Lem Satterfield

Exclusive Q&A: Leonard on Real Steel, his book, his career

Five-division titleholder Sugar Ray Leonard is basking in the glow of a different sort of success these days: that of the movie Real Steel, which opened last Friday and is currently the top movie in the country.

The 55-year-old Leonard was hired as a consultant to choreograph the film’s action sequences, which involve giant robots battling like prize fighters.

He is also in the midst of promoting his new book, The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of The Ring, which details his cocaine abuse and his having been sexually abused by a former coach.

A 1976 Olympic Gold medalist, Leonard earned his first major title belt by vanquishing previously unbeaten Wilfred Benitez for the WBC welterweight crown via 15th-round stoppage in November of 1979. He lost the title in his second defense against legendary former lightweight champ Roberto Duran, who out-pointed him over 15 ferocious rounds in June of 1980.

Leonard then regained the title with an eighth-round TKO of Duran in the famous “No Mas” return bout in November of 1980, avenging the loss from five months earlier.

Next, Leonard rose to the junior middleweight class for a ninth-round stoppage of previously unbeaten Ayub Kalule, dethroning the WBA beltholder in June of 1981.

Just three months later, Leonard overcame Thomas Hearns by 14th-round knockout, dethroning the WBA titleholder in a clash of pound-for-pound titans in September.

Leonard’s next major victory would not come until almost five years later, when he ended a nearly three-year layoff by vanquishing Marvin Hagler as WBC middleweight beltholder by unanimous decision in April of 1987.

In November of 1988, Leonard accomplished a coup by getting WBC light heavyweight titleholder Donny Lalonde to put his belt on the line at a catchweight of 168 pounds, with the WBC’s vacant super middleweight belt also on the line.

Leonard stopped Lalonde by ninth-round stoppage, taking both belts in the process, before closing out his career with a draw and a unanimous decision opposite Hearns and Duran, respectively, before losing his last two comeback bouts against Terry Norris and Hector Camacho.

Leonard spoke to RingTV.com about the movie, his life and his career:


RingTV.com: What are your thoughts on the success of the movie?

Ray Leonard: The movie apparently really hit home. A lot of my boys that I had invited to the premiere, they were calling me the next day. My phone was ringing off the hook. These guys are like hardcore boxing fans.

They loved the emotional content behind the movie. There was some concern at first, working with guys like Hugh Jackman and Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks, I said, “maybe this is different.”

And, in fact, it was different, because the minute that I saw the finished product, I knew that we had something special. When my boys saw it, I knew then that it was for real.

They were people like Johnny Gill, Jim Hill. There were a lot of guys who are into boxing and who are boxing purists. But they really enjoyed it.


RingTV.com: Can you discuss your drug and alcohol abuse issues, what you went through and how it is to be on the other side?

RL: Well, it was, put it this way. People knew. People close to me knew. The sportswriters knew because they were friends of mine. It’s one of those things that no one really comments on.

Back in the 1980s, not condoning what I did, but it was kind of the thing. It was a slick thing. It’s like when I was drinking, I wasn’t literally drunk, I was having fun.

But the main thing is that the cocaine that I did, that didn’t make the pain go away. For me, personally speaking, it was an un-prescribed sedative, if you will. 

That was 1982 when I really first retired that first time. It made me feel good. It just made me feel better than my heart was saying.


RingTV.com: I understand that your weight dropped to about 130 pounds?

RL: Oh, without question. I guarantee you that I was at least easily close to junior welterweight. Easy


RingTV.com: So light enough to fight Alexis Arguello?

RL: He would have probably out-weighed me by about 10 pounds. You know what? I used to ask people around me, “do I look skinny?” They would say, “no, champ, no.”

But I don’t blame them. Listen, it was my life and I heard what I wanted to hear. If I didn’t want to hear it, I shut my ears to it. I cut everything off, you know what I mean?


RingTV.com: With the sexual abuse, I understand that you’ve since talked about the therapeutic value of having shared that story and addressed the actions by the Olympic coach?

RL: You know, it was something that my wife, Bernadette, you want to talk about trepidation. She was concerned with the book as far as those revelations about the sexual abuse and the cocaine and the infidelity.

She was saying, “Ray, we live in this nice neighborhood, and we’re around people that we’ve known for years, and our kids go to these incredible schools.”  But I told my wife, “It’s not about them, it’s about me.”

I finally said that. That was about two years ago, and I was very adamant about that. I said, “I’m dying on the inside, and I’m deteriorating on the inside.” The outside looked good.

But on the inside, I was a mess. Upstairs in my head, I was also a mess. But I’m a professional and I’ve got responsibilities. But the whole time, I was a f–king mess. 


RingTV.com: Since then, do you have any regrets or are you a better husband, father and person overall?

RL: No question. One hundred percent. A thousand percent. I’m good with my son, and I’m good with myself. I realized that when I went to some kind of party or reception or whatever at somebody’s house.

