Former boxing champ “Sugar” Ray Leonard

Celebrated former boxing champ discusses the devastating sexual abuse he faced during his teen years and writes about in his memoir, The Big Fight, and dissects some of his greatest fights.

Voted by ESPN as one of the top 25 athletes of the last quarter century, "Sugar" Ray Leonard fought his way into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He learned to box at age 14 and won Olympic gold. After turning pro, he won world championships in five different divisions and was the first boxer in history to win $100 million purses. After retiring, Leonard found success as a TV broadcaster-entrepreneur-author and mentored aspiring fighters on NBC's The Contender. He also supports various causes, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome “Sugar” Ray Leonard back to this program. After becoming a household name during the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, he went on to be one of the most-celebrated fighters of his era, losing just three times in his professional career. He’s out now with a critically acclaimed new memoir about his life and career. It’s called “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.” Sugar Ray, an honor, sir, always, to have you on this program.

“Sugar” Ray Leonard: Always a pleasure, man.

Tavis: You good, man?

Leonard: Always. I’m good, I’m good, yeah.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. Let me jump right in and deal with this first, and then get to the other stuff in the book. When I first saw the book and read it, my first question was why – why would Sugar Ray, at this point in his life, feel the need to talk about molestation as a fighter? Why?

Leonard: That question has been asked, and at times I’ve questioned myself why I revealed as much as I did. But Tavis, there are things in that book that I kept close to my heart and to my chest for 37 years, and it ate me up every single day.

There wasn’t a day that went by, whether I am in the ring, after a victory in the ring or marrying my wonderful wife, Bernadette, my kids being born, I still had those moments that I relived that I knew that if I had not gotten that thing out, that poison, that toxin, out of my system, that I would be still a guy who used alcohol and drugs to its fullest.

And not to say that because I became an alcoholic or I did drugs because of that. It was everything. It was my life. I wasn’t totally happy, although from an exterior standpoint I smiled for the camera. I smiled, I met good people. I was hurting, and that was for me. I did this book for me.

Tavis: Has it been therapeutic? I know what you thought; I hear your point now what you thought it was going to be in terms of why you did it. Has it turned out to be that way since the book’s been out? You’ve been on the tour; people are asking about it; they know about it. Has it been therapeutic?

Leonard: It has been therapeutic. I’ve met people, the people, the fans, just friends who have come up to me and just gave me a hug. Some every now and then will say, “I was there, too. It happened to me.” Whether it was the cameraman, whether it was a co-host, a host, a woman, man, I’ve been embraced and supported, and it feels good.

Tavis: I understand the decision on your part not to name names in terms of the molestation piece – I get that. On the other hand, there are those, because you’ve worked with so many people who might feel like a certain amount of aspersion has been cast on them, there’s a cloud hanging over them because you didn’t name names so that everybody in your camp around this time might be suspect. You say what to those persons who are not guilty?

Leonard: Well, the ones that were guilty, they know they’re guilty. The ones that were innocent, they think nothing of that. That’s my take on it. Also, I want to say I’m glad you brought this up, Tavis, because my coaches from the ’76 Olympics? No, it’s not them; it’s not Pat Nappi or Sarge Johnson. They were incredible men. This happened when I was 15, 16, so this happened way before I came in contact with those great trainers.

Tavis: There are a lot of young men who happen not to be fighters – you were – who this has happened to, does happen to, sadly, and when it happens to them they end up, way too early in the process, questioning their manhood. Did you ever question your manhood as a result of it? How did you get past that?

Leonard: You know, I did – no, I didn’t question my manhood. I questioned why I didn’t hurt those guys. I was a fighter, amateur fighter.

Tavis: And you ran out.

Leonard: And I ran out.

Tavis: Instead of punching somebody, yeah.

Leonard: Instead of punching something, any of them. One, looking back, with the honest of opinion, the fact that one was someone who was going to lead me to the Olympics, a coach; the other one was the one who supplied me or gave me a loan – well, it wasn’t a loan because I couldn’t pay it back – gave me money. So they each had their own reasoning of why I didn’t become physical.

Tavis: When you write a book like this, and there’s so much in it and I want to get to the rest of the stuff in the book now, when you write a book like this, Ray, and you put that kind of truth, that kind of honesty and openness in the book, it does tend to cloud all the other stuff in the book. Did you think about that going into it? “If I say this, that’s all they’re going to want to talk about is this, and I can’t get to the other stuff about my life in the book.”

Leonard: Tavis, I never thought about whether it’s the consequences, the oppositions, the questions or whatever. I just thought about me, freeing myself. I talk about Juanita, my first wife, who was a wonderful lady and a wonderful wife. I just didn’t know how to be a husband back then. She took care of, she raised my son, little Ray, there, and Jarrel, who Jarrel came, who’s 27 now, and Ray’s 37, and Jarrel came when it was turmoil in the family. It was turmoil in the family. I was never really there. I would give my guy money to take the kids to buy toys, whatever they want.

I used money as a means to being a father, and that hurts me. That really hurts me. I can never redo or repay. You know what? I was a lousy dad. I was the best dad I could be, knew how to be, but then all of a sudden I attained this life of a (unintelligible) the fame and the fortune. All of a sudden now I am, like, people tell me how great I am.

