedo, couldn't they see? Just that nice, quiet little boy desperately trying to stay cocooned inside a dream.
Oh, but how much energy and thought it took to live a life that way. To anticipate the unexpected, caulk all the cracks, make sure sloppy reality never oozed through the seams. What? The green light! The green light in the kitchen wasn't on! Once, in the predawn gloom, Leonard found his security guard, Craig Jones, in the laundry room of his house in Potomac, Md. Ray's voice was deader than Craig had ever heard it. "There are three things important to me," he said. "My wife and my two sons. The green light isn't on, Craig. You didn't activate the alarm, Craig. There are several important things to you, Craig. And if you don't activate the alarm every day, they won't be important to you anymore."
He needed people around him to filter out the unpredictable...and yet people themselves were so unpredictable. No surprise birthday parties, no surprise gifts, he told his camp before the second Thomas Hearns fight—he hated surprises. He had married the woman he had dated since high school, staffed his camp with relatives and with neighbors he had known from the old days in Palmer Park, clung tenaciously to people and things he knew. People like Ollie Dunlap, loyal and strong, his itinerary-keeper and right-hand man, people who would hurl their bodies on top of his and take the beer can in the head, the way Ollie did one night in Reno right after a controversial fight Ray was analyzing for HBO. People who produced his water bottle the moment his tongue was almost dry, extended a breath mint the moment his meal was done, made him feel secure. He rewarded such people well, gave them wonderful gifts and shared his wealth with them.
But people disillusioned him—why was it that they almost always disillusioned him? When his camp members sold tickets to his fights on the side and T-shirts with his name, as people in other boxers' entourages did, he became distraught and banished them from his circle. And then, five or six months later, he summoned them back. How else could he restore the illusion, reseal the capsule and keep flying?