For Garden debut, Leonard faces big fan--who's also a champion

November 30, 1990|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- Six-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard has fought and beaten four of boxing's brightest stars of the past two decades -- Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.

But, in what his attorney-manager Mike Trainer suggests could possibly be his last fight, Leonard, 34, has chosen to challenge relatively obscure World Boxing Council super welterweight champion Terry Norris at Madison Square Garden Feb. 9.

Leonard says he always has wanted to add his name to the ring legends who have performed at the Garden, and that in testing Norris, 23 -- only 6 years older than Ray Leonard Jr. -- "It will be a barometer of how I can handle the good, young fighters."

But the question persists: Who is Terry Norris, and why is Leonard fighting him for $4 million or $5 million less than he might earn from a third dance with Hearns?

The cold facts: Norris (26-3, 14 KOs) was born in Lubbock, Texas, June 17, 1967, and moved to Campo, Calif., a mountain town 60 miles east of San Diego. He and won the 154-pound title with a sensational one-round knockout of John "The Beast" Mugabi in Tampa, Fla., last March.

He grew up idolizing Leonard after watching him win a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. He patterned his ring style after Leonard flamboyant showmanship.

"Yes, Sugar Ray was my idol," said Norris, sporting gold earrings -- and testing the Garden ring for the first time -- at a news conference yesterday. "But all that changes Feb. 9.

"It's time for me to make my own name by knocking Leonard into retirement. Everyone is growing tired of Sugar Ray's comebacks. All fighters should know when it is time to quit. And Leonard should have realized that after the beating he took from Hearns ** last year. It was time for Ray to move on to something new in his life."

The Garden will center its marketing approach on Leonard's box-office appeal, but Norris, the champion, is accustomed to playing a supporting role.

"I've grown used to it over the years," said Norris, whose slender build makes him look the smaller man in comparison to the bulked-up Leonard.

"I'm always 'the opponent' fighting in the other guy's back yard, but I don't let that bother me.

"In my first title defense, I beat Rene Jacquot in his native France. All the Frenchmen were cheering for him, but I was stronger in the 12th round than the first. I just feel like the champion and Ray Leonard is stepping into my office."

Asked how he envisions himself beating Leonard, Norris said: "At this point in our careers, I'm quicker with my hands and feet and I have more endurance. Leonard fades now in the late rounds. Frankly, I would have loved fighting a younger Leonard. That would have been a real war."

Reminded that he lasted only two rounds in first challenging for the title against Julian Jackson in July 1989, he said: "That was a mental thing. I was just too cocky. I hurt him in the first round and got carried away. That was a valuable learning experience."

Leonard listens to Norris' brash talk and smiles.

"He has that same arrogance I had as a young fighter," he said. "That is why I think I'll enjoy fighting him. When I beat Hagler, people said he was too old. They said Duran was over the hill and Hearns had lost a step.

"This will be more of a challenge. Hopefully, Norris will freeze VTC when he steps in the Garden ring and sees all those people watching. My edge is a psychological one. I've been there many times before. I have to establish respect from the start and let him know he's in with a crafty veteran."

Neither Leonard nor Trainer was viewing Norris as a stepping stone to a more attractive future date with a Michael Nunn or Simon Brown.

For the moment, Leonard seemed satisfied to be fighting at his "natural" weight of 154 rather than challenging bigger men the likes of Hearns and Don Lalonde, whom he defeated for the super middleweight and light heavyweight crowns, respectively, in 1988.

He last officially fought as a junior middleweight nine years ago when he knocked out then-World Boxing Association champion Ayub Kalule in nine rounds.

"People don't want to believe it, but Ray is not fighting for the money now," said Trainer, who is promoting the match in conjunction with the Garden.

"At the very best, he might make $7 million from this fight. That's a far cry from what he made for Lalonde [$13 million], and his last ones with Duran [$15 million] and Hearns [$14 million].

"He always wanted to fight in New York," Trainer said. "Before he was champion, we could never deal with [former Garden boxing director] Teddy Brenner, the tax structure in New York killed you and network TV couldn't black out the area. This time, everything just fell right into place."

In 1973, Leonard fought as an amateur against a British boxer in the Felt Forum, the 4,000-seat arena adjacent to the Garden. But Feb. 9, he finally will be taking center stage against a young champion hoping to knock him into retirement.

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