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"He, truly, is supreme in battle,
Who would conquer himself alone,
Rather than he who would conquer in battle
A thousand, thousand men."
These words, from a Buddhist scripture called the Dhammapada, express a sentiment common to all religions. They also seem to me an appropriate motto for this autobiography of the famous boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard (b. 1956) who frequently called himself simply "the champ". During the height of his boxing career from the late 1970's through the 1980's, Leonard fought and won great fights in the ring against high caliber opposition including Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and in 1987 coming out of retirement his famous and controversial upset of Marvin Hagler. Yet during the time he was vanquishing his ring opponents and cultivating a smooth, clean-cut public appearance, Leonard was nearly defeated by his own womanizing, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Leonard was a person who needed to conquer himself.
Leonard tells his own story in this new autobiography, "The Big Fight" written (ghostwritten)with the assistance of sportswriter Michael Arkush. I was interested in this book because I lived in Washington, D.C. during Leonard's glory years and followed boxing during that time. Autobiography is a difficult medium. In spite of the best of intentions, few writers of autobiographies are able to describe their lives honestly, both the good parts and the bad parts. Sugar Ray Leonard does not fully succeed in this effort, but he makes a game attempt.
Ray Charles Leonard was named for his mother's favorite singer. Leonard was a quiet, introspective boy who found what he wanted to do when he began to box at a club in suburban Maryland at the age of 14. He progressed rapidly. He was a Golden Gloves champion and in 1976, at the age of 20 won the Golden Medal at the Olympics in Montreal. Leonard gave himself the name "Sugar" after boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson. At first reluctant to turn pro, Leonard fought incessantly and successfully for the first three years of his professional career before winning his first championship in 1979 against Benitez in a grueling fight. Leonard suffered a detached retina and retired and came out of retirement four times during his career. Leonard was fortunate in having trainers who stayed with him and a manager and attorney, Mike Trainer, who looked after Leonard's best interests and did not allow him to be taken advantage of in the corrupt boxing world.
In his autobiography, Leonard makes much of his two identities, Ray and Sugar. Ray Leonard is the child of poor, hardworking parents who tries to behave decently in life. Sugar is the flamboyant boxer, powerful in the ring, but dependent upon the approval of others, egotistical, repeatedly unfaithful to his devoted wife and small children, and increasingly given to alcohol and substance abuse. Sugar sometimes takes the responsibility for his behavior upon himself; in other places in the book he tends to blame growing up in poverty, the continued fighting he witnessed between his parents, and two incidents of sexual abuse from older men that he suffered as an adolescent.
The book shows an individual who is devoted to what can only be described as his calling to be a boxer. Leonard was never so happy as when he was preparing for a fight or in the ring. He was a student of the "sweet science" and was able to size up his competition, physically and mentally, to play to his own strengths and his opponents weaknesses. He also loved the adoration of the crowds and of his immediate retinue, the many women who threw themselves at him, the thrill at being the best in his field, and the lavish sums of money he earned.
Leonard also lost a loving wife and two children, and nearly self-destructed with alcohol and drugs. After his divorce in the late 1980's he ultimately remarried a woman named Bernadette Robi. He reduced his philandering over time and made progress in curing his drug and alcohol addictions. Ray Leonard over the course of his life has at last conquered Sugar.
The fighter still remains. The strongest, most convincing, scenes of this book are those in which Leonard describes and offers his own views of his fights. The book is at its best in describing the first fight with Tommy Hearns in 1981 which Leonard won by a TKO in the 14th round after being behind on the scorecards. The fight with Hagler in 1987 also gets a good description from Leonard's point of view. In a major upset, Leonard won the fight by split decision, a result which remains controversial among die-hard boxing fans. Leonard believes, probably rightly so, that he won the Hagler fight. But he admits that, he lost his 1989 brawling rematch with Thomas Hearns even though the fight was scored a draw.
The book is colloquially and clearly written in words and thoughts that could well be Leonard's own. With some tendency to blame others for his misdeeds, the book shows a substantial attempt at honesty. At long last, Leonard says he is at peace with himself. As the book continued, I became increasingly drawn into it. This is a book both about fighting with one's inner demons and about the fight game -- the brutal, corrupt but undeniably fascinating world of professional boxing.