“What’s most beautiful about boxing,” novelist Colum McCann wrote, “are the lives behind it. They’re so goddamn literary.” That could be jacket copy for The Big Fight, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s cursory yet deeply confessional autobiography (written with Michael Arkush). Replete with episodes of childhood abuse, adultery, violence, drugs, and second chances, it lends vulnerability to a fighter whose footwork and head fakes, not to mention his patented bolo punch, made smoother, stronger opponents look clumsy and dazed. “At first I didn’t see the point of beating up another human being,” he says of his first tries at boxing as a kid in Prince George’s County. “What drove me was the power it instilled, the sense that I was in control instead of being a victim.”
The book is peppered with tidbits that may leave you scouring YouTube for footage from his greatest fights. On a Hawaii vacation in 1980, between his humiliating loss to Roberto Duran in Montreal and their infamous rematch in New Orleans, Leonard shadowboxes in front of a hotel mirror: “Closing my eyes, I felt my hands go faster and faster. I opened my eyes. They were alive in a way they never were in Montreal. I was Sugar Ray. They wanted another crack at Duran.”
This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.