Leonard can leave ring smiling, with pride still intact

Phil Jackman

February 11, 1991|By Phil Jackman

NEW YORK -- One might look at the scoring of the judges, see that one fighter lost nearly every round and conclude there was no immediate redeeming quality in the match. Wrong.

It was as if the night was preordained, a fitting and deserved ending to the ring career of Ray Leonard.

Sugar Ray, a once-upon-a-time genuine American hero, went out as he should have, battling heroically.

Many thought it was sad, Leonard falling behind early, getting knocked down a couple of times and never having much of a chance after the 12-rounder with WBC superwelterweight champion Terry Norris reached its mid-point. Faulty interpretation.

"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," said Ray. "As soon as I got into the ring I sensed it wasn't there. But it [decline] is something I had to experience for myself. Now I feel good about moving on."

Yes, for the (fill in the blank) time, Sugar Ray Leonard has retired. Having witnessed maybe a half-dozen of these occasions, though, I'm sure he means it this time. There are no more false gods before him, be they mountains of money, the spotlight or constructed for the occasion titles.

The Sugarman appeared almost serene after Norris, hugely talented while almost totally unknown, toyed with him, the decision was announced, Leonard announced from the ring he was finished and "Terrible Terry" had had his say.

"I couldn't contend with his talent," said the man whose final record will read 36-2-1. "But don't put it on me that I lost my talent. He's a terrific fighter. I wanted to be very impressive when I called it quits, but Norris saw to it it wouldn't be that way."

He was impressive, never once calling off the search for something he hoped might work against this Texas whirlwind. Besides, if he had won or come very close, Sugar Ray would have gone on and on and on, a lousy alternative.

Two of the three judges likened the competition to tiny Cumberland College taking on Georgia Tech in intercollegiate football years ago. That one ended 222-0. One scored it 120-104, meaning Norris won every round and rung up a 10-8 advantage in four of the rounds. Another said 119-103, the third 116-110.

Leonard was apprised of the tallies and was asked if the fight seemed that lopsided to him. He thought a moment, put ego aside and said, "Yeah. All I wanted to do is finish on my feet when it got out of hand."

It took a heap of doing. Probably not since winning the first of his five titles, against Wilfred Benitez in Las Vegas in November of 1979, had Ray been in the ring with a opponent so fast and quick, who combines good power with a variety of punches, excellent defense and ultra conditioning.

To be sure, if Leonard's famed foes, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler, fought Norris in their heyday, they'd probably win. But the kid would be right there if he approximated the effort he put out against Sugar Ray.

"He showed me everything I used to show guys in the past," Leonard said, shunning false modesty. "He's not only talented, he's classy. Terry's a very composed young man and that surprised me."

It came either in the eighth or ninth round, Norris doesn't remember which, when Leonard clinched after a stiff right to the chin and gasped to the victor, "It's your day, pal." Class. Can you imagine Hagler saying such a thing?

"The outcome was a little sad for me since Ray was/is my idol," said Norris. "I expected him to be faster. I was able to capitalize on all the mistakes Ray made. We talked a little during the fight and once I said, 'Come on, Ray,' but he couldn't keep up."

It became painfully apparent early that the "Terrible" emblazoned across the belt of Norris' trunks stood for just that when Sugar Ray crashed to the canvas five minutes into the fight. "We both had left hands out, baiting each other, setting up the right," recalled Terry. "We threw them at the same time. Mine landed. His didn't."

A while later, a reflex left uppercut caught Leonard high on the forehead at about the hairline and he went down. Yes indeed, the kid can punch.

Norris utilized one style in the first two rounds, one in which he seemed susceptible to Leonard's best punch, a left hook. But the opening was closed when he altered his style in round three, then moved to still another approach in the fourth and fifth rounds. He was literally flying around the ring, never so much as opening his mouth even a little to facilitate taking in air.

Starting round 12, Terry Norris looked as if he could fight at least two dozen more at a similar pace if not with a little more gusto thrown in.

Unable to contend with his foe's movement, Leonard said, "I tried to act like I was hurt. He didn't go for it." Then Ray wasn't acting anymore. His forehead had welts, his ribs ached. His lip was chopped up and his mouth showed blood nearly throughout.

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