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Sugar Ray Leonard - Olympic Glory

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In 1973 a boxing promoter noticed Leonard's natural talent and offered him $5,000 to fight in a commercial bout. Leonard dismissed the offer because he wanted to qualify for the 1976 Olympics—and qualify he did. Leonard earned a spot on the 1976 U.S. team, which included future heavyweight champions Michael Spinks and his brother Leon.

After spring training in Burlington, Vermont, the team headed for the Olympic Village in Montreal, Quebec, where Leonard performed superbly in the three-round Olympic bouts. He won his first match against Ulf Carlson of Sweden and a second match against left-hander Valery Limasov of the former Soviet Union. After taking England's Clinton McKenzie in the third match, Leonard entered the quarterfinals where he beat Ulrich Beyer of Germany.

Leonard up to that point in his amateur career had lost only five fights, among them a contested bout in 1974 against Kazimier Szczerba of Poland. In a subtle irony, Leonard faced Szczerba in the Olympic semifinals and defeated the Pole with a resounding knockout.

It was a fine day for Leonard and the United States when in the Olympic finals Leonard brought the Cuban fighter Andres Aldama to his knees with a left hook to the chin. Twice during the final bout, the referee had required Aldama to take a standing eight-count to prove that he was able to continue the fight. Although Aldama persisted in the match, Leonard emerged the victor and won the gold medal for the United States. It was Leonard's one hundred and forty-fifth victory as an amateur boxer.

Even as he basked in the glory of the moment, Leonard was quick to assure interviewers that he would never turn to boxing as a profession. He returned home to the United States, bent on majoring in communications in college. With his handsome features and photogenic smile, it was Leonard's intention to become a television sports journalist. Upon his return to the United States, however, financial concerns soon took precedence over his educational plans, causing him to rethink his decision about professional boxing. Both of his parents had became seriously ill around the time of the Olympics. What was more, his high school sweetheart, Juanita Wilkinson, filed a paternity suit against him, for money to support their child, Ray Jr., born on November 22, 1973.

With assistance from a group of supporters, Leonard secured front money totaling approximately $24,000 in loans and used the funds to assemble a professional boxing team. To lead the entourage he hired Muhammad Ali's popular cornerman, Angelo Dundee, as a trainer and ringside coach. Leonard's long-time coach and friend, David Jacobs remained with Leonard and his team, to serve as head coach for the young champion.

Leonard's professional debut, against Luis "the Bull" Vega of Pennsylvania, was a six-round bout at the Baltimore Civic Center in February of 1977. A victory for Leonard, the bout netted him enough money to repay his start-up loans. Following his next match in April—also a victory—against Willie Rodriguez, Leonard signed a lucrative contract giving ABC Sports the rights to televise future fights. There followed a technical knockout (TKO) of Vinnie De Barros on June 19 in Hartford, Connecticut, and a series of bouts in such small East Coast venues as Springfield, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Within a year of his debut, Leonard was regularly scheduled for ten-round bouts with his opponents. He went on to defeat Javier Muniz on March 19, 1978, by a knockout (KO), just two minutes and forty-five seconds into the fight. The next month in Landover, Maryland, on April 13 he knocked out Bobby Haymon in three. One month later in Utica, New York, he toppled Randy Milton in eight.

Awards and Accomplishments

Leonard retired in 1991 with a career record of 36-2-1.
1975 Gold medal at the Pan American Games
1976 Gold medal at the Montreal Olympics
1979 Defeated Wifredo Benitez for the World Boxing Council welterweight championship; named fighter of the year by Ring magazine
1980 Reclaimed World Boxing Council welterweight title
1981 Defeated Ajub Kalube for the WBA junior middleweight title; unified the welterweight belts by defeating WBA champion Thomas Hearns; named sportsman of the year by Sports Illustrated; named fighter of the year by Ring magazine; named Athlete of the Year by ABC's Wide World of Sports; hailed for the fight of the year by Ring magazine
1987 Defeated Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship; hailed for the fight of the year by Ring magazine
1988 Defeated Donny Lalonde for the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight championships

'Everything Did Worked' I

"I went against history, and now they'll have to rewrite the books. …Someone said before the fight, 'Two things will not happen this year: Oliver North will not be back in the White House, and Sugar Ray Leonard will not beat Marvin Hagler.' I think they better check the White House." —Sugar Ray Leonard

… Leonard had beaten Marvelous Marvin Hagler to pull off the most extraordinary comeback in recent sports history….

What Leonard had passed through was so physically and emotionally draining that it left him groping to fathom what he had done. What he had done … was emerge out of a virtual five-year retirement and lift the title from Hagler, a man who had held it for nearly seven years, since Sept. 27, 1980, and through 12 defenses.

Source: Nack, William. Sports Illustrated, (April 20, 1987): 50.

Despite the limited audience for welterweight boxing, Leonard's appeal grew. ABC renewed his contract, and the fighter did not disappoint. In March 1979 he defeated Daniel Gonzalez with a KO after two minutes and three seconds. In April in Las Vegas, Leonard won a decision against Adolfo Viruet. In another decision on May 20 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Leonard beat Marcos Geraldo. Leonard finished off Pete Ranzany and Tony Chiaverini with TKOs and in September downed Andy Price in the first round of their bout.

When Leonard went against world welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez on November 30, 1979, the purse—which guaranteed each fighter more than $1 million—was the first seven-figure purse in welterweight history. The fight went only six seconds shy of the full 15 rounds before the referee stopped the fight. In the end Leonard, at age twenty-three, won the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight championship. Both fighters earned their pay that day, and spectators got their money's worth on the cost of admission.

Amid the lingering glow of Leonard's championship win, he and Wilkinson were married on January 19, 1980, in Landover, Maryland. It was a marriage that was long overdue—their courtship had lasted since high school, and their son, Ray Jr., was by then seven years old and served as a ring bearer for his parents.

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