Sugar Ray Leonard Demanded only one thing: Let him choose the date of his retirement. "I'll know when it is time to go," he said repeatedly. He was a warrior; he knew he would recognize that moment only in battle. Last Saturday night, at New York City's Madison Square Garden, the 34-year-old Leonard proved to himself that he could no longer wield the sword. The final entry in his ring record will show that Leonard lost a 12-round decision to Terry Norris, the WBC junior middleweight champion.
Afterward, though his lips were torn and bloody, Leonard still managed a smile. Both eyes were battered, and the left one was almost closed, but they yielded no tears. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," Leonard said, standing as proud in defeat as he ever had in victory. "I had a great career. It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time. I am not of the '90s. I feel very good. I enjoyed my career tremendously; I wouldn't change a thing. Tonight was my last fight."
Eliminate the bout's historic significance and it wasn't much of a fight, just a lopsided whipping of a stubborn but aged challenger by a young champion. Leonard had said that he expected an ugly fight, but this wasn't quite what he pictured. Norris, 23 and quicker, knocked Leonard down with a left hook in the second round and with a short, crisp right in the seventh. Leonard was never in danger of not finishing the fight. Only the body had grown older; the will and the heart remained young and strong.
"I knew I didn't have it when I entered the ring," said Leonard, who was fighting for the first time since beating Roberto Duran in a super middleweight bout in December 1989. After the second-round knockdown, Leonard, on legs that no longer responded to his commands, was reduced to setting ambushes, none of which were successful against the overly cautious Norris, who might well have knocked out Leonard had he been more aggressive. "He was trying to bait me," said Norris, "but it didn't work."
"It worked against all the older fellows I fought lately," said Leonard, grinning.
This is Leonard's fourth retirement. The first came in 1976, after he won an Olympic gold medal. After returning to the ring as a professional a few months later, he fought his way up to the WBC welterweight championship, which he won from Wilfred Benitez in '79. In June 1980 he lost that title to Duran and then won it back five months later when Duran quit in the eighth round of the famous no màs fight. In '81, after knocking out Ayub Kalule to win the WBA junior middleweight championship, Leonard unified the welterweight crown by stopping WBA champ Thomas Hearns in the 14th round.
In '82, several months after undergoing surgery for a detached retina, Leonard retired for a second time, but he returned for a single bout in 1984, a lackluster defeat of Kevin Howard. Disgusted with that performance, Leonard retired again, this time for nearly three years.
Restless and feeling like an artist who had deserted his easel before completing his life's work, Leonard came back in April 1987 to win the WBC middleweight crown over the champion, Marvin Hagler. Hagler has not fought since, but Leonard continued, knocking out Donny Lalonde in '88 to win the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight titles. That victory made Leonard the first man to win championships in five divisions.
After a controversial June 1989 draw with Hearns—Leonard was knocked down twice—and that second win over Duran, Leonard took another year off, without announcing his retirement, to ponder his future. With a 36-1-1 record, including 25 knockouts, and millions in the bank, his place in boxing's pantheon was assured. Still, he was unhappy.
"I knew I had to fight again," said Leonard a few weeks before the Norris bout. "I have to know that I've taken my talent as far as it can go. I want to be the guy who says, 'Leonard, it's time to quit.' I don't want anybody else telling me that. It's my life, my career, my decision. But I know I will have to face the younger guys, and at my age I have to stop giving away weight. I fought the bigger guys to create a mystery, sort of a mystique. No more. I no longer can afford to give away the height advantage, the reach advantage, the power, the strength."
So Leonard returned to his natural fighting weight, 154 pounds, a territory he abandoned in 1984. "The younger guys arc fresh, they are strong," he said. "I don't give a damn about what they say about Terry Norris. They say he's unknown, a nobody. I hope he's still unknown after our fight. I have to see if I can stay with the young tigers. I'm not putting pressure on myself; I'm just making myself realize I can't afford any more bad performances. I really can't."
Some observers said that in Norris, Leonard would be facing a younger version of himself. Fast and quick-fisted, Norris has patterned himself after Leonard, whom he idolizes. He is only an imitation, however. Norris is good—he has won 27 of 30 fights—but Leonard was great. At the same age, Leonard would have knocked Norris out in three rounds. That is no knock at Norris. There was only one Joe Louis, one Sugar Ray Robinson, one Muhammad Ali—and one Sugar Ray Leonard.
"Now I'm going to move on to something else," said Leonard in defeat. "Now I'm going to do something I've been promising myself for a long time. Now I am going to learn how to play golf."
There are no old golfers, only young golfers and senior golfers.
His eyes betraying his desperation, Leonard (left) confronted a Norris jab in the seventh.
In the late rounds, Leonard sought succor from a rope and covered up in vain as Norris hammered away at him (opposite, below).
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Norris retained his championship by leaving his idol bruised and ready for the links.
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