In 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard fought Clinton McKenzie at the Montreal Olympics… Sportsmail brought them back together
21:30 GMT, 30 May 2012
They greeted each other like long-lost brothers and, to the intents and purposes of proper sportsmen who challenged each other to mortal combat in the prime of youth and lived to re-tell the tale, so they are. Brothers at arms.
Sugar Ray Leonard, the baby-faced darling of American boxing, and Clinton McKenzie, a grizzled but treasured memento of the British ring, recognised each other instantly.
Scroll down to watch a video of Sugar Ray Leonard v Clinton McKenzie
Good to see you! Clinton McKenzie and Sugar Ray Leonard meet up agaiin
The sunlit, pastoral calm gracing the
veranda of a golf clubhouse in Southern California is light years from
the rattling tin shed in Canada within which their first, violent
embrace was cheered to the iron rafters. Thirty-six years to be exact.
‘Hey, buddy,’ said Leonard.
‘What’s up, man’ said McKenzie.
They hugged again. For the first time since Jimmy Carter was elected President, since we all kidded ourselves Donna Summer was looking at us when she sang Love To Love You Baby, since Concorde carried its first supersonic passengers to the skies, since petrol cost 70p a gallon and the original Rocky broke box office records.
Genuine, old-fashioned respect. Not today’s nuff gangsta posturing.
With the simple humility of an honest man proud that he won his British title, McKenzie said: ‘Unbelievable to be here. Unbelievable you still look the same.’
To the erudite manner born one of the greatest world champions, Leonard said: ‘I’m glad we have this chance to re-visit our moment in history.’
The chance came courtesy of this newspaper’s build-up for the London Olympics, our expression of the dream which will enchant our capital city two months from now.
Their mutual moment had come in the third round of the light-welterweight tournament at the Montreal Games.
‘Did you think you won’ asked Leonard with a playful slap of the bicep.
‘Oh no, you won all right,’ answered McKenzie, arms waving by way of illustration as he added: ‘You too smooth, too fast.’
Good memories: McKenzie and Leonard relive their fight at the Montreal Olympics
Leonard, grinning: ‘Didn’t you think you might have got a draw’
McKenzie, abashed: ‘No, no. Too clever for me. I knew you’d go on and win the gold.’
‘Come on, Clinton. It was a good fight.’
‘But not close, Ray. Don’t forget I took a standing eight count in the second round.’
‘I don’t forget,’ said Leonard, putting a kindly arm around him.
Nor does he need to watch the video to remind him how he danced around McKenzie en route to Olympic glory, the lightning left jabs and pinpoint right hooks paving the way for the dazzling combinations which staggered him into that count and cemented the victory.
In fact, Leonard is possessed of extraordinary recall of all the vital events in an epic career which catapulted him from Olympic gold to the legendary fights which won him seven world titles in five weight divisions.
‘I remember all the important fights,’ he says, ‘Vividly. In detail. I studied Clinton like I studied every opponent before a fight, amateur and professional. I saw hardly any flaws in him despite his typical, straight-up European style.
‘He was an accomplished boxer and I was ready for a difficult fight. It helped me that on the day he was not aggressive enough. Too passive. Maybe that’s why (unlike his brother Duke) he never became a world champion.’
Champion: Leonard with his gold medal
An unwitting explanation for that came from McKenzie himself when he told Leonard: ‘All the talk in the Olympic village was about this hot, hot prospect from the US. You. I knew I was going in against a future world champion, a future all-time great. It was an honour for me just to box you.’
A mite overawed he may have been but the Jamaican-born South Londoner helped prime Leonard for one of the most impressive triumphs in the history of Olympic boxing. The final pitted the brightest star of one of the finest US teams ever assembled for the Games against a mighty puncher from the amateur boxing power-house of Cuba.
Andres Aldama had knocked out all his opponents on his way to the final. Head-guards had yet to be introduced and Leonard recalls: ‘He wasn’t just knocking guys out, he was sending them to hospital. He was so impressive that people were beginning to wonder if I’d win the gold after all.’
Oh ye of little faith.
