With a still unmatched five titles in five weight classes it's easy to see why Sugar Ray Leonard was seen as the successor to The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. But even before Ali had hung up his gloves in 1981, Leonard had already won the NABF and WBC welterweight titles and been named “Fighter of the Year” in Ring magazine.
Known for his lightning speed and flawless technique, Leonard dominated the boxing world in the 1980s. Named “Fighter of the Decade”, he left the Eighties as he had entered them, as a world champion.
Like Ali, his career was defined by the long-running battles he had with his greatest opponents. During a golden age of welterweight and middleweight boxing, Leonard's fights with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler are the stuff of legend.
Leonard first met Duran in Montreal in 1980 as he sought to defend his WBC welterweight title against the former Undisputed World Lightweight Champion. Ignoring coach Angelo Dundee's advice to make the most of his agility, Leonard went toe-to-toe with the Panamanian and lost on points after a gruelling 15-round encounter.
He would not have to wait long to get his revenge, the two going head-to-head again in New Orleans just five months later. This time he took Dundee's advice and danced around Duran, staying out of range until the time was right to burst inside his defence with explosive flurries of punches. With Leonard ahead on points and beginning to taunt his opponent, Duran quit, claiming he had stomach cramps.
After the fight Leonard had a different view on the stoppage: “I made him quit. To make a man quit, to make Roberto Duran quit, was better than knocking him out.”
After stepping up to junior middleweight and knocking out champion Ayube Kalule, Leonard dropped back down to unify the WBC and WBA welterweight titles. In his way was Thomas Hearns, the undefeated WBA champion with 32 wins and 30 knockouts to his name.
In a legendary fight, Leonard, well behind on all three score cards with three rounds to go, went for the jugular in the 13th. He dropped Hearns twice but his opponent still came out for the 14th. Obviously reeling, Leonard pinned him against the ropes and let fly until the referee stopped the bout. The performance won him another Fighter of the Year award.
Diagnosed with a detached retina, Leonard quit boxing, returned, and then quit again before setting up a huge bout with the Undisputed World Middleweight Champion, Marvin Hagler, in 1987.
With his retina problem and time out of the sport, few expected the performance that Leonard provided. Combatting Hagler's superior power with flawless technique, he outboxed him, limiting himself to short, well-timed attacks. In the end he won a hotly disputed decision on points.
After another retirement, Leonard returned to draw with Hearns and defeat Duran once more, securing his legacy in the history of boxing. Always a well-liked fighter, known for his quick wit, Leonard was made for television and since his retirement has been best known as host and mentor on boxing reality show, The Contender.
But even with the benefit of the former champ's wisdom and experience, it's unlikely the show will ever produce another fighter quite like him.
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