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An Uncertain View Of The Future

Things looked rosy for Sugar Ray Leonard until a detached retina damaged his vision—and perhaps even ended his career

Rain was falling lightly outside as Ray Charles Leonard turned the final lap on the beige indoor track at the Buffalo Hilton. It was a few minutes past six on the morning of April 22. During the final five laps of his three-mile run, the welterweight champion of the world whipped his head back and forth every few seconds, as though trying to shake off an annoying thought.

As Leonard came to a halt on one of the six tennis courts inside the one-sixth-mile track, Janks Morton, his trainer, studied him without expression. In 22 days and for a purse of $3 million, Leonard was to defend his title against Roger Stafford.

"While I was running I had a floating spot in my left eye," Leonard reported calmly.

Morton thought he was joking. "Let's go," was his only comment.

They walked up a flight of stairs to the top section of the Hilton's sports complex and from there rode an elevator to the sixth floor. Behind them Leonard's sparring partners, who had accompanied him on his run, yawned and shot the breeze.

As they entered Suite 601, where Leonard was staying, he turned and said to Morton, "Janks, I really saw a spot. I want to do something about it now."

Morton's heart skipped a beat, and then another, but years of self-discipline kept him fron showing his alarm. He went to a telephone. Within a few minutes he had the name of a local eye specialist. "I'll have Ollie make an appointment for the first thing this morning," he told Leonard, who nodded.

A few hours later Ollie Dunlop, an old friend and Leonard's administrative assistant, drove the champion to the specialist's office. Following a brief examination, the specialist said, "I don't see any major problem. I'll give you some eye drops and I think you had better have the eye checked again when you get home after the fight."

After returning to the Hilton, Dunlop met Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney, in a hallway. "Tell me what they said," Trainer said.

Dunlop relayed the doctor's report.

"Well, fine." Thankful that all was well, Trainer went down to the coffee shop.

At three that afternoon Leonard, wearing dark glasses, trained briefly in another section of the hotel. He apologized to the spectators for not sparring and then repaid them with an extra-dazzling display of rope skipping. Morton had little to say, but his searching stare never left the champion. He was still worried.

After a week, though, even Morton began to relax. Then on Friday morning May 7, 15 days after his eye exam, Leonard told Morton that the spot had returned. "And now," he said, "sometimes I see tiny white spots, and the eyelid feels heavy, like it's swollen."

Morton studied the eye closely. "I can't see any swelling," he said, "but I don't know anything about it. I think we had better get a second opinion."

"And right away," Leonard said. "I don't want to wait."

Another specialist was found; an appointment was made for that day. This time Morton went with Dunlop and Leonard. He was upset when a nurse, after putting drops in Leonard's eye, asked the champion for his autograph. Morton considered that unprofessional. And he thought that the specialist was too casual when he reported, "There is a tear in the retina and it should be taken care of immediately."

"That's good enough for me," Leonard said with finality.

"We're going someplace else," Morton said bluntly.

As Dunlop drove them back to the hotel, Morton thought of heavyweight Earnie Shavers, who had had retinal surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, but he couldn't remember the surgeon's name. "As soon as we get back I'll call Mike and have him make the arrangements," Morton told Leonard. "He'll find the surgeon."

No one mentioned the fight that was only a week away.

While Dunlop was making plane reservations for the following day for Morton, Leonard and the champion's father, Cicero, Morton phoned Trainer, who had flown home the night before, to ask for information about Shavers' surgeon.

"I'll get right on it," Trainer promised. A few minutes later he called Dr. Henry Starr of Riverdale, Md., who had treated Leonard after he suffered a trauma to his right eye in a fight against Marcos Geraldo in 1979.

"I'm sure the doctor you're looking for is Dr. Ronald Michels," said Starr in response to Trainer's first question. "He's probably not only the best in the United States, but the best in the world."

Satisfied, Trainer then called the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He explained Leonard's problem and asked them to locate Michels. He also asked that Michels call Morton in Buffalo.

Patty Austin, head of nursing at the hospital, tracked Michels down at 8:30 that night. He and his wife were at a dinner party. The nurse informed the doctor that Leonard had a reported retinal problem and that he could reach Morton in Room 605 of the Hilton Hotel in Buffalo.

Michels called immediately. "I understand there is a possible retinal problem," he said to Morton. "And I understand that Ray wants to come home and be seen at Johns Hopkins."

"That's right. Can you see him tomorrow?"

"Certainly. When can you be here?"

Morton told him they would be at the hospital at 5 p.m. the next day.

Just after noon the following day, Saturday, Trainer had a limousine pick up Leonard's wife, Juanita, at home in Mitchelville, Md. Taking a cab, Trainer met her at National Airport. They were waiting when Morton and Leonard and his father arrived from Buffalo. It had been a quiet flight; mostly the trio had read. The ride to Baltimore was equally quiet. Juanita recalls thinking that the situation couldn't really be very serious. She thought it was probably no more than fatigue from training.

