RIDGEFIELD — He’s fit, he’s trim, he’s 55 years old and still looks like he could go 15 rounds with Roberto Duran.
Of course, Duran is 60. … Sorry, old joke.
But as Sugar Ray Leonard made an appearance Saturday at a boxing card at the Clark County Event Center, the lesson was this: The future of boxing can be found in its past.
Many teeth have been gnashed and many hands have been wrung in recent years over the state of boxing. The sport is losing fans, fighters aren’t being developed, mixed martial arts is the public’s new favorite blood sport.
All of these are true. But as you speak to Leonard, you can’t help but think that boxing’s problems aren’t difficult to solve. Because the magic of Sugar Ray Leonard, you discover, isn’t so much in the skills as the personality.
“I don’t really know,” he said when asked about the key to his popularity. “But I know I’m approachable.”
That was evident Saturday. Leonard was lending his name and his celebrity to a boxing card put on by the Vancouver Police Activities League and Vancouver-based Fisticuffs Gym. Proceeds from the 10-bout card — five amateur and five professional — will go to benefit PAL programs.
Prior to the card, during a meet-and-greet with sponsors and VIP ticket holders, Leonard greeted everybody with a smile and a handshake. He autographed everything placed in front of him. He talked with people.
And then he went and greeted fans who weren’t VIPs.
There’s an old line about truly cool people being the ones who make you think you’re cool. Sugar Ray does that.
“It humbles me,” Leonard said about meeting with fans. “I appreciate that because they’re the reason my career has become what it has.”
Is it an act? I don’t know. The world of celebrities and celebrity watching is filled with phonies who master the art of public persona and fail at the art of personal relationships.
Leonard’s travels of 35 years in the spotlight have hit a few potholes, but nothing big enough to flatten a tire on his public identity.
Olympic gold medalist. World champion in five weight classes. First fighter to earn paydays totalling $100 million. Iconic fights with Duran and Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Leonard is one of the three most significant boxers of my lifetime.
Muhammad Ali stands alone as an icon, maybe among all athletes, not just boxers. Mike Tyson stands alone as a train wreck, maybe among all athletes. Sugar Ray is the only other one to approach their level of fame.
Perhaps Oscar De La Hoya is in that class. But how many other boxers could be chosen to compete on “Dancing With the Stars” a full 20 years after their final victory?
“I’m more recognized being a dancer than for 30 years of boxing,” he said with a laugh.
“When I was 14 or 15 and a reporter asked me what I wanted to be, I said, ‘I want to be special.’ They thought I would say, ‘I want to be champion.’ But I wanted to use my celebrity to raise awareness. I like to do things outside my element.
“I come from extremely humble beginnings, and the Olympics gave me worldwide notoriety. I was known by people who weren’t boxing fans.”
That remains true, and the reason is his affable and articulate personality as much as his wondrous boxing skills.
That, more than anything, is where boxing is falling short. With big-time fights available only as big-ticket pay-per-view events, the public has little opportunity or desire to connect with the fighters of today.
“I like coming to places like this,” Leonard said of Saturday’s small-time card in a mid-sized town. And the important thing is that he acted like it.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at email@example.com. To “Like” his Facebook page, search for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian.”