"Looking back, I can offer no defense for my conduct. I was wrong, and I have to live with these sins, and the ones to come, every single day."
- Sugar Ray Leonard, from The Big Fight
If you have ever lingered in the company of reporters who'd been around during his heyday, you would sometimes hear tales of Sugar Ray Leonard’s wicked, wicked ways. The stories typically involved Leonard and his henchmen creeping around in the early morning hours of some city, usually Las Vegas, trolling for drugs and nasty ladies. The picture that emerged of Leonard was of an insatiable party animal, and a bit of a rube, the sort of character Budd Schulberg might’ve written about to describe the pitfalls of success in America.
As amusing as these anecdotes were, they had the believability of Bigfoot sightings. The sources were suspect, for by the end of his career, long removed from his days as the grinning Olympian who had charmed us all, Leonard was pegged as a huckster, a creation of television. Still, you wondered if the stories were true, and if Leonard was just another athlete with no regard for anything but his own lust and appetite.
In Leonard's new book, The Big Fight, My Life In and Out of the Ring, (Viking, $26.95), Leonard admits to being a cocaine user, an alcoholic, a womanizer, a terrible husband and father, and a self-absorbed egomaniac. He surrounded himself with bloodsuckers that siphoned money from him, usually to pay for their own drug habits. He kept these losers handy because they gave him the attention he craved. Praise, it seemed, was nearly as addicting as any of the narcotics mentioned in The Big Fight, which feels like an apology for a life badly spent. It's also Leonard's way of telling those gossipy old writers that they didn't know half the story.
Between the fall of Muhammad Ali and the rise of Mike Tyson, boxing's spotlight shined brightest on Leonard. His ascent coincided with an unprecedented boxing boom, which included an explosion of television coverage, and the rise of Las Vegas as boxing’s new epicenter. The precocious kid who had covered his pimples with makeup and practiced smiling, hit upon a master stroke when he followed a buddy's advice to speak slowly, creating the smooth persona that made him a hit on Madison Avenue. As his star soared, every Leonard bout became a major media event. He thrived in the glow of the go-go Eighties, his ever increasing paydays reflecting the “greed is good” sensibility that defined the era. Most believed he'd retire from boxing with no problems.
But Leonard never found his niche outside the ring, drifting from one unremarkable gig to another. It wasn't until his first wife filed for divorce that the darker aspects of his life were made public.
According to The Big Fight, Leonard spent those lost years like a bored rock star. He kept a loaded .38 in his house and shot out TV screens when he was angry, just like Elvis. That Leonard was never caught in a major scandal may be his most underrated achievement. There were many close calls, but he was blessed with a cat burglar’s ability to stay one step ahead of the cops.
Still, the most surprising thing about The Big Fight is that it exists at all. In Leonard's day he left many nosy reporters swinging at air, so adept was he at slipping personal questions. Yet, here is his new book, available alongside those of Tatum O'Neal, Rob Lowe, Steven Tyler, and dozens of other aging stars that have scored book deals thanks to their spotty personal lives. But not only has Leonard entered the arena of gross public exhibitionism, he seems to be saying, I will show you how low a man can go.
Like most things in boxing, the tradition of the fighter’s memoir dates all the way back to John L. Sullivan. The Life and Reminiscences of a Nineteenth Century Gladiator was published shortly before Sullivan's 1892 bout with Gentleman Jim Corbett in New Orleans, a quick money tie-in to one of the biggest American events of the era. By the time the book was published again by Proteus Books in 1980, re-titled I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, many fighters had published autobiographies. The demand for first-hand tales of a famous fighter's life was strong enough that the likes of Jack Dempsey and Mickey Walker published two in their lifetime. These old time memoirs, though, were often filled with chapters on the unlikeliest of subjects; Jack Johnson's 1927 memoir included a section on the importance of bananas.
In 1952, Rocky Graziano kicked the door off the hinges with Somebody Up There Likes Me, his frank description of his years as a street thug. The book earned radiant reviews, was made into a popular film, and inspired more autobiographies that read like howls from the gutter, including Barney Ross' No Man Stands Alone, Floyd Patterson's Victory Over Myself, and in more recent times, Johnny Tapia's excellent Mi Vida Loca. But sometimes this new frankness bordered on repugnant, such as when Jake La Motta and two friends published the literary equivalent of a belch and called it Raging Bull: My Story.
