Leonard packs lunch again Boxing: It's back to work for Sugar Ray, 40, who fights Hector Camacho tonight simply because he can.

March 01, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Ask Sugar Ray Leonard, at the age of 40, with five weight titles on his boxing resume and millions of dollars reportedly safely invested, why he is climbing back into the ring tonight against Hector Camacho to fight for some obscure middleweight title, and his answer is succinct.

"I'm just going back to the old job," said Leonard, who has not fought since being pummeled by Terry Norris six years ago.

"I'm going back because I still can. If I don't do it now, I'll never do it or won't want to. That's the reality of it. But at the tender age of 40, I feel I can."

This is a far cry from the Leonard of 1991, who grabbed the mike at Madison Square Garden after the Norris bout and said: "This is my last fight. I always knew that when the other guy hit me more than I hit him, it was time to move on. It's like God saying, 'Pal, you had a great career, that's it.' "

But there never seems to be a final bell for Leonard. Each of his five comebacks stimulated heated debate among ring aficionados.

Then he was younger and more capable of regaining a fighting edge. Still, no one would be that surprised if Leonard, a 7-5 favorite, defeats Camacho, 34, who barely bested Roberto Duran last June.

But the Norris fight was not an aberration. Leonard was floored by journeyman Kevin Howard in 1984, his first fight after retina surgery. He was dropped twice by a plodding Donny LaLonde in November 1988, and twice more six months later by Tommy Hearns.

"I don't think there's any question an athlete's reflexes change," said Steve Manekin, staff neurologist for the Maryland Athletic .. Commission. "The classic example is when a boxer tells you after a fight, 'I saw the opening, but I couldn't deliver the punch.'

"I've known Ray a long time and believe no one should deny him the opportunity to fight. But, at 40, it's like heading up a blind alley. Just where is he going?"

Many boxing people -- even two of his former trainers, Janks Morton and Angelo Dundee -- support Leonard's comeback.

Said Morton: "Ray can take care of himself. He's a terrific athlete, and never really out of shape. Archie Moore and George Foreman fought and won titles in their 40s, and Ray is probably in better physical condition than they were."

Added Dundee: "Boxing is Ray's being. It lights him up. He tried doing a lot of other things -- golf, acting, announcing -- but it wasn't being Ray Leonard."

Skeptics suggest that Leonard simply cannot do without the limelight. "People talk about my ego," he said, "but my ego made me who I am. My ego is sometimes mistaken for confidence. It's why I am and where I am today."

But even a supremely confident Leonard entertained doubts when he began serious training for Camacho last October.

"If you've been away from anything for a long time, your body goes through a lot of changes -- shock, if you will," he said. "The first day you spar, it's exciting. The second day, your body is sore. It's like an old car that needs a tuneup, and I've had a complete overhaul."

And so did his mental approach.

Said Leonard, who remarried after a messy divorce in 1991 from his first wife, Juanita: "I hadn't been away from my wife, Bernadette, for years. Boxing was no longer a priority. Going back into training was like culture shock.

"For a while, it made me abrasive toward the people around me in camp. I went through a lot of mood swings."

It took strong counseling from his new trainer, Adrian Davis, to get him over the initial rough spots. In the insulated world of a training camp, the fighter and cornerman formed a strong bond.

"Ray and I went through a lot of the same things in our careers," said Davis, 52. "I was a world-ranked welterweight in the '60s when I suffered a detached retina. I flunked an eye exam, but I kept on fighting.

"Back then, they didn't have the corrective surgery that worked for Ray, and it left me with a lot of bad thoughts about boxing."

A chance to train his two sons, Victor and Demetrius, and lightweight contender Sharmba Mitchell and a champion like Simon Brown rekindled Davis' interest.

"At this point, Ray doesn't need to be taught how to throw a jab or hook," said Davis. "He just needs someone to remind him and compliment him."

Davis has handled Leonard like a doting father.

"I respect the fact that Ray's older and had gone through some tough fights," said Davis. "I didn't want to wear him down in training. Some weeks, we hardly boxed. But now, he's as right as can be."

Leonard, who underwent an eye exam, magnetic resonance imaging and electrocardiogram tests last summer, acknowledges that he no longer possesses the blinding hand speed and elusiveness that made him unique in winning titles from 147 to 175 pounds.

"It's illusory if you think you can recapture the past," he said. "I watch my great fights in the '80s with Duran, Hearns and [Marvin] Hagler with my father, just to enjoy the yesteryear.

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