A LAST HURRAH? Leonard answers call of the ring


Former light-heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, now resembling super-heavyweight George Foreman, recently dropped in to watch Sugar Ray Leonard train for his fight with World Boxing Council super-welterweight champion Terry Norris at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

"Hear you're thinking about making a comeback," said a smirking Leonard, glancing at Muhammad's bulging waistline.

"Yeah, I think about fighting every morning," Muhammad said. "I think about running and sparring, too. Then I eat a big breakfast and climb back into bed."

Leonard laughed louder than anyone else. How many times has he retired, promising never to return, only to come back to the gym, preparing for yet another fight.

Everyone tries to plumb his mind, wondering why a man of 34 who has earned more than $105 million with his unique ring talents and can live luxuriously off the interest on his municipal bonds, still would be fighting.

Ferdie Pacheco, NBC's fight analyst, said: "The most virulent thing in life is a standing ovation. Once you get one, you've been bitten. Reason and intellect go out the window. Ray is very bright, but ego has clouded his intellect."

Added veteran trainer Eddie Futch, who was with Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes when they mounted futile comebacks: "They love to fight. They don't start out knowing they'll be champ, but they still take their lumps. The lure that attracted them in the first place is still there, the roar of the crowd. Once you've tasted the wine, it's hard to put it down."

"Why? Why? Why? That's all I ever hear," Leonard said. "You can't understand unless you've fought yourself and tested your skill and courage.

"I think people are crazy who sky-dive or drive racing cars over 200 mph. That's inconceivable to me. But those same people probably think I'm crazy for fighting.

"It's really simple. I'm doing something because I love it, and I do it well. I'm not back for the money or the glory. Why shouldn't I fight? If I beat all the so-called monsters, why can't I keep on fighting?"

His ex-wife, Juanita, watched him try to walk away from boxing several times.

He first tried quitting after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games. He again talked of retiring in 1981 after unifying the welterweight crown by knocking out Thomas Hearns. In 1982, a detached retina kept him out of the ring for more than two years. But it would not be forever. Even the embarrassment of being knocked down by journeyman Kevin Howard in 1984 was not enough to stop him.

"For Ray, there was always one more fight," she said before their divorce was final. "He went through terrible periods when he was retired. The love for boxing was beyond what anybody can imagine. He wasn't satisfied with his life not fighting. His fight life was his life. That's why he is still fighting."

Throughout his career, Leonard had spoken with regret about the damaged images of boxing greats Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, who fought long beyond their primes. Leonard said: "The public respected my intelligence in and out of the ring. If you tarnish that, people hold it against you. I won't do that for any price."

But he regarded the challenge of beating Marvelous Marvin Hagler as his personal Mount Everest, and could rebut any arguments the nay-sayers offered.

"Hagler was the ultimate challenge," he said. "I felt I had been cheated of the best years of my boxing life. Until I fought him, I was denied making history."

Leonard has put the legends of the senior circuit -- Hagler, Hearns and Roberto Duran -- behind him. These days, with his dwindling entourage, Leonard has to psyche himself to generate the same adrenalin that carried him to his stunning victory over Hagler.

But it will be Terry Norris, a talented, but obscure champion, Leonard will be fighting at the Garden on Saturday night, not a larger-than-life Hagler.

"Ray is still fighting because he hasn't found anything else to really challenge him," said Mike Trainer, a Maryland attorney and financial adviser who turned Leonard into a boxing conglomerate.

"He's tried working as a fight commentator, but he became bored by it. He talks about becoming an actor, and I think he'd be a great one. But I don't think he'd have the patience to redo the same scene a hundred times. He's too restless. Fighting is still in his blood."

Ollie Dunlap, Leonard's chief confidant and traveling companion, has known the fighter since he first turned up as a teen-ager at the Palmer Park, Md., recreation center.

"I can understand why he is still fighting," Dunlap said. "It's for the same reason Nolan Ryan is still pitching, Arnold Palmer is still playing golf and Ottis Anderson is playing football. They're all great competitors who love their sport.

"Who says 34 is too old to fight? Did they say that to Ray Robinson and Willie Pep in the '50s? I know I thought Ray should retire after the last Hearns fight [a controversial 12-round draw in June 1989 in which Leonard was knocked down twice].

"But that wasn't the real Ray in there. I didn't know he was having all those domestic problems. Ray keeps a lot of things inside him. His mind wasn't on fighting. But now I see the fire in his eyes again."

Leonard said he is more motivated for Norris than his bouts with Duran, Hearns and Hagler.

"My motivation now is not losing," he said. "I'm in the twilight of my career. I want to make a great showing in my first appearance in the Garden, and I don't want to hear critics say I hung around too long.

"Everything holds more significance for me now, knowing this could possibly be my last fight. I value each and every time I step in the ring. I'm more economical and analytical in the ring. To me, Norris is what I was 10 years ago. He's young, talented and arrogant. He thinks he can beat the world. I've got to keep him in his place. I've got to teach him to respect his elders."

Fight facts

Who: Sugar Ray Leonard (36-1-1, 25 KOs), Potomac, vs. Terry Norris (26-3, 15 KOs), Campo, Calif.

What: For Norris' World Boxing Council super-welterweight title, scheduled for 12 rounds.

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York.

When: Saturday, main event, 10 p.m.

TV: Showtime.

Tickets: $350, $250, $150, $75 and $50. Many seats available.

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