Everything else sat silent in Ray Leonard's big house. The nine televisions, the theater-sized movie screen and projector, the 15 cameras, the video games and computers and radios and stereos and remote-control boxes were all shut down for the night. Only Ray's mind and his clocks chewed away at the darkness. Only time and consciousness whirred on through the hush.
He had tried to fall asleep on his left side and then his right, on his back and his stomach. He had tried with his legs scissored and then closed up, his arms tight to his chest and then spread. Sheets up to his throat, sheets down at his ankles. Listening to the night, and not listening.
It was just before dawn when he fell asleep, and he felt his soul sucked up into the sky. He gazed down at his body lying in bed, felt himself floating higher and higher. It felt so peaceful and easy up there, as if the hands of the most beautiful woman he could imagine were massaging his neck and his shoulders. All his life this was what he had wanted, to be far above everything, sailing. . . . Higher he floated, surprised at how sweet death could be . . . how seductive. . . . Oh yes, he had no doubt at all, he was fading away . . . he was dying. . . .
A chill went through him. Hadn't his grandmother once told him that if you die in your dream you really die in your bed, that if your soul strays too far from your body it never comes back? He felt his hands scratching and clawing to pull his soul back down before it was too late, too late, before he. . . . He sat up in bed, gasping and sweating, his eyes wide the way they are in the ring.
Daylight came and then went away too quickly. What if last night's dream returns? he thought as it grew darker. What if my soul begins to float away again and the sweet peace comes and I fail to resist the temptation? He made a vow. He would not sleep.
He listened to music, watched TV, turned on the VCR. He sat down, stood up, went to the kitchen for a snack. Every few minutes, his eyes ran back to the clock. One a.m. . . . 2:20 . . . 4:05. . . .
His head sagged, then shot back up. His chest hammered. Hold on, he told himself, it's nearly light outside, hold on. He pressed and re-pressed the buttons on his remote-control box, stood again, paced the hardwood floors of his house. Yes, this was crazy, he knew it, but he couldn't risk it, he couldn't let down his guard. Well, maybe . . . just for a moment . . . not to sleep . . . just to rest his eyes. . . .
Again, it was happening again! Up and up he floated, so free and peaceful that he could not bear to interrupt it, further and further from the tension in his body, until he almost couldn't . . . oh god. He woke up, reaching and shaking, and bolted from his bed.
It was not quite dawn that day in 1986 when Ray Leonard decided—to end his retirement and fight Marvin Hagler, of course.
Just one fight. To do the undoable. Then he would leave the sport again, his fourth retirement. "I am not a fighter," he would say. "I am a personality." Yes, the one great boxer who chose to strike other men in the head, but didn't need to. The classy boxer—that was the oxymoron that pulled people to him. The fighter who could be invited home to dinner, handed the keys to the family car.
He overcame monstrous odds—he had fought just once in the previous five years—and became the first man to beat Hagler in 11 years. All his fighting life Ray had been able to reach into his cellar when he was hurt or in trouble; he had reached deeper in such moments than any fighter of his time. And the moment he was finished in that vast darkness, he would run up the cellar stairs and slam the door shut, show up smiling, cool, witty, wearing clothes that lay upon his body as they do upon men in fashion magazines. He would make people forget all about that cellar. Forget how badly he needed to be a boxer.
In the first half of his career, a month or two before each fight, Ray would select an exotic island, imagine its smells and sounds and the splash its blue-green water made upon the sand. "I'm going to go there as soon as this fight is over," he would vow to his lawyer, Mike Trainer. He would wring all the anticipation from the dream during training, smell surf where there was only sweat and liniment. Then win the fight and never go there.
The day he became wealthy enough to go lie on that sand whenever he wished, he discarded that dream. The fantasy had lost its scent and color; reality eroded his perfect white beach. He left home now and then for a week's stay at such a place, but after only two days he would pack up and leave. Reality made every dream tawdry.
