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Leonard stood with his forearms resting on the top strand of the ropes. Jacobs swabbed his face with Vaseline. He was breathing heavily, apple-butter brown with sweat on his face. Jacobs exhorted him to "keep workin' on that move till you get it down pat. Beautiful move, beautiful shot!"
Most of what Leonard does in the ring has an esthetic quality about it. It has become increasingly that way as time has put distance between him and the Olympics, when he was a young, free swinger with no ambitions beyond getting back home and going to school. In the 37 months since the Games, he has not only emerged as one of the most skilled craftsmen in boxing—a thinking man's fighter with the fastest, most exciting hands around and an unrelenting instinct for the kill—but he has also become its most popular and colorful practitioner. He is a phenomenon like no other in the sport today, unique in the success he has attained, and in the money and position he has come to command in so short a time. He is very much a creature of his time and place, his success as inextricably bound to the Nielsen ratings as it is to those incredible hands and the manifest skills he brings to the ring.
Because of Ray Leonard's presence, he and Benitez will become the first fighters outside the heavyweight division to earn at least $1 million each for a bout. As the champion, Benitez will get $1.2 million; Leonard will get $1 million. The Leonard-Benitez fight also will mark the first time in the era of big-money sports events that a non-heavyweight fight will be carried as the main event on prime-time television. At age 23, with only 25 professional bouts behind him, the undefeated Leonard has already earned close to $3 million. And he has done it without fighting for the title. When his match with Benitez is over, he will have earned almost $4 million in the ring. And if he wins, as most observers expect him to do, and if the bout gets the kind of Nielsens ABC anticipates—a 30% to 35% share of the audience—his appeal, and earning potential, will be incalculable.
"It's amazing, it really is," Leonard says. "The more I think about it, the more I see what has taken place, what has materialized. Looking back to where I started and all the hard work I had to put in to get where I am today, it has all been worth it. This is the culmination, the top. I made it to the finals, do or die, in the Olympics.... Now I'm here again."
Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington, N.C., on May 17, 1956, the fifth of Gertha and Cicero's seven children. Gertha named him after singer Ray Charles, whom she admired. When Ray was three, the family moved north to Washington, D.C., to an apartment on L Street, and when he was 10 they settled permanently in the Maryland suburbs east of Washington, first in Seat Pleasant and a year later in Palmer Park, a low-income, predominantly black community of one-story homes built in the late 1950s. Cicero worked as night manager in a supermarket. Gertha was a nurse. Ray was shy as a boy, and aside from the time he almost drowned in a creek during a flood in Seat Pleasant—his brother Roger can still see him grasping for the branches along the shore as the torrent swept him away—his childhood was uneventful. "I felt out of place," he says. "I was always aware that my mother and father were trying hard, but I never had anything. I wore my brothers' clothes." He stayed at home a lot, reading comic books and playing with his German shepherd. "He wasn't moody, unless you are talking about when he wouldn't talk to anybody," Gertha says. "He never did talk too much. We never could tell what he was thinking. But I never had any problems with him. I never had to go to school once because of him."
Ray didn't excel at team sports and was no more than a casual athlete until 1969, when he first walked into the recreation center at Palmer Park and put on a pair of gloves. Roger, who is a year older than Ray and had already won boxing trophies, had waved them in his face and goaded him into coming. "He was sitting at home reading comic books all day," Roger says. Roger had helped start the boxing program at the center, urging Ollie Dunlap, the center's director and a former pro football player, to form a team. Dunlap bought two pairs of boxing gloves for $45, and the program was launched.
"Palmer Park is not a ghetto, but on a scale of one to 10, it's a two," says Dunlap. "We were trying to bring self-pride to the community. It was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. It was just after the 1968 riots, and there was still hostility in the air. A white guy would have to be out of here at 5:30 in the afternoon. You can go into Palmer Park and buy anything from a nickel bag to an automobile. Ray was in this environment 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He went to high school with kids who died through violence. One kid who hung around the gym is serving life for murder. Another was killed in a getaway car after a liquor-store robbery. But Ray was strong enough to slide through it. He knew where he wanted to go and what it would take to get there."
Leonard took his first steps toward his goal at the center, where he met Morton, an insurance broker who eventually would become his closest friend and adviser, and Jacobs, a delivery-truck driver for a pharmacy in Annandale, Va. Every day at 4 p.m., Jacobs, who had boxed as a youth but had never fulfilled his ambition to become an accomplished fighter, left the pharmacy, drove home to Palmer Park and worked with the boys. "Ray was the type of kid who came into the gym and never said nothing but did everything you told him to do," Jacobs says. "A lovely kid, very shy, but he worked hard, very hard. When we had a tournament coming up, the kids would run at five in the morning on a ball field across from Ray's house. Ray was always there, regardless of how tired he was."
"For some reason I wanted it so bad," Leonard says. "I felt it was in me, and I had to keep going."
He was naturally deft, quick with his hands and feet, and he learned easily, absorbing the lessons that Morton and Jacobs gave him. His rise was steady. In 1973 Leonard won the National Golden Gloves championship in the 132-pound division, his first major title. In '74 he was a national AAU champion. In '75 he was a Pan American champ. And he climbed despite the sometimes exasperating conditions. "We didn't even have a ring until 1976," Dunlap says. "From 1971 to 1976 Ray trained without a ring, in the middle of a gym." When Leonard was getting ready to go to the Pan Am Games, Dunlap recalls, a summer basketball program was being held in the gym. There were days when Leonard would be training under Jacobs' supervision, and after only 45 minutes Dunlap reluctantly would have to ask him to leave the floor.