WASHINGTON -- The first role Sugar Ray Leonard played in his acting career was as a gravedigger in Home Box Office's "Tales From the Crypt."
"They had me die quick, but I did it well," he quipped.
But Leonard, the professional boxer, is even better than Lazarus at rising from the grave. How many times has he retired from fighting, only to mount yet another comeback? Is anyone counting?
Five years ago, he grabbed the ring microphone in Madison Square Garden moments after being whipped by Terry Norris and announced: "This is my last fight. It's time to call it quits. I knew it wasn't there from the start my talent, my mind. It's time to find something else to do with my life."
He has tried -- acting, announcing, marketing and even managing young fighters. He regularly plays golf and tennis and practices karate, but apparently nothing can fill the void left by fighting.
And so, Leonard, a 40-year-old grandfather, is preparing to fight Hector Camacho in Atlantic City, N.J., on Feb. 28 for Camacho's International Boxing Council middleweight title.
Leonard has been through this comeback shtick many times -- after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, after undergoing retinal surgery in 1982, after a shaky return bout against Kevin Howard in 1984, after his upset of Marvin Hagler in 1987 and after his farewell address at the Norris debacle.
Today, Leonard says quitting the last time was a premature decision.
"No one knew anything about Norris," he said yesterday at a news conference.
"I had to sell the fight myself and try to convince people this kid can fight. Reporters were telling me, 'This kid can't fight. He's got no chin.'
"Plus, I was going through a rough divorce with Juanita. We'd been together for so long, and it was hard thing to shake.
"Making the weight  killed me, and then I had an injury to my ribs that I never disclosed. It kept me out of training couple of weeks. I'd always got by before, but not this time."
Now remarried and living in Santa Monica, Calif., after leaving Potomac, Md., Leonard said his life has a sense of direction. Still, some of his friends apparently can't fathom his desire to step back into the ring.
"To a lot of white-collar guys I know, it's inexplicable," he said. "My wife, Bernadette, won't let any of her women friends in our house who are pessimistic about my comeback. And these corporate heads I see at the golf course say, 'Forget the training, Ray. Play another round.' "
There was a public clamor for his comeback in 1987 against Hagler, who had dominated the middleweight division. But Camacho, known more as a flamboyant boxer, hardly poses the same threat to Leonard's well-being.
"Yes, Hagler was a major stimulus for me," said Leonard, who has earned more than $100 million in his career.
"But Camacho's the most charismatic guy out there outside of Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones. His controversial personality made me click.
"This is what I do best. This is what I enjoy. And you wouldn't understand unless you're a fighter."
One of those fighters, heavyweight Mike Tyson, didn't endorse Leonard's comeback. Tyson recently said: "I don't believe when a guy is 40 or 45, he decides to fight for the love of it. I think it's egotistical or they miss all the attention."
When he had moments of doubt about coming back, Leonard -- a champion in five weight classes from 140 to 175 pounds -- sought the counsel of George Foreman, who became heavyweight champion again at 45.
"George told me: 'Ray, do what your heart tells you to do. If you listen to all these other people, you'd never do anything.' "
But Leonard is not looking past Camacho to possible bigger paydays with the likes of Felix Trinidad or unbeaten Jones, who assumed Leonard's mantle as the best pound-for-pound fighter.
"I can't look past Camacho to future fights. How can I? I'm too old, remember?" said Leonard, landing the first jab.
Pub Date: 11/19/96