Sugar Ray Leonard Is My Favorite Fighter Ever … But Was He the Best?
Sugar Ray fought the best and he beat the best. So why is he relegated in conversation as only, possibly, the greatest of his era, as opposed to the greatest of them all?
There’s an argument to be made that Sugar Ray Leonard may be the most complete fighter who ever plied his trade in the ring. He had it all: knockout power, quickness, elusiveness. His defense was strong; his offense may have been stronger.
He certainly defeated the top fighters of his era:
Sure, there were high-profile controversies in at least two of those decisions, but in this article we’ll examine the fights — all included below, in full — and explore all arguments.
Before we get there, though, consider the following retrospective ...
The Amateur Years
Sugar Ray Leonard concluded his amateur career with a record of 165–5 with 75 knockouts. Amateur titles won by Leonard include the Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship in 1973, the National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship in 1974, and the National AAU Light Welterweight Championship in 1974 and 1975.
Leonard also won the 1974 North American Championships Gold Medal, the 1975 Pan American Games Gold Medal, and, finally, Olympic Gold in 1976 as a Light Welterweight.
The Professional Years
Leonard turned pro on February 5, 1977, defeating Luis “The Bull” Vega via a six-round unanimous decision. He ended his pro career — for the first time — on February 15, 1982, knocking out the World Boxing Council’s (WBC’s) fourth-ranked contender, Bruce Finch, in the third round. His next fight was scheduled for May 14 against Roger Stafford, when he was diagnosed with a detached retina which required surgery. The fight was called off; the surgery was successful, and Leonard announced his first retirement on November 9, 1982.
In his retirement speech he teased he and Marvin Hagler, a super-fight many were considering inevitable, could drive a gate the equivalent of Fort Knox. “Unfortunately,” he concluded, “it will never happen.”
Leonard didn’t stay retired for long. He returned on May 11, 1984 against Kevin Howard, a bout that was postponed due to another Leonard retinal surgery, this one minor. Howard knocked down Leonard in the 4th, the first knockdown of Leonard’s career. Howard was eventually stopped in the 9th, and shortly thereafter Leonard retired again.
“It just wasn’t there,” he said.
He returned once again on May 1, 1986 in a (supposedly) one-time only comeback match against Marvin Hagler. He defeated Hagler in a controversial split decision, and retired once again on May 27, 1987.
Leonard came back yet again, and defeated WBC Light Heavyweight champ Donny Lalonde in Las Vegas on November 7, 1988. Following a roundly disputed rematch with Tommy Hearns that ended in a draw, and a lopsided win against Roberto Duran in their third fight, he lost to WBC Light Middleweight Champion Kevin Norris on February 9, 1991 by unanimous decision, a fight that saw two of the three judges scoring every round for Norris.
“Tonight was my last fight,” Leonard said after the Norris debacle. “I know how Hagler felt now.”
However, later blaming his loss to Norris on a multitude of excuses from lack of motivation to a rib injury, he returned for the final time against Hector “Macho” Camacho on March 1, 1997. Camacho served Leonard his first knockout loss, as the referee stopped the bout in the 5th.
There was no escaping Father Time, and Leonard finally got the message. Retirement, this time, was permanent.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s professional boxing record was 36 wins, 3 losses and 1 (highly-disputed) draw.
An Era’s Best
The quality of Leonard’s opposition represented a unique period in boxing history, seeing the primes of several of the sport’s all-time greats … all of whom he defeated.
1. Wilfred Benítez
The youngest champion in the sport’s history, Wilfred Benítez won the World Boxing Association Light Welterweight Championship against Antonio Cervantes at the age of 17. On November 30, 1979, Leonard defeated Benitez by TKO for the title at 2:54 in the 15th round.
To that point, Leonard led by 137–130, 137–133, and 136–134 on all three judges’ scorecards.
He was honored with the Boxing Writers Association of America “Fighter of the Year” award, and “The Ring’s Fighter of the Year” award, for 1979.
2. Roberto Duran
In 1972, Duran lost a 10-round decision against Esteban De Jesus, which he later avenged. When he entered the ring against Leonard for the first of three fights, his record was an astounding 71–1.
