“Sugar Ray Leonard is a Coward and a Bum”

In the 1980s, seven wise, unseen men sat in judgement of boxing. Their names, as far as we know, were Tony, Wes, Ike, Tim, Travis, Ernie and Rodrigo. But in truth, precious little was ever confirmed about them and less still regarding their experience and knowledge of The Sweet Science. Their status as authorities on prizefighting was dubious at best, but what they did appear to have was access, access to the most prominent fighters of that decade, access to “The Four Kings.”

Again, it was never particularly clear what their respective connections with Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns were. Now, with hindsight, it seems they were not part of any inner circle but floated on the periphery, perhaps opening a gym door, translating a few words of Spanish, or treating a luxuriant afro according to the prevalent trend of the day. Some now even say that a couple of “the magnificent seven” never actually saw any of the four boxers in the flesh. So many years later, who can say for sure?

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Leonard and Duran mix it up in their first battle.

What we do know is that the men were undoubtedly good buddies. Not necessarily genuine friends who had bonded through childhood and shared in one another’s lives, but they regarded themselves as close pals nevertheless. Their mutually-respected knowledge and insight into the noble art united the seven and none were ever happier than on those rare occasions when they sat drinking together and debated the sport. And given their alleged associations with Ray, Roberto, Marvin and Tommy, The Four Kings dominated their discourse.

April 1980: Ike, the Detroit barber, had heard enough. “Ray Leonard is a coward and a bum,” he interrupted in his high-pitched and excitable voice. “A coward and a bum, you mark my words.”

Shocked, angered and incredulous in equal measure, Travis could barely contain himself. “An Olympic gold medallist, the current WBC welterweight champion of the world, conqueror of the great Wilfred Benitez – a coward and a bum!?”

“The great Wilfred Benitez,” Ike scoffed back as he reached for his whiskey sour. “That kid was filled with Puerto Rican rum for most of his training camp and it’s a miracle he even made weight.”

"Radar" Benitez schooled Roberto Duran
Benitez and Leonard.

“And anyway,” Ike quickly continued before taking a sip of his drink, “my issue with Ray is that he insists on fighting jokes like that Limey, Dave Green, and avoiding the best 147 pounder on God’s green earth, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.

Travis rolled his eyes. “Why that tall, lanky, skinny, streak of –,” he began before Rodrigo cut in.

“I don’t know much about Hearns,” Rodrigo admitted officiously,“but the best welterweight fighting today is without doubt Pipino Cuevas. That is who Sugar Ray must fight.”

Rodrigo was from Nicaragua, or Panama, or one of those dangerous places on down south of Mexico. He used the uncertainty surrounding his origins to his advantage, always insinuating that each and every Latino fighter was a compadre and close confidant. He looked across the table into Ike’s eyes but the Motown man held his tongue for once. That was a battle for another today. Tonight the goal was to rubbish the Sugar Man.

“I’ve heard Ray is gonna fight Duran next,” Ernie said in his measured, unspectacular tone. Ernie was by far the oldest of the septuplet and his advanced years afforded him wisdom that was more assumed than justified. But he did have one good mystery contact and that was usually enough to keep him a half step in front of most when it came to fight news in the 80s.

“Duran!?” Rodrigo exploded, his swarthy complexion fortunately masking the immediate sense of flushed panic that not being the bearer of Latin American-based rumours provoked.

Duran dominates Palomino.
Duran dominates Palomino in 1979.

“The lightweight?” Tony questioned with barely disguised contempt from behind yet another cold tin of Genuine Draft.

“Well, he has been campaigning around 147 for a couple of years now,” Wes, the balding, bespectacled, walking record book of the group proffered.

Wes tended to contribute little to conversations beyond hard cold facts. He barely knew a jab from a hook, but he could probably tell you what month each of Sugar Ray Robinson’s six draws took place without having to check his notes. In truth, the others treated him as little more than a point of reference and Wes was content with his presumed neutrality. Deep down, however, something about Marvelous Marvin Hagler exhilarated him.

“Yeah,” Tim laughed, “only because he can’t be bothered to go to the gym.”

