Image Important for Former Boxer Leonard

By Brian L. Covert
Tribune Staff Writer

Notwithstanding only one defeat in his 35-fight pro career, former boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard sees his contributions to the sport on a much larger scale.

“Creating an image whereas we as boxers are now entertainers — marketable commodities — I think that’s one of the biggest contributions I’ve made,” said the 29-year-old former welterweight and junior middleweight champion.

“I think it’s up to the manager as far as not being too commercialized — as long as it’s tasteful.”

Leonard seemed comfortable with his own celebrity status Thursday as he signed autographs and fielded questions from the media at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Complex.

Donning a red Harrah’s T-shirt and red baseball cap, Leonard took time out from the public demands to shadow box with the U.S. Amateur Boxing Team, which is scheduled to fight tonight against the Hungarian amateur team at Harrah’s.

Leslie King, the U.S. team’s publicist, looked on from outside the ring Thursday as Leonard instructed the amateurs on jabbing and footwork techniques.

“They’re real thrilled,” she said of the youths. “It’s like meeting your idol.” It helps the team get more pumped up, she added, “especially when they know someone like Sugar Ray is watching.”

It was only nine years ago at the Olympics in Montreal that Leonard himself was an amateur who succeeded over the international competition. And he hasn’t forgotten the climb to the top.

“For me, it’s reminiscent to come back and watch these guys because this is the way I started out,” he said.

“The more international competition they’re involved in, it’s better for them,” he said, watching the youths in the ring. “This gives you the necessary experience and know-how to deal with other countries like Russia, Germany, Poland, Cuba. Those are our country’s leading opposition.

“Wearing that (Olympic) uniform, you have so much pride in it. To represent your country, to make the team, you feel like a star. Without getting paid.”

In 1977, Leonard turned pro, leaving behind a legacy of Olympic stardom. He went on to capture the World Boxing Council welterweight title in 1979 by defeating Wilfred Benítez.

A year later, Leonard suffered the only loss of his career to Roberto Durán, only to regain the title five months later from Durán. He went on to fight the likes of Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and Bruce Finch before retiring with a 33-1 record in 1982.

Leonard made a much-publicized comeback against Kevin Howard last year, after eye surgery the champion had prior to the fight. Leonard won the bout, but only after getting knocked to the canvas by his challenger. Leonard called it quits — for good — shortly after the bout.

So how is his eyesight these days?

“I haven’t had problems since I had the operation,” he said. “My vision is 20-20. People ask me that question every day — even now. I think outside Frank Sinatra, I’ve got the most famous eyes.”

Leonard defended boxing against current claims by the medical profession that the sport should be banned for safety reasons.

Even with the “negative news, the amount of criticism that it’s received with the American Medical Association and the administration to ban it, I think boxing is still in pretty stable condition,” he said.

“I think the reason for this criticism is we don’t have a constituency like other sports. We don’t have advocates like in football, baseball.

“Boxing, because of its stereotyped image, receives so much negative play.”