Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard still carries around today that megawatt smile that endeared him to fistic fans all over the world. That smile melted the hearts of Americans as he fought and won a gold medal for his country at the 1976 Olympics.
That same smile helped generate millions of dollars in endorsement fees for Leonard as he climbed the boxing ladder in comet-like fashion on his way to welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight titles. But beneath all of the glitter, hidden behind all of the fame and riches, and under his charismatic flashbulb smile, Leonard was a man secluded in his own private agony.
Being sexually molested was not an easy thing for Leonard to talk about. Being sexually molested twice as a young man was an almost unforgivable burden to carry around for Leonard, especially for a youth who had aspirations of becoming a boxing champion someday. So he kept quiet about this private invasion for decades.
As he rose to international fame, Leonard lived in quiet pain once he was removed from the glare of the public’s eye. The secret he kept hidden away from the public has haunted him for years. The burden of carrying of around this inescapable nightmare eventually became too much for him bear alone.
Leonard has not been able to escape the past. Those two heartless and cold incidents wouldn’t let him forget the pain. The shame of being sexually molested carried a stigma he wasn’t able to share with anyone for a long time.
His status as one of boxing’s all-time greats wasn’t enough to break him out from his mental prison. Being celebrated as a boxing icon didn’t carry enough weight to release him from his emotional hell.
But much like the way Leonard learned to dispatch opponents in the ring with rapid precision and cunning intellect, the International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee found a way to conquer those suppressed demons. He’s talking about it.
By talking about what he endured, Leonard has effectively taken the stranglehold off of that burden controlling him.
“The sexual thing…it controlled me for thirty years. It’s one of things that you don’t talk about, a guy doesn’t talk about, and fighters for sure don’t talk about,” Leonard said in a 2011 interview with Dennis J. Freeman. “It haunted me. It bothered me for all of those years. Boxing was my safe haven. Boxing was my escape from those incidents.”
After years of wrestling with anguish, athletic glory and surviving alcoholism, Leonard has found healing in sharing his story in his autobiography, “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.” The book chronicles just about everything one needs to know about Leonard and his storied boxing career.
“The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring,” spotlights Leonard’s rise as a hotshot Golden Gloves titlist to Olympic champion and America’s darling to the much celebrated boxing wiz as a pro where he beat the best of the best, including Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.
Leonard will be out and about with “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring” at the 17th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles later this month. The book also highlights Leonard’s personal struggles to overcome alcoholism and narcissistic attitude about life at times.
But the revelation of being molested as a teenager by an Olympic boxing coach and then by a community businessman is a stunner.
For years, Leonard kept quiet out of fear, shame, embarrassment and an unwillingness to derail his promising boxing career. Today, Leonard is relieved to be able to talk about the issue now without having real repercussions affecting his life. After watching child star Todd Bridges (Willis, Different Strokes) open up about being molested as a child, Leonard said he decided to come clean about his traumatic experiences.
The more Leonard talks about how his innocence was abruptly snatched away from him by those two close male acquaintances as he was making a name for himself in the boxing world, the less painful it has become. However, the act of being sexually assaulted as a young man still carries its injuries.
But Leonard, who won championship title belts in five weight classes and became the first boxer in history to make $100 million in purse earnings, gets a little more comfortable each time he talks about those two horrific encounters.
“You’re never totally healed,” Leonard said. “I’ve moved on. It doesn’t impact me as much. It was a part of my life. It’s not my life. It only comes up when I talk about it. Each interview that I’ve done it feels a lot lighter. When I first talked about it, I got a little emotional. I know what it means. I know what it represents. And I don’t let it control me.”
Regarded as the greatest showman boxer since the iconic Muhammad Ali made his flamboyant presence in the ring, Leonard found himself controlled by other vices. Alcohol was the main culprit that contributed to the destruction of Leonard’s first marriage and nearly wrecked his second. It also helped cause a somewhat disconnect between Leonard and his children from first wife, Juanita, something he regrets.
“The only regret I really have is when I hurt my wife. I hurt my kids,” Leonard said. “The mistakes I’ve made only made me a better person. The only regret I have is when I hurt them. I hurt people I cared for. You learn from your mistakes.”
One of the lessons Leonard has learned is to not to take anything or anyone for granted anymore. Now back in the public’s eye after his stint on “Dancing with the Stars” and working as a consultant for the movie, “Real Steel,” Leonard has gotten a reprieve on living life the right way, thanks to second wife Bernadette.
As far as the alcohol thing, he’s been clean and sober for a while. But it’s still one day at a time for the former champ, who credits Bernadette’s unyielding support for giving him uncompromising inspiration to stay on the right track, Leonard said.
“That is something that is an understatement,” Leonard said. “From day one, she showed me something in her that was so pure, that was so real. When I met her, I was falling. I was drinking more. I had stopped the drugs by then. I was drinking heavily, just trying to mask all of my emotions. Piece by piece, she was really, really giving me the confidence of being a better person.”
I write about sports, racial and social justice, culture, and everything else in between. Beat writer for the Rams, Chargers, Lakers, and Clippers. Part of the inaugural Associated Press Sports Editors Diversity Fellowship class. Howard University alum.