Sugar Ray Leonard Bio: In His Own Words
Ray Charles Leonard (May 17, 1956), or “Sugar,” is known as one of the greatest boxers of all time. His boxing achievements are nothing short of legendary. As an amateur, he won three National Golden Gloves titles, a gold medal at the 1975 Pan-American games, and a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. These alone lifted him to stardom at the age of 20, but he was just getting started.
After choosing to become a professional boxer due to a strenuous family situation, he surpassed the incredible level of success that he had achieved on the amateur level. By the time he retired from professional boxing (for the last time) in 1997, he had a career record of 36-3-1, he had won World Boxing Council championships in five different weight classes, and had carried the national interest in the sport more than anyone else following the retirement of Muhammad Ali.
Since then he has made a living as a boxing analyst, an actor, and the author of his 2011 autobiography, The Big Fight: My Life in and out of the Ring. He has two kids with his second wife, Bernadette Robi, whom he has been married to since August 1993.
Sugar Ray Leonard Bio — Early Life
Ray was born on May 17, 1956 in Rocky Mount, N.C. as Getha and Cicero Leonard’s fifth of seven children: most importantly, he was named after Ray Charles, his mother’s favorite singer. At the age of three, Ray and his family moved to Washington, D.C. At the age of 10, they moved permanently to Palmer Park, MD. As a child growing up there, life in the neighborhood was treacherous. He frequently witnessed lives ruined due to crime, violence, and racial tension. It did not help that his parents would often drink and began fighting over money and the other women Cicero had been seeing. Ray writes in his autobiography that he felt it was his responsibility “to keep [his] parents from killing each other.”
These experiences did not traumatize Leonard as they might have with many young adults: instead, they toughened him. His older brother Roger, however, may have been the biggest influence of his adolescence. Roger would regularly beat his younger brother up as a kid. He was a boxer; eventually he pushed Ray to come to the local rec center and join the boxing program. Ray quickly developed a passion for the sport. “Naturally I was not very good at the beginning,” he told uInterview, “but because I was so disciplined, I was so motivated, I had such a passion for the mano-a-mano that within six months to a year, I surpassed him, broke his nose, beat most guys up in the gym. I advanced very quickly.”
Soon enough, boxing had consumed Ray’s life. In his autobiography he elaborates: “The other kids assumed I was crazy — and maybe I was — but I needed to believe the extra effort would pay off someday…I became dedicated to the point that many years when I needed to lose weight, I sat in the car for hours during hot summer afternoons, the windows closed, wearing a sweatshirt covered by a sheet of plastic.” This dedication would bode well for him in the years to come.
Sugar Ray Leonard Bio — Amateur Career
At first, his style of fighting was similar to the great “Smokin'” Joe Frazier, in that he would crouch low and “bob and weave” to achieve more knockouts. However, he soon studied the techniques of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson and modeled his style after their more upright and straight stances in order to absorb less punishment and be more of a tactician than a brawler.
This adjustment along with all the hard work he had been putting in soon began to pay off in the amateur circuit. At the age of 17, he won his first Golden Gloves title. A year later, he was crowned as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national champion and again won the Golden Gloves.
These victories led up to the 1976 Olympics which served as a sort of coming out party for young Sugar. He was the light-welterweight representative on what many boxing experts believe to be the greatest boxing team in Olympic history. Sugar Ray dominated throughout the tournament, winning each bout by a 5-0 decision. Following winning the gold, he announced his first retirement, stating, “I’m finished…I’ve fought my last fight. My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school.”
At the end of his amateur career, he was 145-5 with 75 knockouts.
Sugar Ray Leonard Bio — Victim Of Sexual Abuse
Although this stretch of years was certainly filled with plenty of joy and celebration, it was also a period where two incidents occurred that haunted Leonard throughout the rest of his life. Leonard was around the age of 15 when he was sexually abused twice in a span of about six months. The first time was with a prominent Olympic boxing coach. The second time was with a wealthy benefactor, whom Leonard trusted and described as a “respectable member of the community” in his autobiography. “It was one of those things that ate at me for over 30 years.” Leonard shared this in his interview with uInterview, “It was killing me, it was really killing me.” He would then cite actor Todd Bridges’ appearance on Oprah as a moment that gave him the bravery to reveal this painful memory: “I saw Todd Bridges on Oprah and what he said and the way he stated how he felt after revealing that. It kind of gave me a little bit more incentive, more courage to talk about it.”
Since his book has been released, he has been one of the most outspoken celebrities regarding sexual abuse: becoming a poster child for the cause. He has made several public appearances to raise awareness of the issue and to strongly encourage victims to report their cases.
