Sugar Ray Leonard wants Brad Pitt to star in his biopic
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—“I’m Ray, I’m Sugar, whatever you want to call me,” Sugar Ray Leonard said by way of an introduction. Wearing a red sweater vest that instantly brightened the unusual gray LA morning, the boxing legend smiled as he quipped, “I try to convince my wife to call me Sugar all the time.”
We’ll call him Ray for brevity’s sake. Regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, he was hired as a consultant for “Real Steel,” a film set in the near future in which steel robots have taken over the ring. We were going to bring up our “Filipino Connection” (FC)—Manny Pacquiao, of course—but Ray had barely sat down when he himself mentioned the Pinoy boxing champ.
Asked if he thinks it’s indeed possible that someday, 8-feet-tall steel bots will take over the sport, Ray replied, “It’s so ironic—the premise of this movie that boxing has died out because some people are not as excited about what’s taking place. They want to see action and drama. Although you have a lot of talent, it’s just not as exposed as much as it should be. The only two players who dominate the divisions are Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. So, could robot boxing come in? I hope not.”
The first boxer to win title belts in five different weight classes, Ray talked about our own record-breaking champ. “I’ve seen Manny fight a number of times,” he said. “I’ve always been impressed with him. He has this incredible hand speed. He’s a little guy with such spunk, natural physical attributes and confidence. He has the whole package. And he’s a nice guy, which I like.”
Aside from being tapped to help make the robot bouts realistic (although he conceded that some of their moves are dramatic but not legal in real boxing), Ray trained Hugh Jackman, who plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer who is hustling as a small-time robot fight promoter. Charlie and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), rebuild and train Atom, a robot made from scrap heap who becomes a boxing contender.
“Could I teach Hugh Jackman to be a fighter in less than two or three weeks?” Ray asked aloud. “No, but I had an incredible conversation with Hugh. I wanted him to feel like a trainer, to have that connection with Atom, the robot, as I think back of my relationship with my trainer, Angelo Dundee, which was very special. It was very intimate and the eyes reveal the truth.”
As he kept talking about eyes, Ray said, he thought Hugh looked at him “like the guy’s been hit too much. But he got it. He captured that connection between the trainer and fighter. I also worked with him as far as the execution of a punch. It’s not necessarily the punch itself but the feeling of the punch—to know that you thrust with such conviction. That’s also revealed on the face because it was about winning.”
A professional wrestler, Dolph Ziggler, claimed that his jaw was fractured when Hugh punched him during a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) match to promote the movie. But the actor downplayed Dolph’s claim. Told about the incident, Ray joked, “I taught Hugh well.”
Now 55, Ray—who played himself in a cameo in the acclaimed movie “The Fighter” last year—claimed that in his boxing years, he had a premonition whether he would win or not before each fight. “In that dressing room, which I normally would have to myself, I would know if I’m going to win or lose,” he said. “I look in the mirror and it depends on who I see. If I see Sugar Ray Leonard, the fighter, I’m going to win. If I see Ray Leonard, the civilian, I’m in trouble.”
While Ray enjoyed an astounding series of title belts and triumphs, his journey had unsavory aspects which he revealed in his autobiography, “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.”
“My life wasn’t always a charm,” he declared. “It had some dark areas that no one was aware of until I wrote my book—the revelations that I made, from sexual abuse to infidelities to all these other things that I am not proud of. I made amends and moved on…”
Ray has acknowledged drug use and physically abusing his first wife, Juanita Leonard, from whom he is divorced. He admitted that it was tough to adjust when the roar of the crowd has died down.
“For the most part, when champions retire, they go into a state of limbo,” he said. “I had the option of working with HBO and a few other things on TV. But when I first retired in 1982, I was 25, 26. I had the championship belt, financial success, notoriety. I went through a period where I met new friends who, unfortunately, took me to another world. There should be some kind of system of teaching young boxers to plan for life after boxing.”
Surrender, be honest
He added, “You have to surrender and be honest with yourself. In my last fight, I was 40 years old. I remember I was in the ring with this young kid. He knocked one of my teeth out. I looked down at my tooth on the canvas. I thought, if I picked it up, put it on ice, I could save it. I was thinking about my tooth rather than the fighter. I didn’t care about him. I cared about putting the tooth back in. Actually, I did pick it up.”
A period fueled by drugs and alcohol after he hung his gloves for good came to a halt in 1986. “One day, I looked in the mirror and I saw a person I didn’t know,” Ray disclosed. “My parents worked so hard to raise me well and that wasn’t the person I saw. I got back on the right road.”
Looking back, one of the things he is proudest of is asking his parents, Cicero and Getha Leonard, to retire when they were “in their fifties. My dad was very sick. He’s still alive and is now 89 years old. My mom is a feisty 82-year-old lady. When I asked them to retire, I bought them their first home.”
For many years, Ray has been using his celebrity status “to raise funds and awareness for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I created the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation two years ago. I testified in Congress about the need to continue to fund the diabetes research center so that one day, we will eradicate diabetes from kids.”
Ray, married since 1993 to Bernadette Robi, the daughter of Paul Robi (one of the original Platters), saved his best punch line for last. To the question, “In a biopic of your life, who would you like to play you?” he replied, “Brad Pitt. They can do that. Makeup these days is amazing.”
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