In my personal opinion, Leonard’s ill-advised strategy of standing toe-to-toe with Duran in The Brawl in Montreal only positively cemented his legacy. Serving Leonard his first loss, “Hands of Stone” defeated the previously undefeated WBC Welterweight champ in a close but unanimous decision, winning the title. Though Leonard lost, he lasted 15 hard-fought and very close rounds against the man many considered the most devastating puncher of his time. I look at it this way: He fought Duran’s fight, and almost won.
“No más.” Really, what more needs to be said? Leonard won the psych-out game. On November 25, 1980, he mocked Duran, who was not in his best ring shape, throughout the fight. Duran gave up, blaming cramps.
Leonard and Duran fought for a third time, on December 7, 1989, several years past the primes of both men. Leonard won decisively in a largely boring affair.
3. Thomas Hearns
Detroit’s Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns was the undefeated WBA Welterweight Champion (32–0, 30 KOs) when he entered the ring for the first time against Leonard on September 16, 1981.
The fight was close and fast-moving. Both men scored and seemed evenly-matched. Leonard stopped Hearns in the 14th by TKO, delivering the “Hit Man’s” first loss of his career.
The controversial rematch between the two occurred on June 12, 1989. The fight was declared a “draw,” though to my eyes Hearns defeated Leonard. Again, however, 1989 was years past the Leonard’s prime (and slightly past Tommy’s); regardless, to my eyes the judge’s failed. I scored this one as an easy win for the “Hit Man,” who nonetheless retained his WBO Super Middleweight title.
4. Marvin Hagler
Southpaw “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler was, by any estimation, a fighting champ. On April 6, 1987, two years prior to Leonard’s rematch with Hearns, the two fought in yet another contested match.
Leonard won the split decision, and was announced the new WBC, lineal and “Ring” Middleweight Champion of the World (Hagler was stripped of his WBA belt for facing Leonard as opposed to mandatory challenger Herol Graham). Yes, he ran. Yes, he danced. Yes, he stole rounds. I’ve watched this fight maybe two dozen times and I’ve had Leonard ahead on points at the conclusion of every viewing. According to PunchStat numbers, Leonard threw 629 punches in the fight and landed 306; Hagler threw 792 and landed 291.
Hagler retired immediately thereafter with a record of 63–3 (52 KO) with two draws. Unlike Leonard, he never returned to the ring.
5. Donny Lalonde
It can be argued that this fight does not belong in this article, as Donny LaLonde was not the caliber of fighter as those listed above. I am including this fight here, however, as I believe it to be Leonard’s final strong performance. He was knocked down, but he ended the fight in style with a 9th Round TKO and the WBC World Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight titles as prizes.
Enjoy one last glimpse of the warrior that was Sugar Ray Leonard.
Leonard as “Ali II”
Sugar Ray Leonard’s flamboyant in-ring style was often compared to that of the great Muhammad Ali. Though not prone to Ali’s verbal poetry, Leonard’s dancing in the ring, speed and showmanship was often favorably compared to the fighter most commonly named The Greatest of All-Time.
To compare the quality of opposition, Ali defeated Sonny Listen, Joe Frazier two of three bouts, the previously undefeated George Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, and numerous others. Father Time caught up with him too. High-profile losses against underdog Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick during separate comebacks, finally led Ali to his retirement.
The question is, if my contention stands that Leonard should be considered in the conversation as the best ever, was the quality of Ali’s opposition better than Leonard’s?
It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. If anything, the quality of all those fighters in their primes, considering their weight divisions, has to be considered equivalent at the very least.
Finally, with respect to the undefeated Rocky Marciano, the undefeated Floyd Mayweather (whose father, Floyd Mayweather, Sr. was the first ranked contender Leonard faced and defeated), Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson and others … Leonard was at least the equal to each in terms of skill and impact during his era.
Further, Sugar Ray Leonard won world titles in five weight divisions: Welterweight, Light Middleweight, Middleweight, Super Middleweight, and Light Heavyweight. His legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee, and manager Mike Trainer were there for many of them.
He was the first boxer to earn more than $100 million in purses, is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and has won numerous Fighter of the Year plaudits.
In 2002, “Ring” voted him as the 9th greatest fighter of the last 80 years, and BoxRec lists him as the 14th greatest, pound for pound.
I’d argue those placements. I think they should be higher.
Could Sugar Ray Leonard be considered, in any sense, the best to ever lace a pair of gloves?
I would not dismiss that question so cavalierly.
Thank you for reading.
BoxRec.com, Wikipedia.com, HBO Boxing
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