On the recommendation of Muhammad Ali, Leonard selected Angelo Dundee as his manager. Dundee, who has trained or managed 10 world champions and has been with Ali since his second professional fight, will work for 15% of what Leonard makes as a fighter. As trainer, Leonard picked Dave Jacobs, who has been with him since his earliest days as an amateur in Palmer Park, Md. With Jacobs in his corner, Sugar Ray won 145 of 150 amateur fights (with 75 knockouts), three Golden Gloves titles, five international championships, two national AAU crowns, as well as Pan-American Games and Olympic gold medals. As an amateur, he was unbeaten in his last 40 fights, or since Jan. 17, 1973.
"It's beautiful," Leonard said. "I'm with people I trust. I was always afraid of being just a piece of someone's property, with no say in my career. I don't have to worry about that anymore. And as soon as I repay that $21,000, I'm my own man."
When Leonard announced he was turning pro, the city of Baltimore, which considers him a hometown boy although he lives a few miles to the south, said it would like to stage the fight. Baltimore promoters, however, were loath to come up with the money. "To heck with them," said Louis Grasmick, a local lumberyard owner and a commissioner of Baltimore's Civic Center. "I'll put up $10,000 toward his purse." CBS came up with another $10,000. Leonard also was promised the first $5,000 after the live gate passed $30,000, and half of everything beyond that. The other half would go to the City of Baltimore, which acted as the promoter.
Dundee was offered four opponents by matchmaker Eddie Hrica, and selected Vega, a low-slung brawler out of Reading, Pa. with a 14-8-3 record. "Vega's no setup," said Dundee. "He's tough and he knows how to fight. You can't start off against stiffs. I want to know right away if Leonard will carry over into the pros the same type of potential he had in the amateurs. All of us have seen kids who look like world-beaters, but for some reason they don't make it when the money is on the line. Against a guy like Vega we'll find out right away how well Ray is going to adjust."
At his noon workouts in the Civic Center, Leonard drew 500 to 800 fans, many of whom admitted they had never been to a fight. The match was ballyhooed on billboards, posters and even on the backs of buses, and by Friday night more than $47,000 worth of tickets had been sold. The highest previous indoor fight gate in the city was $41,000 for an Ali exhibition.
But by Friday, even the gracious Leonard had become exhausted from the nonstop promotional campaign. Up early in the morning for a run, he went back to bed without eating breakfast. In the afternoon he took some friends and his son Ray Jr. to see the movie Rocky. That night he had been scheduled to make an apearance at a local Chinese restaurant. He had to say no. Instead, he had dinner at a downtown hotel and went to bed. Saturday morning he reappeared as fresh as ever. "The only thing I can find wrong with him," said Commissioner Dr. Charles Tommasello at the noon weigh-in and medical checkup, "is that he can't stand cold hands."
Climbing into the ring that afternoon, Vega—nicknamed the Bull—looked as tough as Dundee had predicted. He had never been knocked off his feet. For this fight he would make only $650, and he knew a victory over Leonard would put him in line for bigger money. He was predicting a knockout.
A few minutes later Leonard entered the arena, a slender figure in a sharp purple robe he designed himself, and when the Civic Center's PA system blared forth the Olympic theme song, the crowd went wild. Smiling, Leonard climbed into the ring.
"When he does that," said Jacobs, "something happens to him. Outside of the ring he's a gentle, kind human being. In that ring he becomes a killer."
The fight started slowly—Vega, in the center of the ring, turning to follow the circling Leonard, who seemed content to run up points with his jab. Halfway through the second round, a different Leonard, a professional, emerged. He began to work quickly, confidently, banging away with furious combinations, although the long post-Olympic layoff had left him less than sharp. In the fourth round he sliced open the corner of Vega's left eye and had the Bull bleeding from the nose. The pace slowed in the fifth round, but for Vega it was only a momentary respite. "Let's see you back him up," Dundee said to Leonard as he came out for the sixth and final round. Throwing murderous shots, Leonard bounced the game Puerto Rican about the ring, but at the end Vega was still on his feet.