Tim was a teetotaller from Montreal who died young despite his clean living. On his deathbed he admitted that he had never actually been to a professional prizefight in his life. He had walked past a young, largely anonymous Ray Leonard outside the Olympic Village in 1976 and from that one insignificant encounter he had constructed the persona of a in-the-know boxing fanatic. Deeply conscious of the flaky foundations of his standing within the group, Tim limited his contributions to clichéd comments he had heard elsewhere and which were unlikely to spark further investigation.

“I couldn’t possibly comment on that,” Wes replied to Tim’s jibe at Hands of Stone, “but it is true that Duran has never fought a championship fight above 135 pounds.”

Duran defeats Leonard in Montreal.

“You see?” Ike smirked satisfactorily in Travis’s direction. “A god-damned blown-up lightweight. Duran’s never even fought for the junior welterweight belt! Jeeee-sus Christ! It’s like I keep telling you boys: Sugar Ray Leonard is a coward and a bum.”

September 1980: “Can you imagine what Hearns would do to that pretty face of Rays?” Ike queried smugly when the seven amigos met again.

“Ahh you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Travis fired back in tortured frustration. “Ray fought the wrong fight. He wanted more to prove something than win the damn boxing match. Just wait for the rematch.”

Travis was a Sugar Ray super-fan. He visited training camps, attended press conferences, sat in the best seats he could afford at fights, and never missed a photo opportunity with the boxer. He was around Ray so often he saw himself as an honorary member of Sugar Ray’s entourage. In reality, the Sugar Man didn’t know Travis at all and he was totally ignored by anyone on the fighter’s payroll.

“I can’t see Duran giving Leonard a rematch any time soon,” said Tony. “Have you seen those pictures of him? He must be a light heavyweight right now, easy!”

“It’s already signed, my friends,” said Ernie, nursing his cognac and ice. “They’re fighting in November.”

“No chance!” Tim shouted with contrived conviction. “Duran’s sitting at cruiserweight right now!”

“Ernesto is right,” Rodrigo countered. “I was there in the club in Miami with Roberto. He said, no way I’m fighting that clown again this year. Then Don King said, how does an eight million guarantee sound? Roberto laughed and said, Where do I sign?”

Leonard defeats Duran in New Orleans.
Leonard defeats Duran in New Orleans.

“Smart by Leonard’s camp,” Ernie mused aloud. “Flash the cash and force Duran’s hand. Get him back in the ring before he’s got the celebrating done and dusted.”

“And he’s over thirty now,” Wes added. “Fighters find it harder to cut weight the older they get.”

“No surprise to me,” Ike spat dejectedly. “After Tommy destroyed Cuevas I knew that neither of these bums would get in the ring with him.”

November 1982: “Well fellas,” Travis opened with barely-bridled glee. “It sure has been a while. What’s been happening?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ike responded with all the good humour he could muster. It had been more than a year but the huge Leonard vs Hearns superfight still tormented him. “The ref should never have stopped it,” he muttered. “Tommy was ahead on all three scorecards.” Then, little more than a whispered afterthought: “Ray’s still a bum.”

“Don’t even mention the three blind mice at ringside,” Travis began, but he was too content with life to get riled by Ike on this day and anyway, he was eager to share some inside knowledge with the group. “Ray isn’t a bum and he certainly isn’t a coward,” he beamed as he poured more fresh orange onto his belt of vodka. “Next week in Baltimore they’re going to announce a fight at middleweight for Hagler’s belts.”

“Hagler vs Leonard at 160 pounds?” Tony said, his voice soaked in incredulity.

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Leonard and Hearns clash in 1981.

Tony was the gang’s cynic. Looking back, it is possible he never even liked boxing. All the others had their favourites and their anti-heroes and the pugilists they respected or disliked, but Tony seemed to hate and mock them all. In fact, he seemed to hate and mock the entire sport to such a degree that he was, perversely, the most passionate on the subject.

