For once, time beats Leonard to the punch


February 11, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

NEW YORK -- Ray Leonard didn't want anyone to misunderstand, so he announced his retirement in the ring, where truth, at least, is only occasionally a casualty.

"Trust me," he said later, and we do because Leonard, whatever his faults, is an intelligent man, and you didn't have to be half-smart to know what happened Saturday night.

Whenever he retired before, you could hear the wink in his voice and know that he was already measuring the size of his next purse. He loved the game, all the game. The in-the-ring game and the out-of-the-ring game. All the glamour, all the money, all the psych. The whole deal.

He took it as far as he could -- from the Olympics to half a dozen championships and nearly as many retirements -- and then he took it a little further. He fought a decent fighter Saturday night, not a great one, but a young one. It was the first legitimate young fighter Leonard had tried since he was a young fighter himself, and the results were as plain as all the marks on Leonard's face.

Sugar Ray came to the post-game news conference wearing sunglasses. That's how you know who the loser is, even if you hadn't seen the judges' scores. And the scores were amazing. One judge had every round for Terry Norris.

"Was it that bad?" someone asked Leonard.

"Yeah," he said. And smiled.

It was that bad, and it was worse. Leonard was a great champion, one who transcended the game, a champion like none since Ali, and now he was gone, and gone badly. It was almost as painful to watch as Ali's fight against Larry Holmes.

But Leonard, in perhaps his most honest public moment in years, said there should be no tears, that he had had his run and more.

"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," he said. "I've had a very illustrious career. It took this kind of fight to prove to me it was no longer my time. I was not going to be a fighter for the '90s. I was a fighter for the '70s and the '80s."

He held a towel to his lip as he spoke to stanch the bleeding while saying he had no regrets, not even too few to mention.

"I know people said I should have retired earlier, but I don't listen to anyone but myself," he said. "I'm a risk taker. I just feel very happy that nothing happened to me -- that I came out OK."

He came out fine -- rich, famous, the troubled retina in his eye intact. He isn't punch-drunk. He doesn't mumble. In so many ways, Leonard is an exceptional fighter, and life, which has for so long been so good for Leonard, should stay that way. I have a feeling he won't be haunted by this decision or even by the loss. It took one long night for him to understand that he isn't the old Sugar Ray, the one we fell for, and that savvy and ring smarts don't in the end make up for everything.

It was kind of pathetic to watch, however. Time after time, Norris beat him to the punch. He was quicker, more agile, stronger. In other words, he was 23. Finally, Leonard, who is 34, tried to lure him into thinking he was out on his feet, hoping Norris would let down his guard. But he didn't, of course. Norris is a serious young man who believes this fight will change his life, and he might be right. He wasn't letting down for anyone, even his boyhood idol.

But give Leonard this: He fought to the end. Although he was knocked down twice, he got up. He always has gotten up, and, as the fight slipped away from him, all he had left to fight for was the chance to finish.

"I'll tell you what," he said. "I had to fight my heart out. I knew the fight was out of my reach, but I didn't want to end my career that way."

He was still standing when it was over. And when it was done, he tried to say that Norris was a young Sugar Ray Leonard, but his heart wasn't in this one last scam. Norris is Norris. Young Sugar Ray Leonards come along once a generation.

And now what? He doesn't need money. His attorney says that Leonard earns more than a million dollars a year in interest from his ultra-safe, ultra-conservative investments. Leonard took some chances with his life by fighting so long, but not with his lifestyle.

Now, he is starting over. He was recently divorced from his wife, and now he is divorced from his profession.

"I'm going to do what I planned to do a long time ago," Leonard said. "Take up golf lessons."

That got a laugh and took an edge off the evening. That was the old Sugar Ray, and it brought back memories. There are so many to hold onto -- the fights against Hearns, against Duran, against Benitez. And for as long as anyone cares about boxing, there will be the night he came back from five years of ring rust to beat Marvin Hagler and proclaim his greatness forever after.

It's good that, for a change in the boxing world, we'll have the memory and the man, too. That's what Leonard learned Saturday night. He didn't have to be told twice.

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