Sugar Ray Leonard Bio — Professional Career
Juanita Wilkinson, Sugar Ray’s high school sweetheart, gave birth to Ray Charles Leonard Jr. in early 1974. Not long before the 1976 Olympics, Juanita filed an application to receive child support payments from Prince George’s County. When she named Leonard the father, the county’s state attorney’s office filed a civil suit against Leonard to confirm paternity that he would not find out about until after the Olympics. Because of this paternity suit, he did not receive the lucrative endorsements that he had expected to following his Olympic success. On top of this, his father was battling meningitis and his mother had just suffered a heart attack. Leonard saw no other option but to fight for his family in the ring as a professional.
Leonard’s longtime boxing coach Janks Morton connected him with an attorney named Mike Trainer. Through Trainer, Leonard got acquainted with Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer, who would become Leonard’s trainer and manager. Along with friends Dave Jacobs and Charlie Bronton, this would be the team that Leonard was convinced would someday make him a world champion.
Leonard made his professional debut on February 5, 1977 against Luis “The Bull” Vega in in front of 10,200 people at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Md. After winning by a six-round unanimous decision, he was paid $40,044. On September 9, 1978, in his 14th professional fight, he faced his first world-ranked opponent. Ranked 17th in the world, Floyd Mayweather Sr. gave Leonard a tough battle before ultimately being knocked out in the 10th round. Leonard won his first title on August 12, 1979 by knocking out Pete Ranzany in four rounds to win the North American Boxing Federation Welterweight Championship. Leonard was invincible: at the time he was 24-0 with 15 knockouts.
Leonard was challenged for his first world title on November 30, 1979. He was set to fight Wilfred Benitez for the WBC Welterweight Championship at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Benitez was Leonard’s toughest opponent at that point in his career, and though Leonard was in command and landing the harder punches for the majority of the match, he could not seem to put the slick Benitez away. It was not until late in the 15th round when Leonard floored the bloody Benitez with a left hook. Benitez got back up, but after a few more solid blows from Sugar, the referee stopped the fight.
Leonard had achieved what he had been working so hard for. However, this was just the start of something great. In his book, he wrote, “The win, making me the new WBC Welterweight Champion, represented a beginning, not an end. The future was limitless.” Leonard was named the Fighter Of The Year by renowned boxing publication The Ring.
Leonard made his first title defense on March 31, 1980 in Landover, Md., against England’s Davey “Boy” Green. Leonard says he was not that motivated for the match until Green made the mistake of trying to intimidate him during the pre-match staring contest by bumping into him. In the fourth round, Leonard knocked Green out with what he claims to have been the most beautiful punch he ever threw.
Next up was Roberto Durán. Durán had earned his nickname of “Manos de Piedra (“Hands of Stone”)”, boasting a 71-1 record and the Undisputed World Lightweight Title. They squared off on June 20, 1980 in the same Olympic Stadium in Montreal where Leonard had first achieved glory. The fight was being heralded as the biggest fight since Ali vs. Frazier fought five years prior. In press conferences and media events before the match, Durán dominated Leonard psychologically. Leonard, who claimed in his book that his “eyes never lied”, showed fear and insecurity in his eyes that night. The Montreal crowd booed him in favor of the more macho Durán. Leonard wrote of the match, “I was disturbed, confused, the fans getting inside my head just as Duran did, the fight no doubt lost before it had started.” Angelo Dundee advised Leonard to use his boxing skill and speed to his advantage against Durán, but Leonard let his ego get in the way and was determined to fight him toe to toe. Although Leonard fought with all his heart, this decision ended up being a mistake that cost Leonard the match. Durán won unanimously; Leonard had suffered his first loss as a professional.
Leonard would have his sweet revenge though. A rematch was scheduled for November 25, 1980. Leonard’s friend Dave Jacobs viewed this decision as unhealthy and brash, and left Leonard’s inner circle because of it. Leonard spent his time between the matches intensely preparing while Durán spent it partying and gaining weight. Ultimately, Leonard was far more ready for this match and it showed in his confidence and swagger. This time he heeded the advice of Dundee and exploited his superior boxing skill against Durán. In round seven, Leonard began to tease Durán, dancing and shuffling in front of him. At one point he wound up his right hand, feigning a massive haymaker, only to surprise Durán right in the face with a left jab. He was in utter control of the match and was embarrassing Durán. He had dominated him so thoroughly that in the closing seconds of round 8, Durán famously turned to referee Octavio Meyran and said, “No más.” Durán later said he quit due to stomach cramps. His manager, however, said that he had quit because he was embarrassed.
