“I'm a competitor and a very proud man. If a guy beats me once, he'll have to do it again to make me believe him.”
– Sugar Ray Leonard
Nobody ever did beat Sugar Ray Leonard twice and, as a welterweight, the American legend defeated every opponent he ever faced, including three first ballot Hall of Famers at the top of their game.
Wilfred Benitez’s radar was finely tuned. Roberto Duran’s hands were made of stone. Thomas “Hitman” Hearns had a contract out on the entire division. Leonard, with soldier-like bravery, faced them all and ultimately prevailed during a bloodthirsty quest for greatness at 147 pounds.
“Welterweight has always been a division where real stars come through,” said Leonard, who looks over a decade younger than his 57 years. “It’s about history and it goes all the way back to the days of Sugar Ray Robinson, who was the fighter that brought such enormous attention to the welterweight scene.
“Robinson’s style, his sophistication, his way of fighting and how he carried himself outside of the ring was important. I was able to pick up the baton afterwards because of my Olympic exposure and the fights I had as a professional. I shared the ring with great champions, but 147 pounds was definitely my division.”
Leonard annexed world championships in five weight categories, from welterweight all the way up to light heavy, an achievement made all the more remarkable given that he was diagnosed with a career-threatening eye injury in 1982.
As a result “The Sugarman” endured long periods of inactivity, at the peak of his powers, and although he returned sporadically to sprinkle magic dust on the sport, never campaigned at 147 pounds again. This reporter was keen to know what was lost when the Hall of Famer headed north on the scales.
“That’s a good question,” said Leonard. “I wouldn’t say that I lost anything other than time. I lost the time to have fought an Aaron Pryor, or some of the other guys who were around. Every once in a while I’ll hear someone say I dodged this guy or that guy.
“I didn’t dodge anyone – I was unemployed.”
So, who is the greatest welterweight of all time? It’s difficult to think of someone more appropriate to ask than Sugar Ray Leonard who, despite being an all-time great inside the ring, famously proved his worth as an expert commentator for HBO outside of it.
“Sugar Ray Robinson is number one, without question,” said Leonard of his glorious predecessor, who passed away in 1989.
A 10-second delay follows as Leonard‘s eyes close during deliberation.
This reporter immediately asks if Mayweather is superior to a peak Sugar Ray Leonard, and if the question was a metaphorical punch then the answer came back as quickly as the counter.
Hilarity ensues due to the boldness of his retort and Leonard pats me on the back, as his familiar laugh and glowing smile fill the room. The great ex-champion knew the question was coming and his response was sharp, well timed, funny – and extremely convincing.
“Sugar Ray Robinson, myself and then Mayweather,” said Leonard, in earnest. “Ask me 1000 times if I could have beaten Floyd Mayweather and I’ll tell you 1000 times that I could, and Mayweather will tell you 999.99 times that he can beat me.”
While neither Robinson, nor Leonard, will ever dance under the arc lights again, we can take comfort in today’s welterweight division, which is bursting with upcoming talent, superstars and budding legends.
RingTV caught up with the great Sugar Ray Leonard for a unique analysis on our welterweight Top 10 and the big fights which are imminent.
10. Adrien Broner: “Adrien Broner’s personality tends to rub people up the wrong way. He tries to mimic, or imitate, Floyd Mayweather [Jr.] and nobody can imitate Floyd. Broner has a lot of talent, but it’s overlooked because of the antagonism he aims towards opponents and some things are just not acceptable.”
9. Marcos Maidana: “When you hit like Maidana you always have a puncher’s chance. The thing is he has good wins over top welterweights, including Broner, but Floyd is that bit better than everyone else around. The only guy who can beat Mayweather is Mayweather – he’s that good. Beating Broner is one thing and beating Mayweather is another.”
8. Paulie Malignaggi: “I love Paulie. I love his energy, his heart and his entertainment value. He’s a performer and he’s out there to fight no matter how arduous the challenge. He has Shawn Porter next and Paul is the kind of guy who gets himself up for the big fights. If you give him the opportunity then he comes to win. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paul emerge victorious.”
7. Keith Thurman: “I’m not familiar with him. These days a lot of fighters aren’t getting the level of exposure they would have gotten years ago. Once Thurman gets that exposure and wins a world title we’ll see his value increase I’m sure.”
6. Shawn Porter: “I watched Porter beat Devon Alexander and that was a real surprise to a lot of people. He’s just broken through, but at the moment Thurman and Porter are overshadowed by the rest of the stars in the division. Porter has to be patient, stay active and be ready for the challenges which lay ahead.”
5. Robert Guerrero: “The Ghost was shining in fight after fight and then he was blown out the water by a superior and established champion in Floyd Mayweather. This happens and his management should have kept him active after the defeat because, if allowed to fester, it could become a real psychological scar. Guerrero needs to get back to the drawing board and we’ll see what kind of character he has.”
4. Kell Brook: “I know the name and I’ve heard good things, but he’s not had a lot of exposure in the States. You can keep me posted on him (laughs).”
3. Manny Pacquiao: “It’s commendable that Manny has come back after, and I say this with the utmost respect, such a traumatic and devastating loss to Juan Manuel Marquez. It’s seldom that a fighter will ever recover from a defeat like that. [Roberto] Duran came back after a similar knockout to Tommy [Hearns] but Duran was all about heart and his head was totally in the game. Brandon Rios was the perfect opponent for Manny but, although I was impressed with his composure, who knows what he has left? He needs to be the Pacquiao of old against Tim Bradley in the rematch.”
2. Juan Manuel Marquez: “Marquez is a precision counterpuncher and that’s what allowed him to beat Pacquiao. He had to be a superbly technical counterpuncher and that knockout shot was timed to perfection. What’s happening now is that age is starting to become a factor. I watched a replay of his fight with Tim Bradley and he didn’t look as pumped up as he did for Manny. In the back of his mind it must have been a bit of an anticlimax, because a lot of people expected him to beat Tim. Being the underdog against Manny has always been a real driving force for Marquez.”
1. Tim Bradley: “I like Bradley and had the chance to interview him. He’s amazingly talented, strong and has lots of desire, but when he fought Pacquiao I thought he lost. I told Tim that and he was a bit upset, but what I saw was Manny landing more shots and controlling the fight. Against Ruslan Provodnikov, oh my god, what a crazy fight that was and Bradley took so much punishment. I appreciated him being so open about slurring his speech, and the damage he sustained, but you can’t keep taking shots like that. Then again, boxing is all about styles and Tim was back at the top of his game against Juan Manuel Marquez. This rematch with Manny should be interesting.”
C. Floyd Mayweather: “Floyd deserves to be where he’s at right now. It’s not his fault that there isn’t a multitude of all-time greats around him – he has no control over that. When Sugar Ray Robinson was fighting or when I was fighting we had superstar competition, whereas Mayweather is just that bit better than the rest of the field. He also fights and performs from a business perspective and knows when there’s money to be made. The thing that really impressed me about Floyd was when Sugar Shane Mosley hurt him badly. He recovered so well, and dominated Shane for the rest of that fight. I know what to look for in fighters and champions and that one moment was very important. Mayweather could have competed in any era and that is a fact.”
Many thanks to Carl Holness, CEO at CWH Promotions, for making this interview possible. Please visit the CWH Promotions website on http://www.cwhpromotions.co.uk/
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
Photos: (top) Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images, (middle) AFP/Getty Images, (bottom) Mike Powell/Getty Images