Sugar Ray Leonard On Boxing’s Biggest Weekend

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 Jason Kempin / Getty Images

For nearly a century, the proudest man on the planet was the one holding boxing’s heavyweight championship belt. He was feared, praised, and admired, had women at his feet and men hoping to shake his hand. But in the decades since Mike Tyson fell to the canvas one final time, boxing has mostly disappeared from the limelight, thanks to a majority of fights shown exclusively on Pay-Per-View and a lack of talent and personalities across the weight classes. But a new outfit, Premier Boxing Champions, is aiming to save boxing by bringing great fights, expert commentary, and up-and-coming stars to primetime television. “What’s going to save boxing, is boxing,” Sugar Ray Leonard, legendary fighter and PBC commentator, explains. “What’s going to save boxing is evenly matched fights, competitive fights, entertaining fights. Along with the charisma of that individual, of that boxer. And the networks.” We recently talked to Leonard about the death of boxing, how to regrow the sport’s talent pool, and why it will take a new superstar to complete the comeback. 

Boxing has obviously lost its status over the decades, but why? Why is the fight game less interesting to us now than in the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Do we just not have the personalities or talent to support it anymore?
It was a gradual progression; too many self-governing bodies. I think there were too many titles diluting what that title meant. And when boxing went off network television, it destroyed a whole generation or era of fighters that normally would have gained a name. “I know that kid! I know that kid!” You may not even be champion but people have heard your name because you were on network television. That’s the beauty of this thing with Premier Boxing Champions on NBC. We introduce these boxers — these talented boxers — not just to the boxing public but to the general public. Because some of these stories of who they are and why they are and why they do what they do and where they want to go — they bring people in, like it did with me. It impacted and gave people a chance to know me, far more than in the ring. It humanized me, if you will.

Is knowing that story of Sugar Ray and who he is as important as knowing how hard he punches or how well he boxes?
I think that additional information is icing on the cake. They want to know how hard I punch, they want to know how fast I used to be and how fast my feet were and how I would kind of choreograph the fights in my head, but they also were inquisitive about me: Where’d you come from? And how did you take that punch or how did you get up from that knock down are the , plain questions that intrigue a lot of people and fans.

We love those rags-to-riches stories.
Oh yeah. I think that’s the first chapter of 99 percent of fighters — 99-and-a-half percent of fighters. It’s rags to riches. Boxing is a poor man’s sport. And I think it shows itself when a fighter, even when he looks so grim that he’s going to lose, he has that special ingredient within him that most people, most guys, don’t have. You can look at Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier, you can look at me and Tommy Hearns — every great fight, every defining moment of a fighter’s life, that moment, that ingredient comes into play for that fighter to become great. Legendary.

Is that ingredient what sets regular guys apart from the all-timers?
Exactly. That’s what separates us. It’s that ability to want just a little bit more than the other guy. And that speaks volumes.

Is that something you can see in a kid? Let’s say you walk into a gym and you see a kid boxing across the room — is that something you can see immediately or is that something that develops?
You see it. Well, I see it, because they display. It’s so natural to me to see that kid in that third round, that fifth round. And he may not even win. He may not even win the fight or the match, but he wins because he never gave up. Does that make sense? He has that thing that doesn’t allow him to give up. He just happened to fight against one who was maybe more experienced than he was. More experience, but not better.

Are people going to see and learn and know those big names and those big fights and those up-and-comers on PBC?
Those names — it happens. It’s a process. These fighters will eventually become more national and international and global fighters around the world, and it takes that kind of platform, a network TV platform, primetime TV platform, to give them that exposure. I mean, I was exposed prior to the Olympics because I was on TV all all the time, on various networks. And they knew about my little son that I had — Little Ray, who by the way is 41 years old now. That I wore a picture of my girlfriend on my sock. All those things, I think played a major role and people opened up their doors and people turn on their television sets to watch you and root for you because you’ve now become one of their favorites.

