Book Review: Sugar Ray Leonard Pulls No Punches in the "The Big Fight"

July 27, 2011

Sugar Ray Leonard's  recently released autobiography, "The Big Fight," chronicles the life of one of the greatest boxers of all time. It also provides a surprisingly candid and introspective look inside the mind of a championship athlete.

It is surprising not because we didn't know that Ray Leonard was far more flawed than the wholesome image the media sold us in the 1970's and 1980's - few boxing fans remain unaware of Leonard's battles with alcohol and drug addiction - but because the Leonard we knew from that time seemed obsessed with how the public perceived him.  Leonard not only liked that nearly everyone found him articulate, noble, and lovable, but seemed to need that approval.

Part of what is fascinating about "The Big Fight" is how willing Leonard is to discuss, in an unflinching and critical manner, how arrogant and egotistical he became as a result of the public admiration.

For example, Leonard does not make excuses for his inadequacies as a husband and father. Leonard abused drugs and alcohol, slept with numerous women, and made little time for his children.  He acknowledges that both his ex-wife Juanita and his children from that marriage have every right to be disappointed in him.

In "The Big Fight" Ray Leonard isn't afraid to discuss the costs of his boxing career on his family or acknowledge that even his noble motives, such as his desire to turn professional to help his ill parents pay medical bills, weren't mixed with a selfish desire for fame and fortune.

Leonard even reveals that he was sexually abused as a teenager, and how painstakingly difficult it is for him to publicly discuss such incidents in the book.  Such a level of self-examination is rare in famous athletes, but Leonard's articulate voice, now turned on himself, is the exception.

Further, Leonard's honest approach doesn't stop with himself but is applied to the people in his life.  For example, legendary trainer Angelo Dundee is given credit for his work in the corner on fight nights, but Leonard doesn't hesitate to criticize Dundee's overall work ethic as a trainer.

According to Leonard, Dundee had little interest in the actual training or strategy before a fight and would only be available a week or two before a fight.  Leonard also notes he heeded Muhammad Ali's advice to choose Dundee as his trainer, as Ali had done, because Dundee was connected and had "the right complexion."

Similarly, Leonard recalls an encounter with notorious promoter Don King when King told Leonard that Mike Trainer, Leonard's white financial advisor, couldn't be trusted and would always still think of him as a "nigger."  Leonard exploded and told King to "Shut the fuck up!" before pointing out that King had more white attorneys working for him than anyone. 

Leonard further goes on  to express indignation that his "blackness" was ever questioned by some because of his mainstream popularity and success. Defensive? Perhaps.  But honest nonetheless.

Of course, for the boxing fan, the most fascinating stories in the The Big Fight surround the actual fights in Leonard's boxing career, particularly his encounters with Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, and Marvin Hagler.  Leonard's retelling of the psychological gamesmanship before some of his most famous bouts is perhaps one of the more entertaining and revealing aspects of the book.  For example:

1.  Before the first Duran fight in 1980, Leonard acknowledged he was actually disturbed by the boos of the crowd in Montreal.  He was also thrown off by Duran's outright hostility towards him and succumbed to Duran's "machismo" tactics despite repeatedly being told to "box" by Angelo Dundee.

2. Leonard was advised by several people, including Muhammad Ali, not to clown around too much before the second fight with Duran as it would bother the judges.  Yet during the bout Leonard remembered the advice of his drug-addicted brother to "embarrass" Duran - a tactic he used to get Duran to infamously quit.

3. Leonard bounced up and down before meeting Tommy Hearns in the center of the ring before their 1981 bout in order to make Hearns question whether Leonard was taller than he imagined.  Leonard believes this actually worked to his advantage.

4. Leonard told Marvin Hagler to act more "professional" after Hagler was late to a promotional event before their 1987 bout.  When Hagler apologized, Leonard was convinced it displayed weakness.

5. Leonard expresses regret - for showing concern to Tommy Hearns about a death in Hearns' family the day before their 1989 rematch - and believes it indicates he was not mentally prepared for the fight.

"The Big Fight" is a good read for any sports fan who wants to learn about one of the iconic sports figures of the last 50 years and Sugar Ray Leonard deserves credit for his honesty and openness in sharing the details of his journey to stardom.

Manish P. Pandya
Staff Editor for

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