Former world boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard, struggling to control his emotions, said Saturday that he used cocaine for three years in attempting to escape “periods of great depression” resulting from an eye injury that threatened to end his fighting career.
At a somber news conference after The Times disclosed his drug and alcohol abuse, based on sworn statements during his divorce proceedings, Leonard called his conduct “wrong . . . childish . . . (and) stupid.”
He described his drug and alcohol use as “almost inconceivable,” in that he had been “a young man who had everything in the world--money, fame, glory, a beautiful family, kids.”
Speaking to youngsters whom a questioner said regard Leonard, 34, as a role model, he advised that cocaine use is “not the right road to take,” adding, “it doesn’t work. I’ll be the first to admit it.”
“I hope they look at my mistake--and don’t use it,” he said.
But Leonard insisted that he stopped trying to erase “dark moments” with cocaine in early 1986--three years before he appeared in nationally televised anti-drug public service announcements.
The former middle and welterweight champion said he turned down such public service opportunities while he was using cocaine to avoid being a “hypocrite,” and that he never took the drug while he was fighting.
Leonard, from nearby Baltimore and a hero in the greater Washington area, declined repeatedly to go into details of the physical abuse or suicide threats alleged by his former wife, Juanita, last summer during questioning under oath before the couple reached a multimillion-dollar divorce settlement.
To contend that he and his wife never fought, argued or grabbed each other would “be lying,” Leonard said, but he added “that was in our house, between us. Unfortunately, during the proceedings, which are very emotional and very painful, certain things are taken out of context or exaggerated.”
During the divorce proceedings, Juanita Leonard said she believed he had used drugs for two years that she knew of, and that the last time she was aware of was “sometime before I left (in 1987).”
“I had taken some cocaine from him and flushed it down the toilet,” she said, according to Maryland court records. “I believe that (started) one of our arguments.”
Juanita Leonard acknowledged using marijuana and “occasional” cocaine during the 10-year marriage.
Leonard said he turned to cocaine after suffering a detached retina while training in 1982 and then retiring after doctors warned that he could lose sight in the left eye if he returned to the ring.
“I didn’t start (using cocaine) until my career was put on the back burner,” Leonard said. “I went through a period of denial. I couldn’t accept that.”
At another point, Leonard said: “I could have walked away--if I was an adult. I wanted more. . . . I wanted that arena. . . . I didn’t want anyone to tell me my career had to end.
“Maybe what I should have done was thank God for my blessings,” Leonard said. But instead, he said he “decided to search for a substitute” and “resorted to drugs and alcohol.”
Returning to the ring in 1984, Leonard defeated Kevin Howard but then retired again. In 1987, he came back to boxing and took the middleweight crown from Marvelous Marvin Hagler. After losing a decision to Terry Norris, Leonard retired again Feb. 10.
Leonard said publicly discussing details of his life that he had struggled to keep private was “quite painful and quite emotional.”
“I stand here ashamed, hurt,” he said. “I think about my parents, my ex-wife, my kids, people who care for me, my fans that made me. . . .”
The three years of drugs and alcohol produced a failed marriage, embarrassment to his mother and father and “hopefully not irreparable damage to my kids,” Leonard said, his voice cracking.
He said he stopped using cocaine after looking in the mirror one morning and finding his image “scary.”
“I grew up,” Leonard said, noting that he did not find it necessary to go to a drug abuse center or take medication to stay off cocaine.
Leonard, who undertook a series of television interviews after his news conference at the Touchdown Club in downtown Washington, said that any damage to either his image or opportunity for lucrative endorsements resulting from his story is “not my priority now.”
He said he chose to speak out because “I felt the public was entitled to an explanation.” Thomas Hearns said Friday that if Leonard was using cocaine in 1989 when the two appeared in public service ads against drug use while promoting their fight in June of that year, he “owes the public an apology.”