Even when he was a child in Maryland, he had lived his richest life inside his head. He would spend all morning reading comic books about Batman, the Flash, Superman and Thor, then spend all afternoon alone with his dogs, Duke and King, imagining stories so vivid in colors and tastes and feeling that he could not quite believe they were not real. Stories in which he was the superhero, the enemy of all chaos, the avenger of all wrong. Often he bent his knees and jumped into the sky. He was different from other boys—nothing pulled him back down; he would spend his afternoon flying. His mother, Getha, wanted to shake him sometimes, rattle loose a sentence. It unnerved her, how distant and quiet her son could be.
Why forsake his daydreams, he wondered, why trade in his world for theirs? Their world could never quite be trusted. His mother was a big-hearted woman with a sense of humor, a temper and an arm—cross her and duck, because something would be coming, hard and high. Once she hurled a can of pork and beans at his sister, Bunny, for talking back, miscalculated and caught his brother Kenny's friend in the chest just as he was entering the house and calling out a cheery, "Hello, Mrs. Le—." The force of the blow drove the boy back through the door, never to enter the house again.
Ray's dad, Cicero, was a keg of quiet strength, 39-1 as a boxer during his days in the service, the kind of man who could work a month of 12-hour days muscling crates at the fruit market or the grocery store without a grumble or a sigh, the kind of force a child wanted kept in that keg. It hardly ever spilled, but when it did, it ran till the keg was empty—Cicero's knees squeezed like jaws around a misbehaving son's head, and his right arm spanked until it was spent.
Then there was Roger, the agent of anarchy, the brother two years older than Ray. In the middle of a dead sleep or a mouthful of mashed potatoes, a quiet bath or a comic book or a cartoon on TV—who knew when it might come, from what angle or what it would be? A slap across the face, a punch in the gut, a book in the ear. C'mon, Ray, fight me, Roger would taunt. But Ray would just sit there, remote and silent, or he would walk away, do anything to stay wrapped in his dream. You've got to fight back, his parents would lecture him when the fantasy burst and he came crying that Roger or the kids on the street had hit him. But no, Ray could not risk having his fantasy shattered by real life. He would wait until he was alone on the porch, scratching his dogs behind their ears, then stride across the landscape with Thor's hammer in his fist and bludgeon them all in his daydreams.
One day when he was 11, Ray was playing along the bank of a flooded creek just after a storm, balancing himself on the rocks. His foot slipped, and suddenly the world was dark, his eyes and throat full of muddy water, his body hurled head over heels by the current. He came up gasping, glimpsed a branch and grasped it, and began pulling himself toward the shore. The branch snapped, and back into the torrent he was thrown, his head vanishing beneath the frothing water. A log! Up ahead he saw it jutting halfway across the creek, felt the water tumble him toward it, threw his skinny arms at it, was sucked under once more by the swirl. At last he hugged the log, dragged his body up onto it and crawled to land, vomiting water. He staggered home and lay on the floor, retching again and again. Yes, everything he had suspected was true. Reality was like Roger, it waited in ambush. Only on the porch with his dogs could a boy tiptoe on the rocks by the rushing water, only in his dreams.
He watched Duke, scruffy and un-bathed, gnaw on a bone in the sun. Poverty gnawed at Ray the same way. Not so much its actual teeth—there were worse neighborhoods than his. Not so much having to stuff toilet paper in the toes of the too-big shoes handed down by his three older brothers. Not so much pretending to be sick rather than admit that he didn't have the dollar to go with his classmates on their field trips to Washington, D.C. No, what gnawed at Ray was that poverty was the most oppressive reminder of the terrible distance between his life and his fantasy. Thor's boots fit without toilet paper.
On weekends, his parents would load their seven children into the car and drive to the neighborhoods where the money people lived. Simply park and stare at the model homes, or pile out, pray that the sales agent was myopic or kind and have him lead them on a tour. The other children were loud and announced what they would have for their own one day, one day. Ray ran his eyes and hands across the furniture and walls, saying nothing.