Leonard had regained the WBC Welterweight crown. Having learned his lesson from the first match against Durán, he rode this momentum through 1981. He would go on to win the WBC Lightweight Championship and then unify the World Welterweight Championship in 1981 in a fight with Thomas Hearns that was named Fight of the Year by The Ring. That year, he was named The Ring’s Fighter Of The Year, ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. However, this success came to a halt when in the spring of 1982, it was discovered the Leonard had a detached retina. Because of this, even with an upcoming match with deserving opponent Marvin Hagler, he announced that he was retiring on November 9, 1982.
In typical Leonard fashion though, he missed the ring too much and in December 1983 he announced that he was returning to fight Hagler, Hearns, Durán and all the other stars of the boxing world. He faced a storm of criticism for this from the public who felt that he was taking superfluous risks by coming back to the ring. In a fight with Kevin Howard, which had already been delayed due to more surgery on his retina, he got knocked down for the first time in his career in the fourth round. At the post-match press conference, Leonard announced that he was retiring again.
Meanwhile, Hagler had won the Undisputed World Middleweight Championship. On May 1, 1986 on a Washington D.C. talk show, Leonard announced he wanted to return to the ring to fight Hagler. Hagler agreed to the fight and they were set to battle April 6, 1987 in what was being promoted as “The Super Fight”. People were less critical and more supportive this time around because they had wanted to see Leonard fight Hagler for so long.
Although he came into the fight as a 3.5-1 underdog, in the first four rounds of the fight Leonard was too quick. He dodged punch after punch and made Hagler look sluggish. However, in the fifth, fatigue began to set in and Hagler began to connect on a few powerful uppercuts. Leonard’s knees buckled from one of them. But Leonard persevered and they fought neck and neck as both man countered the other’s momentum with rallies of their own. Both fighters were past the primes of their careers and began to slow the pace down in the tenth. In rounds 10 and 11, however, Hagler was clearly the more aggressive one and looked to finish Leonard off soon. It was then that Angelo Dundee inspired another one of Leonard’s signature comebacks; compared to Leonard’s corner, NBC commentator Gil Clancy remarked that Hagler’s corner looked like an IBM meeting.
Leonard began punching faster and with more charisma, imploring the crowd to cheer him on and the judges to gain a positive impression, even if he wasn’t fully landing his blows. The fight concluded with them emptying whatever energy they had left on each other in a tired but dogged exchange. Leonard had been less aggressive but more efficient and ultimately more successful, landing 306/629 punches. On the other hand, while Hagler had landed fewer punches with far less accuracy, it was possible that he did more damage; he went 291/792. The judges awarded Leonard a controversial split decision, thus making him world champion again. The fight was named Fight of the Year and Upset of the Year by The Ring. Leonard retired on May 27, 1987, expressing disinterest in a rematch requested by Hagler’s camp.
Of course, he would return again on Novemeber 7, 1988, winning the WBC Light Heavyweight Championship from Don Lalonde. He would continue boxing until February 9, 1991 where he attempted to win the Light Middleweight Title from Terry Norris at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Leonard says he felt the way Hagler must have felt when they fought in 1987. Although Leonard was a 3-1 favorite, the younger Norris was too fast and too skilled. Leonard went the whole match but deservedly lost a one-sided decision. After the match, he retired once again.
In 1996, Leonard, now 40 years old and heavier, came out of retirement for the final time to fight Héctor Camacho for a less coveted International Boxing Council Middleweight Championship. They fought on March 1, 1997 in Atlantic City, N.J. Leonard was overmatched from the first bell and ended up being knocked out for the first time in his career in the fifth round. He retired following the match for the last time. In 1997 he was named to the Boxing Hall Of Fame.
Sugar Ray Leonard Bio — Personal Life
In between retirements, Leonard has worked as a boxing analyst on ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, and HBO. He has also appeared in commercials for Coca-Cola, EA Sports, Ford, and 7 Up, for which he famously did an ad with his son, Ray Jr., as well as Roberto Durán and his son, Roberto Jr. He has also acted in several television shows and movies, including L.A. Heat, Married With Children, The Fighter and The Contender, which he co-hosted with Sylvester Stallone. He participated in Dancing With The Stars in 2011, surviving until week 4. He also appeared in an episode of Hell’s Kitchen as a guest at the head chef’s table with MMA fighter Tito Ortiz. He is also the godfather of Khloe Kardashian and has subsequently been on a number of episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Leonard and Juanita Wilkerson got married in January 1980 with six-year-old Ray Jr., as the ring bearer. In 1984 Juanita gave birth to a second son, Jarrel. They divorced in 1990. Juanita claimed that Leonard had been abusing cocaine and alcohol: Leonard held a press conference and confirmed the accusations. In 1989 he met Bernadette Robi at a Luther Vandross concert and began seeing her regularly: they were married in August 1993. They now have two children, Daniel Ray and Camille.