All of a sudden now I’m being called Sugar Ray by family members. I’m being asked to do this and do that, I’m meeting presidents, I’m traveling the world. It was so much, so fast that I never sat back and said, “All right, so let’s talk.” My life moved so fast.

Tavis: This book, in many ways, Sugar, reads to me like a book of atonement that you wanted to – particularly the parts about Juanita you speak of, and now you go much deeper, obviously, into the text. But I get the sense that you want to atone to Juanita for not being what you could have been and should have been at that time.

Leonard: I saw her, I was in Atlanta and I did a book signing and she came to one of the book signings, and we went to dinner. She didn’t deserve – I didn’t deserve her, you know what I mean? She was a good woman, she was a strong woman and she did the best she could to kind of keep the wedding, or keep the – I’m sorry, keep the marriage strong.

But by then I had found cocaine, I found alcohol, and I became just a crazed guy. It’s funny, because I’m loved by so many people, yet I wasn’t – I didn’t love my wife. I loved her, but I didn’t show her love, if that makes any sense.

Tavis: You mentioned that Ray is 37 now; that makes me feel old.

Leonard: (Laughs) Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

Tavis: We all recall the commercial.

Leonard: He was four years old back then.

Tavis: He was four years old then, yeah. Maybe that’s why I feel so old, because I remember that commercial like it was yesterday. You can’t talk to Ray Leonard without talking about some of the fights, so – and you covered many of them in the book. I’m just going to throw names at you, and you respond any way you want to respond in terms of what you thought of them and those fights. In no particular order, Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns.

Leonard: That was my most defining moment. That contest, that fight with Tommy Hearns, against Tommy, it was – he brought out the best in me. He made me realize that even as tired as I was going to the later rounds, where he was winning, that there is indeed a power that we all have when you reach down, when you’re so tired, you’re hurting, you can barely see.

Because he closed my left eye with his punches, and the only way I could win that fight was to knock him out, which I reached down and I did that.

Tavis: Marvin Hagler. “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.

Leonard: That was my most valued and my treasured, my personal accomplishment, because I beat the odds. Forget if I got the decision or not; I beat the odds by going the distance with a guy of his caliber. Marvin Hagler, without question, he was amazing, an incredible champion. Never really got his just due, because that was my era, too, and just like Larry Holmes or Ken Norton or the other guys, when Muhammad Ali was champion, it was all – they didn’t even acknowledge them. Same thing happened with Hagler, but he, indeed, a great, great fighter.

Tavis: Roberto Duran.

Leonard: That guy taught me so much about this, because the first fight, he got into my head so bad that I decided to fight him at his own game, toe-to-toe, which was not smart. And they call him “manos de piedra,” “hands of stone.” He had hands of stone.

Tavis, I’ve never been hit by anyone that hard (laughter), that relentless. This guy was like a Tasmanian devil. I can see him now, I can envision him now, because he was, like – he really resented me because I was, like, the golden boy, I was, like, the – I did the endorsements, I did all of these commercials and I was smiling all the time.

And then he cursed me out and I’m smiling, because I was taught to smile. But he taught me so much, and he was so great.

Tavis: Camacho.

Leonard: I recall seeing this cute little guy who had incredible hand speed. He talked a mile a minute. Never thought in a million years that I would come back to fight this guy some, I don’t know, 20 years later, and he – I did the wrong thing. That was one of the worst mistakes I could have made, fighting him, and fighting Terry Norris, because these two guys, one was like my son’s age at the time.

I was going through my divorce with Juanita, I wasn’t happy, I was still drinking heavily. Wasn’t doing drugs anymore; I stopped that because a friend of mine, my security guy, James Anderson, said something to me to make me stop. But I was drinking heavy and I wasn’t a frame of mind to be in the ring. I shouldn’t have been in the ring at all.

Tavis: Last question. You can’t, again, talk to you without asking this question – your assessment of the sweet science today. What do you make of boxing today?

Leonard: Boxing is, it’s my sport and I’m very optimistic, but it’s not – we don’t have the same personalities, characters, fighters, champions. There’s too many self-governing bodies. It’s too confusing. It doesn’t – they don’t use the term “contender” anymore, you know what I’m saying? They don’t say “number one contender.” Now they say, “The next guy in line.”

I love the sport; I am the unofficial official ambassador of the sport. I will always be, Tavis. And you know what? We need to fix ourselves.

Tavis: Finally, should Mayweather fight you-know-who, and who would win in that fight?

Leonard: They both should fight each other at the same time. (Laughter) Yes, they should. Yes, they should.

Tavis: And who would win?

Leonard: You know what? They both showed me something I didn’t see in them before. They both were hurt by their opponents, Margarito to Pacquiao and Mayweather to Shane Mosley. I saw them each hurt. They both – you know what? It’s a fight that you shouldn’t bet your house. Okay? (Laughter)

Tavis: I won’t. Good advice from Ray Leonard – don’t bet the house on that one.

Leonard: Don’t bet the house.

Tavis: The new book from “Sugar” Ray Leonard is called “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.” It’s an honest, candid look at his life and his legacy, and Sugar Ray, I’m always glad to have you on the problem.

Leonard: Thanks, man. Always.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

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Last modified: July 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm