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Sugar Ray Leonard's Toughest Fight

The six-time champ is trying to build a business, promote a new generation of fighters, and clean up his sullied sport. It's not as easy as it sounds.
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Boxing's latest savior is on the move again -- riding down Oklahoma City's dusty I-35 in a rented van littered with used Coke cans and empty sandwich bags. Somewhere ahead, past the ramshackle homes and beat-up cars dotting the roadside, is the Little Axe Community Center, where members of the Shawnee tribe and their children are already gathered, waiting for the six-time world champion turned boxing promoter -- the boxer turned entrepreneur.

Sugar Ray Leonard's arrival ignites happy chaos. The following night, three days into the new year, the tribe's Thunderbird Wild Wild West Casino will be the site of the 19th fight card organized by Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, the ex-champion's two-year-old promotion company. But right now the action is all here at the Little Axe with its sea of cowboy hats and camouflage, the last stop in Leonard's four-day schedule of meet-and-greet publicity. Everyone, it seems, wants to touch him. Everyone wants to tell him about the first time they saw him fight and how much he means to them. They call him hero and ask for his autograph. Leonard smiles, plays along; he's been dancing this dance for decades. "Gotcha!" he says, flicking the air beside some laughing opponent's ear, his hand coming from nowhere, it seems, still that fast. "Don't drop that shoulder, man, you don't wanna be doin' that with me now," he says. "Gotcha." The grown men around him are silly with adoration. Between hugs from his fans, Leonard turns toward me and whispers, "I know what it takes to be a commodity."

So it seems. At 47, Leonard looks like the same man whose astonishing athletic grace and charisma made him what's called a "crossover" boxer -- the kind of fighter "a mother and daughter would come in from the kitchen to watch fight," as one of the raffish fellows in his entourage explains. He earned $100 million in the ring and millions more outside it. For the better part of 20 years, beginning with a made-for-TV Olympic gold medal in 1976, he transcended the sport and became a mainstream personality, a brand worthy of big-money endorsements: 7Up, Diet Coke, Coors, Church's, Revlon. Some thought he raised the sport up, rinsed it of thuggery, transformed it into art. And now he's back, the self-nominated savior who is out, he says, to "redefine boxing," out to "give boxing back to boxers and bring back some class, some integrity," out to raise the sport up yet again.

The timing is good. Always the notorious red-light district of sports, boxing today is as troubled as it was even in the days when the Mob called the shots. There are too many lawsuits and too few heroes. Absurd mismatches and fraudulent rankings by unaccountable offshore sanctioning bodies have disgusted fans. Revenue from pay-per-view television, boxing's main profit generator, has fallen dramatically. Boxers themselves are suffering. While professional basketball, football, and baseball players make millions and their salaries represent well over 50% of the billions generated by those sports, the spoils of boxing don't often make it to the boxers. Even many of those ranked in the top 20 of each weight division earn less than $20,000 a year.


No sport -- maybe no business -- is more entrepreneurial than boxing. Anyone can call himself a promoter.

And now comes Sugar Ray Leonard, the most recent of the white knights -- men from other, more clean-cut rackets drawn to all the flash and cash, who seem to materialize in boxing every decade or so promising messianic intervention, riding in on the horse of business integrity and vowing to clean up the sport (and hoping to score some of the spoils). Trouble is, boxing's would-be reformers always fail. For the past 30 years the industry has been dominated by two promoters -- bitter rivals Don King and Bob Arum -- and neither has appeared to demonstrate an appetite for reform. Presiding over the sport like indefatigable warlords, the two have stamped out any who dare challenge their rule. During his fighting years, Leonard never signed on with King or Arum. It was just him, America's sweetheart, and his lawyer, Mike Trainer -- boxing's moral minority who kept clear of any ensnaring alliances, either with promoters or television networks. Leonard was one of the first independent contractors, open to the highest bidder. He was clean, separate from all the ugliness. But it was one thing to do it as a fighter -- a supremely talented fighter whose skills allowed him to call the shots. His goal now is to forge a competitive advantage out of being better and cleaner, more modern as a marketer, more enlightened as a manager. But who says he can even build a company in the first place -- whatever its principles? After all, in some respects, he's just another former worker trying to make the transition to business owner, just another guy trying to make the journey from employee to entrepreneur. And can anyone succeed in boxing while keeping his own hands clean? A series of lawsuits is already prompting questions about Leonard.