How excited are you to be involved in the process of bringing boxing back to network television?
I’ve been around, in and out of the ring, for more than 40 years and I can educate the public, the fans, because I know what I see. I know what to expect. And in the fighter themselves, we’ll tell their story. So it’s really a win-win thing. It’s a win-win for the fans. It’s a win-win for the boxers, and also for the industry because boxing needs to be more exposed than just Pay-Per-View. Because a lot of times, and I say this with all due respect, a lot of times those fighters are not Pay-Per-View material, if you know what I mean. They’ve got to build up their resume, they’ve got to build up their record, and they have to showcase, they have to show the country and eventually the world who they are and what they can do.

Does it take a Tyson or an Ali or a Sugar Ray the same way it takes a Magic and Bird to grow basketball? A Tiger Woods for golf?
You’re right. It takes a special person. It takes a star. Back in my era, there were a lot of stars: Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, and me, and on and on. And with Ali it was Joe Fraiser and Larry Homles, it kept going on and on. Right now we have the talent, we just don’t have the name value. And the only name value out there is Mayweather and Pacquiao, because they’ve been on television a lot. The fans live somewhat vicariously through boxers. They see themselves so, that’s why they connect with us. But what’s going to save boxing, is boxing. What’s going to save boxing is evenly matched fights, competitive fights, entertaining fights. Along with the charisma of that individual, of that boxer. And the networks.

How important is boxing on network TV to putting it in front of kids and to regrowing that talent pool? To inspiring the next generation to try boxing, which inspires the next generation and so on.
The amateur program is so important. Because that’s our feeder system to professional boxers. I had over 150 fights, something like that. And a lot of these kids back in the day had 200 fights. You gain that experience. You compete against competitors from around the world — the Russians, the Cubans, the UK. Back in the day, I fought guys from all over the world and that’s how I became a champion. And that’s how I became more experienced than the other guys, because I competed against the best out there.

What do kids gain from stepping in the ring. Is it discipline? Is it toughness? Is it overcoming fears? What did you get when you were young?
It’s not just the ability to beat somebody up. But boxing as a sport. And I know at some point it’s looked down upon as being barbaric or whatever, but boxing as a sport, which it is. That kid, even myself who was… I was such a shy kid. I was an introverted kid, but boxing allowed me to build my self-esteem, my confidence. You walk with your chin up. You feel that you can compete. And even though you just started, there is some metamorphisis. Something happens to that young man who put the gloves on. Because you know the first day if you want do this or not. If you say yes and you continue to work and train hard, it builds great character because it gives you discipline. If some bully pushes you, you know you can pretty much take him. But you don’t. You walk away. It’s such a character builder. All these boxers face each other, they may not like each other, they may call each other some unruly names, but at the end of that fight, you watch, for the most part they acknowledge each other, and that’s respect. That’s respect.

Often times in America we know that things have their time. This has come and gone. Why are we still trying to save boxing? Why is it so important to the fabric of America? 
Because it shows that person who is down to rise to the occasion. That’s part of Rocky. Because that movie, it was about the underdog. It was about Joe Blow who’s a nobody, and he’s treated like he’s nobody, but he rises to the occasion because he trains harder than the other guy. He sweats — blood, sweat, and tears. And also, what’s his wife name?

Adrian.
It was about her because there’s a lot of Adrians out there. I have an Adrian. My Adrian was my wife and my Adrian was my mom. You get that. And that’s why people, they fell in love with that movie. That’s why they were able to do it so many times. [Laughs.]

What does it take to be a great boxer? Is it hard work? Is it genetics? What is the combination that breeds success?
You know? It’s what you give it. It’s what you put into it. You’ve got to train that extra round. You’ve got to run that extra mile. You’ve got to sweat that extra sweat. It’s all about that. That makes a winner, you know? You’ve got to want it more than the other guy. I tell young boxers that all the time. You have to train, be focused, and just go for it.

That idea that you have to want it more seems like one of those things you have to be born with.
Well certain things you can’t teach. You can’t teach speed, speed is a gift. Even the power. You can’t teach George Foreman power or Mike Tyson power, or Rocky Marciano power. You can’t teach that. We can show you how to gain more leverage to be a bit more stronger or more powerful. But certain traits you’re just born with.