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Leonard’s toughest fight was fought outside the ring

Tue., June 28, 2011

His epic fight with Thomas Hearns was 30 years ago this September, which brings back some sweet memories for Sugar Ray Leonard.

“Without question my most defining moment, period,” Leonard said. “That fight told me there is a reservoir of strength we all possess but very few can activate. I activated that thing and pulled it out. It was all heart and determination.”

There’s another upcoming anniversary just as important to Leonard. The anniversary of his biggest fight ever.

Come July 4 he will have been clean and sober for five years.

“My way was drinking and cocaine, which I did a lot,” Leonard said. “Even a lot is not the right word to describe how much I consumed.”

A lot would be $250,000 spent on cocaine – which Leonard would refer to as his “medicine” – in one year alone. A lot would be the nights when one triple Absolut vodka and cranberry juice after another would be consumed until the memory of the evening was erased from his mind.

It’s all detailed in his new autobiography written with Michael Arkush, a book as candid as any you’ll ever read from a former athlete. He even tells of being sexually abused by a coach while in the amateurs, something that has haunted him all his life and part of the reason he turned to alcohol and drugs.

He did it to sell books, yes. But it was also part therapy, baring his soul to help with a long and painful recovery.

Leonard does tell some good tales of his big fights, particularly his 1987 bout with Marvin Hagler. But there are more stories of the relentless pursuit of drugs, alcohol and women that tore apart his family and nearly ruined his life.

“I couldn’t do it halfway,” Leonard said. “If I don’t reveal these things at some point it’s going to catch up with me and nail me. I knew all hell would break loose because it’s controversial, it’s crazy, it’s deep. But I had to say it, had to get it off my chest. I’ve suppressed this for over 30 years now.”

To understand how tormented Leonard was, it’s important to remember him in his prime.

He was supposed to be the next Muhammad Ali, a welterweight with fast hands and smooth feet who shot to stardom after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. In many ways he tried to emulate Ali, and his charismatic smile brought him into America’s living room selling 7-Up alongside his equally charming son, Ray Jr.

He brawled with the great Roberto Duran and lost, only to come back and beat him in the infamous “no mas” fight. He took on Hearns when nobody in their right mind wanted to fight the fearsome slugger, and he came back to beat Hagler in a fight he was never supposed to win.

I found the Hagler stuff quite intriguing. Leonard won a decision that so infuriated Hagler that he never fought again. For years, Hagler would not even speak to Leonard, certain that he had been robbed by judges blinded by Leonard’s bright smile.

Fighting was always the easiest thing for Leonard, who took solace in the ring. When he trained, he trained hard. When he fought, he fought hard.

In between, he partied hard.

The women were countless, even while he was married to his childhood sweetheart, Juanita, and had fathered two boys with her. One morning in Las Vegas he woke up with $35,000 in jewelry and cash stolen in a trick roll, and pleaded with hotel security not to file a police report so his wife wouldn’t find out.

“I wanted instant gratification,” Leonard said. “I knew I needed help, but after the next drink I didn’t need it.”

He would give up cocaine in the 1980s, but the alcohol took longer. Drinking helped him hide the pain, made him Sugar Ray again instead of just being Ray Leonard.

He finally quit five years ago with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now he attends AA meetings almost every day, hoping to help others.

He has two more children with his second wife, Bernadette, does motivational speaking and competed on “Dancing With The Stars.” Unlike many former fighters, he’s well off financially and his biggest addiction now is golf at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

“My story is not a sad story. I had an illustrious boxing career, wonderful wives, marvelous family,” Leonard said. “But I’m just fixing myself. I can finally put my guard down now.”

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