Sugar Ray Leonard Interview
This interview along with 49 additional ones will be in Barbara Terry's forthcoming book "Pro Athlete Rides"
Sugar Ray Leonard is a man who needs little introduction. He is a two time World Boxing Champion. Once winning the WBC World Welterweight and WBA Junior Heavyweight Championships. He is a former Olympic Gold Medalist, winning it all at the 1976 Olympics. He won two AAU Championships, The Pan AM Games in 1975 and three Amateur National Gold Gloves Titles. Forget The Contender, his recent stint on television on ESPN, in the 1980's, Sugar ray Leonard was a full fledged celebrity. He was voted the boxer of the 80's and is considered one of the greatest boxers of all time.
This left me just a bit conflicted as we traveled to his home in Los Angeles to discuss his love for cars. On the one hand I was about to meet a boxing legend which was great. On the other hand, this was the guy that beat down a great boxer, Roberto Duran, so bad, that he quit mid match in the famous 'No Mas' fight. This was a guy, after his career, who is famed for a video of an exhibition where an opponent accidentally glanced his eye and Leonard went into full smack down fight mode, almost turning into a complete other individual. He later explained that instinct took over, as he'd suffered retina damage that basically ended his career. What I expected I didn't know. Would this great boxer be short tempered or cold?
What I got was genteel, relaxed, awesome man. He was so easy to talk to, after a few minutes I forgot who he was. To his kids he's Papa. He's a devoted husband to his wife and, surprise surprise, into the green movement. All in all, he was a fascinating man. Let’s get right to this interesting interview!
What do you miss most about boxing?
It's so amazing for me and other people. You don't appreciate things until they're gone, for me, I miss my friends, I don't miss boxing, I miss the camaraderie. Being around my friends and family, when that comes to an end it's like... wow...
It's very unique that you say that, because a lot of athletes from other team sports, like hockey or football, some of them are retired, some of them are getting ready to retire, my question to them is always: Number 1, what are you going to do with yourself and number 2, are you going to miss it? They always tell me, the team sports guys, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, the camaraderie and my team mates. That's what they talk about, it's interesting to hear you say the same thing because boxing is--
Boxing is individual, although, there's a team concept because you need a great corner, you need a great trainer you need a great prep man, you need all of these things, but it's more of a Mano a Mano, it's more you versus me. I miss that time in training camp, and Dad and Mom cooking meals. It was one big family.
Right, being around you, being a part of it.
Right, right, yeah, exactly
Operating as a team sport instead of a one on one?
Exactly. Now that I look back on it, it was team, you know, the trainers were more than just training me, they were rooting for me with their spirit and with their belief so it was awesome.
Well, for you to be successful you really had to have that foundation and that belief. If you look at the real successful athletes it seems that they had the strong push from their parents and it seems like your parents totally supported you and gave you that necessary foundation.
Yes, I started boxing when I was 14. When people look at me or meet me, even my wife, she can't believe that I was a fighter because I don't look mean.
You don't look mean. (I laugh because it's true but he was a World Champion boxer, he chuckles as well).
Right, I don't have that edge or that air, I just don't, so when they show a documentary about me, I look and I can't connect the two, I mean, I am who I am. This is truly the way I am, and I remember eight months ago they honored me at The Riviera Country Club. It was me, my wife and my kids, Daniel was 7 at the time and Camilla was 11, and they showed old highlights of my career, The Olympics, some Championship fights and I was watching my kids through my peripheral vision, and they'd look at me and they'd look up there at the screen because they couldn't believe it because to them I am Papa!
Right, they were having a hard time putting two and two together. (We both laughed hard at the thought of his wide eyed son puzzled at his father mauling so many hapless opponents, doubt they'll ever break curfew or get smart with dear old Dad!)
It was the cutest thing ever; it was so cute because they just could not believe that was their Papa! I asked my kids, do you know what Papa used to do. They said, 'you were a boxer, you won the Olympics!' And that's what they know.
But they don't know the visual of the sport itself.
No they do not, which is good.
Yes, maybe it is a good thing!
They were so cute when I saw them trying to figure this thing out.
What was your first car?
I wish I had that car. It was a dark blue 1967 Chevy Nova. I bought that car myself; I paid like $300 for the car. I worked at The Glen Arm Recreation Center, I saved my money and I saved my money and I bought the car. I remember, back then, years ago, you could change the gas pedal for a metal foot so I did that because it was the cool thing to do, and then I changed my gear shift into a little ball.
Like a colored ball?
