- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"Sugar Ray has shown tremendous improvement in every fight he has fought," says Ray Arcel, one of the most respected trainers in the business and a cornerman of welterweight contender Roberto Duran. "He's one of the keenest students of boxing I've seen in recent years. In that respect he reminds me of another Leonard, the greatest of them all: Benny Leonard. He was the perfect fighter. He was the one guy who could make you do things you didn't want to do. If you were an aggressive fighter, he'd back you up. If you didn't want to lead, if you were a counterpuncher, he made you lead. And he was one of the fastest thinkers in boxing. He was the master of the feint. Ray Leonard is the nearest thing to Benny that I've ever seen."
Leonard is superb at putting together combinations, Arcel says, throwing a variety of punches with speed and strength. "He jabs and hooks and follows through with a right and then hooks again, maybe doubles up on the hook," Arcel says. "He's got the guy bewildered. This is an unusual variety, the mark of real championship timber. Ray's able to execute it. He does it as sort of an element of surprise, and he reaches out when you least expect it. And once he hurts you he can finish you. I think he's a pretty good puncher. He may not be what you call a great puncher, but he's a damaging puncher. And with his speed he's able to follow through from one punch to another. There's no telling how great he can become. It's up to him. My personal opinion is that sooner or later he is destined to be champion of the world: it may come a lot sooner than we expect."
Leonard's lessons have taken different forms, and not all of them came the easy way. There are more things a boxer must learn than artful combinations and how to slip a punch. On May 20, 1979, Leonard won a 10-round decision against Marcos Geraldo, but it called for an act of survival. He took a punch that knocked him so silly that he saw more than one fighter in the ring with him. It was as if he had walked in a dream into a haunted house, with ghostlike figures stalking him. "He hit me and I saw, like, a shadow," Leonard says. "I saw three of him. I thought. 'Oh, shoot!' " Leonard tried to clear his head, moving continuously, endeavoring to get the images to come together. He still saw three. He backed off, giving himself time. "I couldn't distinguish who was who. Then pow! he hit me again. Then I knew the one in the middle was him. Now that I think about it, it's amazing—that punch cleared up my head."
The experience taught him something that he did not know and could never have picked up in a gym. "I learned survival in that fight," Leonard says. "I found out how to reach down, back deep down, and bring everything up. I had to use every trick and tactic I knew, and some I didn't know, to get away from him." In his last three fights Leonard confounded Tony Chiaverini, a lefty out of Kansas City, and stopped him in the fourth round. After shelling Ranzany, the North American Boxing Federation champion, he took on Andy Price, a tough customer out of California who was supposed to give Leonard trouble. He never had the chance. Taking the fight to Price in the first round, Leonard mugged him in the middle of the ring, punched him into the ropes and toppled him there with eight seconds left in the round.
"When a fighter is busy I move, looking for what's opening," Leonard says. "It's sort of like surveying the land, looking for the area that's not protected. I'm waiting for a spot to open. If he gets careless, I move. I'm expressing the gift I have. I think I'm blessed with a gift. I know I'm blessed. I'm capable of doing whatever I want to do in a ring."
For that, and for the distinctive flair he brings to the ring, Leonard is making history in boxing. Nothing more clearly illustrated his place in the game—as well as some of the chicanery that goes on behind the scenes—than the making of his fight with Benitez. Though undefeated and twice a champion—he was the junior welterweight champ before he won the welterweight title—Benitez has never earned more than $150,000 for a fight. Last spring Trainer called Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez' manager, and asked for a meeting to talk about a title fight. Jacobs was delighted. Trainer flew to New York. They huddled in Jacobs' apartment for four hours. If Trainer knew nothing about this business three years ago, he had since become a Ph.D. in money and maneuvering in the boxing world. He told Jacobs that the fight was worth $2.2 million. The question they had to settle was how to divide it.
Both managers sought the lion's share of the pot. Trainer argued that they would not be getting near this kind of money if Leonard were not enough of a draw to get the fight into prime time. Jacobs countered that his fighter was the champion, and traditionally champions don't split down the middle with challengers.
"Wilfredo is not an opponent," Jacobs told Trainer. "He is the world champion who has never been beaten, and he has to be paid more than the challenger."
"Ray is providing nearly eight times the money that Wilfredo ever made on a fight," said Trainer.
It was point, counterpoint for hours. The final compromise stemmed from discussions on the question of a site. Jacobs had said he would agree to a split if the fight were held either in New York or Puerto Rico, both of which would give Benitez a home-crowd advantage. Trainer would not accept either place. Naturally he wanted the bout to be held in Washington. They tugged back and forth. Trainer acknowledged that champions normally do not split a purse and understood that Jacobs had to sell the deal to his champion. So Trainer offered an extra $100,000 to Benitez if the fight were held at a neutral site, and Jacobs agreed. They took the package to promoter Bob Arum.