Norris wrote only final chapter Leonard would have accepted

John Steadman

February 11, 1991|By John Steadman

Since he was 14 years old, learning the rudiments of a Neanderthal trade in a boys' club gym, where so many are called and only a select few chosen, Ray Charles Leonard has been enraptured with boxing. Not smitten or bitten. Instead it was romance, passion and pleasure manifesting itself in a primitive yet fulfilling form of physical art.

There's always pain but the compensation came in a pay envelope that brought rewards other than the $50 million he is reputed to be worth. The personal attention and glorification fed but never satisfied insatiable egotistical needs.

In the end, 20 years and five world championships later, not including the Olympic gold medal, he closed a rich and rewarding career by losing to an almost nondescript opponent named Terry Norris, who paid hero-homage yet provided him with a humiliating 12-round beating.

This was the only way Leonard would have left, when the defeat was so convincing he knew it was not an aberration or a bad dream in the middle of the night. He couldn't have ever walked away under less than devastating circumstances -- the kind Norris created for him. There he was in Madison Square Garden, promoting his own fight, preparing to take a bow when it was all over and then discuss future business plans.

"It took this kind of a fight to make me realize this was not my time," he said in a crushed voice that sounded apologetic. Yes, he was all finished. This was the only way for Leonard to deal with reality -- to be knocked to the floor on two occasions and to sustain a battering he couldn't run away from nor attempt to deny.

But the skills of Leonard will be remembered with treasured recall; not how he looked on the night the curtain came down for the last time but rather from his smooth, pleasing manner of movement and the rhythm he produced. Fighting past his prime is no crime against society. He merely disparaged himself, but the record he wrote is replete with spectacular performances that can not now be tarnished, even in enforced retirement.

What transpired with the man who was called "Sugar Ray" is merely another chapter in the ongoing saga of the prize ring. Most of the men who created reputations and earned fortunes by using their fists stayed too long. It's an old refrain that goes back to John L. Sullivan, who thought he could beat any man in the house except the shadow of Father Time.

Include, too, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong, Larry Holmes and almost all the elite champions you ever heard of in any weight class. The two glorious exceptions, men who had the conviction and inner-strength to quit before their reflexes rusted and fell apart, were Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano.

It was a bitter conclusion for Leonard. He had handpicked the rival, Norris, 11 years his junior, for what was to be a belated and, presumed, successful debut in Madison Square Garden, this storied "Temple of Fistiana," where he had never made an appearance. Leonard had enough understanding of history to realize it was the place where most of the regal champions had performed and he wanted to be a part of its distinguished honor roll.

That's why on a Saturday night in February, against a foe he could have handled in the past with comparative ease, Leonard came to the last page of the final chapter in his boxing resume and took home a failing grade. The anticipated victory wasn't forthcoming because he had deceived himself, a condition that is indigenous to boxers because they fight alone and don't operate in a protected team concept.

Sugar Ray Leonard believed he had eternal youth, that he could press a button by merely making a request and that his hands would move with the rapidity of a jack-hammer and his feet would dance him away from impending doom. But the speed that was so vital to his style had departed. Age had robbed him of a youth he thought was perpetual.

Maybe he could have used his hands for painting, sculpturing, writing or sawing wood. Instead his calling was to make a fist inside a padded glove and create beautiful concerts by virtue of hooks, jabs, uppercuts and a symphony of movement that was both adagio and athletic. The instrument he played wore out and the music of Sugar Ray doesn't sound sweet any more.

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