Yeah, and I had a little crucifix on the rear view mirror. That car was mine. I was so proud of that car. I bought that car with my own money and I cherish that car, it was so cute; I wish I had it again.
Where do you think it is now?
Jesus Christ. I was looking for it.
You should find the VIN number and find it; it might still be in 1 piece!
You know what? My little car was so resilient; I bet it's still around. I might put an APB out on it.
(We laugh.) See, so you have a passion about that first car. You bought it with your own money.
Oh, I did. It was my car. I bought it with my own money. I saved and I kept it clean.
Can you drive a stick shift?
Yes, not well but I can because I had my toys. I've had the Porsche, what was it called?
Yes, and I had a Maserati, a Ferrari, I had all of those little toys, and what happened, I never drove it, because I'd leave it in the garage and the battery would die. I had some wonderful cars.
How many cars do you think you've had during your lifetime since that first pride and joy?
Oh...I think...I would say...50 cars, yes, 50.
The ones that you have now?
The one that I drive that I cherish and that I love the most is my Smart Car. I love that thing. My wife bought it for my birthday. She surprised me. Because I looked at the Mini-Cooper. One day I saw a car zooming past and I said to myself, what-the-hell-is-THAT? Because it looked like a golf cart. Like a baby's shoe. A large baby's shoe. Because I remember, we then looked for one, it was hard to find, they were tiny cars and were hard to find. We drove around looking for them and asked and the manager said these cars are hard to come by. There's a six month or a year wait sometimes. He said he'd keep an eye out and if something came up he'd call me.
After that my wife pursued it, so my birthday came around, and we went to Orange County being as my wife’s mom lives there and my wife told me that we needed to go by my wife’s mom’s house to pick up something. We went by her house and she raised the garage door and I walked in the garage, and the garage is large but I didn't notice it sitting behind the trash can, because it's so small!
It's so tiny she parked it parallel. And I thought, this is my car! And so I keep it in Laguna so when we go to Orange County I always have a car to drive. Then I decided that I am going to bring this car to L.A.
And I drove it and I got off of the exit and on the freeway I was driving like 50 miles an hour because it was so little I thought I could get blown away by a tractor trailer. So I tried it at 60, and I tried 70 then here comes a big truck flying by and the car didn’t move from the burst of wind from the big truck and that surprised me.
Right, it's stable, it hugs the road, it's so low, I got it to 80, I wasn't supposed to but I did it because this is my car. I love it. I drive it every day.
What tires do you have on it; maybe the tires helped the car hug the road?
The same tires that come on it, Muffin tires, they're cute tires. The tires are no bigger than on a golf cart but I love the car.
Do you get very many miles to the gallon?
35 easy, maybe more.
Okay, so you have the smart car and you have?
We have a hybrid, and that car is for the kids. We take the kids to school in that car because my kids, and all kids I think, they don't believe in keeping a car clean. That's their car. But I love driving my car because going a long distance with the family it is a great car. The thing about it is, you don't know the damned thing is on because you can't hear it. So sometimes I start it twice not knowing it is already started. But it's a great car. I love that car.
So you're all about the green movement.
No question, yeah, and I have 2 cars and 2 vehicles that I think benefit the environment.
Would you ever buy another gas guzzling vehicle after owning the hybrids?
No, that's my car. The hybrid is my car, and my smart car.
If you had a dream car that you never pulled the trigger on, what would that be, I know you had the Maserati, the Ferrari and you had the Porsche, was there anything that you ever saw from someone you knew and you said, 'you know, I like that car,' but you never got it?
The only car that comes to mind was an Astin Martin, that was a cool car. And did James Bond drive that car?
Yes, the D.B. 9.
Yeah, yeah I liked that. Those were the only 2 cars that come to mind. But I'm kind of past that point now; I'm a smart car and hybrid type of person now.
Okay. What's your favorite color combination when it comes to cars?
I like black on black. I like blue with a cream color interior. I like white. My wife doesn't like white; she thinks it's too showy but that is why I like it!
Yes, my Smart Car is white. I like my color combination of my Smart Car, white with kind of red interior.
What kind of music do you listen to when you're cruising down the Freeway?
My kids laugh at me. I like the oldies but the Goodies. I like Luther Vandross.
Hey, Luther's good. He's not an oldie!
My kids listen to some of the rap, they like TI?
Everybody's into TI, a lot of the athletes, TI, TI!
I like Johnny Gill, my music is Johnny Gill.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, who did he start out with?
Johnny was a solo artist and then he joined up with New Edition.
Yes! Then he went on his own again
Johnny is a very, very close friend of mine and my family. Johnny will come over here and sing and the kids love it. The kids love his voice.