There was a huge event in their back yard, and I walked into their back yard, and it was the first time that I didn’t feel like I had to show that I am the s–t. I felt like I could just show that I am who I am.

I walked in there with my wife, hand-in-hand, and if felt so good. Yet, it was so natural. It was so natural. That was the first time that I’ve ever done that. I’ve been sober for five years, so that was about four years ago. My first year.


RingTV.com: You’ve often said that one of your most difficult fights was the one with Benitez, how so?

RL: Well, do you know that I ended up going to the hospital after that fight? I got back to my hotel, and I was dehydrated. I ran out of energy because I was dehydrated.

When Muhammad Ali said that the closest he ever came to death after a fight was after the fight with Joe Frazier, I could identify with that after the one with Benitez. I swear to God.

So that was the closest thing to death for me, you know? It really, really was. I remember that like it was yesterday. My hand speed kind of threw him off.

But he had the confidence of a king. Even when I knocked that son of a b–ch down, he got up and he was like, “oh, I’m sorry, I just slipped.”

In the corner, when he was headbutted, he just smiled. He was the epitome of what a fighter should be. Wilfred Benitez had that gladiator-like confidence.


RingTV.com: Your thoughts on the action in Hagler’s third-round knockout over Hearns?

RL: Listen, man, if Tommy would have used that jab, he would have won that fight. But the reason that I also knew that Tommy was vulnerable was that he also had a kamikaze mentality. It was a do-or-die situation for Tommy.

So Tommy would go in there without even thinking about, you know, “by the way, I’m 6-foot-2,” or, “by the way, I’m very fast,” or, “by the way, my jab is a thing of beauty and a thing of art.” 

Then you have, “my height,” and,  “my reach.” It was like he would forget about those things that were so apparent in his skills and his dimensions. If he would have used that jab, then he would have won that fight.

I normally don’t go with the hypothetical, but in that fight, it was so apparent. If Tommy Hearns had boxed Hagler, then he would have beaten Hagler. Fact. Fact. Because of his hand speed, his height.


RingTV.com: Why do you believe that there was there such a contrast in the way that Hearns fought you and the way that he fought Hagler?

RL: Tommy would have beaten Hagler, but he got into this exchange mentality. You can’t win against Hagler if you stand toe-to-toe and go with him punch-for-punch.

Although I thought about fighting Hagler that same way, that was my first fight plan, because I knew that Hagler had been cut a few times and I was going to use that and try to bust him up.

But Tommy would have won that fight if he had resorted to boxing. Looking back also, having seen that fight a thousand times, it looked as though Tommy’s legs were not holding up against Hagler.

Tommy seemed a little off balance as if his legs couldn’t hold him up. I think that Tommy knew something that we didn’t know. But who is to say? His legs, remember, they just kind of folded beneath him.


RingTV.com: Didn’t you say during several interviews before facing Hagler that you were going to steal the rounds and win the crowd?

RL: [Laughs.] You know, I did say that. I meant that. It’s funny, if you go back to some of those interviews, among the last few things that I said was that my plan and my psychological warfare would work.

Because one of the things that Hagler said during one of the final press conferences before the fight was that, “I may surprise all of you, and I may out-box Ray.”

When he said that, I said, “I got him.” I knew that I had him because he was thinking about changing his strategy. Exactly.

I didn’t want him to rush into me and bum-rush me like he did with Tommy. I wanted him to think that he was a better boxer than I was.


RingTV.com: How critical for you was it to go 12 rounds and not 15?

RL: The thing about the 12 versus the 15 rounds, I could have gone 15 rounds and I could train for 15 rounds.

I trained for 15 rounds. But psychologically, [12 rounds] processed better with my comeback, and the time off.


RingTV.com: What do you make of that little dance that Hagler did after your fight ended and before the decision was announced in your favor?

RL: You know, it always bothered me that no one ever mentioned that. The writers that are so observant never mentioned that it was so uncharacteristic of Marvin Hagler to do what he did after our fight.

With the dancing? He has never done that. You know, that is a clear indication that he knew that he lost.


RingTV.com: What did you think of how Floyd Mayweather Jr. dictated the pace against Victor Ortiz with his right hand?

RL: That was a thing of beauty. That takes a total commitment to that punch.


RingTV.com: What did you think of the ending to Mayweather-Ortiz?

RL: I think that the flagrancy of that intentional headbutt by Ortiz was so awful, that it gave Mayweather the right to throw the punch. I wanted the fight to go on as a fight fan, but I understand.

I hold no grudges against Floyd for doing what he did. It takes a while or a day or so for something like that to soak in, once you look back at it. But what Ortiz attempted to do could have been career-threatening.

He could have done some serious damage, do you know what I mean? He jumped up and was like a missile with his head. I mean, come on.

What people fail to realize is that this just took place 20 or 30 seconds ago. Mayweather was still in the moment. So hey, he did the right thing. That was not illegal to me.


RingTV.com: Would you have done it?

RL: No. [Laughs.] But that’s just me.



Lem Satterfield can be reached at lem.satterfield@gmail.com

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