While American male boxers washed out in these Olympics, that lack of success wasn’t always the case. Far from it.
Thirty six years ago this summer, a smallish but tough 20-year-old boxer from the tiny Prince George’s County town of Palmer Park burst onto the national scene. In an Olympics in which American heavyweight John Tate fell to Cuba’s unbeatable Teofilo Stevenson, Ray Leonard fought his way to gold in Montreal and the instant fame that triumph and his incandescent smile and winning personality brought him.
Four other American boxers, including the Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, won titles in Montreal, but it was 139-pound “Sugar Ray” who became that team’s ultimate champion as heavyweights Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), Joe Frazier, Joe Foreman had been after the three Olympics of the 1960s. In fact, given the dearth of American gold medalists in 1972 and our boycott in 1980, Leonard was the biggest American Olympic boxing hero for quite an extended period.
“I was so confident that I would win the gold medal,” Leonard — who had fallen short during the 1972 Trials — said in an exclusive interview for this column. “The consensus was that I was too small and inexperienced to beat (Cuba’s Andres Aldama in the final), but my heart and my will pulled me through. I was able to outmaneuver him with my hand speed and my foot speed. He didn’t land too many punches.”
Not many opponents did during Leonard’s pro career that began six months after Montreal and ended in 1997, less than three months shy of his 41st birthday. Along the way, Leonard went 36-3-1 with 25 knockouts and won the title in an amazing five divisions: welterweight; light middleweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight. His bouts with fellow champions Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns were spectacles, in and out of the ring.
“I think my winning the gold medal was pre-destined,” said the 56-year-old Leonard, now a motivational speaker and a Los Angeles area resident. “It was like a platform that gained me worldwide notoriety. The national television exposure with (famed ABC sportscaster) Howard Cosell voicing his opinion and that chemistry we had was kind of icing on the cake, an additional boost for me that made it happen. Without the Olympics, my career wouldn’t have been as big as it was. But I worked hard. I trained so hard. That’s what I tell these young boxers today. You don’t ‘play’ boxing. You have to give it 100 percent and more. Be focused, be determined. There are no shortcuts.”
Oddly, Leonard didn’t plan on a pro boxing career, even after winning gold and even though he thought “it was the best thing in the world” when he had started fighting at 14 at the urging of his older brother Roger, who was always smacking him. Leonard, a member of Parkdale High’s Class of 1974, planned to earn a degree from the University of Maryland and then get a good job.
“When I was 14, a mentor of mine from Palmer Park named Roland Kenner told me, ‘Ray, you have to come through a little different than other guys. You got to speak a little better. You got to present yourself a little better, be respectful,’ “ Leonard recalled. “I looked at him like he was crazy. I never thought I would be a professional fighter. (But) after the Olympics, it was like all of a sudden, ‘Wow! Here’s this kid from the ghetto getting recognized, getting requests.’ It was fun, but it was overwhelming. My dad (Cicero, now 90) had spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. My mom (Getha, now 83) had a heart condition. We had no money. My friend and mentor Janks Morton told me to turn pro to help my parents by making quick money.”
There was also the matter of supporting two-year-old Ray Jr., his son by girlfriend and wife-to-be Juanita. So Leonard turned pro and never looked back as he became one of the world’s most famous athletes.
“There were some twists and turns here and there in my career, but I don’t regret anything, especially the way things have turned out in my life now,” said Leonard, who battled alcohol and drug abuse for a number of years. “I had an incredible journey. My career was nothing short of illustrious, amateur and professional. I’m a blessed man.”
And despite all the millions he earned and the glory he achieved as a pro, Leonard said, “Nothing competes with the Olympics because it wasn’t about money or fame. It was about being there for my country, myself and my family. It was so amazing being in the Olympic Village amongst the best athletes in the world. It was a new world for me.”
And one that he soon conquered.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin