3. Ray Leonard: After Sugar Ray Robinson retired in 1965, many fighters sought to latch on to his legend by adopting his nickname. It can be argued that one man came closest to duplicating Robinson’s blend of style, substance and charisma – Ray Charles Leonard.
Like the original Sugar Ray, Leonard owned supersonic hand speed, feathery light feet, supreme ring intelligence, a mighty left hook, a brilliant out-of-the-ring persona that fed the media beast and a hunger for fighting the best when they were at their best – at least during the first phase of his career. Leonard at his zenith was a sight to behold, both as a pro and as an amateur, and his successes in both fields speak for themselves.
Olympic career – The reason why Leonard is rated above Whitaker is because he competed against the full compliment of countries, plus he had to win six fights to win the gold to “Sweet Pea’s” five. Leonard’s route to glory was achieved with 5-0 sweeps over Sweden’s Ulf Carlsson, the Soviet Union’s Valery Limasov, Great Britain’s Clinton McKenzie, East Germany’s Ulrich Beyer and Poland’s Kazimierz Szczerba.
In the light welterweight final Leonard met Cuba’s Andres Aldama, who scorched the field by going four-for-four with four knockouts. His one-round, one-punch stoppage of Bulgaria’s Vladimir Kolev in the semifinal still ranks as one of the most destructive knockouts in Olympic history as Kolev had to be taken from the ring on a stretcher. With that vision fresh in many minds Leonard, fighting with two badly swollen hands, was forced to confront a daunting challenge.
As would be the case again and again as a pro, Leonard rose to the challenge. Smartly moving to his left – away from Aldama’s crushing southpaw left cross – Leonard piled up points with educated jabs and hooks as well as occasional well-timed rights. A shotgun jab, delivered a split-second before a caution by the referee, caused a stricken Aldama to collapse to the canvas for a five-count in round two. An emboldened Leonard tore after the Cuban and added two standing-eight counts in the closing moments of the fight to close out a 5-0 decision and the gold medal. Though Howard Davis Jr. won the Val Barker, a good argument could have been made for Leonard.
Professional career: All but seven of his 40 pro fights took place within the first five years of his 20-year career, and it was this stretch that established the majority of his legend. Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee brilliantly guided Leonard through the formative stages as he defeated a vast array of styles and situations that featured growing difficulty but not enough to derail his rise.
Fights two through four saw him defeat fighters with a combined 52-8-1 record and on his way to his first belt he beat the likes of Dick Eklund, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Randy Shields, Armando Muniz, Johnny Gant, rated junior middleweights Fernando Marcotte and Tony Chiaverini, the 52-2-4 Daniel Gonzalez, Adolfo Viruet, Pete Ranzany, Andy Price and middleweight Marcos Geraldo – almost all in succession. That foundation readied him for his victories over Wilfred Benitez, Ayub Kalule, Thomas Hearns and a revenge victory over Roberto Duran, who had decisioned him five months earlier.
Eye problems leading up to a mandatory defense against Roger Stafford marked the beginning of phase two, where Leonard fought sporadically and often spectacularly. His sensational – and still highly disputed – upset of undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and victories over Don Lalonde, Hearns and Duran highlighted this period, and his lopsided losses against Terry Norris and Hector Camacho did little to dull his legacy. More than a few experts rate him among the top 20 fighters who have ever lived, quite a feat given the limited number of fights Leonard had in comparison to his peers. But Leonard was one who put quality over quantity and in that respect few did it better.