In this unflinching and inspiring autobiography, the boxing legend faces his single greatest competitor: himself.
Sugar Ray Leonard's brutally honest and uplifting memoir reveals in intimate detail for the first time the complex man behind the boxer. The Olympic hero, multichampionship winner, and beloved athlete waged his own personal battle with depression, rage, addiction, and greed.
Coming from a tumultuous, impoverished household and a dangerous neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, Sugar Ray Leonard rose swiftly and skillfully through the ranks of amateur boxing-and eventually went on to win a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. With an extremely ill father and no endorsement deals, Leonard decided to go pro.
The Big Fight takes readers behind the scenes of a notoriously corrupt sport and chronicles the evolution of a champion, as Leonard prepares for the greatest fights of his life-against Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, and Wilfred Benitez. At the same time Leonard fearlessly reveals his own contradictions and compulsions, his infidelity, and alcohol and cocaine abuse.
With honesty, humor, and hard-won perspective, Leonard comes to terms with both triumph and struggle-and presents a gripping portrait of remarkable strength, courage, and resilience, both in and out of the ring.
My eyes never lie.
They were open wide, staring back at me in the mirror
of the dressing room at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Those
eyes would reveal which of the two dueling personalities would enter the
ring as I took on the most intimidating opponent of my career, Marvin
Hagler. It was nearly seven o’clock on the night of April 6, 1987, the opening
bell only about an hour away.
Would it be Sugar Ray Leonard, the star of numerous conquests in
the past, an American hero since capturing the gold medal in Montreal
more than a decade earlier, the anointed heir to the throne vacated by
Muhammad Ali? Sugar Ray was resilient, fearless, unwilling to accept
failure. The smile and innocence of a child, which made him a hit on TV,
would be gone, replaced in the ring by a man filled with rage he did not
understand, determined to cause great harm to another.
Or would it be Ray Leonard, the part-time boxer at the age of thirty,
whose best was well behind him, his days and nights wasted on fights
that never made the headlines, fights he lost over and over, to alcohol and
cocaine and depression? This was a man full of fear and self-pity, blaming
everyone but the person most responsible for his fate—himself.
In the room, with no one around, I kept my eyes glued on the eyes in
the mirror. They were alive, probing, big, like flashlights. I looked at the
muscles in my shoulders, my arms. They were cut, defined, powerful.
I began to slowly shadowbox, watching my legs, then my eyes, back
to my legs, then my eyes again. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! I threw a left, a right,
another left, another right. Sweat dripped down my forehead, my breathing
There was a knock at the door to let me know it was time. I didn’t
say a word. I took one last look at my eyes. I recognized them. They were
I walked out. Surrounded by my trainer, Angelo Dundee, bodyguard
James Anderson, brothers Roger and Kenny, and about a dozen others,
I started the familiar procession down the aisle, a strange and special
ritual unlike any other in sports, cheered on by the hungry masses out
for blood, marching toward glory or shame or, worse, death. During the
several minutes it took to reach the ropes, I remained unscathed, as did
Hagler, our bodies honed from months of sparring and running to be
ready for this one momentous night. Soon we would be unscathed no
more, both forced to pay the dues for the brutal profession we had chosen,
or, as many of us in the Sweet Science prefer to believe, had chosen us.
I proceeded as slowly as possible, savoring the feelings I had not experienced
in almost three years, since I defeated Kevin Howard and retired
again, this time, I assumed, for good. Howard, nowhere near the fighter
I was, knocked me to the canvas in the fourth round. I got up right away,
more humiliated than hurt, and summoned enough will to prevail in the
ninth. But my heart was not in the fight game anymore, and if one is not
committed, disaster is certain to strike. Lacking the motivation wasn’t a
problem against Hagler. From the moment I decided in the spring of 1986
to take him on, I was sure of one thing: I wanted to tear the man apart.
The odds were heavily against me, and why wouldn’t they be? Boxing
was filled with proud warriors who came out of retirement only to
discover that they should have stayed away forever, their skills never the
same after the long layoff, the saddest example being the legendary Joe
Louis, the hero to my father and millions of African Americans, beaten
eventually by a much younger Rocky Marciano in 1951. I knew I would
be assuming the same risk as the others before me, and not only to my
body. At stake at Caesars was something just as important—my reputation.
When I first retired as a pro in 1982, I prided myself on being the
rare exception in my sport, the fighter wise enough to get out before it
became too late. If I was whipped by Hagler, a very real possibility—he
hadn’t lost in eleven years—I would join the long list of disgraced ex-
champions, leaving one lasting, pathetic image for the public I worked
endlessly to impress.
Over the previous five years, I spent less than twenty-seven minutes
in the ring while Hagler took on eight opponents (fifty-seven rounds)
during the same period. While I trained more vigorously for Hagler than
for any prior opponent—I sparred for well over two hundred rounds—no
amount of effort on the speed bag, the heavy bag, jumping rope, and running
could compare to an actual fight against a man coming from the
opposite corner whose prime objective is to inflict as much damage as
is humanly possible. My sparring partners never let up. They had careers
they were hoping to build.