It worked as a slingshot does. The more his energy and thoughts turned inward, the more he drew all his anger and joy and desires inward . . . the more tension gathered on the strap, screaming to be discharged, if only Ray would let go. His brother Roger kept tattooing his head; his brother Kenny kept bringing home basketball trophies and goading Ray to find himself a sport, to put away his comic books and be a man; a car killed one of his dreaming buddies, his dog King; a no-pets rule in the lease of the apartment his family moved into snatched away his other pal, Duke. Pull it back further, Ray, stretch the strap tighter. And when it finally happened, when Roger harried him into the ring in the Palmer Park (Md.) Recreation Center gym one day when Ray was 14, when he put on a pair of gloves, pulled back his fist and let go, it all shot back the other way, all the years of unvented fear and want and dreaming, all the temper of his mother and the wildness of his brother and the silent strength of his father and his father's father—the one who folks said knocked a mule cold on a South Carolina farm with one punch—all the confusion and ache Ray had buried in the cellar, all the wallop waiting in the blood. The first two opponents he sparred with landed on the floor and slid. Then came Roger, the atomizer of order, the archenemy of Thor. Ray busted Roger's ribs and nose. Sweet Jesus, it was almost like a dream.
Yes, that was why the boxing ring felt like home to Ray, even at the start. Because he was so gifted as a fighter, in such control, it was the closest approximation to his fantasy that he had ever found in real life. It was the arena of the absolute, it was the air and terrain of the superhero. A man with talent and will and a terrible need could do it here. A man daring enough could live a dream.
There was one hitch. The moment a great boxer stepped out of a ring, he was hounded by hustlers and promoters, by con artists and chaos, by a hundred different hands trying to remove his quest from the realm of the dream, to rub it in spit and dirt and grease. Other fighters reveled in the elemental nature of the sport, loved to wallow in its mud. Ray Leonard would have to build a capsule in order to have a righteous dream, to fly over the mud, to remain in the clouds.
How would he do that? He would give things different names. He would hire people to carry his water buckets and his towels in camp, to travel with him and make him laugh, as other boxers did—but he would refuse to call them his entourage. He would hire trainers such as Janks Morton, Dave Jacobs and Angelo Dundee—and then decide he didn't really need them. He would use promoters to stage his fights—but never, like other fighters, would he become affiliated with them. He would smash the stereotype, create a public image unlike any other boxer's, un-smudged by scandal or excess, by temper or lust or blood.
He would stay a little aloof, a little alone, a little distracted. He would never lean on anyone. The entire first year of his relationship with Trainer, Ray never spoke to or looked at him. Yes, Ray Leonard, the glib one, the Olympic gold medalist who, right before meeting Trainer, had smiled into the eye of the camera and made all of America feel warm. He looked at the walls of Trainer's office, at the ceiling, at the window, at everything except the lawyer. After Ray was gone, Trainer would get a call and a list of Ray's questions from Morton. All of Ray's doubts would come from other lips. That was how he kept the capsule airtight, how he kept control.
And the moment the capsule leaked, the moment the dream lost its altitude, its purity—he quit. Box for money? For dollar bills? An hour after he won the Olympic gold medal for light welterweights in 1976, he said it: I quit. Get your face bruised, discolored? An hour after he lost to Roberto Duran in 1980, as he looked in the mirror, he said it: I quit. Knocked down by Kevin Howard in 1984? I quit. I quit.
And yet, he always came back. A manipulator? A spoiled millionaire? No—beneath that tuxedo, couldn't they see? Just that nice, quiet little boy desperately trying to stay cocooned inside a dream.
Oh, but how much energy and thought it took to live a life that way. To anticipate the unexpected, caulk all the cracks, make sure sloppy reality never oozed through the seams. What? The green light! The green light in the kitchen wasn't on! Once, in the predawn gloom, Leonard found his security guard, Craig Jones, in the laundry room of his house in Potomac, Md. Ray's voice was deader than Craig had ever heard it. "There are three things important to me," he said. "My wife and my two sons. The green light isn't on, Craig. You didn't activate the alarm, Craig. There are several important things to you, Craig. And if you don't activate the alarm every day, they won't be important to you anymore."
