- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Dying, dying—why, especially when he wasn't boxing, did he keep thinking about dying? Every headline he saw, every airplane he stepped on. A private jet he chartered to Chicago one night ran into a savage storm; the bottom seemed to drop out, his head crashed against the ceiling. The others traveling with him groaned and gave up. Not Ray. Even though he was totally helpless, he strained to stay in control. "I was the only one who didn't give up, and that saved us," he said. "It's over if God thinks you've given up."
That meant he could never rest. That meant the green light could never go off; the next minute could never be permitted to unfold on its own. The moment the tires of his airplane touched the runway in a new city, he would ask Ollie, What time are we leaving? Ollie would know by heart, or check the hour-by-hour itinerary on his clipboard. If Ray turned away from the heavy bag during training and bumped into someone, his eyes shot straight to Ollie's: Why did that happen, how could that be? When he was the guest speaker at a banquet he wouldn't mingle with the crowd during cocktail hour, wouldn't sit at the head table and break bread. The corporation sponsoring the affair would be told to invite only its most important executives into a special side room, where Ray would appear, shake hands for a few minutes and then slide back to his hotel room during the chatter and dinner, to reappear at the podium the minute he was scheduled to speak.
He avoided confrontations. He almost never said no. Almost instinctively, the two large men who bracketed him wherever he walked knew his preferences and said no for him, or read the signal in his eyes, or heard the sound he made by clicking his tongue against his palate. On he moved through the crowd like the prow of a yacht, nothing sticking or rubbing, barely a ripple in his wake. Never quite making eye contact or stopping, never quite getting into a conversation, but always smiling, writing his name on their shreds of paper, telling people their children were cute, saying thank you, yes, goodbye.
No one in the world, he said, understood him or knew him. He liked it that way, that too gave him an advantage. He loathed call-in radio talk shows—who knew what question some faceless voice might ask? "Everything," he said. "I want to control everything."
Even the air. He would walk into a friend's hotel room on a 95° Florida day, go straight to the thermostat, turn off the air-conditioning—he hates air-conditioning—then talk for a few minutes and leave. No, he was not a tyrant; when the moving capsule stopped, when he was caught by surprise, his impulses were generous. Outside a store in the Poconos last year a woman saw him, smacked her forehead and said, "Sugar Ray Leonard! My husband would faint if he was here—can you hold on just a minute and talk to him on the phone?" He waited obediently, took the pay phone and chatted away with the stranger.
It was just that his world had grown so much larger, with so much more air and terrain to tame. How masterly he became at it. Embarrassed? Ray Leonard? The people who knew him would rack their brains, trying to remember a stumble, a stammer, a slip or a blush. Yes, there was that time in '84 when Kevin Howard knocked him down...and...and that was it. How could a man be that cautious, that in control of his arms and legs and tongue...and yet always appear so natural and smooth, the way a myth should? The first two weeks of his training camp for the April 6,1987, Hagler fight, he refused to jump rope in public. Not until he had it down to a blur in private would he let the world watch. During his early years as a professional he would sit by himself with a tape recorder, practicing his diction; to this day he sits with Trainer before press conferences and tries to anticipate each question that might be asked. That backward flip he did in the ring in 1981 after stopping Ayub Kalule to win the WBA junior middleweight crown—was that a spontaneous eruption of joy? Certainly not—he had practiced it for days. And still something about it felt strange as he somersaulted through the air, something unanticipated that made him land short and nearly topple to the canvas; my god, of course, he had forgotten to rehearse while wearing his cup!
He could not permit this—he had to anticipate every possibility, every conceivable flying can of pork and beans. His mind could not stop itself from whirring ahead, his eyes from moving, his ears from straining to listen. Don't try to sneak anything past him, camp members whispered to each other, there's nothing the man doesn't see or hear. He banned all music from his workouts as well as all talking and use of the heavy bag by other members of his camp while he was sparring. To concentrate, he had to shut down life; yes, that was far easier for Ray than to shut down his eyes and ears and brain.
But then, of course, of course....
The slingshot. The more he controlled, the more he needed the release—that one moment when every tissue in his body uncoiled, when something larger than him, something almost like God, came over him. That moment when he didn't know precisely what he was doing—but his body did. A fight. That gave him permission to do it. It was the safest place, the only place on earth for Ray Leonard to let go.
And no, not even a fight gave complete liberation. He had to be hurt in that fight, cornered, in danger of losing—only then could he allow himself to ignore the risk, to hurl the cellar door wide open, let all the goblins loose. He learned that the cellar was there when he needed it, understood that its proper use made him a magnificent artist. In such moments his body literally grew larger, his lips curled, his eyes became another man's, twice as wide. Flinging his arms to the heavens during the two-fisted tantrum he unleashed upon Hearns in the 14th round in 1981, no, that was not planned. "Like crying" said Ray. "Like when you're really crying so hard it feels good, and the more you hear yourself doing it, the more you do. Yeah, that's what it feels like. Like crying."