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Sugar Ray Leonard

by Steven Case and Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library, 2010, 2014

17 May 1956 -

"Sugar Ray Leonard," photograph by Reggie Bibbs.  Originally posted to Flickr, presented on Wikpedia.  Used under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0.Ray Charles Leonard, known as the boxing champion "Sugar Ray" Leonard (after the champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), was born on May 17, 1956 in Wilmington, North Carolina to Getha Leonard and Cicero Leonard, who boxed in the Navy.  Named after Ray Charles, Leonard's parents reportedly wanted him to become a singer, although as young boy he preferred comic books to sports or music. 

On his way to earning a Gold Medal in boxing in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal at the age of twenty, Sugar Ray Leonard developed rapidly after joining a Wilmington boxing club in the early 1970s at the age of fourteen. Although he would go on to win an astonishing five titles in five different weight divisions facing such well known opponents as Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Donny Lalonde, and Marvin Hagler, he began as a lightweight and won a Golden Gloves Award in 1972.  By the mid-70's he had a place on the U.S. team after losing his first bid in 1972.

After his 1976 win in Montreal, Leonard maintained a busy competitive schedule and began to amass a sizeable fortune, winning prizes of more than a million dollars a fight.  Common to many professional fighters, his successes rose and fell for a variety of reasons, including drug and alcohol addiction and severe injuries such as a detached retina, and he went in an out of retirement a number of times into the 1980s and 1990s. In one famous episode in 1987, he came out of retirement to fight Marvin Hagler as a middleweight.  Sugar Ray Leonard won the title in a split decision in the match and then retired.  He came out of retirement again a year later to fight Danny Lalonde as a heavyweight for the World Boxing Council title and in an attempt to win his fourth and fifth class titles to beat Hearns to that distinction. Leonard ultimately won in both classes, but behind Hearns who won his fifth title first.  

He had a remarkable career of 36 titles, including 25 knockouts, leading to his induction in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. He is second only to Mike Tyson in prize earnings. Following final retirment from boxing, Leonard accumulated a number of film and TV credits as both an actor and producer.  He acted in an episode of the TV series Half & Half, a number of episodes of L.A. Heat, an episode of Tales from the Crypt, among others, and he was featured on Dancing with the Stars in 2011. He was cast in a number of films including the action thriller Riot, and produced a number of shows including the TV series Sports Center: The Century'Greatest Athletes. Leonard has also appeared as a fight commentator and motivational speaker. In 2011 he published an autobiography with Michael Arkush The Big Fight: My Life in and Out of the Ring (Viking Books).

Leonard was one of seven children.  In 1980 he married Juanita Wilkinson, with whom he had his first child in 1973. They divorced in 1990 after having two children.  He married Bernadette Robi, a model, in 1993.  

Weight divisions and winning championships:

Light Middleweight
Super Middleweight
Light Heavyweight


1972  Golden Gloves Lighweight Championship (defeated Hilmery Kenty)

1973  Nationa AAU Light Welterweight Championship runner-up (lost to Randy Shields)

1974  National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Champion (defeated Jeff Lemeir)

1974  North American Championship Gold Medal (defeated Robert Proulx)

1975  National AAU Light Welterweight Champion Gold Medal (defeated Milton Seward)

1975  North American Championship Gold Medal (defeated Michel Briere)

1975  Pan-Am Games Light Welterweight Gold Medal (defeated Victor Corona)

1976  Sumer Olympic Games, Montreal: Gold Medal, Men's Light-Welterweight (Team USA) (defeated Andes Aldama)

1979  North American Boxing Federation Championship (defeated Pete Ranzany)

1979  World Boxing Council, Welterweight Champion (defeated Wilfred Benitez)

1980  World Boxing Council, Welterweight Champion

1981  World Boxing Council Light Middleweight Champion (defeated Larry Bonds)

1981  World Boxing Council Light Middleweight Champion (defeated Ayub Kalule)

1981  World Boxing Council Welterweight Champion (defeating Thomas Hearns)

1988  World Boxing Council Light Heavyweight Champion (defeated  Donny Lalonde)

1989  World Boxing Council Super Middleweight Champion (defeated Roberto Duran)


1976  Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year (shared)

1979  Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year

1979  The Ring Fighter of the Year 

1980-1989  Mark Grossinger Etess Award for "Boxer of the Decade"

1981  Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year

1981  Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year

1981  The Ring Fighter of the Year (shared award)

1981  Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year

1981  Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year

1997  Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame


Schwartz, Larry. "Sugar Ray was ring artist."  ESPN Classic. (accessed November 18, 2014).

Brown, Oliver. "Former world boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard on his bitter-sweet rise to greatness." The Telegraph, March 19, 2012. (accessed November 18, 2014).

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.  "Sugar Ray Leonard." (accesed November 18, 2014).

"Sugar Ray Leonard." IMDb. (accessed November 20, 2014).

"Sugar Ray Leonard." Movies & TV, New York Times. (accessed November 20, 2014).

Sugar Ray Leonard.  (accessed November 20, 2014).

Sher, Lauren. "Dancing with the Stars' Season 12 Results: Sugar Ray Leonard Knocked Out. April 13, 2011.  ABC News. (accessed November 20, 2014). 

Freedman, Jacob Andrew.  "LEONARD, Suagr Ray." The African American National Biography 5 5. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 

Janssen, Sarah. 2013. The world almanac and book of facts, 2014. New York.

Moritz, Charles ed. 1976. Current Biography 1981. New York, N.Y.: H.W. Wilson Co.

Mabunda, L. Mpho. 1997. Contemporary Black biography. profiles from the international Black community Volume 15. Detroit, Mich: Gale Research Inc.

Additional Resources:

Leonard, Sugar Ray, and Michael Arkush. 2011. The big fight: my life in and out of the ring. New York: Viking. 

Leonard, Sugar Ray. 1986. Sugar Ray Leonard. New York: Goodtimes Home Video. 

Leonard, Sugar Ray, and Howard Cosell. 1982. Sugar Ray Leonard retires. [S.l.]: Encyclopedia Americana/CBS News Audio Resource Library. 

Burchard, S. H. 1983. Sports star: Sugar Ray Leonard. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 

Boxing greats. 1997. Marshall Cavendish. 

Gloeckner, Carolyn, and Howard Schroeder. 1985. Sugar Ray Leonard. Mankato, Minn., U.S.A.: Crestwood House. 

Image Credits:

Bibbs, Reggie.  "Detail of Sugar Ray Leonard," 2007. (accessed 2010).

Origin - location: