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Finally, Leonard Won’t Be Fighting a Dream : He’s Fought Hagler Many Times, but He Always Wakes Up When It’s Over

The Washington Post

At first light, Sugar Ray Leonard swung into motion. He jogged in place, stretched leg muscles, snapped off lefts and rights. Gyms stink of sweat, but here the air was as soft as a pillow and cool as its underside.

A fighter was at work--in front of his $750,000 home, in the circular driveway behind his $100,000-plus black Rolls-Royce convertible Corniche.

Surroundings of pride and plenty said it all: Leonard doesn’t have to get up at 6:30. Only Marvelous Marvin Hagler can get him going that early.

The tall, black-iron gates opened, and Leonard hit the road. He passed Potomac, Md., rolling lawns. Watering systems sprayed wide.

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In the silence of morning, Leonard can hear an inner voice that says he wants but one thing more, to fight Marvin Hagler. Who can explain it? Fame he has known, fortune he has. It comes down to what A.J. Liebling once said: A fighter fights.

But Hagler? A great middleweight champion, risen to the top along rutty roads, unbeaten in 10 years, perhaps unbeatable, a middleweight champion who can make boxing seem more a cruel craft than a sweet science. Even Leonard has said Hagler fights as if he is fighting for his last meal.

“Whatever he is, I’ve always thought I could beat him,” Leonard said the day before his morning run. “I thought I could beat him three years ago, five years ago. I think I can beat him today. I wouldn’t take the initiative to challenge him if I didn’t think I could do it. Even as far as not being in the ring for two years, I know I can beat Hagler. This is a fight that I have always desired. This is a fight that gets me up in the morning.”

Two of Hagler’s opponents in particular have shown Leonard the possibility of victory: Roberto Duran, the clever boxer who went all 15 rounds with Hagler in 1983, only to lose, and John (The Beast) Mugabi, who last March gave Hagler plenty before giving out, in 11. Leonard, positioned those times at the ring apron, imagined himself in the ring with Hagler.

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“You put yourself in that position,” Leonard said. “You see the things you’re capable of doing, things you’re able to execute that will be effective. Like boxing. Outmaneuvering. That’s boxing. To do what Hagler doesn’t do. Whatever he doesn’t do, I will do that. If he doesn’t punch, I’ll punch. If he should punch, I won’t punch. Just do the opposite. That’s the best way to beat him. That’s the best way to beat any opponent.

“Mugabi impressed me a great deal. His chin. His maneuverability. He would stand right in front of Hagler, making him miss. And Mugabi is not that good of a boxer. But what he did was just enough to make Hagler miss. He did something that Roberto Duran was doing. Those two fights I look at and I say, ‘Well, hell, look what these guys have been able to do.’ ”

In contrast, Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns went about fighting Hagler all wrong, slugging and getting slugged.

Leonard saw himself in Hearns’ position--briefly. “Once Tommy was knocked out,” Leonard said, “I didn’t put myself in that position.”

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Leonard turned onto the main road, up a hill, around a leafy bend. He ran to a traffic light, then cut into another neighborhood of large homes and quiet streets.

A small, fluffy white dog fell in with Leonard and a friend running alongside, Craig Jones, but after a few steps went back to sitting on a lawn. Leonard ran easily to the crest of a hill, as if to the rim of a world that promised everything he wanted.

“It’s like when I wanted to fight Tommy Hearns,” he said. “I enjoy it. It’s like when I wanted to fight Roberto Duran the second time. I wanted to regain my title. I wanted that. This has the same significance. I want to win the fight. That’s all that matters.

“I feel my own form back. I feel far better than when I was training for Kevin Howard, because I had not conditioned myself.”

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Howard was the ordinary fighter who knocked Leonard down before Leonard knocked him out in his first comeback, in May 1984.

“I condition my body now,” he said. “I’m just conditioning now. I didn’t do it with Kevin Howard. I just made an announcement and jumped into the ring, which I thought was quite premature.

“Now I have sufficient time to prepare myself, be as innovative as I possibly can and do things my way. And it also gives Hagler a year out of the ring, of inactivity, to neutralize things. I think it’s great timing.”

Leonard ran home, past white wooden fences. His brown chow chow met him on the driveway, and Leonard picked it up and ruffled it before he went inside.

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A “Wanted” notice and the mug of Marvin Hagler is stuck to a front door of the Sugar Ray Leonard gym, in a small mall in Palmer Park, Md., a block from where Leonard grew up. It’s the cover of a boxing magazine on which it is said of Hagler: “160 pounds of raw power and meanness. Armed with two deadly weapons. His left and right hands.”

Inside, everybody was there. Dave Jacobs, trainer; Leonard’s father, Cicero and his brother, Roger; big Ollie Dunlap, Leonard’s confidant; a sparring partner, Kevin Rivers, like Hagler, a southpaw; friends Fly and Juice. Leonard’s wife Juanita would be by, with little Jarrel. Regulars sat in the four rows of stands. A sign on the far wall: “I’m Back!”