Sugar was anything but sweet that evening. He put Aldama to the sword, knocking him down twice and inflicting an eight count in the punishing course of racking up his fifth maximum 5-0 points win: ‘I’ll never forget the shock on his face and disbelief in his eyes the first time I floored him. He was supposed to be doing that to me but I beat him up.’
When he recovered Aldama vowed to win his gold four years later — and went on to do so by beating John Mugabi in the Moscow final.
Leonard announced his retirement: ‘That’s my last fight. I’ve achieved my ambition and I’m going back to college to get an education.’
That decision was not driven by the sexual abuse he suffered earlier at the hands of an amateur coach, which he bravely revealed in his recent book. He was concerned for his physical well-being and felt fulfilled as boxer.
‘It seemed like we were fighting every night in Montreal. Maybe there was the odd day off but really so little recovery time. It was hard. I needed a long lie in a hot tub every night and had to go to hospital for my badly swollen hands.’
Then this still-boyish wonder articulated the enormity of the Games: ‘I’d reached what I felt was my ultimate goal. Winning gold for me and my country.
‘The Olympics meant everything to me. Going through them is like nothing else you will ever experience. For those few weeks you are in another world. At that point I couldn’t see how there could ever be anything better.’
We meet again: McKenzie (left) with Leonard and Sportsmaill's boxing correspondent Jeff Powell
McKenzie, his own memories stirred, became emotional: ‘I loved the Olympics. I loved being with our team (little big man Charlie Magri et al). I loved every minute. Even loved losing to this man.’
Leonard smiled: ‘Hey, how many kids you got buddy’
McKenzie blushed: ‘Six.’
Leonard, hugging him again: ‘See, you beat me at that. Me, four.’ There they stood, the twin pillars of the Games. The triumph and the ecstasy in parallel with the simple beauty of taking part.
Leonard: ‘For me it was gold or nothing. I wouldn’t let anything stop me.’
McKenzie: ‘Of course I was trying to win but I was so proud just to be there, boxing for Britain. Always will be.’
It took a sharp dose of economic reality to jolt Leonard into turning pro.
As a handsome Olympic hero he was expecting to fund his new family and his quest for a degree with commercial sponsorship. But the ad-men did not cometh: ‘I suddenly realised that in 1976 corporate America was not ready for a black athlete.
‘Boxing at the time also carried a stigma. It was brutal and mob-related. There was no place for my picture on the cereal box. But it made me accept that I was pre-destined to be a fighter.’
Boxing clever: Leonard (left) beats Limazov Valbry at the Montreal Olympics
Not that the transition was easy, not even for this genius of the ring: ‘Amateur boxing is all blazing away, throwing punches almost non-stop. As a young pro you have to learn that it’s about selection of punches — throwing the right punch at the right time for the right reason.
‘It’s physically tougher but at the same time mentally more demanding. You need strategy to set up the opponent.’
The most sensational example of that came in the 1980 re-match with Roberto Duran which followed defeat in their first fight: ‘I changed from standing and fighting him to hitting and moving, hitting and moving.’
After seven rounds of ‘pow-voom-pow-voom’ Leonard taunted Duran by pretending to wind up a right-hand bolo punch only to snap his head back with a stiff left jab.
Throughout, he had been tormenting Duran by dropping his hands and inviting him to hit his chin. One of the toughest — but on this night the most humiliated — of fighters turned his back seconds before the end of the eighth and famously told the referee ‘no mas’.
There was talk of a stomach bug but Leonard knew what had happened and had to smile as he said: ‘What he couldn’t really stomach was being messed about. He was a great fighter but I p****d him off.’
Not that he recommends the tactic to aspiring boxers: ‘Sticking your chin out with your hands hanging down is dangerous. High risk.
Gather round: McKenzie (far left) with his fellow boxers at the Olympics
‘Your Naseem Hamed used to do it and I loved how he won that thriller against Kevin Kelley with all those knock downs in Madison Square Garden. But he didn’t have the basics of the game and when he tried it with Marco Antonio Barrera the game was up.’
Leonard also found ways to beat Wilfred Benitez, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns during the golden age of welter-to-middleweight boxing. Sometimes controversially, always brilliantly.
Over lunch in Las Vegas a few days before Ray met Clinton here in LA, we were joined by Hearns’ brother. They reminisced about the first fight, a unanimous decision by which Leonard unified the world welterweight titles.
