Sugar Ray Leonard (born May 17, 1956) is a retired professional American boxer, motivational speaker, and occasional actor. He was given the birth name Ray Charles Leonard, after his mother’s favorite singer, Ray Charles. Leonard was the first boxer to earn more than $100 million in purses, won world titles in five weight divisions, and defeated future fellow International Boxing Hall of Fame inductees Wilfred Benítez, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Durán, and Marvin Hagler. Leonard was named “Boxer of the Decade” for the 1980s.
Leonard, the fifth of seven children, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to Cicero and Getha Leonard. Leonard was named after singer Ray Charles. The family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was three, and they settled permanently in Palmer Park, Maryland when he was ten. His father worked as a supermarket night manager, and his mother was a nurse.
Leonard started boxing at the Palmer Park Recreation Center in 1969. His older brother, Roger, started boxing first. Roger helped start the boxing program, urging the center’s director, Ollie Dunlap, to form a team. Dave Jacobs, a former boxer, and Janks Morton volunteered as boxing coaches. Roger won some trophies and showed them off in front of Ray, goading him to start boxing.
In 1972, Leonard boxed in the featherweight quarterfinals of the National AAU Tournament, losing by decision to Jerome Artis. It was his first defeat. Later that year, he boxed in the Eastern Olympic Trials. The rules stated that a boxer had to be seventeen to box in international competition, so Leonard, only sixteen, lied about his age. He made it to the lightweight semifinals, losing a disputed decision to Greg Whaley, who took such a beating that he wasn’t allowed to continue in the trials and never boxed again.
Sarge Johnson, assistant coach of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, said to Dave Jacobs, “That kid you got is sweet as sugar.” The nickname stuck. However, given his style and first name, it was probably only a matter of time before people started calling him Sugar Ray, after the man many consider to be the best boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.
In 1973, Leonard won the National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship, but lost to Randy Shields in the lightweight final of the National AAU Tournament. The following year, Leonard won the National Golden Gloves and National AAU Lightweight Championships.