La Motta was so bold in his revelations that a critic from The Milwaukee Sentinel wrote, "The reader is forced to wonder how much La Motta has exaggerated." La Motta’s book wasn't a big seller, although it provided the loose basis for a film that was eventually regarded as a classic. La Motta wrote a second book, Raging Bull II. It didn't sell well. It wasn't very good.
Fighter autobiographies still appear often thanks to the self-publishing racket, although mainstream publishers occasionally get involved. Regardless of who publishes them, most contemporary memoirs are awful. Fighters aren’t writers, and the ghosts hired to help are usually deadline journalists uncomfortable with anything longer than an 800-word column. The books also feel dumbed down, as if publishers suspect boxing fans read at something below high school level.
Leonard's book is better than most, but it has problems, too. For one thing, his boxing career is so familiar that Leonard’s recounting of it reveals nothing new. Also, Leonard's co-author Michael Arkush writes in such a breezy manner that the chapters lack drama.
The book's initial blast of publicity stemmed from Leonard’s disclosure that he’d been molested during his teen years. Some critics scolded Leonard for not naming names, while others even suggested Leonard was lying, which proves the old cynicism about Leonard is still alive. Leonard has said he didn't write the book to embarrass anyone, but to achieve catharsis. He told CNN in a tearful interview, "I had to get that out, because it was killing me inside. I was hurting big-time for 37 years."
Sex abuse is not a subject brought up casually, not in Leonard’s time and not now. The fighter who had practiced giving interviews in mirrors was certainly not going to chat with Howard Cosell about the deviant old men in his past. Neither could he go to his Palmer Park gang and talk about it, for there was a part of Leonard that felt he’d “done something wrong,” characteristic of an abuse victim. In one of the book’s rare moments of insight, Leonard wonders if some of his fury in the ring was a result of subconsciously wanting to punish his molesters. Indeed, a few of Leonard's whirlwind finishes were eerily evocative of Emile Griffith pummeling Benny Paret in their third contest, a bout known for the homosexual innuendos surrounding it, and its catastrophic ending.
Still, readers looking for a survivor’s chronicle of sexual abuse will be disappointed, for most of The Big Fight is devoted to Leonard’s drinking and womanizing. The final chapters race by. He marries again. He goes to AA. He's at peace. It is a happy ending, but it feels as if Leonard simply wanted to end the book and move on.
Confessing may have been liberating, and many will consider the book a brave act, but confessions are easy compared to self-examination. There’s no real attempt on Leonard’s part at examining what may have caused his appalling behavior. Instead, Leonard writes, “I am not a psychologist.” This spares him the grueling labor of self-assessment.One senses that he wrote the book before he had the vocabulary to fully explore the issues of his earlier period. But he also may have held back because he’s concerned about how he sounds to his old Palmer Park cronies.
Leonard mentions in The Big Fight that he was often accused within the black community of “acting white.” As if to wipe out his old image, Leonard infuses The Big Fight with more rough language than we’re accustomed to hearing from him. He also assures readers that he’s given plenty to African-American charities, and claims to have been uncomfortable around white people. These comments occur often enough to make the undertone of Leonard’s life clearer, and much sadder. His life could be interpreted as the story of a young black man who abandoned his roots to succeed in the white world, but just as his journey began he was traumatized by perverts, forever marking him with such deep unhappiness that not even his greatest victories could soothe him. He turned to drugs and alcohol, and nearly killed himself. It is the stuff of German cinema, or Theodore Dreiser novels. He is a tragic figure.
The Big Fight doesn’t feel tragic, though. Leonard, at heart, is a shrewd man, a cautious man, and he wasn’t likely to produce the sort of epic book his life deserved. He prefers to communicate in carefully considered sound bytes. Maybe that’s why The Big Fight feels slight. Leonard and Arkush could’ve written a weighty book about race and fame and the American culture. Instead, they gave us an episode of Celebrity Rehab.
Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to THE RING.