NEW YORK--There was no need to wait for Sugar Ray Leonard's latest retirement speech.
World Boxing Council super-welterweight champion Terry Norris took the decision completely out of Leonard's hands at Madison Square Garden last night, flooring him twice on the way to an overwhelming, 12-round decision over the ring legend who was recently voted "Fighter of the Decade."
Leonard made it official moments after the decision was announced, congratulating Norris and telling the crowd of 7,495: "This is my last fight. It's a changing of the guard.
"Norris was quick, too smart. He's a young Sugar Ray Leonard. He's going to get better. If he maintains his focus, he'll be around a long time."
Said Norris: "It's a sad victory. He was my idol. He still is my idol."
Leonard had hoped to make a smashing debut at the Garden after waiting 13 years to take his place among such ring legends as Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.
But Norris, 23, left the Garden crowd spellbound, bringing back memories of Leonard in his prime.
Fighting with great composure, he dropped Leonard in the second round and again in the seventh and repeatedly had the six-time world champion in trouble.
In the end, Leonard, his face covered with welts and bruises, looked like a fighter who had hung around for one too many bouts.
The three judges gave Norris an overwhelming vote of support. Barbara Price favored the champion from Campo, Calif., 120-104, giving Norris every round. Syd Rubinstein voted, 119-103, and former fighter Billy Costello scored it 116-110, giving Leonard the third, fourth and sixth rounds.
Leonard, three months shy of 35, had retired four times before, dating back to 1976 when he won a gold medal in the Olympic Games and announced, "My journey has ended."
But it was really only the beginning. He turned professional the next year and went on to win six titles in five different weight classes from welterweight to light-heavyweight while beating the likes of Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and, in his greatest triumph, middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.
Leonard was out of the ring for more than two years after suffering a detached retina in 1981. He came back to beat journeyman Kevin Howard in 1984 and retired again, only to return for his date with destiny against Hagler.
He had been idle for over a year since winning the second of his three meetings with Duran, in Las Vegas in December 1989. Leonard said he was through with the "seniors tour" and ready to test his mettle against a young, gifted champion like Norris.
Boxing insiders felt Leonard (36-2-1) could use his guile and experience to frustrate the heavy-fisted Norris, who was relatively unknown, having engaged in only two major fights on national television.
Raised in Lubbock, Texas, Norris followed his father and older brother, Orlin, into the ring. He first challenged for the super-welterweight (154 pounds) title in 1989, but was knocked out in two rounds by Julian Jackson. He got another title shot less than a year later and scored a first-round knockout over John "The Beast" Mugabi to capture the crown. His only previous defense was an unimpressive decision over Frenchman Rene Jackquot.
But Norris (27-3) entered the ring last night a 2-1 underdog. He had insisted he would be too quick and too strong for his challenger, but hardly anyone listened.
Leonard had suggested the magnitude of the event would overwhelm the young champion, but Norris showed unusual poise and ring presence in dominating the fight from start to finish.
He first shocked the crowd by dropping Leonard with a smashing left in the second round. In his eagerness to end it, he charged across the ring and landed a right while Leonard was sprawled on the canvas. He was warned by referee Arthur Mercante Jr.
The bell sounded, but Leonard took a mandatory eight count and wobbled back to his corner.
Norris out-punched and out-boxed him consistently before scoring another knockdown in the seventh, this time with a crushing right. Again, Leonard popped up quickly and managed to hold Norris off in the final 10 seconds.
Leonard tried to salvage the fight, battling Norris inside and looking to land one telling punch, but the strategy backfired. Norris was too quick and too strong, and, when necessary, cleverly danced out of harm's way.
He left no margin for error on the judges' score cards, and the crowd heartily applauded the powerful performance of a rising superstar.
In his post-fight farewell, Leonard said: "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I have had a very illustrious career. It took this kind of fight to prove to me it was no longer my time."