Dunlap showed off an enlargement of a color picture he took early this year of Leonard and Hagler together, in tuxedos, Leonard with his arm around Hagler’s shoulder.

“I said, this will be the last time we’ll get ‘em together, smiling,” Dunlap said. He knew it was going to come to this. He’s known for years.

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“You could sense it in the conversation on the way home (from Hagler-Duran),” Dunlap said. That fight took place in 1983, a year after Leonard announced his first retirement.

Leonard and Dunlap talked again on the way home from the Hagler-Mustafa Hamsho fight in October 1984-after Leonard’s second retirement. Dunlap said, “He’d say, all Hamsho had to do was this . . . Then, Mugabi . . . He knew there were certain things these guys had to do to beat Marvin.

“I think Duran showed everybody how to fight Marvin. Duran was the first really mobile fighter he fought. He had lateral movement, the quickness, anticipation of punches. To counterpunch you have to be quick. Duran just ran out of gas.

“This isn’t something that popped up yesterday with Ray. The fires were burning.”

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As Leonard said: “I had my contractual obligations, television, what have you. But it wasn’t that spiritual and physical challenge. It wasn’t that same feeling. I missed that because I never got to that guy, I never got to that Hagler guy.

“So there was that void there. As time went on I said, ‘Well, hell, I’m 27 now, I still got time. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Still got time. Thirty. Oh, we got to do it before it’s too late.’

“It’s always been there. It’s been there since I retired. It’s nothing new. It just finally came up.”

Added Dunlap: “It’s like two six-gun shooters come to town. They’re both extremely fast. Everybody’s in the saloon waiting.”

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In walked Leonard. He was at home. A crowd from the sidewalk--one man had been awaiting the Rolls, “the double R"--flowed inside with him. At lunches, public appearances, sometimes Leonard has beads of perspiration pop out on his forehead. Here, he flashed a toothy smile, exchanged small talk, signed an autograph. Said Dave Jacobs: “Ray Leonard is going to do some things this time you ain’t never seen him do. I know for a fact he’s going to show the world. Believe me, he’s going to show the world.”

Leonard had his hands taped. Jacobs and Roger Leonard helped him into his gloves. He wore a white undershirt and black tights. This day, he eschewed a headgear. He boxed Rivers like the fighter in his dreams. He backpedaled and counterpunched, feinted and jabbed. By the third round he was attacking, hitting Rivers almost at will. The fourth round was shortened, with Rivers cut off in a corner. The fifth round was stopped, again with Rivers in a corner. “Time. Time. That’s enough,” Jacobs shouted.

Leonard’s gloves were removed. He soaked his face in a bucket of icy water, and when he brought it out dripping, Jacobs dried it with a towel. With Jacobs looking on intently, Leonard tattooed the light bag. Jacobs counted, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” and at “1" Leonard delivered a last blow that all but unhinged the bag. Then he worked the bag again, soaked his face once more. The tape was cut from his hands. He skipped rope in front of a large mirror. Stretched on a table, his ankles held by Jacobs, Leonard did situps. Juanita wandered over but paid no attention. She’d seen it all before and, like Dunlap, she knew his passion to fight Hagler.

“It never left,” she said. “It just eased off a little bit. He never got it out of his blood.”

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He’d ask her, what did she think about him fighting Hagler? She remembered one particular time because about two weeks later, May 1, he challenged Hagler. “I didn’t say no,” she said. “I guess he thought, ‘I’d better go ahead before she changes her mind.’ ”

She expressed weary acceptance of her husband’s decision. “As far as I’m concerned, let him get up there and fight,” she said. “I’m tired. I’m tired of talking.”

Leonard also spoke of Hagler with his lawyer, Mike Trainer: “Mike always heard me talk about it a great deal. With Hagler fighting, I’d come back, I’d say, ‘See what happened, see what happened?’ ”

Then, one day, Leonard and Trainer were in Toronto, and they talked some more. The fire needed no stoking. “We just sat down together and talked about the public’s reception. You know, how people will view you. You retired twice. Coming back. Be prepared to take the negative criticism from people who are cynical. People are pessimistic. You’ll have to prepare for that.”

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But what of Leonard’s eyes? In May 1982, he was operated on for a detached retina of the left eye. In February 1984, his comeback fight with Howard was postponed because of retina weakness in Leonard’s right eye. Consider Leonard’s fight with Hearns, his last major fight, September, 1981. What better example of the cruel craft?

Trailing on all judges’ scorecards, Leonard fought back, stopping Hearns in the 14th round despite a left eye that from the 10th round on was gorged with blood and swelling. Leonard said at the time: “My vision was about a half to a third of normal. I couldn’t see his right hand coming anymore.”

Now Leonard said: “I wouldn’t do it if it was a problem. People who know me know I wouldn’t do it if it was.”

Dressed, his day done, Leonard said the last details in negotiations for the fight might be resolved as early as this week, leaving as “the biggest problem the color of the trunks. He has the option on that.” Leonard laughed. What he cared about most was getting Hagler into a ring. Finally, it looked as if he’d get his wish.

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