(Reuters) - Boxers are often remembered for epic one-off fights or career-defining rivalries but few faced as many truly brilliant rivals as Sugar Ray Leonard or beat them with enough regularity to be considered peerless in a time of greats.
Leonard, who turns 64 on Sunday, won six world titles in five weight divisions but his career was as much about who he fought and how he fought them as what he won.
As the 1970s ended, the iconic heavyweight era of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier was over and Leonard was moving to centre stage along with three other men, whose careers would all be defined by their rivalry.
Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns fought each other nine times between 1980 and 1989 in the welterweight or middleweight divisions.
“Each of the nine bouts between the four men was memorable in its own way and at least two of them are commonly included on any list of the greatest fights of all time,” George Kimball wrote in his book Four Kings, a study of their rivalry.
Leonard, who burst on to the scene with a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, saw boxing as a branch of the entertainment business and he and his rivals created distinct personas to ramp up the rivalries.
Hearns was “The Hitman”, known for his destructive right hand. Hagler styled himself as Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Duran, the unapologetic street brawler, went by the nickname “Manos de Piedra”, or Hands of Stone.
The photogenic Sugar Ray, meanwhile, had the smile and the charm. Behind the clean-cut image, however, he was drinking heavily, doing drugs and cheating on his wife.
“I embarrassed myself more often than I care to remember,” he wrote in his searingly honest autobiography.
In the ring, though, Leonard did himself proud and he remembers each of his rivals in their own way. He called a 1981 win over Hearns “my defining moment as a fighter”.
Beating Hagler in 1987 after three years out of the game with a detached retina was, he said, his “proudest” moment.
Yet even today, more than three decades after they last squared up, he is most closely linked with Duran.
Before their first fight in June 1980, Duran got inside Leonard’s head with a string of crude jibes aimed at him and his family. It worked and Duran beat Leonard to take the WBC welterweight title the American had won less than a year before.
Leonard regained his title five months later in the rematch known as the ‘No Mas’ (no more) fight in which Duran simply waved Leonard away and gave up near the end of round eight.
It remains one of the most unforgettable boxing matches of all time and it still confounds the victor.
“The No Mas thing was so bizarre,” Leonard told Reuters in an interview. “I was in the ring and I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
“Duran didn’t say anything... He didn’t say No Mas. I didn’t hear him say No Mas.”
The fight, and its denouement, was so astonishing that a third decider had to happen.
After beating and drawing with Hearns and overcoming Hagler in a highly controversial split-decision, Leonard faced Duran again in 1989, beating the 38-year-old to retain the WBC super-middleweight belt.
It was sweet revenge, and Leonard still credits Duran for much of his success.
“As crazy as it may sound my first fight against Roberto Duran that I lost was one of my proudest moments,” Leonard said.
“I was contemplating retirement, I was wanting to pack it in after that fight because, first of all, that fight took so much out of me against Roberto Duran that I see I don’t need this any more.”
“But that fight made me a better fighter. It made me a better fighter to take on Tommy Hearns in the first fight. That first loss, it hurt physically and mentally and spiritually but it made me a better fighter.”
Leonard, who now fronts the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation to knock out Type 1 and 2 diabetes, is still friendly with Hearns, who he said recently floated the idea of the two men fighting again – an idea he swiftly rejected.
More surprisingly, he has become close buddies with his old nemesis Duran.
“Of all the people in the world I never thought in a million years I would be friends with Roberto Duran,” he said. “But I am. I love the guy, I respect the guy, I honour the guy and we are friends, no question about that.”
“He is special to me.”
Editing by Toby Davis