By Paul McNicholls
On a rainy Saturday afternoon my Dad and I would settle down to watch boxing. Through many of the fights I didn’t know who to watch more, the boxers or my dad. He would flinch, duck, feint and parry as he watched the fight. His instinctive twitching and ducking was a hint that he had fought a bit himself.
My Dad had been ravaged by the Second World War, thinking about it now he probably had undiagnosed post-traumatic disorder. He was often withdrawn, morose and in impenetrable dark moods. But when he watched boxing, he became animated and alert and would recall stories of his boxing in the army.
The rain drummed down on the window and I would alternate my attention between amusement at my Dad’s shadow boxing, my toy soldiers on the carpet and the Saturday afternoon boxing on ITV (I think). Then Sugar Ray Leonard showed up.
A beaming smile and graceful, cat-like movement, he was lean and potent; Sugar seemed to me unlike any other boxer I was watching in the late 70s. As soon as I watched him I felt certain, in only the way seven year old boys can be certain, that here was the best boxer in the world.
I witnessed the finesse, speed, precision and beauty in a boxer I had never seen. But it was more than his skill and competence, it was also his enjoyment; he oozed a confidence that raised him above his competitors. Not the smug confidence of false pride, but a glowing, luminous confidence of a man absolutely at home with his craft, masterful and indulging his mastery. I was spell bound.
I’m guessing now that what I experienced then, must have been what older men had felt when they first saw Ali glide around the ring, and perhaps even older still the fans who had the privilege of an earlier Sugar.
My Dad was not slow to remind me about the first Sugar Ray. He had watched and adored him and like many he heralded Robinson as the greatest ever, but for me watching Sugar Ray Leonard was an unprecedented joy, the accuracy, guile and the implicit ease of his movement and execution I found mesmerising.
There are certain sportsmen and women who transcend their sport, that possess qualities that elevate them from their peers, Ali, Federer, Pele, Jordan and others who possess what can only be described as a presence, something undefinable that emanates from them. Leonard was such a man.
It is no coincidence that Ray Leonard was one of the four kings; an era of boxing where there was more at stake than mere victory and reward. These men fought for honour, valour and legacy; qualities today’s post-Mayweather generation find hard to grasp. The urge to risk everything, to pit yourself against the very best, this is not just the desire to beat your opponent but to conquer yourself. What a glory it was to witness these duels: the “No Mas” controversy, the split decision win over Hagler and that draw with Hearns; of course there was no controversy as far as I was concerned.
Leonard was the only one of the four kings to beat the other three, inflicting Duran’s first defeat at welter weight and only his second defeat in twelve years (the other coming against Esteban De Jesus, eight years before Leonard’s fight) and not just any defeat, to make Hands of Stone quit in the manner that he did. He then inflicted Hearn’s first loss and Hagler’s only loss.
This was an iconic age of boxing, sculpted from the courage, will and the fearlessness of the protagonists to risk everything and an era I am forever grateful that I was able to witness, albeit through the speckles of our old black and white T.V.
After the match, my father and I would spar with open hands. He would parry and block my unrestrained attacks and cuff me playfully on the head. Boxing was one of our few ways for this father and son to connect, a small but vital window through the shadow that war casts upon a man.
Through boxing we found a shared passion, and in boxing Sugar Ray Leonard lit up the sport, a fire undimmed but sadly missed.