At the hospital Michels took the group into his office. For the first half hour, he patiently explained retinal detachments. He spoke softly and slowly, but firmly, and the longer he talked the more Morton, who admits to an initial distrust of doctors, had confidence in him.

Whatever it is, Morton thought, I just hope this doctor can find it and repair it and not tell Ray that he'll be all right for a year but then he'll go blind in that eye.

As Michels talked, Trainer could feel the tenseness in the room. "Hey, Doc," he said, "are we going to have to take a test when you're through, 'cause we aren't taking notes?"

His explanation finished, Michels began the examination. As a precaution, he had his assistant, Dr. Andrew Schachat, double-check his every step. Michels asked the champion to read an eye chart, and everyone relaxed as Leonard correctly called off all but the bottom line.

"I can't see the last line too well," Leonard admitted.

"That's because it's smudged," said Michels with a laugh.

"Let me try anyway."

"Go ahead."

Leonard correctly identified every letter on the bottom line but an F.

"That's really smudged," Michels said. "I guess we'll have to get it fixed."

Leonard turned to his group and smiled. He felt proud. Morton and Trainer exchanged glances and grins. Trainer thought, hell, if he can read those charts, everything is fine.

The two doctors had trouble getting Leonard's left eye to dilate, and twice they had to fill it with drops. While they were waiting, the doctors put him through a series of tests. As Michels and Schachat worked they were creating a chart of the injured eye.

When at last they were satisfied that the eye had dilated enough to permit them to examine the retina, Leonard was asked to lie down on a table. Donning what resembled a miner's cap with a powerful light, Michels examined the retina, which was exposed under pressure. Then Schachat took a look.

The hour-long examination completed, Michels told the group there was no doubt that Leonard had a partial detachment in the lower part of the retina. "It should be repaired promptly to minimize long-term damage and to try and get a full visual result," he told the hushed group.

As Michels spoke, Juanita realized the full seriousness of her husband's injury. Her eyes filled with tears. She started to sob.

Leonard looked at her. "Juanita, there's no need to cry," he said softly. "Everything is going to be all right."

"You're a very important person," Michels was saying to Leonard. "And this is a very important problem. We just met for the first time, so if you would like further consultation I'd be happy to help you with that. I think we have the luxury of a little time; not weeks or months, but a few days. Also, if you'd like, we can admit you tonight."

The hospital had already taken steps to prepare for a Saturday-night admission and, although it would be unusual, for a Sunday operation.

"We'd like to go somewhere and discuss it," Trainer said.

The group walked to a small room, and Trainer said to the champion, "O.K., pal, you got it. Now let's solve it and get on with it."

Morton said he felt the same way.

With a shrug, Leonard said, "O.K., let's do it Monday."

Morton shook his head. "No, let's do it Sunday. Let them admit you tonight and let's get it over with tomorrow when nobody's here. Monday everybody will know you're here, and this place will be a madhouse."

Leonard, who had been comforting Juanita, looked up and said, "O.K., let's do it Sunday."

A few moments later Leonard was on his way to a room on the second floor. He was admitted at 7:30 p.m. A rollaway cot was brought in for Juanita. Then dinner arrived. Leonard took one look at it and pushed it away.

"I'll stay at the Holiday Inn," Morton decided as he, Trainer and Leonard's father left the room.

Trainer shook his head. The Holiday Inn had been the group's headquarters when Leonard had made his pro debut in Baltimore in February 1977. "No, that's where we started, and we've come a long way since then," said Trainer. "You are going to stay at the Hilton. And we can eat dinner there."

Back in his room, Leonard was saying to Juanita, "I'm really worried about Janks and Mike worrying." Juanita had just returned from calling her mother, Geraldine Savoy, to have the boxer's 8-year-old son, Ray, spend the night with a friend. They had decided not to say anything to him until the next day.

Before he went to sleep that night, Leonard smiled as he lay in the dark thinking of a statement that he had just composed in his head for delivery after the operation.

At eight the following morning the group, which now included Leonard's mother, Getha, gathered in the champion's room. The talk was light until a nurse came in to give Leonard two shots, one a sedative, the other for pain. A gurney, one of the wheeled cots hospitals employ, was brought in, and Leonard's entourage blinked and looked away as he was placed on it. And then he was on his way to one of the operating rooms on the fourth floor.

No one was hungry, but to kill time the group went downstairs to the cafeteria to pick at breakfast. Mrs. Savoy was picking up Little Ray from his friend's house to bring him to the hospital.

"Where we going, Grandma?" he asked.

"To Baltimore to see your mommy."

"But what's Mommy doing in Baltimore?"

"She's with your daddy."

Little Ray was puzzled. "What is Daddy doing in Baltimore? I thought he was in Buffalo."

Taking a deep breath, Mrs. Savoy said gently, "They're going to operate on his eye."

On the drive to Baltimore, Little Ray cried himself to sleep.

