Sugar Ray Leonard is a boxer, an entertainer and a star.
At 59 years old, Sugar Ray Leonard stays busy in Los Angeles with his wife, four children, three dogs, charity work, broadcasting and, of course, golf. We caught up with the man whose ambitions — “I tried to be like (Muhammad) Ali. I tried to be like Bruce Lee. I tried to be like Elvis Presley. I tried to be like Sugar Ray Robinson. I wanted to be more than just a boxer but an entertainer and a star,” Leonard says — led to an illustrious boxing career that includes winning an Olympic gold medal and becoming the first boxer to win world titles in five different weight classes.
Tell me a little bit about the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation?
Well, it’s been what? Six years now. It’s a foundation I started with my wife, Bernadette, some time ago. And the reason being is because, first off my father’s diabetic and I’ve come to see that my friends kids are diabetic. And it seems to be more prevalent among African-Americans, Hispanics and also a result of obesity and what have you. So it was one of those things that really hit home and became personal and we started the foundation with the hopes of raising awareness and raising funds that we could give to certain programs.
We’ve teamed up with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, providing funds that go towards outreach programs so that those kids in inner cities can learn how to eat better. Again, it’s tough, because they have what they have but when it’s family-oriented it has a better impact because they help each other. Show them how to exercise and things that are so simple yet so important in everyday lives. It’s very dear to me.
You’re a motivational speaker as well, explain your “POWER” message.
Well, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, maybe even longer. And my philosophy is POWER — “prepare, overcome, win every round.” Because I’ve always felt that people are fighters outside the ring and the same principles that I have applied to become a champion and a winner are applicable in everyday life. You get knocked down, you need a great corner, all those things that I needed, I needed everywhere, on every platform. It’s been a wonderful journey, if you will, of doing that.
Speaking of winning every round, you beat Floyd Mayweather Sr. Do you think in your prime you could’ve beat Floyd Mayweather Jr.?
You know it’s so funny you mention that. What’s so funny about it, there’s really not a day goes by that I’m not asked about Mayweather and I did beat his father back in 1978. And I was in Vegas a few weeks ago and I was walking to my car and I was walking in the hallway and all the sudden I saw like 20 people walking towards me. I’m like, “What the hell is this?” And all of the sudden, who comes out from the middle? It’s Floyd. And he walks up to me and we stand almost like nose-to-nose.
Like at a weigh-in?
Right. Yeah, exactly. He said, “Ray, in my era, I could beat you.” And I said, “You know what man? In my era, I could beat you.” He said, “I could take you down.” I said, “I could take you down.” He looked at me and said, “You know what? I know you beat my father but this is me.” I said, “Check this out. Like father like son.”
I read that you’re the godfather of Khloe Kardashian. What’s it like being around that kind of nonstop media attention?
You know, when I see Khloe it’s not like that because either we’re at the house or somewhere private. I’m never in the public like that. I’ve known that family since those girls, or those women were girls, were little girls. It’s amazing how they’ve grown. But when I’m around them, it’s always the privacy of our own surroundings.
You’ve been in the spotlight some yourself since your fighting days. You competed on “Dancing with the Stars.” How was that?
You know what man? I would have preferred to fight (“Marvelous” Marvin) Hagler and (Thomas “The Hitman”) Hearns the same night. I’ve never been so scared in my life. I never worked so hard in my life. You know I lost like 15 pounds doing that thing. They say there’s a correlation between boxing and ballroom dancing. No. No, it’s not. They keep their chin up and my chin should not be up. And my shoulders are more rounded and their shoulders are exposed. But it was the best experience. I really had fun.
What was the transition like from fighter to ex-fighter?
That is one of the most difficult things for any fighter. The transition. And it took me maybe, I don’t know, 10 years before I really finally got it out of my system. Because you never say, “I’m too old.” And you always say, “Well, I haven’t had a fight in five years.” I mean, that’s a factor. But fighters, we fight. And unless we have something that’s going to substitute or even take the attention away from what we’ve done, it’s going to be hard. You have to prepare yourself. But preparation is not that easy because there’s nothing greater than raising your hands and being the best in the world.
It’s so seductive. The fame and the fortune — especially if you’re of that marquee level. The fame and fortune is so seductive that you don’t want to let it go. You always believe you have one more fight left in you. And that’s the fault of most fighters, myself included. We think we have one more. And the fact that we train, we train hard. Training is one thing, that’s the easy part. Getting mentally prepared is another. Because we live the life of the caviar, private planes, suites in hotels and then we try to be that hungry fighter, that gladiator, that warrior who has to dig deep and show intestinal fortitude. But you don’t have it like that anymore. You just don’t have it that way. It’s a natural thing that we all lose at some point. We’re competitive but we’re not that competitive.
