With her marriage near an end, Mrs. Leonard reflects on rocky relationship

JUANITA AND RAY: SPLIT IMAGES

November 26, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington They were in love, madly in love, when they met -- two teen-agers from a lower middle class suburb in Prince Georges County. By age 16, she was pregnant with a child no one wanted them to have.

Six years later, after several break-ups and reconciliations, after he'd become famous and wealthy as a boxer and she'd dropped out of school to support her son, he asked her, on the eve of his first championship fight, to marry him.

The public saw it as a storybook romance: ". . . the stuff of dreams, of fantasies little girls fall asleep with," a newspaper columnist wrote after their huge church wedding in 1980.

But today, 19 years after falling for the shy, bony little kid with the Afro, Juanita Wilkinson Leonard, 33, sees it all differently.

"We got married more so for his image and career than for anything else," says the estranged wife of boxing superstar Sugar Ray Leonard.

"It looked good. The headlines could say, 'Sugar Ray Leonard marries his childhood sweetheart.' It makes him look like a nice, clean guy. [People would say,] 'He did the right thing, he married her.' It was good for his image. And it worked."

But the marriage didn't.

The couple has been separated for more than two years now, and the final divorce decree is expected at the beginning of next year. Several weeks ago, flanked by a bevy of attorneys -- including celebrity divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, who Mrs. Leonard admits she retained "as a tactic" -- they came to a financial settlement that neither will discuss.

"He got the house," says Mrs. Leonard of the couple's $1.5 million castle-like English Tudor home on 2 acres of land in Potomac.

But there are other houses, other properties, other investments, stocks and luxury cars, that are part of the fighter's estimated $50 million-plus fortune, which was divided between them.

"Not in half," she says, but in a way that preempts a pre-nuptial agreement she had signed in 1979, which would have provided her with little. The settlement will allow the mother of Ray Jr., 17, and Jerrel, 6, to continue the comfortable lifestyle she's come to know.

It was Mr. Leonard who paved the way for this agreement, according to Ronald Jessamy, one of Mrs. Leonard's lawyers: "He didn't want her to walk away with nothing," Mr. Jessamy says.

Also part of the settlement was their mutual agreement not to discuss the details of their troubled marriage, specifically her charges of assault and adultery that recently became public when the court file of their divorce proceedings was unsealed.

According to Mrs. Leonard's divorce petition of March 1990, her husband "assaulted [her] on a number of occasions, causing her bodily injury and has harassed and humiliated her in the presence of her family, friends and others."

Asked about those allegations, which Mr. Leonard has denied, she will only say, "I didn't file anything that was false."

Of the charges of adultery, she says that the instances of infidelity referred to in her petition occurred before their separation.

Mr. Leonard, preparing for training camp for a fight this February, declined a written request for an interview through his agent and attorney Mike Trainer.

The public has always been charmed by the five-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist, by the wholesome and handsome and miraculously unscarred face, by the world-class smile and accompanying wink, by the inspiring rags-to-riches story.

"That's what made Ray rich and famous. He built an image," says Mrs. Leonard, a petite, stylish and attractive woman who opened Nita's, a clothing boutique at Tyson's Corner, Va., last December. "That's what it is -- an image. If you lived with him for a while you'd see a totally different image. And it's a lot farther from the [public] image than people think. People would never imagine the things I had to put up with."

The way she sees it, her husband's priorities were scrambled by his enormous wealth and fame. "The fame made him cocky," she says. "After the first couple championship fights, that did it. His career and his travels became more of a priority to him than his family. Somewhere in the shuffle he put his relationships on the back burner."

She says, for instance, the husband and father would have other people buy personal gifts for his family. He was away from home 75 to 80 percent of the time on personal appearances and "missed the majority of Ray Jr.'s younger years," she says.

Although their relationship was rocky all along, Mrs. Leonard, who shares custody of their two children with her husband, puts much of the blame for their break-up on outside influences.

From day one, she says, she hasn't gotten along with Mr. Leonard's mother, to whom she hasn't spoken in four years even though the two women live around the corner from each other in Bowie. And, although she credits Mr. Trainer with building up the boxer's career, she blames him for "leading Ray down the road he went. Mike Trainer played a bigger part in Ray's life than I did."

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