He needed people around him to filter out the unpredictable . . . and yet people themselves were so unpredictable. No surprise birthday parties, no surprise gifts, he told his camp before the second Thomas Hearns fight—he hated surprises. He had married the woman he had dated since high school, staffed his camp with relatives and with neighbors he had known from the old days in Palmer Park, clung tenaciously to people and things he knew. People like Ollie Dunlap, loyal and strong, his itinerary-keeper and right-hand man, people who would hurl their bodies on top of his and take the beer can in the head, the way Ollie did one night in Reno right after a controversial fight Ray was analyzing for HBO. People who produced his water bottle the moment his tongue was almost dry, extended a breath mint the moment his meal was done, made him feel secure. He rewarded such people well, gave them wonderful gifts and shared his wealth with them.
But people disillusioned him—why was it that they almost always disillusioned him? When his camp members sold tickets to his fights on the side and T-shirts with his name, as people in other boxers' entourages did, he became distraught and banished them from his circle. And then, five or six months later, he summoned them back. How else could he restore the illusion, reseal the capsule and keep flying?
Dying, dying—why, especially when he wasn't boxing, did he keep thinking about dying? Every headline he saw, every airplane he stepped on. A private jet he chartered to Chicago one night ran into a savage storm; the bottom seemed to drop out, his head crashed against the ceiling. The others traveling with him groaned and gave up. Not Ray. Even though he was totally helpless, he strained to stay in control. "I was the only one who didn't give up, and that saved us," he said. "It's over if God thinks you've given up."
That meant he could never rest. That meant the green light could never go off; the next minute could never be permitted to unfold on its own. The moment the tires of his airplane touched the runway in a new city, he would ask Ollie, What time are we leaving? Ollie would know by heart, or check the hour-by-hour itinerary on his clipboard. If Ray turned away from the heavy bag during training and bumped into someone, his eyes shot straight to Ollie's: Why did that happen, how could that be? When he was the guest speaker at a banquet he wouldn't mingle with the crowd during cocktail hour, wouldn't sit at the head table and break bread. The corporation sponsoring the affair would be told to invite only its most important executives into a special side room, where Ray would appear, shake hands for a few minutes and then slide back to his hotel room during the chatter and dinner, to reappear at the podium the minute he was scheduled to speak.
He avoided confrontations. He almost never said no. Almost instinctively, the two large men who bracketed him wherever he walked knew his preferences and said no for him, or read the signal in his eyes, or heard the sound he made by clicking his tongue against his palate. On he moved through the crowd like the prow of a yacht, nothing sticking or rubbing, barely a ripple in his wake. Never quite making eye contact or stopping, never quite getting into a conversation, but always smiling, writing his name on their shreds of paper, telling people their children were cute, saying thank you, yes, goodbye.
No one in the world, he said, understood him or knew him. He liked it that way, that too gave him an advantage. He loathed call-in radio talk shows—who knew what question some faceless voice might ask? "Everything," he said. "I want to control everything."
Even the air. He would walk into a friend's hotel room on a 95° Florida day, go straight to the thermostat, turn off the air-conditioning—he hates air-conditioning—then talk for a few minutes and leave. No, he was not a tyrant; when the moving capsule stopped, when he was caught by surprise, his impulses were generous. Outside a store in the Poconos last year a woman saw him, smacked her forehead and said, "Sugar Ray Leonard! My husband would faint if he was here—can you hold on just a minute and talk to him on the phone?" He waited obediently, took the pay phone and chatted away with the stranger.
It was just that his world had grown so much larger, with so much more air and terrain to tame. How masterly he became at it. Embarrassed? Ray Leonard? The people who knew him would rack their brains, trying to remember a stumble, a stammer, a slip or a blush. Yes, there was that time in '84 when Kevin Howard knocked him down . . . and . . . and that was it. How could a man be that cautious, that in control of his arms and legs and tongue . . . and yet always appear so natural and smooth, the way a myth should? The first two weeks of his training camp for the April 6,1987, Hagler fight, he refused to jump rope in public. Not until he had it down to a blur in private would he let the world watch. During his early years as a professional he would sit by himself with a tape recorder, practicing his diction; to this day he sits with Trainer before press conferences and tries to anticipate each question that might be asked. That backward flip he did in the ring in 1981 after stopping Ayub Kalule to win the WBA junior middleweight crown—was that a spontaneous eruption of joy? Certainly not—he had practiced it for days. And still something about it felt strange as he somersaulted through the air, something unanticipated that made him land short and nearly topple to the canvas; my god, of course, he had forgotten to rehearse while wearing his cup!