A few years back, when he was getting started as a promoter, Leonard sought out some teachers. "I had conversations with people in the industry," he says. "You know, looking for insights." He was Sugar Ray, and people sat down with him. Even Don King. And did King have any advice? "Sure," Leonard says. Then he smiles that smile. "He told me, 'Welcome to the jungle."

THE SANCTIONED STORY

On March 1, 1997, Leonard suffered his last and most embarrassing defeat as a boxer to the soft-punching Hector Camacho, who floored the great Sugar Ray -- by then a 40-year-old grandfather -- in the fifth round of Leonard's sixth and final comeback. For months after, Leonard underwent a period of harsh reckoning. His boxing career -- the thing that had defined him since the age of 14 -- was over. "I didn't really do much for a while," Leonard says. "But I can't sit back and be idle for long. I need a mission, something that's going to deliver down the road. I've got to be busy. I've got to be productive."

Eventually, to fill up his days, Leonard took on Bjorn Rebney as an agent to set up endorsements and appearances. Rebney, a former college fullback whose casual pose never quite masks an unsettling intensity, had worked with sports agent Leigh Steinberg, marketing athletes such as Steve Young and Oscar de la Hoya. One day in 1997, traveling back from a speaking engagement, Leonard looked up from the boxing magazines he was reading and complained to Rebney, "You don't see champions fighting champions anymore. There are no superstars, no network television. And the only things people know about boxing are the bad things." Before long, Leonard recalls, "Bjorn's telling me that if there is anyone who could really have an impact on the sport of boxing, it could be me." It wouldn't be like fighting, Leonard knew -- "Of course I don't get the same high from promoting" -- but it would be a fight. And this wouldn't be another athlete selling his name and likeness to white businessmen, either. "My whole career has been about defiance," he says, referring to his frequent changes in weight class and his equally frequent comeback attempts. "This is just another mission to prove wrong those who don't believe it can be done."

No sport -- maybe no business -- is more purely entrepreneurial than boxing. Anyone can call himself a promoter and stage a fight. Unlike other professional sports, whose owners collude out of mutual interest in their sport's image and general welfare, there are no real alliances or partnerships in boxing. It has no leagues or schedules. In principle, every match, every event is a separate deal. Attract boxers willing to fight (by guaranteeing a big purse, say, or a career-advancing match, or both), line up a venue willing to host the event (because you've created matches that will draw paying customers and business-advancing publicity -- plus TV fees and exposure), and get TV execs to pay you for the right to show your card, and you have yourself a little extravaganza. If enough people watch, you make money. If not, you don't make money -- and you lose the money you fronted in the first place.


"I'll go into a city in advance and saturate the market," he says. "I'll do whatever it takes."

It took four years for Leonard and Rebney to get Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing (SRLB) off the ground in 2001 -- why it took that long is not something they like to talk about -- but when it finally happened, the timing looked promising. By then, boxing chieftains King and Arum were both in their 70s, and a battle among long-struggling second-tier promoters was under way. From the beginning, Leonard and Rebney have thought they could play with the big boys. With SRLB, the two declared they would invent a better brand of boxing promotion. They would stage more competitive and entertaining fights (instead of the absurd and dull mismatches often used by promoters to "protect" their fighters' records). With better fights and a rejuvenated fan base, they would be able to court network television. And through network television, they would create the sort of stars that stirred the public's imagination in the days of Muhammad Ali, producing pay-per-view windfalls. SRLB, they insisted, would accomplish all this where other promoters had failed, because it would be different. Starting with the squeaky-clean reputation of Sugar Ray Leonard, the goal would be nothing less than to make boxing and Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing indistinguishable.

What would they do differently? Almost everything. They would treat the fighters better, offering them better purses. They would even open up their own books -- to fighters and to other promoters. "We've got nothing to hide," says Leonard. At first, Leonard and Rebney figured, the burgeoning SRLB brand would attract endorsements and corporate sponsorships just because of Leonard himself. In time, it would be the SRLB fighters and marquee events that would draw attention. Rather than resuscitate the sport's image, SRLB would give it a wholly new one. And in the process, SRLB would become the dominant boxing franchise. Because of Leonard, it would have credibility with boxers, sponsors, TV execs, and fans -- something few promoters other than King and Arum have enjoyed. Where most fledgling promoters struggle to land major venues for their young fighters, the prefight publicity Leonard could generate would prove attractive to casinos looking to sell tickets and woo high rollers. "I'll go into a city a week in advance and saturate the market," says Leonard. "We'll do mock weigh-ins, go to grocery stores, talk to every local reporter. I'll do whatever it takes."

That is precisely what he was doing in Oklahoma City in early January. The Thunderbird Wild Wild West Casino on Friday night isn't exactly what King meant by "the jungle" -- but in some ways, it's close. The building rocks with noise. The sellout crowd of 1,300, packed onto vinyl chairs worn thin after a thousand budget bingo nights, is drunk, vocal, and on edge. After five preliminary fights that end too soon or without excitement, here is what everyone has been waiting for, the heavyweight match, this one pitting 1996 Olympian Lawrence Clay-Bey, a 38-year-old fighter whose career Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing is looking to revive, against Charles Shufford, a career journeyman. Leonard himself, sitting ringside with his TV smile gone and his eyes severe, knows a good fight will win over the crowd -- including those watching on ESPN2. A good fight could go miles toward branding SRLB as the real deal.

But four rounds in, the heavyweights are lumbering around the ring, dancing with the mechanical misery of two circus elephants doing their routine for the hundredth time. And Leonard, who probably understands this part of the sport as well as anyone, can scarcely contain his frustration. "The body," he whispers to me, coaching Clay-Bey under his breath. Then much louder: "He's got to start pounding the body!" The bell rings. In the fifth, few punches are thrown, few punches taken. As Clay-Bey's cornerman applies a cold compress to the fighter's eye, Leonard jumps to his side and says to Clay-Bey's trainer, "Scully, tell him: To the body. Man's got to start hitting the body." He turns away. "Damn," he says.


Although he doesn't really like to talk about it, this is Leonard's second attempt at boxing promotion.

By the start of Round 7, Leonard could be excused for wondering why he'd bothered to promote this particular fight. In fact, the match is looking very much like the kind of halfhearted bout Leonard had complained about to Rebney before their company's launch. Ringside, the fans seem more interested in getting Leonard's autograph than in watching the action. "Not now," says Rebney, playing gatekeeper. Leonard is looking tired and depressed but still intense. And then something happens. With a flurry of busy hands, Clay-Bey starts jabbing and slapping his man off balance, and then, in close, he drives a short, hard right to the head and a looping left to Shufford's kidney. "That's it!" Leonard wails, jumping up from his seat. And for a moment, we see a glimpse of the fire that made Sugar Ray a great boxer.

Shufford stumbles across the canvas, teetering. The crowd senses an end and takes to its feet, chanting: "Clay-Bey! Clay-Bey! Clay-Bey!" The bell rings. Leonard flashes a smile that seems to say, This is what it's all about. When it's done right, boxing makes other professional sports look like Yahtzee.

Clay-Bey wins on a unanimous decision, and at the end of the night, the fighters nurse their wounds in the broom closet that doubles as a locker room. Clay-Bey is by himself in a corner, stuffing his clothes into a tattered bag. Leonard and Rebney hustle around shaking the last hands, finalizing the last details with Oklahoma's boxing commissioner and the tribal members who own the casino. Every so often, Leonard pulls away to speak privately with Rebney. The conversations are always serious, almost paranoid. They both say again and again: You're never quite sure when someone might come from behind, spot a weakness or an undotted i in the contract or an unhappy fighter in the stable, and plunge an ice pick into your back.

Still, the night has been a relative success, and on January 3, 2003, Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing seems to be running on all cylinders. ESPN seems ready to extend the four-event contract that its boxing director, Bob Yalen, had initially awarded SRLB purely on the strength of Leonard's name and his promise that his prefight publicity work would pack houses and convince venue operators to pay higher fees to host events. The thinking was that those fees would enable SRLB to pay fighters more, which meant fighters would be willing to risk tougher fights. And the tougher fights would make for better television -- which, to date, SRLB seems to be providing. "Ray has hustled his ass off and put on shows that have generally rated better than the ESPN2 average," says Yalen. Adds Dan Rafael, boxing writer for USA Today, "There's no doubt that most of their shows have been very solid, a cut above the rest."

In SRLB's first full year, 2002, it posted $2.5 million in revenue and a small profit. It signed hard-hitting "Baby" Joe Mesi, an unbeaten (then 21­0) white heavyweight from Buffalo -- a marketer's dream. And Mesi's first fight under contract in April had been a much-heralded success as SRLB more than sold out the 8,464-seat University at Buffalo Alumni Arena. Prior to the Mesi fight, the largest crowd to attend a boxing event there had been 5,500 for a card that featured Riddick Bowe in 1989.

With a business plan projecting revenue of $21.8 million in 2003, Leonard and Rebney are telling their story to would-be investors. The two men need capital, they say, to bring aboard more help; SRLB has just eight employees. And a promoter can expect to invest upward of $1 million -- the bulk on signing bonuses, purses, marketing -- before a young heavyweight pays off. Rebney sleeps about four hours a night, he says, and claims he's on his way to a heart attack. Leonard can't remember when he traveled so much, or put in so many hours. But the story Leonard and Ray have been telling investors of an unblemished promotional company headed by an unblemished athletic icon come to clean up his sport is the sanctioned version of events.

As is often the case in business, there is another version.

THE UNSANCTIONED STORY

One thing that both Leonard and Rebney don't necessarily volunteer to potential investors is that this is their second attempt to launch a promotion company. In fact, the reason it took four years to get Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing off the ground is that they first tried something called Sugar Ray Leonard Management.

That effort, begun in late 1996, had Leonard and Rebney teaming up with a former Leonard manager, Seth Ersoff, and a former Leonard agent, Michael Simon. It ended disastrously in litigation, with Ersoff and Simon alleging in a still-pending lawsuit that when they first went into business with Leonard he was not at all a squeaky-clean legend with limitless potential but a washed-up has-been who'd been struggling with marital problems and substance abuse. They claim that they helped him back onto his feet and back into the industry he loves -- efforts for which they were summarily jilted. In the end, they claim the ex-champ fired them to avoid paying commissions and to remove them from the boxing company they helped create. By 2000, according to the suit, Leonard and Rebney ditched Ersoff and Simon and, without telling them, reincorporated in a different location as Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing rather than Sugar Ray Leonard Management. Leonard declines to discuss the suit.

Even in its latest incarnation, SRLB has continued to endure more than its share of litigation -- often with its own fighters. One, IBF cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix last summer seeking the removal of SRLB and a co-promoter as his representatives (the matter has since been settled). Still pending is a lawsuit that alleges SRLB took an advance of $75,000 and then failed to deliver a fight for the Myrtle Beach Area Sports Council. One of SRLB's co-defendants is Bobby Mitchell, who brokered the deal between the sports council and SRLB and who has been indicted on federal charges of fight fixing.

Most vexing of all, perhaps, have been Leonard's legal battles with "Baby" Joe Mesi, the undefeated heavyweight who Leonard once thought had the potential to take both of them to the top of the boxing world. The relationship had started euphorically. On a crisp morning in late February of last year, Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello stood behind a podium at a local performing arts center and proclaimed Joe Mesi "the next heavyweight champion of the world." It seemed that day as if the whole city was caught up in the announcement that Mesi, the hometown boy, had signed a career-changing promotional agreement with Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing for four nationally televised fights. Leonard had cinched the deal on a promise: Leonard's fame, Rebney's marketing acumen, and SRLB's sweetheart deal with ESPN2 -- which guarantees Leonard a monthly television date -- would help lift Mesi into national prominence, the kind of prominence, Leonard assured, that leads to big pay-per-view events.


"Scully," says Leonard, "Tell him: To the body. Man's got to start hitting the body. Damn."

The deal seemed to be an example of the new kind of relationship Leonard has promised to forge with his fighters. Instead of simply signing the boxer to a bonus up front, the traditional way of doing business, SRLB promised Mesi a share of the gate receipts for his fights -- 60% of the net receipts, in fact. For Mesi, this meant more risk, but more potential upside. SRLB also cut an unorthodox marketing deal for an April 2002 Mesi fight against Keith McKnight in Buffalo. Rather than pay the three main print, radio, and television media sources serving the Buffalo community for airtime or print space, SRLB gave the media companies the rights to use Sugar Ray and all the prefight publicity events to sell advertising and sponsorships. In exchange, Mesi got an unprecedented amount of free exposure. As a result, Sugar Ray blanketed the Buffalo area, signing autographs and giving interviews from morning until night. And the efforts paid off. Leonard needed to sell 9,000 tickets to cover SRLB's costs, nearly double the attendance in two prior Mesi bouts -- and so he did. A small profit was made. Mesi was on the map. But SRLB didn't leave Buffalo unscathed.

