'I'd use anything to relieve the pain' Sugar Ray Leonard says career-threatening surgery led to drug, alcohol abuse

March 31, 1991|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Faced with the end of his brilliant boxing career and a failing marriage, Sugar Ray Leonard turned to cocaine and heavy alcohol use from 1982 until early 1986 in an effort to solve his problems, he said yesterday.

"I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and what I saw was very scary," Mr. Leonard told reporters at the Touchdown Club.

"I had hurt so many people close to me. They agonized and were embarrassed by my actions. I ruined my marriage. At times, I know I probably caused my mother and father to cry. And I saw my two kids -- Ray Jr. and Jerrel -- that I wasn't paying attention to. That's when I finally woke up."

Mr. Leonard's comments were in response to a Los Angeles Times article, which ran in The Sun yesterday, quoting excerpts from Maryland court records that said the six-time world champion had testified during a divorce hearing in November to using drugs, drinking and beating his wife, Juanita, from whom he legally separated in December after an out-of-court settlement.

After declining to answer questions from the Los Angeles Times on Friday before the article was published, Mr. Leonard met with his attorney and close friend, Mike Trainer, later Friday and decided to discuss the allegations at yesterday's news conference.

"Ray's life wasn't perfect," said Mr. Trainer, who was instrumental in Mr. Leonard's earning more than $100 million during a professional boxing career in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. "He had problems, like everyone else.

"I told him that he owed something to all the people who supported him all those years and helped give him his house and wealth. Ray had to try to explain how this could happen to someone who seemed to have everything in the world. I told him to bare his soul and then get on with his life."

For more than an hour, talking to more than a dozen reporters as a group and separately, Mr. Leonard, 34, tried his best to explain his fall from grace and how he had besmirched the wholesome "boy-next-door" image that had led to lucrative endorsements with soft-drink and sports-equipment companies and jobs as a radio and television sports commentator.

"There are approximately three years of my life that I am not proud of," he said, emphatically denying that he still was using cocaine in 1989, when he and archrival Thomas Hearns appeared in a nationally televised anti-drug public-service announcement.

"I can never erase the pain and scars I caused so many people through my stupidity and selfishness. All I can say is that I'm sorry, knowing it is not enough. It's like losing my last fight [to WBC junior middleweight champion Terry Norris, Feb. 9]. I have to accept the consequences."

Mr. Leonard said he first turned to drugs and whiskey after undergoing retinal surgery in May 1982, an operation that seemingly ended his

days as a charismatic fighter who had replaced Muhammad Ali as boxing's biggest drawing card.

"If I had been an adult, I could have walked away. I had money. I had fame and glory, and a beautiful family. I should have thanked God for the blessings. That I could do what I did [turn to drugs] was almost inconceivable.

"In 1982, I had one of the best careers anyone could want. But when I went on the operating table and was told I couldn't fight anymore, I couldn't accept it. I didn't want anyone to tell me my career was over. I still wanted the arena."

Unwilling to set new career goals, Mr. Leonard began fighting both himself and Juanita before seeking solace in drugs and liquor.

"I searched for a substitute," he said. "I'd lost my self-esteem. I was always very stubborn and tried to resolve things on my own. I wouldn't listen to others telling me what to do. It was a time when my marriage was deteriorating, and I'd use anything to relieve the pain.

"Occasionally, I would do cocaine, and I would drink heavily. It was a crutch. I can't specify how many times I used cocaine. It was whenever I felt it would help me forget a problem."

Mr. Leonard would not say how he had obtained the drugs and insisted that members of his boxing entourage had not supplied them.

He admitted that the one-time addiction of his older brother, Roger, who had also fought professionally, did not deter his own experimentation with drugs.

"Roger always said to me that the biggest problem with addicts is self-denial," he said. "I couldn't face Roger when I started using drugs myself. He had kicked the habit and had his own life to live."

But Mr. Leonard could not hide his problem completely from his family and friends.

"I was suspicious that he had a problem, but I never confronted him," Mr. Trainer said. "Ray and I had started out as lawyer and client in 1977, but he grew into one of my best friends, like a member of my own family.

"After the eye operation in 1982, I wanted him to give his life a new focus, to channel his energy in a new direction. But I knew that when he was reluctant to come to my office and face me that something was very wrong."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.