He could not permit this—he had to anticipate every possibility, every conceivable flying can of pork and beans. His mind could not stop itself from whirring ahead, his eyes from moving, his ears from straining to listen. Don't try to sneak anything past him, camp members whispered to each other, there's nothing the man doesn't see or hear. He banned all music from his workouts as well as all talking and use of the heavy bag by other members of his camp while he was sparring. To concentrate, he had to shut down life; yes, that was far easier for Ray than to shut down his eyes and ears and brain.
But then, of course, of course. . . .
The slingshot. The more he controlled, the more he needed the release—that one moment when every tissue in his body uncoiled, when something larger than him, something almost like God, came over him. That moment when he didn't know precisely what he was doing—but his body did. A fight. That gave him permission to do it. It was the safest place, the only place on earth for Ray Leonard to let go.
And no, not even a fight gave complete liberation. He had to be hurt in that fight, cornered, in danger of losing—only then could he allow himself to ignore the risk, to hurl the cellar door wide open, let all the goblins loose. He learned that the cellar was there when he needed it, understood that its proper use made him a magnificent artist. In such moments his body literally grew larger, his lips curled, his eyes became another man's, twice as wide. Flinging his arms to the heavens during the two-fisted tantrum he unleashed upon Hearns in the 14th round in 1981, no, that was not planned. "Like crying," said Ray. "Like when you're really crying so hard it feels good, and the more you hear yourself doing it, the more you do. Yeah, that's what it feels like. Like crying."
On the evening of June 20, 1980, Ray left the locker room of Montreal's Olympic Stadium robed in goodness and white. Down the tunnel he came, closer and closer to his 20-foot square, everything in order as it was in his dreams, and then . . . what happened? What shattered the capsule? The gloom-covered night sky, the patter of rain, the gigantic scoreboard screen, the firestorm of light, the thunder of the crowd, the screaming legions of Latins . . . and there in the ring, boiled down to two black beads in the sockets of Duran's dark head, Ray could see it, the enemy. Yes, there it was, that bump he hit out of nowhere that day on the three-wheeler dirt bike, sending the handlebar up into the head of his son, Little Ray, opening a hole between the boy's eyes that you could stick your thumb into, and making Ray get rid of all four of his dirt bikes and wake up in a cold sweat night after night for months, and yes, there it was, that insult flung at his wife, Juanita, by the man in the Baltimore shopping mall, making Ray's fist fly and the man crumple and terrifying Ray into jamming a bundle of dollars into the man's hand to make him pretend it never happened, and yes, there it was, that shriek he heard when his second son's cheek struck the door hinge and split open, shooting blood and making Ray's heart thrash so hard he wanted to pad his entire house with foam rubber—all there in Duran's eyes, there it was, there it was!
When the night was finished, analysts would say that slugging with Duran was Leonard's strategy, that he went into the ring with the plan to prove his machismo, and Ray, who loved having all things planned, did not dispute it. But to a few people he confided the truth, why he never dictated the pace of that fight, why he stayed for all 15 rounds in the center of Duran's squall: He was swept away. He lost control.
Those eyes—"Like Charles Manson's eyes," he would say one day nine years later, shaking his head. And then, with a start, he would look up and ask, "Is Charles Manson out on parole?"
The capsule was Ray's home. The capsule was Ray's trap. When the retina in his left eye tore during training in 1982, he had to quit boxing. If he continued, even after surgery, he would shatter the image he had so carefully built—he would be just another of those boxers who risked blindness or slurred speech, one more fistfighter out of control.
So there he was, at 26, in a tux at ringside for HBO, watching other men, lesser men, play out his dream. "Like turning him into a eunuch," said his broadcast partner, Larry Merchant.
How would he illuminate the darkness now that his lightning bolt was gone? Why did all the things he had always thought would bring him satisfaction now bring him only pain and contradiction? He tried renting videotapes, 20 at a time. He popped each one into the VCR for a few minutes, then sent someone out to rent 20 more. He tried traveling. If it was raining when he reached his destination, he flew home. He tried visiting his brothers. He sat for a minute, left without explanation, returned an hour later and did the same thing. He started a boxing club in Palmer Park for young fighters. He couldn't bear it when they failed to follow his instructions. He tried to reflect upon the wonder of his life, upon all the unforgettable moments. His whole career was a blur. He hungered for a new skill. He was afraid to make a mistake. He stared at the walls of his new house. He was already dreaming each detail of the house he really wanted, an English Tudor on 150 acres, with a winding quarter-mile driveway lined with trees. He was a fiercely independent man. No one ever saw him alone. He tried cooking, haute cuisine simmering in fine oil and spices. He ended up using the microwave. He saw everything that was happening all around him. He didn't see the floral arrangement sitting under his nose. He wanted to find himself. He played checkers, Scrabble, Ping-Pong, basketball and video games all day because they helped him lose himself. He bought a captain's hat, had Ollie buy a boat for him and dock it in a river. He used it only once. He had Ollie hurry out to buy a Bronco; a big snowstorm was coming. It snowed an inch. He bought Rolls-Royces, Ferraris, Mercedeses. He drove them for a few months and then traded them in for new ones. He thrilled himself one day by screwing a light-switch plate into the wall—his hands ached to do something simple and real. He had other people dial his telephone calls and pick up his bags. He tried reading comic books again. The stories seemed juvenile, absurd. He began playing tennis from 9 p.m. to midnight, in order to exhaust his mind so it would let him sleep. He couldn't sleep—lying in the darkness unnerved him. He was a fiercely independent man. He woke up others at 2 a.m. to watch TV with him. He tried partying all night, obliterating the darkness, going longer and harder. The sun rose and it was just another day. He remembered Duke and King, and purchased a miniature schnauzer. He had it taken to a salon once a week to have its teeth flossed, hair ribboned, nails manicured and breath sanitized with mouthwash. He bought every electronic gadget he saw, remote-control boxes that could adjust the base and treble on his stereo from the bathroom, or tune in any one of hundreds of TV stations all over the world, buttons that could make everything happen instantly and give him more free time. The hours moved more and more slowly; he didn't know what to do with his time. He was a fiercely independent man. He couldn't box again—imagine what people would say. He had more and more time for his family. He spent less and less time with his family. He wanted to guide Little Ray, give his son love and direction. Little Ray went to his mom for advice. Ray was trying to live a dream, but there was only reality.
People stared at him and whispered everywhere he traveled. They wanted a life just like Ray's.
"So how's life, Ray?" his brother Kenny asked one day during his retirement. A single tear trickled down Ray's cheek.
It was unbearable to live like this—to be in total control and to have no control at all. Sometimes he ached to have a life like other people's; to feel not elevated but more human. But how could he risk that—didn't random, senseless, horrifying things always seem to happen to human beings?
When he hung his head, there was the answer! It dangled from the gold chain around his neck, it rubbed the skin near his heart: ABSOLUTE PREDESTINATION, read the tiny letters engraved on the back of his gold cross. Nothing happened randomly, not the rainstorm awaiting the airplane nor the bump awaiting the dirt bike nor the anarchy in Duran's eyes. Everything was perfect and planned, just as in his fantasies. The relief sang through him: He was off the hook, he could fall asleep, he could drop to his knees and accept. Oh, so much strain to be a god—how much sweeter to be one of God's children. Sometimes on Sundays he would enter a little Baptist church, listen for a while, then stride to the pulpit to tell the world. And the words would start flowing from his tongue, and all the people in the congregation would get happy on him, and the amens would ring out even from the ones who snuck in late and sat in the back, and his mother would sit there with her eyes shining, saying to herself, This is where he belongs, you can see it right there on his face. Preachin's what he's been search-in' for ever since he left that boxin'.
But then Sunday got out of Monday's way, and that comfort he had found would beget its own pain. Absolute predestination—his life and his death all in Someone Else's hands, no matter how careful he was or how well-caulked his capsule, no matter where on earth. . . .
Except one place. "In the ring," he decided. "That is the one place I am free from that rule. In the ring."
Fair enough, right? One hundred ninety-six million, nine hundred and fifty-one thousand square miles of earth for God. A 20-foot-by-20-foot square for Ray. Surely He would never even notice.
Better test it, though. Just to be certain. He paid four top-20 middleweights to meet him in an empty gym one day in 1986, arranged for three judges and a ref and swore them all to silence. He would never embarrass himself in public again, as he had against Kevin Howard. One after the other, he took the boxers on. Yes, he could still do it! He could fight Hagler!
All the old tools, the habits of thinking and living that had brought him greatness in the morning of his life and sadness in the afternoon—they worked again, he was fighting! His smile returned, he was fun to be around again. Deep, beautiful thoughts about life, about mankind and nature and God washed over him after he had exhausted himself in training, all the thoughts that his teeming mind could not relax enough to let inside when he wasn't boxing.
But then the people flinched. The people, who loved to see athletes take their risks for them, cried to this one, the different one. No, Sugar Ray, don't do it. Hagler can't be beaten, don't chance it, what about your eye? Where were the people at 2:10 a.m. . . . 2:18 . . . 2:21? Had they no clue yet that his image and his eye were smaller risks?
And the moment it was finished, after he had stunned Hagler and the world, the old question arose: God's child? Or God? Where to? called the driver waiting outside the arena. To church, said Ray. To church? The limousine pulled away from the stadium and purred up and down the streets of Las Vegas, but all the churches were dark—nowhere in that neon-spangled night could God be found.
He gave up and headed back to his hotel, Caesars Palace. Which entrance? Ray asked his security men. The back door? The front, he replied. The glass doors swung open. The slot-machine arms froze, the clanging quarters fell silent, the blackjack games died. It's him! Right here! Sugar Ray! It surpassed anything he had ever seen. The people surged and lunged and cried.
"Our planet is large," said Ray Leonard. "The amount of space most people control is limited to the spot on which, at any given moment, they are standing. All space is significant. I control more of it than others. I control a 20-foot square."
Oh, to have walked off in that next sunrise, into an eternity of dawns. But darkness fell again, the digital clocks on his gadgets did their slow fluorescent march through the night.
He and his wife separated. He could not believe that he could not heal the rupture, that scar tissue had formed that he couldn't rub away. No one, he vowed, would ever get close to him again.
He didn't need anyone. Beating Marvin Hagler, he was certain, had changed his life. Finally, he could retire and not lose his self-esteem. He could be content, yes, he was sure of it. "To achieve greatness, you must be selfish." he said, "but once you become great, you can be unselfish. That's where I am now. That fight gave me happiness, maturity, independence. That fight gave me balance."
And yet, he didn't stop. He had captured as much of the dream as a man's fists were built to grasp, and yet—this was his greatness and his curse—he kept grasping. Who? Who, from the heights where he now floated, was worthy of combat? Who was foe enough to keep life like a dream, to elevate Ray Leonard higher? Donny Lalonde, he decided. Who? the people asked. Donny Lalonde, a higher weight class, a chance to take the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight crowns. Surely that would be a grand quest, surely that would fling the cellar door open. So why did he never quite feel it during that Nov. 7, 1988, fight, why did it never quite happen? Why did he land once on the seat of his pants?
Thomas Hearns, that would do it—the first time they met, hadn't Hearns been ahead on all three judges' cards after 13 rounds? Wasn't there a more perfect dream to be dreamed there? So why did reporters keep asking Leonard what was the point of the match, keep insisting that Hearns was finished as a fighter? Why did fighting never once feel like crying that night last June? Why did he feel no motivation, why did he twice land on the canvas?
Roberto Duran, then—yes, surely Roberto Duran. Hadn't Duran said "No más" nine years ago in the eighth round of their second fight? "Duran has quit. Duran has quit!"—not "Leonard has won!"—wasn't that what Howard Cosell had screamed the moment it happened, wasn't that what all the world had talked about? Surely there was a better fantasy there, a finish more thunderous and Thor-like. . . .