Has broadcasting and being around the sport of boxing helped fill the void? Where does broadcasting fit into all of this?
For me, where I am today? Fortunately I’m 59 and my birthday comes around every week it seems like. But broadcasting with PBC on NBC, it’s my life. I love the sport. I know the sport more than most. I’ve lived this thing, I’ve sweat this thing, I’ve bled this thing. And to see up-and-coming stars and these young boxers trying to duplicate or emulate or trying to be like you. It’s humbling. It’s very humbling.
What do you do to stay in shape these days?
I still work out. I play tennis. I run. I’m actually sitting in my gym right now. You know what? I love feeling good. I work out. What do they call it? The endorphins? It’s such a feeling of accomplishment. It’s like a cup of coffee in the morning when I work out. You cannot not work out. You have to work out. For us, we train our hearts out for years and then we just try to do nothing one day. And our body is like a machine, like a classic car. You train hard and you can’t just quit. You can’t just not do anything. You put on the weight. There’s a lot of fighters who just do nothing. But you have to work out. I love it. I truly love working out.
Any fitness tips for the average Joe who may not be a former champion?
First of all, it depends on where you are as far as fitness is concerned. I truly believe it’s just about listening to your body, especially if you’re older. But as a youngster, I think you should just do what you enjoy doing. Whatever you do, whatever makes you break a sweat. I think everyone should break a sweat, minimum of five days a week — whether it’s 20 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour. But do something that you enjoy doing, you know what I mean? I love it. It keeps me going. It wakes me up in the morning.
That’s great advice. I’ve seen you on Sketchers ads. Is there a particular type of shoe you wear while working out?
Memory foam. I love that shoe in particular. I’m a Sketchers man. I love what they produce. Class. Everything is class.
Do you have any hobbies outside of working out?
My golf. That is my hobby. That is my therapy. And tennis. It’s my therapy, it’s my hobby, it’s my sport. I love that. I’m a simple man by nature, so it doesn’t take much to make me happy. As long as I’m productive. As long as I’m talking about something that’s important to me, like my foundation. As long as I am promoting and being a part of something, like Sketchers. All the things that I do, I do them with my heart. My foundation is from the heart. Endorsing Sketchers is from the heart. When I speak, I speak from the heart. And when I was fighting, I fought from the heart. Everything I do is from the heart.
Do you have any pets?
I’ve got a pit bull, a miniature schnauzer and a little Pekingese. I love my dogs. I love my dogs big time.
Looking back, what’s your favorite memory in the ring?
Oh my God. I’ve been blessed with so many. The (Roberto) Duran fight. Unfortunately I lost but came back. 1980. The “No Mas” fight. And then there’s Tommy Hearns. We’re friends now. We call each other and try to brainstorm on what kind of projects we want to do together. Hagler. I bump into Hagler every now and then at some sort of Hall of Fame function. He doesn’t really get out as much or he’s not as much in the country. But c’mon, I had nothing short of an illustrious boxing career.
Without question. Those were the days, man. It’s so funny, I look back now and say, “Man!” And I remember everything vividly. I vividly remember moments, even smells, whether it’s the sweat or looking at my opponent in his eyes and he has a look like he’s trying to kill me or trying to knock me out. And I remember those moments, I remember those times, those defining moments and that will be a part of my legacy.
What role does your family play in your life these days?
I’m one of the lucky ones, my parents are still living. My dad is like 93. My mom’s a feisty 86. They live now in Columbia, South Carolina. I just stopped my father from driving last year. It was so hard. Your parents still living?
Okay. Well, I said, “Hey Pops, you can’t drive anymore.” He looked at me with those eyes and said, “Forever?” I said, “Forever. Pops, you can’t drive forever.” Cause it’s independence, it’s his independence. But I’ve been blessed that my parents are still around for so long. You know?
It’s a blessing.
Back in the day, back in 1976 I nearly lost my father. My father had spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. He went into a coma. And that was the only reason I turned professional, was to make fast money. Because I was going to the University of Maryland. But you know, things happen. Things are pre-destined. Things happen for a reason.
I wasn’t just a fighter, you know. I tried to be like Ali. I tried to be like Bruce Lee. I tried to be like Elvis Presley. I tried to be like Sugar Ray Robinson. I wanted to be more than just a boxer but an entertainer and a star. Special. And I worked so hard, every single day. I mean, we’re talking about when I was 14, 15, 16, 17. I had that vision of becoming something. Didn’t really know what it was but I knew it was worth the sacrifice. And it all came to fruition.
