Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book review: The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring by Sugar Ray Leonard

Last Friday night's conditioning class at Universal was disgustingly hard; 90 minutes of torture. When it was all over and I'd come home, showered and eaten, I didn't even have the energy to sit at my computer. So I migrated over to the couch to get more horizontal and started channel surfing. How fortunate that I stumbled upon "The Voice Versus Sugar Ray Leonard", a one-hour interview conducted by excellent fight sport broadcaster Michael "The Voice" Schiavello.

The interview I watched entranced me. Sugar Ray Leonard was before my time, his glory days being in the 80s where I was still a child. He's obviously a mainstream celebrity, someone that I'd heard of, but I can't recall ever watching any of his fights either at the time or on replay. So this interview was truly my first significant exposure to him.

The first thing that surprised me was how young he looks. He's 55 but looks 40, even in unforgiving HD. And he was eloquent! Weren't old, retired boxers supposed to be traumatized brain-dead buckets who could barely formulate a thought? Sugar Ray isn't eloquent in the sense that he was a gifted motormouth crafting beautiful sentences like a prime Muhammed Ali, but in that he was able to express his emotions and tell a great story with clarity. In the interview I felt he articulated great insight in his career and his sport of choice.

And so, while watching this interview, I immediately decided that I had to learn more about this man. At one point during the interview, Schiavello holds up a copy of Leonard's book and I basically hit pause, found the book on Amazon and downloaded it to my Kindle. And proceeded to spend the entire weekend reading it (which is extremely rare for me and my miniscule attention span).

Needless to say, I enjoyed this book immensely. It is incredibly candid. Brutally honest. Leonard speaks so openly about so many things that so few people would talk about in their autobiography. He puts to paper things that I don't think most people would even admit to themselves. And I don't even mean things like divulging publicly, for the first time, that he was sexually molested as a teenager. And not just things like infidelity towards his wife and the mother of his child. It's the open and unfettered access to his thoughts about these events. It's not just that he slept around and lied to his wife. It's that he admits he had no intention of stopping even though he knew it was killing her. He admits very frankly to his selfishness. It's not that he writes about his brothers and closest friends constantly hitting him up for money, but rather the resentment he felt towards them for doing so. He admits to caring far too much what others though of him. It is such an incredibly intimate and honest look at a man stripping himself bare before you via the written word.

Through his writing it is apparent -- though not explicit -- that for as large as Sugar Ray Leonard's ego became, it is certainly an extremely fragile one. Throughout the book there is a undertone of defensiveness. He seemingly wants to set the record straight about even the most minor of things. It seems as though he still cares a bit too much about what his public thinks.

And of course, it a book about a fighter, there are some great insights into the fight game. But very little time is spent talking about right hand leads or left hook counters. Leonard talks a lot about the psychology of the fight game. He believes that psychology -- and seemingly, not much else -- lost him the first fight against Roberto Duran and won him the second one. He speaks constantly of being in "the zone". He talks about how he knew, before each fight, whether he is going to win or lose based solely on the look of his own eyes in the mirror. He spoke of tricks and ploys that most people would consider pointless and silly, like wearing a suit with shoulder pads to press conferences to seem bigger, or making fun of opponents in interviews. Typically when people overemphasize psychological warfare in sports, I roll my eyes. I've always been the type of hyper-rational, practical guy who believes that in the end, it is mostly fitness and technique that wins. But usually this type of thing tends to be said or written in a contrived manner, as though celebrating the fighter mindset in some over-romanticized or overdramatic way. When Leonard writes it, you can tell it is purely what he believes, and is once again, just totally honest.

In summary: It's not the greatest story ever told, but certainly one of the best-told. And it isn't because it's the greatest prose, either. It's one of the best-told stories because Sugar Ray gives you a level of honesty that so few athletes, cultural icons, or even regular people, will ever give you.

Buy it on Amazon:


  1. He still lost the Hagler fight, though.

  2. Have not seen it yet myself, so can't comment. Will put it on the to-do list for today.

  3. Putting aside both brain damage and physical trauma (see, say, NFL retirees), as I understand it the single best predictor for health in old age is lean body mass. Being big and strong means you age better.

    Now, I think we can all agree it'd be optimal (for aging well) to a) build a MMA body and b) never use it in anger...but that's beside the point.

  4. @rutchick: Having seen it, I have it 117-114 Leonard.

  5. How would you have rated the fight if you had just read Hagler's autobiography?

  6. Hm. If I recall (it's been a few years) I had it even after 8 (1-4 L, 5-8 H), 9th for Hagler, 10th even (if 20-point must existed, this is 20-19 H), 11th for Leonard (close though, would be 20-19), 12th for Hagler. So 115-114 in the 10-point must.