In training camp at Hilton Head, South Carolina, I felt in control of
myself and the surroundings. There was a plan I stuck to every day. On
fight night in Las Vegas, I felt in control again, but didn’t know if the plan
would work. A fighter never knows till the bell rings.
There was also the injury to my left eye, which had led to the initial
retirement. The official diagnosis was a partially detached retina, which
could have left me, if the doctors did not operate as soon as they did,
blinded in that eye for life.
The possibility of reinjuring the eye was on my mind during the
Howard bout and in the months leading up to the encounter with Hagler.
What if I thought about the eye again, if for only an instant, during the
fight itself? Marvin Hagler was no Kevin Howard. He said if I was “foolish”
enough to take him on, he was “foolish enough to rip” my eye out.
He meant it.
Hagler’s bravado didn’t frighten me, though it did get to my family,
who were already alarmed enough to begin with. They never actually
came out and shared their concerns for my safety, yet I saw the
look in their eyes, just as I saw it among the members of my camp. They
were afraid I might get seriously hurt. Nobody was more ferocious during
the 1980s than Hagler. In 1981, he gave Mustafa Hamsho such a
thorough pounding that he required fifty-five stitches to plug the cuts
in his skin.
Perhaps more worried than anyone were members of the Nevada State
Athletic Commission, which held jurisdiction over the bout. Not every
state gave a license to a fighter with a detached retina. If my eye suffered
permanent damage, the commissioners, picked by the governor, would
be the ones dealing with the fallout. To protect itself, the commission
asked me to take one final exam. I wasn’t crazy about the burning sensation
caused by the drops the doctors put in my eyes to dilate them, but I
agreed. I had come too far over the past eleven months to let the opportunity
slip away. I passed the exam. The fight was on.
It was just after eight p.m. As the challenger, I was the first to climb
under the ropes.
Wearing a short, Elvis-style white jacket, I received a warm reception
from the fans and enjoyed every second of it. Life after boxing can
be rewarding in many ways, but nothing comes close to the sound of
applause, and any ex-fighter who claims he doesn’t miss it is lying. Hagler
was next, starting his procession down the aisle, the familiar scowl
planted firmly on his face, accompanied by “War,” the anti–Vietnam War
anthem from the late sixties.
What was he thinking? Did this most macho of fighting men have
any doubts of his own? Did he worry about a different Hagler showing
up on this, the most important night of his career? We all attempt to
hide what’s most vulnerable about us. Perhaps Hagler’s fierceness was
related to something equally frightened within the man himself.
At first, Hagler wasn’t sure about fighting me. After I went public in
May 1986 with my decision to challenge him, he took several months to
offer his response.
What did Hagler need to prove? He owned the middleweight belt and
was recognized by the press and fans as the toughest pound-for-pound
fighter on the planet. What else could he possibly gain by beating a has-
been like me? On the other hand, he could lose everything and perhaps
never get a chance to redeem himself. Yet what Hagler did not own was
true stardom, and the only way he could attain it was to expose me, in his
view, for the fraud I had always been, the slick, made-for-TV package who
stole the spotlight that should have been his.
I did the commercials. I appeared on the talk shows. I made millions
while Hagler, for much of his career, risked his life for thousands. These
slights, as well as the promise of making at least $10 million, were why, in
the summer of 1986, he accepted my challenge. He would put an end to
the Sugar Ray Leonard hype machine, once and for all.
I came up with a plan as I waited for him. Since the fight was made
official I had worked on messing with Hagler’s psyche, and here was
one more chance. I wanted to know which Hagler I would be facing, the
invincible one or the insecure one. After he entered the ring and received
his ovation, every bit as generous as mine, I slowly glided toward his general
direction, shuffling my feet and shadowboxing. As I crept closer, I
began to think like a choreographer on Broadway, carefully plotting my
The two of us were soon only a few feet apart, headed for a certain
collision. If Hagler backed off to avoid me, I kept thinking, I would win
the fight. If we bumped into each other, I would lose. He was the champion
defending his turf and I was daring to take it away. It went back to
the code in the hood, where the strongest person on the streets stood his
ground against any threat.
It was a matter of respect: Did Marvin Hagler respect me or not? It
then dawned on me: He was not going to move. I screwed up and I was
going to pay the price.
Please fuckin’ turn, I thought. Now!
At the last possible second, he did, darting to the side to avoid contact
while I did not budge one inch. I was relieved. Hagler was mine.
We met in the center of the ring for referee Richard Steele’s instructions.
I looked down at the canvas, not at Hagler. I was in my zone and
did not want to be disturbed.
We retreated to our respective corners, soaking up the final words
of wisdom from the boxing lifers who had done everything they could
to prepare us for the moment, which was only seconds away. It was now
up to the two of us, half-naked and half-scared, ready to kill or be killed.
The bell rang.