Norris dictates retirement terms for Leonard

MIKE LITTWIN

February 10, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

NEW YORK -- It was ugly and sad and, finally, predictable. Ray Leonard, who stayed too long at the dance, learned an awful truth. He faced a kid who wasn't afraid of him. He faced a kid who understood Leonard was a legend, but who knew, too, that you had to be old to be a legend.

Leonard, at 34, was too old. He fought with heart. He fought through two knockdowns and a bloodied lip and terrible right uppercuts and stinging left jabs.

And then, at the end, before the Garden crowd, Leonard said he was finished.

He took the fight to Terry Norris for as long as he could take it to him. He was looking for magic, or maybe just a knockout. Leonard would cut off the ring, corner Norris, and Norris would knock him away. For perhaps the first time in his life, Leonard fought someone who was too quick for him.

It's hard to say what kind of fighter Norris is, but it was easier to judge Leonard, who said this fight would be a barometer to measure how he stands up against the young guys. He stood up, until he was knocked down. He has been knocked down five times in his past four fights.

As the fight guys say, he had no quit in him. That's the real story of Sugar Ray Leonard, who has never been able to figure out the right time to retire.

It's an odd thing, the singular career of Sugar Ray Leonard. For most of his life, all he wanted to do was retire. He retired after the Olympics, briefly. He retired after his eye surgery. He retired after his first comeback. And he retired whenever anyone asked.

And now he has retired forever, finally.

"Trust me," he said, "this is it. This fight is symbolic. This fight represented to me something that wasn't apparent. My talent, my mind . . . just wasn't there."

Once, Leonard was the reluctant boxer who plied his trade only because he had the gift, like playing the piano, and who conducted himself in as civilized a manner as possible, considering that he was in a basically barbaric business. Ray was, somehow, above it all. He had Ray Jr. and the pretty smile and the commercials, and he seemed, as much as anything, to be an actor playing at boxing.

His life was to be one of relaxed tennis and drinks on the veranda, happily ever after. But you know what happened instead.

After all the years away, he came back to fight Hagler -- that was the magnificent obsession, remember -- and he didn't want to leave. It was hard to figure why. He didn't have to fight to live, not when he has more money than Donald Trump (of course, these days, who doesn't?). One look at Ali should have told Leonard to walk away while he still could. And yet, he fought Hagler and Hearns and Duran, and he fought someone named Norris, too.

You don't want to talk about fighters having to be carried out on their shield, but maybe that was the way it has to be for Leonard.

But there have been lumps to take, some of them on the side of his head and, worse, right there on this pretty mug. In the previous fight, the one where Duran barely showed up, Leonard took 60 stitches despite engaging Duran only briefly during the fight. It was the crowd this time that was chanting, "No mas."

When Leonard entered the ring last night, he was 34, and only in his imaginings, and maybe ours, is he the fighter he used to be. The bet, though, was that he was still a better fighter than Terry Norris, who is 23 and a champion, the conqueror of John "The Beast" Mugabi. Leonard had talked about still being able to defeat the self-styled monsters. Or beasts.

But after last night, when one judge had him losing every round, he finally said, "It was no longer my time."

The great thing about Leonard is that he had never believed it's anyone's turn but his. That is the fighter's arrogance that has allowed him to compete for so long. It's part of the style that has allowed him to capture the imagination of the fighting public, which, in one poll, named him the fighter of the '80s, even though he was retired for half the decade. It's the arrogance, too, that came to dominate his personality. No wonder Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the rest hate him.

Norris didn't hate Leonard. He said he was his boyhood hero, and you believed that. That made it a little tougher for Leonard, who, after all, had to get himself ready, and it's not so easy at his age. It was easier against Hagler, where there was history. In fact, Leonard was knocked down by a sparring partner when training for Norris, and the wise heads nodded. Maybe this was the end. Leonard called it his wake-up call, and those who showed up last night -- and there weren't many -- came to see if he was right.

Listen to what Leonard told reporters the other day:

"Everything holds more significance for me because I'm touching the end of my career. So I value each and every time out there. And I can tell you this: I still want to train and be in shape. I don't want to just show up."

That didn't sound like a magnificent obsession, but this didn't figure to be a magnificent fight either. It figured only to be a chapter in Ray Leonard's life. We used to look at each chapter and think -- hope -- it might be the last. But, as Leonard once said, he was going to write his own book and the ending would come only when he determined.

Except it was Terry Norris, of all people, who eventually dictated the terms.

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