NEW YORK -- Almost every boxing champion can look back on a fight early in his career when he had to enter that "little dark room" former heavyweight king Muhammad Ali often talked about, where a fighter is cornered and on the brink of defeat, but somehow finds a reservoir of will to pull off an improbable victory.
Former heavyweight champion Michael Spinks once said, "I'm telling you, what I do for a living can be terrifying."
There certainly were frightening times for six-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard and youthful Terry Norris, whom Leonard challenges for the World Boxing Council super-welterweight title at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night.
For Leonard, 34, it came in May 1979 against Marcos Geraldo. It was the yet-uncrowned Leonard's first test against a legitimate middleweight. In the third round, Geraldo got all his weight behind a booming left hook that caught Leonard right between the eyes.
"Suddenly, I saw three Geraldos," Leonard said later. "I couldn't distinguish who was who when he caught me again with a right. I was lucky to last the round."
Leonard complained of triple vision between rounds, and
then-trainer Angelo Dundee advised him, "Hit the one in the middle." Leonard followed orders and survived with a 10-round decision.
For Norris, 23, the first true test of his will came early in his professional boxing career.
As his manager, Joe Sayatovich, remembered: "It was only Terry's sixth fight, a four-round preliminary against a tough guy named Gilbert Baptist.
"You see some fighters who just refuse to be knocked out. Baptist was one of them. They went to war for 12 minutes, but Terry wouldn't quit until he beat this guy. I always knew he had the God-given talent, but that fight made me realize he also had the heart of a champion."
Fighting came naturally for Norris, a native of Lubbock, Texas. He was a good enough prep baseball player to attract scholarship offers from several colleges. But his father, Orlin Norris Sr., a former club fighter, and his brother Orlin, a heavyweight contender, served as role models.
"Terry is an athlete more than a fighter," said Sayatovich. "He can bench-press 250 pounds and can skip rope for 20 minutes without breaking a sweat. Leonard is a bulked-up welterweight, but Terry is a true 154-pounder."
Norris was 9 years old when he watched in awe as a flashy kid from Maryland named Ray Leonard danced and jabbed his way to a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games.
"I wanted to be just like him," he said. "Leonard was my idol. I still respect him outside the ring. But, in the ring, he's my enemy. If he looks past me, he'll be looking up at me at the end of the fight."
Norris utters these bold threats dispassionately, with the same conviction of a Leonard more than a decade ago, when he challenged the likes of Wilfred Benitez and Thomas Hearns.
"I've got great faith in Terry," said Sayatovich, a San Diego builder.
"When he had just a few fights under his belt, a guy named Carlos Gutierrez kept badgering Terry to fight him. We'd beaten him before, but he was certain he could turn it around in a rematch.
"I told his manager, 'OK, we'll fight you winner-take-all.' He agreed. And Terry whipped Gutierrez's butt again, only worse this time."
Like Leonard, who had to rebuild his career and image after his first and only loss, against Roberto Duran in June 1980, Norris had to pick up the pieces after he was knocked out by Julian Jackson in June 1989 in his first attempt to win the World Boxing Association crown.
"Terry almost stopped Jackson in the first round," Sayatovich said. "It looked so easy, he got real cocky. I warned him between rounds, 'Don't get careless.' But Terry dropped his hands on the ropes and got nailed. It was a giant mistake."
Norris said: "It was difficult to live with at first. It was the first time I'd ever been knocked out. But I learned to deal with it. I got right back in the gym. I had to wipe it out of my mind and start winning again."
Less than a year later, Norris again challenged for the title against John "The Beast" Mugabi.
"I knew this would be one of his easiest fights," said Sayatovich. "Mugabi had built his reputation of being a great puncher by knocking over a bunch of tomato cans. He'd never trained to go 12 rounds. I bet a ton that Terry would stop him inside of five rounds. Honestly, I never thought he'd knock him out in one."
Asked if he considered challenging Leonard to a winner-take-all showdown, Sayatovich laughed. "I'd love to, but Ray and [manager] Mike Trainer are too intelligent for that.
Norris said: "It's not that I don't respect Leonard. Yeah, he's 34, but he's got a heart as big as a lion. But he sees only the upside of this fight. He has to convince the media he can beat a younger fighter. But he's in the toughest fight of his life. And, when I beat him, I'll be the superstar."
Terry Norris' record
1986 Aug. 2 Jose Cordova, San Jose KO 1
Aug. 13 Carlos Gutierrez, Inglewood, Cal. W 4
Sept. 25 George Murphy, Inglewood, Cal. W 4