ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Twelve years ago, Sugar Ray Leonard, caught between one of his numerous comebacks, was impressed with the ring skills of a flashy lightweight named Hector Camacho and offered to manage him. But Camacho's flammable mouth quickly squelched the deal.
Saturday night, before a crowd of 10,324 at the Convention Center, Leonard tried a different tack. Leonard, a grandfather two months shy of 41, challenged a bulked-up Camacho for his International Boxing Council middleweight title. It proved a terrible mistake.
With 68 seconds gone in the fifth round, Leonard, who had been knocked down moments earlier by three rapid-fire hooks, found himself draped helplessly on the ropes. Camacho caught him with 10 unanswered punches before referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight without a murmur of protest from the former six-time world champion.
If nothing else, it proved how foolhardy the Maryland native was in trying once more to recapture his youth. He retired six years ago after absorbing a severe beating by junior middleweight champion Terry Norris. But Norris was a young tiger with a powerful punch.
Despite winning five titles in his 17-year boxing career, Camacho was regarded as strictly a clever boxer and considered a safe opponent by Leonard's advisers.
But as Camacho's veteran cornerman Jesse Reid warned: "If I were to pick a guy for Ray, it certainly wouldn't be Camacho. He's left-handed, he's awkward, he's fast and he can fight in so many dimensions. If I were Ray's trainer, I'd tell him, 'You're in the wrong fight, son.' "
Reid's words proved prophetic. But no one figured, least of all the oddsmakers who made Camacho a 7-5 underdog, that he would walk right through Leonard.
It led to the post-fight debate as to whether Camacho, at 158 pounds after beginning his pro career at 130, was that strong or Leonard that vulnerable.
At first, Leonard paid tribute to Camacho, crediting him with fighting a superb battle.
"I'm as gracious a loser as I was a winner," he said, sporting a bandage over a bruised left eye.
But then came excuses for his embarrassing performance. Leonard said he had little or no mobility against Camacho after experiencing a torn left calf muscle Jan. 31 while training in Chandler, Ariz.
The incident was quickly hushed up by the Leonard camp. According to sports medicine doctor Scott Steingard and therapist Robert Carl, Leonard received a cortisone shot and canceled sparring for two weeks.
He reinjured the calf shortly after he returned to full training, explaining why reporters never witnessed Leonard trading punches in the final weeks. It also called into question trainer Adrian Davis' claim that Leonard had sparred "over 200 rounds."
"I thought about postponing the fight," said adviser J. D. Brown, who negotiated a $3.5 million purse for Leonard. "But Ray fought with minor injuries against Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Norris. I knew he wouldn't let me stop it."
Leonard, who received a shot of a painkiller in his dressing room two hours before the fight, looked like damaged goods from the opening bell, as he had few answers for Camacho's swarming attack.
"In the first round, I had no balance, nothing," said Leonard, who slipped to the canvas in the opening minutes. "I felt something in my leg pop, and I never got into the fight. I couldn't establish my jab, and I was swinging wild, trying to get through his right. But he was always a step ahead of me."
In the next breath, Leonard would add: "But please don't blame the injury on my losing. Tonight, I lost to a better man."
Asked if he felt he had cheated boxing fans, including a worldwide pay-per-view audience, by not revealing his injury, Leonard said: "I gave more than most fighters give when they're in shape. I'm sure the customers don't feel cheated."
Probably no one was cheated more than Camacho, who won't receive full credit for knocking a ring legend back into retirement.
But Camacho certainly helped his bargaining power for a planned challenge to the winner of the April 12 welterweight showdown between Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas.
"I showed I was the real Macho Man," Camacho said. "I'm ready to fight any of them -- Whitaker, De La Hoya or Felix Trinidad. Anyone, anytime."
Pub Date: 3/03/97