Looking like a sculptor putting the last touches on a bust, Bob Jermain stood over Sugar Ray Leonard and gently applied a dab of greasepaint to the fighter's left cheek. "Make me look like new again," Leonard had said. Jermain was obliging.
It was Saturday afternoon, 19 hours after Leonard had won the WBC welterweight championship, and Leonard was in a dressing room backstage on the set of The Merv Griffin Show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Jermain, the show's makeup man, painted the left cheek, then the right, using a grease intended to cover up the reds and blues of the bruises under Leonard's eyes. "The new Sugar Ray Leonard!" Charlie Brotman, Leonard's P.R. man, called from behind him.
Leonard is admittedly vain about his looks. The first thing he does after most fights is examine his face. After the fight the night before he had peeked only once. He was not badly bruised, but what he saw pained him. "I looked in the mirror and turned off the light," he said. "I couldn't believe it. 'Is that me?' "
He had just beaten Wilfred Benitez for the title, stopping him with six seconds to go in the 15th and final round, and this was one way he was paying for it. That he required extensive makeup to prepare for talk-show television was testimony to what he had been through inside the ring. And, makeup aside, there was no hiding the effect of the mental and physical pressures he had endured in winning the hardest and most important fight of his life from the toughest, most dangerous opponent he had ever met. The night before, he had lain in a bathtub for an hour, unable to attend the party he was throwing at Caesars Palace. "Every bone in my body aches," he said. He had been dehydrated and had slept fitfully, waking up after nightmares with an unquenchable thirst. "I kind of felt like Rocky," he said. "This for me was the ultimate test. There was so much pressure."
The heaviest pressure stemmed from knowing the kind of money he could make if he won the title. Leonard would earn $1 million for the Benitez fight, Benitez $1.2 million, and Sugar Ray knew that if he won there would be more down the line—millions more. He passed the test by scoring a stunning TKO off a deft combination. He beat perhaps the best defensive fighter in boxing in a match that seemed at once a chess match and a manhunt, a tactical exercise in which two fighters stalked each other, slipped and feinted, and countered and probed for weaknesses. "From a technical standpoint, there was more done in this fight than I've seen done for a long time," said Angelo Dundee, Leonard's trainer. "You saw two smart, scientific fighters—two champions in the ring at the same time. They brought the best out of each other."
And, to the extent they did so, they answered some questions about themselves. There was Leonard, at 23 the sport's ascendant star, going after the title in his 26th professional fight—fast, versatile, intelligent and a superb finisher. "My ambition is to retire financially independent, unharmed," Leonard says. "My ambition is not to be just a good fighter. I want to be something great, something special." What was not known was how he would respond to the kind of pressure that so superb a craftsman as Benitez would bring to bear on him; how he would deal with a tricky, ambidextrous opponent; how well he could take punches over the course of a fight; and how he could handle a full 15 rounds—he had never gone more than 10.
And there was Puerto Rico's Benitez, at 21 ring-wise beyond his years: the junior welterweight champion at 17, the youngest titleholder of all time; the welterweight champion at 20; a counter-puncher with quick hands. How would he deal with Leonard's jab, and how would it affect him that he had not fought since March? "We'll find out whether Ray Leonard is the consummate professional that he appears to be," said Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez' manager. "Leonard will be hit more than he has ever been hit in his life. I think it will go 15 rounds, and I'm extremely confident that Wilfred will win." The bettors disagreed, making the champ a 3-to-1 underdog.
As the bout began, the fighters met in the center of the ring in a 30-second staring match, their faces menacingly stony, inches apart. The crowd, rising, cheered them with loud whoops and whistles.
Then Leonard began moving and jabbing, and it appeared that he had found his target, that this might be an early evening. In the first round he tagged Benitez with a sweet hook that came off a jab and righthand, rocking the champ backwards. But Benitez got away. In the third Leonaid caught him again, this time with a cleanly delivered left jab. Benitez went down on the seat of his pants. Up quickly, he took a standing eight-count, and at the bell walked to his corner smiling sheepishly.
Benitez found Leonard with two righthand leads in the fourth, and suddenly Leonard was fighting a different man. "I wasn't aware I was in a championship early because I hit him so easy," Leonard said. "But then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror." And Leonard was having trouble hitting his man, especially with the overhand right. Benitez slipped one after another, dipping under them.