PALMER PARK -- Six years ago, Dan Sherry was in a gym here helping Sugar Ray Leonard prepare for his light-heavyweight title bout with Don Lalonde. During a sparring session, Leonard caught Sherry, then a 19-year-old amateur, with a body shot that doubled over the Canadian middleweight.
But Sherry returned the next day to absorb another pounding, convincing Leonard that the teen-ager had a future as a professional.
Now 26 and a veteran of 25 pro bouts, including encounters with super-middleweight champion Nigel Benn and former 160-pound king Chris Eubank, Sherry (21-4) challenges Baltimore's Vincent Pettway (35-4) for the U.S. Boxing Association junior-middleweight title at the Baltimore Arena tomorrow night.
"The first time I actually got in a ring with Sugar Ray was up in the Poconos," he said. "I was awe-struck. Here he was faking the bolo punch and doing that showboating shuffle, and here was this green kid trying to concentrate on keeping his hands up, throwing a proper jab and wondering if his trunks were on backward.
"I got to watch Sugar Ray work day in and day out. It taught me how to act like a champion in and out of the ring," said Sherry. "He had a great work ethic. A week after beating Lalonde for his fourth world title, he was back in the gym, keeping himself in shape."
But Sherry's biggest fights came after ending his association with Leonard and his manager, Mike Trainer. He is now advised by former Leonard associates J. D. Brown and Ollie Dunlap and trained by Bernard Roach at the Sugar Ray Leonard gym.
"By my count, I've had at least four pro trainers -- Roy Jones Sr., Pepe Correa, Dave Jacobs and now Roach. . . . It shows I must be very coachable," he said, laughing.
After winning his first 16 pro bouts, Sherry took a major step up in class against two of boxing's heaviest hitters, Eubank and Benn.
The match with Eubank, in February 1991, is listed as "TL 10."
"That means a technical loss," Sherry said. "In the 10th round, Eubank head-butted me. He did it so hard, it knocked a couple of my teeth loose, and a piece of one tooth got stuck in my windpipe. I had trouble breathing, and, fighting in Eubank's hometown, they didn't waste any time raising his hand."
Against Benn a year later, Sherry was boxing well early, "then I made a fatal mistake in the third round," he said. "I let my guard down for a second, and he slipped a right hand in on me. I don't remember being hit that hard before, but I still beat the count. I begged the referee to let me continue, but he stopped it."
But these setbacks haven't soured Sherry on boxing.
"Boxing was in my blood. My father, Bryan, was a top-flight amateur and also promoted fights. My older brother, Bill, was a Canadian middleweight champion."
Sherry developed into one of Canada's most gifted amateur boxers, losing only 12 of 253 bouts while winning several national titles. He joined current World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Lennox Lewon the Canadian national team.
Meanwhile, Leonard and Trainer were managing Canadian middleweight Shawn O'Sullivan, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist. Their ties with O'Sullivan led them to Sherry.
With far less fanfare, Sherry has endured as a pro and again finds himself within sight of a championship match after whipping Victor Davis in February.
"I know Pettway is the mandatory for [International Boxing Federation junior middleweight champion] Gianfranco Rosi," said Sherry, who has campaigned in three weight classes, 154 to 168. "If I beat him, I ought to get the shot at Rosi. I can't ask for a better chance than that."
Who: Vincent Pettway (35-4, 28 KOs), Baltimore, vs. Dan Sherry (21-4, 9 KOs), Hamilton, Ontario
What: For Pettway's U.S. Boxing Association junior-middleweight title
Where: Baltimore Arena
Promoter: Stuart Satosky
When: Tomorrow. The first preliminary bout will begin at approximately 7 p.m.
Tickets: $40 ringside, $30 reserved, $20 general admission. Call (410) 481-SEAT.