Radio advertisements and a press release leading up to the event had declared the fight would be blacked out unless all seats were sold. Tim Graham, a sportswriter for the Buffalo News, got a tip that no such blackout deal was in the works. And when Graham called ESPN, he spoke with executives who denied that a blackout was ever a possibility. Digging further, Graham also looked into one of the prefight publicity events SRLB staged -- a mock weigh-in held at a local car dealership. The problem was that, in a number of radio ads, the event had been billed as the "official" weigh-in. But official weigh-ins only take place a day before the fight. In addition, Graham found that while Mesi's opponent was billed in SRLB's promotional materials as the WBF Intercontinental heavyweight champ, he actually hadn't held that title in several years.


In 2002, SRLB posted $2.5 million in revenue. The business plan promises $21.8 million this year.

The day before the fight, Graham confronted Rebney as he and Leonard were leaving for a publicity event. Graham recalls that Rebney ignored him until, finally, he turned to the reporter and said, "We have something good going on here, and you could have been on our team. But all you want to do is f -- us." While Rebney acknowledges the confrontation, he says he never uttered those words. He says Graham had a personal ax to grind with the Mesi family and took it out on SRLB. After the fight, the New York State Attorney General's office looked into the matter and found no cause for action. ESPN executives labeled the blackout incident a "misunderstanding." For his part, Leonard says, "I don't know why this guy has such a hard-on for me and my company. This guy claimed we lied to the public, that Baby Joe wasn't fighting anyone, that we deceived the fans so we could have a sellout. That's not true. We requested a blackout, there was some miscommunication with ESPN, and then we fixed it."

Despite the controversies, Mesi's career seemed to be progressing smoothly under Leonard's guidance. In his third bout with SRLB, Mesi scored a technical knockout in front of some 16,000 fans in HSBC Arena, a Buffalo boxing record. And he did even better financially. Mesi's 60% cut of the gate earned him more than $300,000 -- an unusually high amount for an ESPN2 bout. And then suddenly, with one fight left on their four-fight deal, SRLB and its Great White Hope were enmeshed in litigation. Mesi claimed that Leonard and Rebney had failed to provide a fourth fight in the promised time. Leonard and Rebney claimed that Mesi backed off the fights they offered. When Mesi attempted to set up a fight without SRLB, Leonard and Rebney blocked it. "It's the oldest trick in the boxing world," Julie Bargnesi, Mesi's lawyer, told the Buffalo News. "If you can't own the boxer, you try to sideline him. Joe is at the pinnacle of his career right now. He's ranked No. 10 in the world and ready to move forward. But SRLB is stopping him from getting more fights."

The lawsuit was quietly settled in March with an agreement that required Mesi to pay SRLB $90,000 to get out of the fourth fight. In the end, two things are clear: One, Joe Mesi will not be the big payday that Leonard and Rebney once hoped. Two, SRLB hasn't had an easy time of it. As he dots the countryside with a vigorous work schedule that takes him to crummy hotels in crummy towns pitting him against unscrupulous second-tier promoters, Leonard must be pondering why he got himself into this. "It's not comfortable," he concedes. "It's aggravating. It's frustrating. I'll be the first to admit that. It pisses me off. Don King told me early on that you'll know you're a player, a hitter, you're somebody, once you start getting sued.

"Well, now I'm somebody."

THE NEXT CHAMP?

It's a midweek afternoon in January and Leonard is in Manhattan, sitting on the sofa in his hotel suite wearing loose sweats and an undershirt and staring at the TV with the channel changer in his hand. Click. Stare. Click. Stare. It's the last time we'll sit down together, but he's already done with me. For whatever reason -- maybe he's just tired of trying to explain boxing's underside -- none of the questions interests him. So, Ray, what have you learned since starting your business? What's surprised you? What hasn't? What do you wish you'd done differently? How is competing like this -- as an entrepreneur, as a producer of boxing events, juggling all the people involved, all the boxers and site managers and television executives and financiers -- different from competing the way you used to, in the ring, just one man against the one man in front of you, with a clock measuring the rounds, a ring defining the options, a referee enforcing the rules?

Click. Stare. