Sugar Ray Leonard’s Life Advice

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Photograph by Deborah Wald

What's the best advice you ever received?
When I was around 10, my father said, "Son, if you don't have respect, you have nothing." I didn't understand that then, but I understand it now, at 55. Every few years, and each time with more conviction, my father would remind me of this.

What have you learned about fear?
That fear can paralyze you, but that it's also a good thing, particularly for a fighter, because it allows you to react quickly, which keeps you elusive.

Who's the toughest guy you know?
My father. I look at my dad as almost being Superman because he rarely shows emotions. He's been dealing with illness, but he never complains. He had a job as a manager of a supermarket, and he worked his whole life to support the family. And it's a pretty big family. I had three brothers and three sisters. He took care of us. That's tough to me. You give my dad a beer, a pickup truck, and a boxing match on TV – he's the happiest man alive.

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How does a man know it's time to walk away?
When he doesn't have the same passion and commitment. After I became champion, I got civilized with the parties and the private planes, the buffets and the caviar. That guy should stay out of the ring. But that's what happens to most people who've become successful.

How does a man find his true calling?
It's all of a sudden. You have this moment, and you say, "I can do this." Or you do it better than the other guy without really trying hard. You go out on the golf course for the first time and have that kind of perfect, embedded swing that people can't teach. That's a calling.

What role does courage play in a man's life?
Courage comes from within during those moments when you challenge yourself. When I fought Marvin Hagler, 99.9 percent of people thought I would get destroyed. Hagler was annihilating people. He hadn't lost for 11 years, but I believed in myself. I was getting the crap kicked out of me by my sparring partners. That's when people, even in my camp, thought, "Well, if sparring partners are going to hurt Ray, then Hagler's going to kill him." They didn't say it, but I saw it on their faces. But that only gave me more courage. They doubted me, which pissed me off, and I won the fight.

How should a man handle getting old?
I look at myself as a classic used car that I keep tuned up. That's a metaphor.

What's the best way to intimidate other men?
Look into their eyes, because the eyes reveal what's really goin' on. If you're the favorite, they will bow down. But every now and then, you meet a guy who is a stud, who doesn't give a shit about you. And that's when you're paralyzed.

Have you ever cheated death?
When I was about 10, I fell into a creek that was flooded from a major storm, and I couldn't swim. I was walking along, looking at the current – the creek was filled with logs, trash, debris, and mud – when all of a sudden, I'm dragged underwater. I can still feel the power of that water to this day. I was 100 yards from a drain, and somehow, someway, I grabbed at the grass on the bank and pulled myself up.

What's one skill every man should have?
Knowing how to cook. I had never attempted to cook until my wife was ill, and I made a steak dinner. It was one of my greatest triumphs.

What's the worst pain you've experienced?
Pilates. All that stretching. I thought that I was strong, but…well, put it this way, I didn't go back the next day.

What's the best way to get through life?
Be an optimist. It's like being in a fight. If I'm losing on points with three rounds to go, I know I still have a chance – always think you have a chance.

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