The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring

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Release Date: 
May 28, 2012
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“a fascinating, illuminating, engaging story of what it takes to be successful at the highest levels. Simultaneously, The Big Fight is a most instructive study of competitive strategy.”

Having realized his dreams—first, to make the U.S. Olympic boxing team and then, to win the gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games—Sugar Ray Leonard, the professional name adopted from Sugar Ray Robinson (one of the greatest ever middle weight boxing champions), by Ray Charles Leonard (named after the legendary musician) expected to convert his victory into real gold. He perceived that the real money was ultimately to be made from pitching products, not from fighting in a boxing ring.

He had no boxing ambitions beyond the Olympics, perceiving little economic prospect in doing so, for he recognized that “Boxing is a poor man’s profession. It always has been and always will be.” Growing up, Sugar Ray Leonard observed talented men who found there was not enough money in professional sports to support themselves and their families. The overwhelming proportion of men attracted to the “sweet science”—including no small number of very successful fighters who earn millions of dollars in the ring—end up destitute. Further, his hands ached from throwing punches.

Since Mark Spitz, after winning numerous swimming gold medals at the 1972 Olympics was rewarded with his picture on the Wheaties box, lucrative endorsement deals, and more, Sugar Ray Leonard reasoned that he could expect the same. No big money came his way, however, for there was no substantive interest in a very talented, young fighter who did not want to fight.

But with his parents facing serious medical bills, Sugar Ray Leonard shifted his strategy to embracing that professional boxing career, following in the footsteps of “countless other blacks who have taken up the sport since the days of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, but have been unable to make enough money to set themselves up for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Leonard writes in The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, a fascinating, illuminating, engaging story of what it takes to be successful at the highest levels. Simultaneously, The Big Fight is a most instructive study of competitive strategy.

Sugar Ray Leonard won five world titles, riches, and fame. He came back from several retirements, and lost only three fights, including two when he was well past his prime and insufficiently prepared, proceeding in both instance with fights after incurring injuries in training that limited his preparation and constrained his power in the ring. Sugar Ray Leonard made and—despite engaging in free spending and serving as, “Ray the bank” to family and friends: buying houses for his parents, his five siblings, and countless others—kept more money from boxing than had any pugilist at the time that he ended his career in the late 1980s.

The subtitle encompassing fights “in and out of the ring”—the place where a boxing match is contested is a square space, with ropes connected to four posts, and termed a “ring”—is most apt. First, Ray Leonard battled drug and alcohol abuse, and too much time with loose women, including the groupies whom, he states, are attracted to marquee athletes—both for the star power and for sexual adventure that they seemingly cannot get from their boyfriends or husbands. Second, the outcome of a boxing match is often significantly influenced by what happens outside the ring. Third, what happens out of the ring is a metaphor for life, in that the present outcome is the consequence of past decisions and their implementation.

Muhammad Ali, who dominated boxing in the 1960s and into the 1970s, was both an inspiration and an invaluable mentor. Pointedly, early on he advised Sugar Ray, ‘”Don’t let the backers own a piece of you.” Applying this counsel and working with his trusted advisor, Mike Trainer, Sugar Ray retained 100% ownership and control of his enterprise. His initial backing was in the form of an interest-bearing loan—quickly and fully paid back from the purse of just his first fight.

Though having only the most rudimentary knowledge of boxing at the outset, his advisor was a quick study, structuring deals and terms far more lucrative than industry norms. As a case in point, rather than compensating his esteemed and invaluable manager, Angelo Dundee, the boxing genius who guided Muhammad Ali to his many triumphs, on the basis of the standard 15% of the fighter’s take, Mr. Trainer structured payment ceilings, $75,000 per fight and $150,000 for a title bout, that ultimately resulted in the fighter keeping an additional million dollars-plus—and the manager receiving a corresponding lesser amount for all the major big payday fights.

Indicative of his prominence and dominance is that for his first fight, he earned a $40,000 fee just for appearing. This unprecedented debut payday dramatically contrasts to the $50 paid to Marvin Hagler—recognized as one of the era’s greatest boxers and over whom Sugar Ray, later in his career, scored his most memorable and satisfying victory—his first fight.

Why did Sugar Ray Leonard dominate boxing in the later 1970s and 1980s, just as did his mentor Muhammad Ali had before him? Why was he so successful inside the ring and out? Certainly, he was skilled, trained hard, and fought valiantly—but so did numerous others. Many factors explain his success: charisma, marketing savvy, receptive and supportive media—especially the prominent sports broadcaster Howard Cosell—strategy, great selection of advisers who engaged in shrewd dealmaking and counsel, and advanced place intelligence.

Pointedly, he explains that early on in his amateur career, he was trained in interacting with the media, which facility he admiringly observed his mentor Muhammad Ali mastering. Mr. Leonard says it best in his book, observing that he commanded such big paydays because “he made money putting people in the seats.” His phenomenal marketing prowess concurrently greatly benefitted his opponents, so much so that Roberto Duran—who overtly disrespected Sugar Ray in their first fight, and of whom Sugar Ray writes was the only foe he seriously wished to hurt—actually thanked him for scheduling their third fight, a rematch that provided a much needed major payday to Duran.

Sugar Ray Leonard’s good looks and telegenic style perfectly coincided with the power shift in sports media from print to television. Whereas once newspapers devoted major space to covering boxing—so much so that the New York Times devoted most of the July 7, 1921 edition to covering Jack Dempsey defending his heavyweight title against Georges Carpentier—by the 1970s television had emerged as a major force in sports journalism. Sugar Ray observed that “another place where he felt quite at home” was national TV, which comfort led to an advantage over certain of his opponents.

