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Sugar Ray Leonard is a 1976 Olympic gold medalist. (Deborah Wald)

Olympic Boxing Champ Fights Personal Abuses

by NPR Staff
Jun 22, 2011 (Tell Me More)

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When it comes to boxing, few can claim to have been both feared in the ring and loved outside of it, like Sugar Ray Leonard. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. In two decades as a professional boxer, he became a champion in five different weight divisions. He's also credited with keeping boxing relevant to a new generation of fans.

But behind that bankable personality and magical smile was a far more complicated personal story, which comes out in Sugar Ray Leonard's new autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.

Becoming A Fighter

Leonard says he first got involved with boxing at age 14, when his brother Roger encouraged him to go to the gym. Leonard recalls being quiet and introverted, but suddenly felt empowered with the gloves on. "It was like magic. And I continued to be disciplined, be motivated, to run and train hard every single day. And all of a sudden, I became a better boxer," Leonard says.

But he never intended to become a professional boxer. He had hoped to use boxing as a means to earn a college scholarship. He was going to the University of Maryland and wanted to major in business.

"Professional boxing was the least thing on my mind because I've heard and seen some horrible scenarios about boxers who may come out with money...but when it was all over with, they were homeless, looked down upon. I didn't want the same to happen to me," he says. But Rand ended up going pro to help his father, who fell into a coma at the time.

Leonard says what distinguishes a great fighter from a fighter is the will to win. "It's that individual who's able to reach down into that hidden reservoir of strength that we all have but rarely activate," he states.

He also sharply recalls the physical pain he bore inside the rink: "It's like someone sticking an ice pick in your hands. You either quit or you continue. Then all of a sudden, it's something you live with. It's excruciating, paralyzing pain, but in the end, you get through the day."

Leonard says he also always brought his hands together in prayer before matches. But he didn't pray for a personal victory, but for everyone's safety.

One memorable fight occurred in 1981, when Sugar Ray Leonard seemed to be losing to his opponent Tommy Hearns. At the time, Leonard's eye was damaged. He recalls that as Hearns continued hitting him, his eye was almost swollen shut. Leonard describes being exhausted after the 12th or so round, and yet, "I hit Tommy, and I hurt Tommy, and I became like a Tasmanian devil. I never let up."

Overcoming Sexual Abuse And Alcoholism

When Leonard was a young man, he experienced two incidents of sexual abuse - once by an Olympic coach and also by a boxing fan who frequented the gym. He says he publicly opened up about it because it allowed him to get rid of the pain that haunted him for about three decades. Leonard states, "It was kind of a paradox. If you think about me as a fighter, I could knock those guys out. But I didn't. Why? One — because I was getting cash and training for the Olympics. And I trusted this guy to get close to the Olympics."

Leonard also struggled with alcohol, which had grave repercussions: "I didn't know how to be a father, be a husband." He says. He ultimately went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, and comments, "I know if I had not taken this step to go to AA, to surrender and drop my guard, and take the pain of releasing this toxin in my stomach and my chest, I would be dead."

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