Learning To Hate Sugar Ray Leonard All Over Again

I never liked Sugar Ray Leonard. By all rights, I should have. He was a spectacular boxer, a rare combination of grace and power, one of the best of all time. He fought bigger men. He fought the class of his generation. What's more, he grew up a shy, comic book-loving kid in the suburbs of my hometown of Washington D.C. But there was always something absent in Leonard, at least for me. He struck me as a simulacrum, an actor, one of those people who smile too much because they know how straight and white their teeth are. He was too clean, too manufactured, the over-produced studio rap to the gritty old-school stuff that I demanded in pugilists. His nickname fit him perfectly. To me, he was cloying.

This, of course, wasn't fair to Leonard, not that it mattered to either of us. His heyday came before I was old enough to appreciate him, but I'd watched many of his fights on tape. I'd read stories about him. I felt entitled to judge. Leonard had slugged it out with Roberto Duran. He'd been in wars with Wilfred Benitez, Tommy Hearns, and Marvin Hagler. He'd showed all the requisite grit you'd want in a boxer. He was smart, too. He knew when to gamble and when to fall back on his typically superior skill. I recognized his ability but I still didn't like him. I thought Hagler was the coolest, toughest bastard on the planet. Hearns wasn't far behind. Leonard was a more rarefied species. He was supposed to be the heir to Ali's charisma, which was an impossible assignment. But he still tried. He tried very hard, and it came off as smug.

For a long time, I didn't think about Leonard much. Then last week I read his new book, The Big Fight. The book, which made news for the revelation that two men tried to molest Leonard when he was young, is intended as an Agassi-like confession that exposes the frailties of a superstar athlete and engenders sympathy. It does the opposite. But it does help a reader understand Leonard better. He was — and probably still is — an egomaniac forever burnishing his Hall of Fame effigy. He was also a drunk and a drug addict, a terrible husband and a father, a man who spent the night before his wedding having drunk sex with a groupie, was hungover at the altar, then took his wife on a honeymoon to L.A. so she could sit in a hotel while he filmed a commercial. A look into his mindset:

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It had been like that since my early ears as a pro, when, once a month, I used to walk into Odell's, a black nightclub in downtown Baltimore, and the girls would scream as if I were a rock star. I'd take the hottest ones I could find to the local Holiday Inn, sharing them with the rest of the boys. Then came the unforgettable trip to Baton Rouge after the Geraldo fight. Once I beat Tommy [Hearns], however, the amount of women we met, and the caliber of those women, rose to a whole new level. They were faster, looser, better dressed. I got an inkling of how Hugh Hefner must have felt.

Much of the credit, I suppose, goes to James Anderson, who had come aboard as my bodyguard. From his years with Ali, he knew everybody, including the sort of women who hung around boxers, and not because they came to watch us beat each other up. These women were groupies, and every sport has them — women who gravitate to the company of rich, famous, and well-built men, if you know what I mean, for adventures in bed that they would never get from their boyfriends back home. James kept a book — and yes, it was black — filled with the names and numbers of the most attractive women, black and white, in cities from coast to coast. A few days prior to our arrival in a certain destination, usually L.A. or Vegas, he would call them. James was a better recruiter than Joe Paterno.

"Do you want to meet the Sugar Man" he would ask. They always said yes.

"Great, and bring some friends with you."

At the hotel, after exchanging small talk, the evening began. I didn't know their names. I didn't care. We weren't there to make friends. The first choice was mine.

"James, the one in the red dress," I'd say, and, presto, the woman and I would retreat to my bedroom, leaving the boys to fight over the rest. From what they told me, they did just fine. As much as they wanted to, the boys could not accommodate everyone, the rejects told their services were no longer required. A few didn't take the dismissal very well, waiting outside in the hallway for another chance. It wasn't a matter of money; these women weren't getting paid. They just wanted to be with the champ.

I messed around in Maryland as well. The only difference there was that being that close to my wife and child, the guilt got to me at times. It must not have been that bad. It didn't stop me. Nothing did. ...

I couldn't have engaged in such despicable behavior without a little help, and I am not referring to James Anderson or any of the boys. I am referring to the presence of alcohol, and eventually cocaine, which began to take over my life during the early eighties. There I go again, searching for a convenient scapegoat. If it wasn't my evil twin, Sugar Ray, the booze or the drugs had to be responsible for my transgressions. The fact is that I put those substances into my body, me, Ray Charles Leonard, not some character I invented.

I'm sure there's some fancy psychological term for what Leonard is doing there. The divide between the well-intentioned Ray Leonard and the selfish Sugar Ray is one that that runs throughout the book — a device that allows Leonard to abdicate responsibility while claiming to be accountable. To use a boxing analogy, it's like a fighter who, after a loss, credits his opponent's skill, then adds a footnote about how the shoulder injury he sustained in training camp affected his performance, all while protesting that the injury isn't an excuse. (In remembering his actual fights, Leonard does plenty of this, too.) Nowhere in the book does he truly repent for the years of stepping out on his family, getting tuned up, and behaving, in general, like a beast. He apologizes and assigns blame to his molesters, his angry parents, the enablers and leeches who surrounded him, the temptation. For a guy who was smart enough to never sign up with a promoter like Don King — and made far more money because of it — Leonard isn't too clever when it comes to mea culpas.

The athlete undone by vice is a familiar storyline, particularly in the dissolute world of professional boxing. This fact is unsurprising and unworthy of scorn. More remarkable to me is that after reading The Big Fight I feel the same way toward Leonard as I did when I was a kid, and for the same reasons. Back then, you could sense Leonard's artifice. Now you can see it in print. He was playing a character. He was a marketeer, a fake Ali. Artifice is ever-present in businesses that depend on shopping personalities, but a boxing fan can only swallow so much transcend-the-sport bullshit before he starts gagging. It's boxing, after all — competitive mutilation in casinos. I guess that's what always annoyed me about Leonard the most. He was never satisfied with just being a great fighter. He had to be a great man. And he was never that.