Yeah, he has a good voice.
Oh, a great voice.
Have you ever had any accidents, any car accidents?
Yes, 2 accidents to be exact. I was in one back in the late 60's, with my Mom. My Mom was driving me and my 2 little sisters to South Carolina. What happened, it was late at night and she had just gotten off work but wanted to get on the road and then fell asleep at the wheel and we went off the road and into the Ravine. It was frightening. It sends chills up and down my spine when I think about it. You know how big the old jacks were back then?
Well the impact of the crash, when we hit the ravine, sent the jack straight through the trunk. Back through the seat into the car. Through the back seat, and I had just grabbed my little sister and brought her up front.
And it was awful.
I then had a head on collision in a Laredo Jeep. What happened, I took a left turn and this guy went like, BOOM, straight into me. I had contusions and bruises but you don't feel the pain until like, 2 days later.
Right, like the inner bruising that you get from the impact?
Yes, it was really, really horrible.
How old were you when that happened?
I was probably in my mid twenties.
And the first accident?
I was in my teens, 16 or 17 or maybe 18.
Do you have any favorite road trips that you like to take; I know you said that you have relatives that live in Orange County but any driving trips that stick out in your mind?
Yeah, my wife and I like to go to Santa Barbara. It's a nice drive down the coastline. It's so beautiful. We also think a beautiful ride is to the Montage along the PCH. That's a nice ride, and we know the owner of the Montage in Beverly Hills, he is a friend of ours. It is fantastic. Beautiful.
Do you prefer cars or trucks? Do you think you lean towards one or another?
Well, I do like both. It depends on what the activity or trip is. If it's a long trip I like a big truck. If it's just around the corner I like the smallest car I can find or a convertible.
Like your Smart car.
How fast have you ever driven in a street car on the freeway?
The fastest I've driven, I drove 100 MPH one time because I wanted to see how it felt. I was scared of the police and it is not smart to drive that fast but I had to do it. I did it, for like 2 seconds, and it was, uhm, I don't know if it was a revelation or I got some big feel out of it but I did it. I had to do it.
What's your favorite car? Obviously you had a passion for your first car. Between your first car and the ones that you own now do you have one that you wish that you would have kept?
You know, I truly loved my 280Z.
Oh my gosh, I am a huge 300ZX person, those are great cars.
There was nothing like it and I remember when I first had that car. To me, from my memory, when I got in that car especially at night, the dashboard lit up like a cock pit of an airplane.
Yes, those orangish lights.
All the lights and all the whistles. I loved that car.
It was a great car. Have you seen the new Nissan GTR?
No I have not.
I was always a huge 280ZX and 300ZX fan myself, then they stopped making them in 1996, then they come out 6 years later with the 350ZX. Which was like an Audi TT or the Infinity coupe so the Nissan ZX no longer made a statement. The ZX always made a statement. Now they have the GTR and apparently it has more horsepower than a Ferrari 360. Looking back, it's a simple type of a car. Back in its day and time it was the sexiest car on the road.
No question. It threw its hair back and said look at me baby.
Yeah, I'm in a Z!
It was so cool. To be honest with you I liked driving it at night because of that orange light.
Well, you're cool at night too! It always made such a statement it was a head turner. With the T-Tops. Was yours an automatic or a stick?
It was an automatic. It was so cool.
What color was it?
I'm thinking it was a cranberry, like a reddish cranberry.
Did it have burgundy cloth?
It was burgundy! I also remember that car so well because when I took it to the car wash it smelled great and was clean, it smelled great, like a strawberry!
Thus ended my interview with one of the nicest, most personable men you'd ever want to meet. Hard to believe his punch could literally kill a man. He was so at ease and so gentle, I could see how his kids would have trouble putting 2 and 2 together when it comes to their Papa and his profession, yet this man was an Olympic Champion, Former WBC World Welterweight and WBA Junior Heavyweight Champion. He was the boxer of the 80's and was world famous, chatting with the likes of Johnny Carson and Howard Cosell! He could have been the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time. He had the fastest hands and the quickest feet.
Here is one of the greatest boxers of all time, wealthy and affluent, a happy family man who drives a smart car! Go figure. Sugar Ray is certainly one of a kind, very happy with his life, where he's at in the world and who he is. And he was so incredibly nice; I'll never forget this interview. Frankly, he was so easy to talk to and so relaxed and generous, I forgot all of that after a few minutes and listened to the man tell stories, when we got to the questions about the cars, it was just like I was talking shop with an old friend.