The opening segment of a forthcoming autobiography by Sugar Ray Leonard
runs counter to the cunning style he used in winning boxing championships in five weight divisions more than a quarter-century ago. It is more like hearing the bell, rushing to the center of the ring and being hit with a straight right hand.
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Sugar Ray Leonard in Pasadena, Calif., in 2006.
Most fans of Leonard remember him for his sweet smile and lightning-fast hands, as a transcendent and breakout celebrity in a brutal profession. But by Page 36 of “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring,” to be published next month by Viking, Leonard has mentioned his cocaine use, growing up in a home with alcohol abuse and domestic violence, luckily surviving a car wreck with his mother at the wheel, almost drowning in a creek as a child who was unable to swim, and fathering a son at 17.
Two pages later, Leonard delivers the book’s
bombshell while indirectly addressing a growing concern in the sports industry at large. He reveals publicly for the first time that he was sexually abused as a young fighter by an unnamed “prominent Olympic boxing coach.”
Leonard writes that when the coach accompanied him as a 15-year-old and another young fighter to a boxing event in Utica, N.Y., in 1971, he had the teenagers take a bath in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts while he sat on the other side of the bathroom. They suspected “something a bit inappropriate” was occurring but did not want to question a strong male authority figure.
Several years later, Leonard describes sitting in a car in a deserted parking lot across from a recreation center, listening intently as the same coach, said to be in his late 40s, explained how much a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics would mean to his future.
Leonard was flattered, filled with hope, as any young athlete would be. But he writes: “Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life. I didn’t scream. I didn’t look at him. I just opened the door and ran.”
He adds that when he first decided to discuss the incident in the book, which is written with Michael Arkush, he offered a version in which the abuser stopped before there was actual contact.
“That was painful enough,” Leonard writes. “But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah’s show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt.”
Through his publisher, Leonard, who turned 55 on Tuesday, declined to comment for this article, saying that he would begin doing publicity for the book in June. But several people who were close to him when he was routinely banking multimillion-dollar purses for title bouts with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler were taken aback when told of what he has revealed in the book.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard that, and I’ve known Ray since he was just a kid,” Dave Jacobs, who was Leonard’s first trainer as an amateur and later served as assistant trainer for many of his professional fights, said in a telephone interview. “He never talked about that to me and no one in the group ever mentioned it, so I assume he never talked about it to them, either.
“But if that incident did happen, I feel sorry for him in that part of his life and for having to carry that around with him.”
Angelo Dundee, who achieved fame as Muhammad Ali’s trainer and later became the head man in Leonard’s corner, said he knew very little about his fighter’s personal lives and preferred it that way.
“Ray never mentioned anything, but I never mingled with anything to do with a fighter except fighting,” Dundee said from his Florida home. “You never wanted personal stuff getting in the way when you sent a kid into the ring. And as far as I could see, Ray was as mentally tough as they came.”
As the president of HBO Sports, Ross Greenburg was involved in the television negotiations for many of Leonard’s fights and employed him as an analyst during Leonard’s retirements, which turned into sabbaticals. Greenburg said he was aware only of Leonard’s drug and alcohol use, which was made public in 1991 when Leonard responded to a report in The Los Angeles Times
culled from records of his divorce from his first wife, Juanita.