Ray. Ray. Could he hear himself? Surely he knew what all boxers know—that to make a man lose his will in the ring is more than to make him lose his consciousness. That to make a champion quit is a fighter's ultimate fruition.
He shut his ears. He did not need fruition. He needed the dream. He needed a reason to keep boxing. He clenched his teeth during press conferences. How could he explain to people, or even to himself, that the ring was the one place where he could have it both ways, where he could be human and god at once, completely vulnerable and completely in command? Couldn't they see he was a happier, more relaxed man now that he was boxing again, that he was able to spend three whole weeks in the Bahamas without packing and running? Couldn't they see he wasn't surrounded by quite so many people now, that more and more he was going on road trips with his five-year-old son, Jarrel? And maybe, just maybe, he was chasing down something he wasn't even aware of—that in order to bear the last half of his life perhaps he needed to be made human, perhaps he needed to lose, and that was why his life kept moving, as if by absolute predestination, toward. . . .
"No, he'd never fight Michael Nunn—Nunn's as quick at 160 pounds as Ray was at 147 eight years ago," said trainer Eddie Futch. "Ray's too shrewd for that, it would be crazy. You name the odds, as high as you want, Ray will never. . . ."
The dreamer raged: "I can't believe it. People have put me in an obituary." The dreamer, who used each criticism as psychological fuel, needed to hear more of it and more. . . .
"Sugar Ray blew it," said NBC analyst Ferdie Pacheco. "He had a chance to set a precedent and lead boxing into a new era of safety, to quit rich and famous, as one of the most heroic figures ever. But he's doing boxing irreparable harm. He can no longer get away from his opponent in the ring, he's getting hit by punches he never used to, he's lost his chin. That's the definition of a shot fighter. If Duran's in shape, Ray better get the number of a good neurologist, because he's going to need one in 10 years."
Where was the growing affection that people felt for other aging warriors? The dreamer raged. The dreamer who never wanted people to understand him couldn't imagine why he was so misunderstood. "They're so fickle—do you see how quickly people change?" The dreamer was almost grateful; he needed more of it and more: Yes, a chance to prove them wrong again, to have a dream again, to sleep, to sleep, to sleep.
He stirred his outrage like a fine soup. "I was deprived of the accomplishment in the last fight with Duran," he said. "I feel a sense of deprivation." And inhaled its aroma. "Talk-show hosts making jokes about 'No más' in their monologues, kids saying 'No más' in the streets. My career is not a joke." But, of course, the dreamer didn't need his career at all. "I'll only be in this business another year. I want to be more than a great fighter. I want to be a great human being. My future isn't here." He stabbed a finger toward the ceiling of the hotel lobby. "My future is up there, sleeping."
Up there sleeping was Jarrel. One day not long ago, Ray filled a large bowl with strawberries and lathered it with two cans of whipped cream. Then he went to the bathroom, planning to return in a minute and share the strawberries with his son.
When he came back, the little boy's belly was big, his face smeared with cream. Three strawberries remained in the bowl. "I saved some for you, Daddy." said Jarrel, and Ray laughed and laughed and laughed.
These were the two things that gave him the most joy in life, his boxing and his children. The two makers of moments in which he didn't know what would happen next. Did he understand that, finally? That a man's hands didn't need to stay closed up when he took off the gloves . . . that it was time to stop squeezing life, to let go?
The day before the Hagler fight Ray was walking the streets of Las Vegas, looking off toward the mountains. "Where are you, Ray?" asked his companion. He was up there, winging, safe inside his old dream. "I can feel myself floating through the sky," he would say later, "floating toward a rainbow and a brilliant sun . . . and as long as I never look down toward the earth, I'll never be disappointed. . . . It's funny, I don't know why, but I feel the same as I do in the dreams I had that I was dying. . . . I have that same peaceful, euphoric, floating feeling. . . . But I'm not going toward the end of my life in this one. . . . I'm going toward the beginning of childhood, the very beginning. . . ."
Why would a man have a similar feeling when he is dying as when he was just born? Ray shook his head, snapped the cellular telephone from the holder on his belt and dialed a number. No, he would never understand that at all.