“No way that prancing welterweight fights Hagler,” Tony continued. “No chance. None of ’em have the balls to get in the ring with Marvelous. Poor Marv up there feasting on nobodies, we’ll probably never know if he really is as good as they say.”

“I can’t speak for Ray Leonard,” Rodrigo began with gusto, Tony’s disdain disturbing the dormant machismo in his Latin heart. “But for Roberto Duran I can, and I tell you that Roberto will gladly fight Marvin Hagler and any other champion up to and including 160 pounds.”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony replied with a gentle sneer. “So long as old Stone Hands can get down to 160 pounds that is.”

February 1985:  “I told you,” said Rodrigo plainly.

“Told us what,” at least three of the group answered in unison.

“I told you Roberto will fight any man up to and including 160 pounds,” Rodrigo clarified.

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Duran and Hagler in 1983.

“Yeah, and lose to them all,” Ike laughed. “The bum has lost five of his last ten now and we’ll never see him in a big fight again. He’s just a blown-up lightweight who keeps losing all his money. He’d fight a rabid grizzly bear with one hand behind his back if Don King offered him enough Balboas.”

As Rodrigo stewed in silence and sipped his rum and coke, Travis took up the fight against Ike.

“So you give Hearns no credit for beating him, then?” he said.

“Of course I do,” Ike replied. “Tommy gets credit for beating whoever is put in front of him.”

Travis saw his chance to antagonise. “Mike McCallum was put in front of him. John Mugabi was put in front of him. Carlos Santos was put in front of him. Davey Moore was put in front of him.”

“What are you talking about, man? Tommy never fought any of those guys,” Ike said tentatively.

“Exactly!” Travis announced triumphantly.“Numbers one through four in the rankings, patiently waiting the shot they’ve earned, and Hearns keeps ducking them, denying them their chance.”

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Hearns demolishes Duran in 1984.

“Get outta here!” Ike blasted. “You’re just sore because your hero keeps retiring every other year with some pitiful excuse for an injury.”

Travis just smiled, mission accomplished.

“I’ve heard Hagler and Hearns is a done deal,” Ernie offered to calm the tension.

“Now that’s a fight!” Tim exclaimed, and cracked open another can of Dr Pepper.

January 1987: “I hear on the grapevine that Leonard is finally going to fight Hagler,” old Ernie said.

“The Sugar Man? Is he not retired?” Tim asked with a bemused look on his face.

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed. “He’s on his fourth or fifth retirement now. I guess he needs his name in the paper for a few days to promote whatever he’s endorsing this month.”

“Ahh, what’s the point?” Ike blurted out. “Marvin’s an old man now. The war with Tommy took more out of him than three rounds has ever taken out of a prize fighter in the ring. That bum Leonard should have fought Hagler three years ago instead of cashing paycheques for nothing against the likes of Finch and Howard.”

Hagler vs Hearns: that's entertainment!
Hagler stops Hearns in 1985.

“I have it on good authority,” Ernie continued solemnly. “April in Vegas.”

“He’s right,” Travis concurred. “The terms have been agreed.”

“Oh, I bet they have,” Tony leered. “Let me guess. They’ll be in a ring as big as the carpark so Leonard has plenty of space to run. They’ll be wearing gloves the size of pillows so even Hagler’s punches are softened and easily parried. And they’ll fight over 12 rather than 15 so Sugar only has to fool the judges for 36 minutes.”

Ernie nodded his sage, grey head. “Yup, that’s pretty much what I hear.”

“Typical of the man,” Rodrigo said aloofly. “He only fights when everything is in his favour.”

“Sugar man certainly likes to have things his way,” Tim added unnecessarily.

“What a joke,” said Ike.

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Leonard upsets Hagler in 1987.

January 1989: “They say Sugar’s fighting on,” Ernie said. “Two more fights this year and then that’s that.”

“Yeah, that’s that until he comes out of retirement again to milk us some more,” was Tony’s predictably snide retort.

Ignoring Tony’s provocation, Travis clarified the situation. “Ernie’s right as usual. Ray just needs to decide what division to fight in now.”

