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Frank Deford
December 28, 1981
Ray Leonard was the hit of '81, beating Ayub Kalule and then Thomas Hearns (right) to win a pair of titles
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December 28, 1981

One Life Fulfilled

Ray Leonard was the hit of '81, beating Ayub Kalule and then Thomas Hearns (right) to win a pair of titles

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No slam dunks allowed says the sign on the far wall of the gym, past where some boys are going three-on-three, over near the speed bags, which, Ollie Dunlap relates, are those upon which Sugar Ray Leonard learned to punch. Because gyms tend to look the same—institutional beige with too many colored lines on the floor—it's easy to envision the cute little boy reaching up and rattling the bags, a-pockety, pockety, pockety....

He was too small for basketball and interested mostly in wrestling and gymnastics when he first came to the gym at the Palmer Park (Md.) Recreation Center in his old neighborhood. There were boxers in the Leonard family—Ray's grandfather, Bidge, was even something of a legend back in Carolina for hard punching and hard drinking—but the kid certainly wasn't a roughneck. It wasn't in his blood, or even in his eyes then. "Ray only had one street fight, which is odd—no, rare—for this community," Dunlap says.

Dunlap manages the Center, which is almost surely the sort of thing Ray would be doing today, at age 25, if he hadn't become Sugar Ray, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world. He would be working with kids. Growing up, that's what he had in mind. But, nice as he was, doll that he looked, he could punch and move; he was quick every way except to quail.

And so it is that he isn't working with kids in Palmer Park; instead, across the street from where he learned his trade, an old drugstore is being gutted to become the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center; Leonard will equip the place himself. It was only five years ago that his girl friend, Juanita Wilkinson, applied for welfare to support their son. Now Sugar Ray boasts he is the biggest taxpayer in Maryland. Many overwhelming things have happened very fast.

They've happened so fast that people still think of Leonard as being cute. But he's not, not anymore. Oh, as ever, he's cut fine and dandy; he's a charmer and always will be. And no man has yet left a mark on Leonard's handsome countenance—just the little slash over his left eyebrow, from running into a door in elementary school. There are the tiny ears that even Juanita—who is his wife now—kids him about, and the glowing smile and the saucer eyes, but his hairline has receded to the point that he now mumbles about a transplant. Upon his lustrous visage there are the first indications of adulthood—nothing so conspicuous as lines upon his smooth skin, but there is the first cast, the drift, of the grown-up. A little cynicism here, a little distance there; memories around the eyes.

One notices it most when he winks. What a wink this man has. Top of the line. World class. All famous people need something quick to get by on in public; Leonard, for example, calls everybody "Pal," and that works well enough. But when really pressed, he winks, at once fondly and conspiratorially—we're in this together, Pal, it says—and the winkee melts. But the difference is this: Once upon a time, when Sugar Ray winked it was as if it were part of his smile. But now, when he is through winking, the grin must be reset. This is what happens when a baby face grows up.

Or, in Leonard's case, catches up. The rest of him has always been so far ahead. This is what has deceived so many opponents. Even as Leonard tagged the other guy on the button and his seat hit the canvas, the guy was still telling himself: This pretty little chipmunk can't be for real. Only the people who have known him well have understood how rugged and resolute he truly is. "One time Ray came to see me, and he didn't have a car, and he was very upset about that," Juanita says. It happens that Leonard is driving his Mercedes as his wife recounts this episode, and he listens very intently as Juanita goes on: "And he told me, 'Sometime we're not going to have to depend on anybody, for transportation or anything. They're going to depend on us.' Remember that, Ray?"

He raps his fingers against the steering wheel and smiles. "There's an old saying," Dunlap is saying in the gym, and he recites it. It's wonderfully apt, too; strange that it isn't well known. "Probably only comes from this side of the street," Dunlap says, laughing. "Probably just this side. It goes: 'When do you become a man? When a man's needed.' " He shakes his head. "You see, Ray's been a man a long time. The kid's shoulders became this wide when they had to."

When he was 16—lying, he said he was the requisite 17—Leonard nearly qualified for the '72 Olympics. The boxer who beat him—the boxer who was awarded the decision—in the Trials was never the same again. Once, in Moscow in '74, during a tour by the U.S. national team, the judges gave the home boy the decision and a trophy. Then, without ado, the Russian marched across the ring and handed the award to Leonard. And you wonder why Duran quit.

Last September Thomas Hearns nailed Leonard in the third round of their welterweight title fight and stood for an instant, expecting him to crumble as all other men had. Instead, Leonard came right back with a left and drove Hearns against the ropes. "Where Ray really destroys a lot of guys first is mentally," says Janks Morton, Leonard's closest adviser. "He gave Hearns something, sure, but, you see, he had already taken something away from him, too." Jimmy Jacobs, Wilfred Benitez's manager, says, "Leonard is like a beautiful woman. You never know what he's concealing."

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