The operation took two hours and 15 minutes. After Leonard had been taken to the recovery room, Trainer went out for a cigarette. When he returned he found Morton putting on a hospital gown. "Grab one," Morton said, indicating where he had found his. Grinning, Trainer followed orders.

A nurse caught them. "No you don't," she admonished. "Take those off. Only his wife and his mother can go into the recovery room."

In the recovery room Leonard woke up briefly. "O.K., you can start the operation now," he said.

A nurse laughed. "It's all over."

A few minutes later Leonard awoke again. As he lay there he tried to recall the statement he wanted to make. The anesthesia had erased it from his memory. Disgusted, he muttered, "Damn, damn, damn," before slipping back to sleep.

Little Ray waited for his father to be brought back to his room. When they wheeled him in, the boy watched silently. Then, rising, he approached his father, staring down at him.

"He can't hear you, Little Ray," Juanita said gently. "He's asleep. Why don't you give him a kiss?"

Leaning over, Ray kissed his father very lightly. Then, turning to his mother, he said, "Mommy, I don't like this. I want to go home."

On Monday, Trainer had to return to Buffalo to clean up after the canceled fight. "I feel like I'm an adjuster looking at an auto accident," he said. "It's depressing." He wasn't able to speak to Leonard on the telephone until Tuesday morning.

"How you feeling, pal?" Trainer asked then.

"Fine," Leonard said. And he laughed. "You know I peeked this morning. They thought I was asleep when they took the bandage off. I peeked and I could see everything."

"Darn you. Janks said you'd peek the first chance you got."

"Yeah, I know. But I was thinking, you know, that it's no fun having a lot of money if you can't see it."

"Sure, then they can give you a lot of funny money and you wouldn't know it. Hey, you won't believe what some guy up here wrote today. He actually wrote that it was the typical Buffalo jinx. That nothing good ever happens in Buffalo, and look what happened to Ray."

Leonard was upset by the report. "Mike, I want you to tell the people up there that what happened to me was a message from God; God is telling me something. And a message from God is always a pleasant thing, not a bad thing. And you tell them that as soon as I can travel I'm going back there to see them. I want to tell them how much I appreciate how they treated me."

After Leonard hung up, Morton came into the room. The bandage was being changed. Watching, Morton growled, "You know, as soon as you can open that eye I'm going home."

With a slight grin Leonard sat up. The left eye popped open briefly.

Startled, Morton laughed. "I'll see you later," he said.

"O.K.," Leonard said. Then he tried to wink with his right eye.

Later in the day Trainer called again, and Leonard told him, "I'm sending Janks home. This is too much of a strain on him and I'm worried. And he hasn't been home in a month."

"Hey, Janks is going to pace and walk around, and he's not going to be right until he goes one-on-one in basketball with you," Trainer said. "The doctor can tell him anything he wants to tell him, but Janks won't feel right until you play basketball or go out and do something else, and he tests you to be sure you're O.K."

Morton flew home to Phoenix on Tuesday night. Trainer returned from Buffalo the same evening and was at the hospital the following morning. By now Leonard had eaten the nurses' complete supply of graham crackers, which he washed down with milk. He had sent Dunlop out to purchase two large boxes of the crackers. And a steady supply of steamed shrimp was imported daily from Obrycki's, a local restaurant. Leonard is fiercely self-reliant, but on Tuesday he permitted Little Ray to feed him the dreaded hospital food.

Juanita, who had rarely left her husband's side, said, "People don't seem to understand. They think Ray is Superman, that this kind of thing couldn't happen to him. He played basketball a lot, and that's a rough sport and it could have happened in a game. And it could have happened just like Dr. Michels said; people get torn retinas just by sticking their fingers in their eyes. It could have happened at any time, and I don't think people should try to figure out what happened or when, but just thank God that the eye was saved and that Ray is a good person and not superhuman and that things like this happen to him, too. Ray is a person just like you and me. People should understand that."

On Friday Michels tested the eye. When finished, he smiled. "Ray," he said, "if right now you lost the use of your right eye you could pass a driver's test with the left one. You're way ahead of the normal recovery rate."

The champion smiled. It was another message from God.

Last Sunday morning—24 days after the initial symptoms and only seven days after the operation—Ray Charles Leonard left the hospital and went home to Mitchelville to recuperate.

Michels' cautious prognosis is that Leonard should recover full use of the eye. Any decision on Leonard's future is six months away; any speculation beforehand is futile. Should Michels give the green light, then Sugar Ray Leonard will decide whether or not he will ever again enter a ring. And should Michels' final assessment be negative, which appears unlikely, then the decision will already have been made. It's that simple.


Leonard beat Thomas Hearns in their title fight, but his left eye was badly battered.


Michels operated on Shavers as well as Leonard.


Juanita, who was constantly at her husband's side, slept on a cot in his hospital room.


Ray and Little Ray train together in a happier time.