That’s amazing. Speaking of being more than a fighter, did you catch any of the Ronda Rousey fight?
Oh my God. Yeah. In fact, I made sure I taped it. She is a beast. She is special. She is different. She’s a machine. She’s such a tactician. She’s so tactical. She’s so strong and she’s so determined. And I love her. I love her. I watched every bit of, what, 35 seconds? Maybe that was too long. Maybe 34 seconds.
It was unreal. How has MMA impacted boxing?
You know they keep saying that. They keep saying that it’s because of MMA or UFC that they’re the ones responsible for taking boxing away from us, or the fans. That’s not true. They both can coexist. They both are kind of totally different sports. It’s very primal and so real and gladiators. It’s heart, guts and intestinal fortitude. And just everything, man. Everything. It’s all those things wrapped into one. And I look at Ronda Rousey and she’s that. You look at her. She’s pretty but she’s dangerous.
That’s for sure. Concussions have become an issue in all sports, not just boxing. What are your thoughts on long-term concussion issues with boxing, in particular?
I think because of the nature of the sport — you are pounding, you’re hitting, you’re traumatizing. When you become a boxer, you don’t think about that. And now it’s prevalent among football players and any physical contact sport, trauma. But I’m sure that at some point they — “they” meaning scientists or whatever — will find a way to minimize or stop any severe or fatal damage that is done. But you know boxing is a poor man’s sport. I couldn’t afford to play tennis or golf or whatever. They were not in my neighborhood. Those things were not available in my neighborhood. Boxing is a sport that I was able to enjoy and take advantage of and become dominant.
I read that you were named after your mother’s favorite musician, Ray Charles. Is that true?
That’s so true, man.
Do you have a favorite Ray Charles song?
He sang “America the Beautiful.” He sang at my “No Mas” fight against Duran. I mean, of all the places for me to meet my namesake. A place where I needed him, needed that additional boost was at the “No Mas” fight. And he sang. I felt confident from the very beginning of the fight. But with him singing, I said, “There’s just no way, no way Duran can beat me tonight. Nobody can beat me tonight.” He sang and he walks over to me and gave me a big kiss and says, “Kick his ass.”
You mentioned golfing. Have you played with any celebrities?
Oh my God, yeah. I played with President Clinton.
Nice. How was he?
We had the best time. Check this out. I’ll quickly tell you a story. I was driving home with my wife and my cell phone rings. Pick it up and my boy says, “Hey Ray, you want to play golf with President Clinton?” I said, “No. I’m busy.” And I hung up. My wife says, “Are you crazy?” I said, “He’s just bullshitting me.” She says, “Call him back.” I said, “Hey, just have them call me at the house.” So I get home and the phone rings and this guy says, “Hello, Mr. Leonard. This is Sergeant Tom Johnson, the President will see you at Riviera at about 3 o’clock.” I live across the street from Riviera, so I had to go.
I went over there, messing around, was hitting some balls, chipping. All the sudden I say, “Goddammit, he got me.” So I’m walking back towards my car and all of the sudden President Clinton comes around and says, “Hey Ray, how you doing?” He said, “You tee off first.” I’m like, “Wha-wha-wha-what?” And I held my club so tight and I said, “God, I don’t call you that often but please don’t let me miss the ball.” I swung and I hit the ball like 250 yards down the middle and I was like, “Holy cow.” I shot my best round. I think I shot 41 on the front (nine). We played like 10 or 12 holes. And he signed my card.
How did President Clinton play?
Uh… Well, he kept taking mulligans.
Any other brushes with greatness?
I’ve had some incredible moments. I was in South Africa, giving a speech and Nelson Mandela was there. And they call my office and ask if I’ll have dinner with him that night. I couldn’t believe it, man. I went to his house and he opened the door and he gave me a big hug and said, “My champion, I love you. But one thing I don’t tolerate is people being late.” I just started sweating, right? I started sweating and then he said, “My photographer should have been here a long time ago.” I thought he was talking about me.
Those are the kind of moments and times that I’ve had because of the success I’ve had in boxing. I mean, how do you get better than Nelson Mandela or playing golf with President Clinton.
What did you and Nelson Mandela talk about?
He said, “You really inspire me, son.” I said, “Sir, to the contrary, you inspire me.” He was a boxer. You know he was a boxer, right? He was an amateur boxer. And I actually gave him my championship belt. I mean, being that man and what he’s dealt with, 99 percent of us couldn’t deal with that.
Incredible. I gave him my belt and I said, “Sir, you are the real champion.” And he put it in his house.