Sugar Ray Leonard retired from the ring last Friday night, for the second time, but without the fanfare that had accompanied the former world welterweight champion's glitzy departure 18 months earlier in Baltimore. This time the setting was Worcester, Mass., and there was only a tired young man, his handsome face strained and lumped, a bit sad perhaps, but at peace with himself.
Although he had stopped lightly regarded Kevin Howard on a TKO in the ninth round of his heralded comeback bout, in the Centrum arena, he knew in his heart that he had won not because he's still the best, but merely because he was the better fighter this night. He was an actor playing himself, but, just as George C. Scott can never be George S. Patton, the Ray Charles Leonard of 1984 could never hope to be the Sugar Ray Leonard of three years ago.
No one had expected it to end like this, of course, with Leonard fighting timidly for three rounds, getting knocked down for the first time in his 34-fight pro career—in which he has lost once—in the fourth and then having to call on his heart to save him from defeat.
Howard is a Philadelphia fighter—tough, if that's not redundant—but he had lost two of his last four bouts and hadn't gotten a call in any of the major ratings. "Do not judge us by this opponent," Mike Trainer, Leonard's lawyer, said before the fight. If all had gone as expected, the next opponent would have been Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the undisputed world middleweight champion. Hagler, in whose backyard—Worcester being just 70 miles from Hagler's home in Hanover—the fight was held, was the magnet that pulled Leonard back into the ring.
"Give me some kind of a sign after the fight," Trainer told Leonard in the dressing room beforehand. "People are going to be coming at me from every angle wanting to know what's next. Give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down." Holding aloft his thumbless gloves, Leonard, who at that moment was on a psychological high, said he would try.
"It was a strange, strange night," Leonard would say later. "I felt great warming up." The only thing that bothered him was his weight. That morning he had tipped the scales at 149. But after his usual light dinner, he weighed 156 in the dressing room, four pounds more than normal. He shrugged the mysterious weight gain off.
"But then I got inside the ring and I started to come down mentally," Leonard said. "I knew something was wrong; the old electric feeling wasn't there.
"I just didn't have the killer instinct. I was apprehensive, afraid of being hit. I had heard it for so long, in the papers, on TV, every day from little kids to adults. My eyes had become famous. I guess it stuck to me. The question was: What will his reaction be? Heck, I wanted to know, too. Then the first time I got hit I multiplied it into a lot more than it really was. I said, 'Hot damn, that hurts.' "
Leonard fought the first three rounds like a man trying to tiptoe through a minefield. He was ducking his head when he threw his right; he was pulling back his head, falling back, as he threw a hook. Then in the fourth round, just as he seemed to be finding himself, he pushed out a lazy jab. A fine counterpuncher, Howard fired a right hand and caught Leonard flush on his famous face, drilling him to the floor.
Later that night, in Leonard's suite, Howard would say, "I couldn't believe I knocked you down. I was surprised."