Sweet, sour Once sugar-coated, Leonard's image has taken beating, but will Norris?


NEW YORK -- Is there anything about Sugar Ray Leonard you don't know or are curious about at this juncture?

I didn't think so.

So let's just slide by all the psychoanalysis about why, at age 34 and with an eight-figure bank account, he's still fighting . . . the stuff about him making his Madison Square Garden debut at this late date . . . or a rehash about how his popularity has taken a nose dive the last few years.

Sugar Ray is going into the ring against WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris because he's a fighter. Fighters fight. He enjoys it.

Maybe, as he says, the fact he never appeared in the Garden created "a void in my career." More than likely, it's a business deal, pure and simple. The promoter of record is Ray's man, adviser Mike Trainer, who claims Leonard will get at least $4 million and Norris will get about $900,000.

As for why he's no longer regarded as the all-American boy, consider:

Fans grow weary of bogus retirements which, in Leonard's case, number four (at least).

Fans get their backs up when a fighter is given something he doesn't deserve (the draw decision in the second fight against Tommy Hearns) . . . or begin to feel the only reason a guy is fighting is because of the money (the Duran III bout).

Then, there's the second postulate of longevity -- just about everyone wears out their welcome, and Leonard did it with the way he jettisoned many good people over the years, as well as his sometimes blatant self-centeredness.

OK, the fight you might be watching on Showtime cable tomorrow beginning at 10 p.m. could be a goodie. The ingredients, alias contrasting styles, are there.

Leonard, the cagey boxer, master of all the tricks, trying to wake up the echoes for the umpteenth time, taking on the willing, young (23-year-old) puncher whose time may or may not have arrived.

After several years of performing on the so-called "Senior Circuit" -- Marvin Hagler, Hearns, Duran -- Ray says he wants to see how he stacks up against the young guys. Norris, 26-3 with 15 knockouts, is a pretty good choice as the opponent in this experiment because of his experience (or lack thereof).

The kid's most prominent fights and his title give little indication of how he'll do faced with this assignment. Julian Jackson, a fearsome puncher, flattened him in a couple of rounds, but it took four whacks and he was up at the count of five when it was stopped. He gained his belt by taking out John "The Beast" Mugabi in one heat.

"Big-fight experience could be a problem for me," Norris admits.

Sugar Ray, naturally, will attempt to exploit that. He will attempt to make the scene resemble the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, overtime in the NCAA championship game and arrival of the news that the end of the world is due in five minutes.

All along, Leonard has been chipping away at Norris' confidence with assessments like, "He doesn't like body shots. He's never been hit by combinations. He drops his hands. He telegraphs his right hand. When he's gotten hit, he's been rocked."

Leonard was once Norris' idol and the man he patterned his style after. Norris has worked up a mad for Leonard by telling himself Ray has put the hold on divisions between 150 and 168 pounds for too long. "I'm tired of him coming back," Norris says, "and I think everyone else is fed up, too."

Of course, Norris is confident: "I'll be able to out-endure more. I think I can burn him up and take him in the later rounds. He doesn't have the foot speed anymore. His experience isn't going to stop a good right hand."

Before you run off thinking Leonard is the 154-pound version of Leon Spinks, be advised that a month ago word crept out that Ray was being whacked around pretty good by his sparring partners. This is an age-old ploy to drum up interest in the fight because only family members and his manager, Cowboy Joe Sayatovich, are aware who Terry Norris is.

In his final serious gym session Tuesday, Leonard unleashed a hook that had the catchee wondering which way the truck went. Another age-old ploy to get people off the wallets and headed for the box office to witness possibly the swan song of one of the all-time champions.

Early indications were that fans weren't backed out into traffic on 7th Avenue clamoring for tickets. Just two days ago, the ticket count read 4,712 sold, about 25 percent of what the Garden holds. The hope is 10,000-plus show up if only to save Sugar Ray's conviction that anything he puts his name to is a guaranteed success.

Besides the "awe factor," something that might work against Norris is his conviction "I can punch with Hearns," who, recall, decked Leonard twice in their last fight. Norris has fought 29 times with 15 knockouts. In his first 32 fights, Hearns was unbeaten with 30 KOs. Take heed, Terry, you are no Hitman.

Once again, Leonard is suggesting he may not be around too much longer. "I know my career is coming to a halt," he says. Better to have used the word end, Ray, halt sounds much too final.

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