“Well at middleweight, he would be looking at a Nunn or a McCallum or a Barkley,” Wes said. “And at light-heavy, maybe Virgil Hill or Michael Moorer.”

“Yeah right,” Ike butted in with relish. “He’ll never climb through the ropes against any of those young killers. He’s busy scouring the globe for another bleached blonde, light-heavyweight bum with a mullet that he can coerce into another catch-weight farce.”

“I hear he’s lobbying the WBC hard to try and make this bizarre, 168 pound, super middleweight division a marquee weight class,” Rodrigo muttered in traditionalist disgust.

Leonard defeats Lalonde.
Leonard defeats Lalonde.

“Maybe he’ll finally give Hearns and Duran their rematches,” Tim innocently suggested.

Five of the others, even bookish Wes and serious, old Ernie, burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of young Tim’s naivety.

“Sure Tim,” Tony said when the laughter had finally died down. “Eight and nine years later, when nobody gives a damn anymore, they’ll sell us Leonard vs Hearns II and Leonard vs Duran III. Not even fight fans are that gullible. Duran’s almost 40, for Christ sakes!”

Only Ike hadn’t bought into the hilarity. He sat and considered Tim’s suggestion and then wearily shook his head. “I don’t know, guys,” he finally opened up. “Tim might be on to something. Leonard sure as hell isn’t going to risk a tougher fight for less reward.”

“It’s just like I’ve been telling you boys for ten years now,” Ike concluded. “Sugar Ray Leonard is nothing but a coward and a bum.”

April 2016: After a gap of 20 years or so, the old gang got together this month, the five surviving members anyway. As well as young, unfortunate Tim, old Ernie passed away a couple of years back, suffering from nothing more than a mild dose of gentle old age. They spoke about boxing for they imagined they had nothing else in common and, either way, it was a bit late to find out now even if they had. They reminisced about the Four Kings, of course. Infallible warriors, they agreed. Legends and giants of the ring.

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Hearns and Leonard finally battle a second time in 1989.

“Just like we always said they were,” Ike stated with authority and his four friends nodded along in affirmation.

“Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns were the last of a breed that fell extinct at the end of the 1980s,” said Tony, now mellowed in his autumnal years. “These clowns today aren’t fit to lace their gloves.”

“Agreed,” said Rodrigo. “I don’t know what to make of this current generation of so-called champions.”

“Well, there is just so many of them,” Wes lamented. “Even I struggle to keep up with who is who.”

They chatted into the smallest of the dark hours before dawn and they drank too much beer, rum, whiskey and vodka, as was their wont. But it was only as they rose and embraced and made to leave, that a note of regret was permitted to slip into the proceedings.

“You know what, guys?” Travis said. “Isn’t it a real pity there was no Twitter in our day?”

“Yes sir,” agreed Tony. “It would have been nice to share our knowledge and insight with the world.”

The five fell silent to briefly consider the misfortune of their early birth dates before the inimitable squawk of Ike the barber shattered the moment of contemplation.

“I don’t know about you old fools, but I already got myself on Twitter,” he announced with a toothless grin. “My grandson set me up last year. In fact, only this morning I was on there, telling the world that Canelo Alvarez is nothing but a coward and a bum…”                           — Paul D. Gibson

11 thoughts on ““Sugar Ray Leonard is a Coward and a Bum”

  • May 11, 2016 at 10:15 pm
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    Brilliant read!!

    Reply
  • May 16, 2016 at 8:23 pm
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    Tremendous, enjoyed every word.

    Reply
  • May 17, 2016 at 11:54 am
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    Well done sir. Looking forward to reading more of your writing!

    Reply
  • May 17, 2016 at 3:41 pm
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    Thank you very much for the kind comments on this one – they’re all truly appreciated.

    Reply
  • May 18, 2016 at 5:29 am
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    That was great. Really enjoyable read.

    Reply
  • August 25, 2017 at 5:39 am
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    although a good read, it seems to me there are many many dynamics involved in fights, contracts, mindgames, etc. Leoanrd brawled with duran in the first fight when he did not have to. throughout his career, I think he was anything but a coward

    Reply

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