Extraordinary performance at the highest standard of excellence in any competitive endeavor comes only as a consequence of phenomenal hard work. Sugar Ray observes that while the fans and media may concentrate on the knockout punch that ends the boxing match, that punch really reflects the cumulative consequence of many prior blows. Those prior blows are possible, in turn, only as a consequence of:

• Research and analysis, for in preparing for his fights Sugar Ray would spend many hours studying the films of his opponents’ prior fights.

• Strategy developed from that study, involving both the style and maneuvering to be employed and also the calculated trainingm involving hard work to develop speed, power, skill, endurance. Sugar Ray ran five-mile road work in boots, ascending Mount Motherfucker to implement that strategy.

• Emotional preparation, as training for combat and strength endurance sports alike largely involves the development of the necessary emotional fitness to sustain the stress of the competition to accompany the physical fitness.

• Coordinating the work and roles of many different people: Angelo Dundee specialized in matchmaking and advising from the corner, while others were more involved in the day-to-day in gym preparation.

• Using to advantage all information, for in preparing for his epic battle with Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard drew on what he had observed as an analyst for HBO broadcasts of the Marvelous Hagler’s prior fights; a tip his three-time opponent, Roberto Duran, passed on to him, after the latter lost a close decision to Hagler: “if you box him, you will win;” and what he gleaned from social visits, as over a number of drinks, Marvin Hagler revealed to the then retired Sugar Ray that he was quite susceptible to bleeding.

• Extreme focus as exemplified by Sugar Ray insisting that when he was sparring, no one would work any of the punching bags or make any noise, so he could be entirely engaged in and undistracted from his work, since Sugar Ray engaged in “sparring to develop the mind.”

• Blending, balancing, and integrating the physical, mental, motivational, emotional, and psychological aspects of extreme competition, including being able to go to a certain zone of intensity and edge.

Similarly, many may concentrate on boxing pay per time unit, converting the performance time into a rate of more than $100,000 or even a million dollars per minute. A fee of $9 million for a fight of 12 three-minute rounds equates to $250,000 per minute. Were the fight concluded with a knockout in three rounds, the pay rate would be a million dollars per minute. Such calculations, however, fail to account for all of the work that goes into the preparation, the large numbers of people involved, and the considerable expenses incurred.

Sugar Ray Leonard excelled in mastering the multifaceted place aspects of his craft. He tellingly relates the criticality of dominating the “psychic space,” especially his opponents’ perceptions and confidence. In this regard, he was a student of and applied some of the techniques employed by Muhammad Ali to “win the fight before the fight.” For his fight with Marvin Hagler, for which he would be bulking up to a heavier weight class, Sugar Ray wore a padded jacket designed to make him appear to be more muscular then he really was at the time. And, during the referee’s introduction for his fight with the much taller Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray jumped up and down so that his opponent could not seize on his height advantage.

Sugar Ray consciously sought diversions in fictive places, maintaining a massive library of TV shows to provide distraction from the tedium, intensity, and fatigue of training. But once he went to the necessary pre-fight ‘focus place,’ whose intensity was so daunting and demanding, Sugar Ray Leonard was both loathe to accommodate any distraction or delay and also less than pleasant to be around. The essence of the “focus place” was aptly articulated by Mike Trainer, observing before a major fight that Sugar Ray looked like a cross between an assassin and the Grim Reaper.

He sought to master the ring, specifically the center of the ring. As part of his preparation for the Marvin Hagler fight, a Sugar Ray loyalist, dispatched to spy on his opponent at his training camp learned that Marvin Hagler always started his sparring sessions by moving to the middle of the ring before the bell rang. When they waged their epic battle, to frustrate his adversary, Sugar Ray made a point of getting to the center of the ring before his adversary, thereby establishing place dominance.

Since Sugar Ray was at his best not as a slugger but as a boxer—moving around, not allowing his adversary a stationary target, staying away from the ropes: which are the place where the slugger can excel—he sought to keep away from the ropes. After losing the first Roberto Duran fight because he fought his opponent’s game—reverting to slugging it out rather than boxing, which was his strength—in the rematch he prevailed partly because the second match was in a larger, 20 foot by 20 foot ring that played to Sugar Ray’s boxing style advantage.

Considering that the three feet in front of the ropes are the places most advantageous to the slugger, while the dimensions within that three-foot circumference favor the boxer, increasing the ring from 19 x 19 to 20 x 20 adds nearly 10% to the total area, but significantly shifts the place edge to the boxer at the expense of the slugger. While the slugger gains some more place to fight in, though the slugger favors a smaller space in which to work, the boxer gains proportionately more space, which in turn facilitates his mobility and makes it harder for the slugger to trap him against the ropes.

During Mr. Leonard’s career, Las Vegas emerged to be the Mecca of boxing, replacing the previously favored Madison Square Garden. Sugar Ray was highly attuned to Las Vegas, commenting, “I was comfortable there.” Las Vegas resonated with his flamboyance and promotional style. Because he was more comfortable in Vegas than were many of his adversaries, he gained a definite place edge.

The Sugar Ray Leonard story of success and its costs is a highly instructive, down and dirty inside account of the realization of great ambition, the manifestation of what Vince Lombardi, the heralded coach of the Green Bay Packers’ professional football team, meant in his observation that “Anything is possible, if you are willing to pay the price.”