From the time he first donned a pair of boxing gloves 10 years ago, Eugene Speed aspired to follow in the footsteps of his Maryland neighbor and ring idol, Sugar Ray Leonard, who had already won an Olympic gold medal and the world welterweight and junior middleweight titles.
"I wanted to be just like Sugar Ray, in and out of the ring," said Speed, who will battle Jose Sanabria of Venezuela for the International Boxing Club Intercontinental junior lightweight title at LaFontaine Bleu in Lanham tomorrow night.
"In my eyes, Leonard was a very skillful boxer, very smart, who knew how to win public approval and draw attention to himself," Speed said. "He wasn't just another fighter, he was a national figure, and I dreamed of accomplishing the same fame and fortune."
Everything seemed in Speed's favor when Dave Jacobs, who also launched Leonard's career, agreed to train him and Sugar Ray became his co-manager when he turned professional in 1985 after winning 78 of 83 amateur bouts.
"It's no coincidence my style resembles Leonard's," Speed said. "I always had good hand and foot speed, and Jacobs schooled me the same way he did Sugar Ray."
Speed was undefeated in nine bouts and was gaining a strong following in the Washington area when his boxing career suffered a severe setback in December 1987. He tested positive for drugs after stopping Antonio Garris in two rounds in a club fight in Glen Burnie.
The Maryland Athletic Commission suspended Speed for eight months, but far more traumatic for the young fighter was learning that Leonard was no longer interested in managing his career.
"At the time, it really hurt me emotionally," said Speed. "I tried to sit down and talk with him, but he just dropped me. No conversation, no nothing."
But today, Speed, 28, is more understanding.
"I realize now that Ray was experiencing his own drug problems at the time, far worse than mine" he said. "It wasn't public knowledge back then, and I guess Ray didn't want my problems to bring any attention to himself that could raise questions."
Leonard admitted in March that he had turned to cocaine and alcohol from 1982 through 1986 after undergoing retinal surgery in May 1982 that threatened to end his brilliant boxing career.
"I found out Ray wasn't perfect after all," said Speed. "I just had to go on with my own life and set my own goals."
But Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney and adviser, said Leonard had simply helped Speed's early professional development as a favor to Jacobs.
"He tried to get Speed some fights," Trainer said. "But when he had the trouble with the Maryland commission, Ray decided to part company. By then, Ray had overcome his own drug problems."
Now under the management of Alphonso Brooks of Washington, Speed (19-0) has reeled off nine more victories since being reinstated in December 1988. His most impressive performance was a fifth-round knockout last September of former title contender Kenny Baysmore.
"Leonard was at ringside that night, betting Baysmore would kick my butt," said Speed, "but I can't worry about things like that anymore."
Jacobs, who was in Leonard's corner for all but one of his six title-winning performances, believes Speed is close to winning a world championship.
"Eugene has come a long way the past year," said the trainer. "He's really developed his punching power. I think he'd have a real chance to beat [WBC champion] Azumah Nelson or [IBF champion] Tony Lopez."
If Speed whips Sanabria (17-6, 13 KOs) tomorrow night, he will go after the IBC's vacant 130-pound world title.
Who: Eugene Speed (19-0, 15 KOs), Palmer Park, vs. Jose Sanabria (17-6, 13 KOs), Venezuela.
What: For IBC Intercontinental junior-lightweight title, 12 rounds.
When: Tomorrow night, 8
Where: LaFontaine Bleu, Lanham, 7900 Annapolis Road.
G; Tickets: $60 (ringside and $50 reserved includes dinner).