Then talk turned to the re-match, which many thought Leonard lost but was scored as a draw. John Hearns asked: ‘What did you say to my brother when you whispered in his ear after they announced the result’
Leonard: ‘I told Tommy he won. He asked if I would tell everyone else but I said, “Hell no, it’s not the time”. But I told the world later.’
Hearns: ‘Our family grieved forever after that fight.’
Leonard: ‘Tell them to stop, I love Tommy. Tell him to change it to a win on his record.’
So close: McKenzie (right) lands a punch on Puerto Rico's Ismael Martinez in Montreal
Leonard and McKenzie re-visited not only each other but the galaxy of fights in which one was magnificently engaged and the other watched with admiration from afar.
‘Thank god you didn’t quit after the Games,’ said McKenzie. ‘What a loss to boxing that would have been.’
Later in his career, Leonard made something of a habit of retiring and coming back.
He finally gave up the hard old game for good in 1997, aged 40. McKenzie, a year the elder, hung up the gloves eight years earlier after failing for the second time to win a European title.
Retiring is always a problem for boxers so how do they know when it really is time to go
‘You lose that edge,’ says McKenzie. ‘One day it’s not there. You think you can get it back but you can’t. All over.’
Leonard: ‘The time to stop is when the other guy hits you more than you hit him.’
Do they miss it
‘Yeah,’ says Clinton with a shrug.
‘I don’t miss getting hit,’ says Sugar Ray. ‘But what a time I had. And what a time it was. And what an amazing life it’s given me. I became a celebrity and that’s fine because I enjoy people. I’ve got my foundation which lets me help folk who are struggling. I’m happy. Oh, and I’ve got my golf.’
A warm, generous man, Leonard cut this particular round short as soon as he knew McKenzie had arrived: ‘Don’t worry, Clinton. It wasn’t going well.’
Close friends: Leonard and McKenzie
He plays off 14, but mostly for the pleasure: ‘Never had a lesson. Never want any more sports coaching.
‘I suppose I was always a natural. And I’ve got the plaque to prove I’m not bad on my day.’
That sign, at the difficult Tour Players Championship course in Summerlin, Las Vegas, records his hole-in-one there: ‘They had it inscribed and up on the clubhouse wall before I finished my round.’
That’s fun. But so was boxing, violent though it could be: ‘Muhammad Ali changed the world but so, in our way, did me and Marvin and Roberto and Tommy. We showed that boxing is not only about the heavyweights.’
Leonard accepts that Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are playing their part now but is as disappointed as all of us by their failure thus far to fight each other: ‘Floyd should stop worrying about his unbeaten record. The public don’t give a damn. They want to see the best fight each other.
‘I would give a narrow edge to Mayweather but I wouldn’t bet my house on it because he doesn’t like southpaws and Pacquiao would throw more leather than he’s ever had to face.
‘Don’t be fooled by the trouble Manny’s had with (Juan Manuel) Marquez. Every boxer finds at least one other guy’s style awkward. Even Ali struggled against Ken Norton. In my time, the rest of us had to deal with Tommy being so incredibly tall at the weight.
Would the Money Man and the Pacman have coped with Sugar and the old gang
‘No,’ said McKenzie.
‘Well,’ said Leonard with another smile, ‘that’s always tough to answer but I don’t think so. They’re little guys and they would have needed a step-ladder to reach Tommy.
‘They are very good and have some interesting fights. But we all took on each other. If Mayweather never fights Pacquiao he will have to live with that for the rest of his life.
‘I watched Floyd against Miguel Cotto the other night and it was a nice fight. But do you know what it didn’t have that we had
Our day in the sun was quite magical, too.
McKenzie dressed snazzily for the occasion in one of his zoot-suit throwbacks to the jazz age. Leonard hurried off the course in his golf gear.
McKenzie does not play golf. He continues to trade on his charisma and (still) fast hands at his gym deep in south London, where he is looking for another rising star while offering personal training services.
Their lives took differing paths but now their history is re-joined. It was a delight to watch them stroll together down memory lane. A privilege to share the moment.
Sport as it forever should be. Olympian.