NEW YORK -- Almost all the pre-fight publicity for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Terry Norris super-welterweight title match tonight was based on Leonard, the boxer of the decade and six-time world champion, making his first appearance at Madison Square Garden.
After 14 years of fighting, Leonard, 34, was ready to follow in the legendary footsteps of Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep and Muhammad Ali in performing in the Garden ring, the one-time mecca of boxing.
Said Leonard: "Not boxing in the Garden was like a void in my career. Almost all the great fighters have fought in the Garden. It's like a fraternity. This is my initiation."
But judging by the weak advance sale -- only 6,000 of 19,000 seats reportedly had been sold as of yesterday -- boxing fans are apparently more intrigued by the prospect of a good fight than a history lesson.
It is a ring oddity when the challenger, not the champion, is counted on to lure the crowd. Norris, 23, owns the World Boxing Council 154-pound belt, but the Texas native is about as obscure as a champion can be.
In his only two national television appearances, he was stopped in the second round by Julian Jackson in July 1989, and, eight months later, flattened John "The Beast" Mugabi in one round to win the title.
Norris (26-3, 15 KOs) has since all but disappeared from public view, making his only title defense last July against Frenchman Rene Jacquot in Paris. It has been the job of Leonard, who, in the 1980s, inherited Muhammad Ali's role as boxing's brightest marquee name, to carry the promotional ball. But for all his charisma and wit, the Potomac, Md., millionaire has not been able to generate any real excitement among ring aficionados.
All sorts of explanations have been offered. Garden publicists blame the lack of interest on the New York Giants' appearance in the Super Bowl, which triggered a mass exodus of sportswriters to Tampa, Fla., burying news of the fight.
Concern with the Persian Gulf War, hard economic times and high ticket prices ($350 for ringside) are also seen as contributing factors. A more plausible explanation, however, may that the fight can be viewed for $10 on Showtime, the cable network that has offered this introductory price tied in with a free month of programming.
Whatever the reasons, a small crowd could prove an embarrassment to Leonard and the Garden, trying to re-establish itself as a major fight site in competition with the casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas, where gambling money guarantees bigger purses.
"I'd love to do 10,000 people," said Leonard's attorney-manager Mike Trainer, who has guided Leonard to a record $105 million in ring earnings. "We've done everything we can. If this fight were at the Capital Centre, it would sell out, but Broadway shows are closing all the time. Does that mean Broadway is dead?"
It was suggested that Leonard, who has retired four times since winning an Olympic gold medal and turning pro in 1977, could bait the fight crowd by claiming this was his final fight.
"No, I won't do that," he said. "I won't say that officially. And even if I did, I know no one would believe me."
Added Trainer: "That [the retirement ploy] was suggested by some people. But it would be sham."
XTC In the twilight of his brilliant career, Leonard appears to be minimizing his risks, choosing his opponents with great care.
After his stunning triumph over middleweight champion Marvin Hagler in 1987, he moved up in weight, beating Don Lalonde for both the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight crowns, then fought a disputed draw with Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns for the 154-pound title.
It was after his close escape against Hearns that Leonard decided he would no longer risk fighting beyond the middleweight class.
When he also rebuffed overtures from International Boxing Federation middlweight champion Michael Nunn and IBF welterweight king Simon Brown as possible foes, boxing insiders whispered that they constituted too high a risk. In fact, Leonard has hinted that his next fight could come against Julio Cesar Chavez, the super-lightweight (140 pounds) champion.
"I've always had power," said Leonard, a 2-1 favorite. "I came close to stopping Hearns again in the late rounds of our last fight. I even traded punches with Hagler. And I dropped Lalonde, light-heavy, with one punch. Coming down in weight, I haven't lost my power."
Nor has Leonard lost his ability to play mind games. Trying to psych Norris before the fight, he reminded the champion that he was only a few years older than his son, Ray Leonard Jr. He also suggested that the magnitude of the event would freeze Norris in mid-ring once the opening bell sounded.
But the stoic Norris, who followed both his father, a semi-pro boxer, and his older brother, Orlin, a heavyweight hope, into the ring, has gone about his business in a professional manner.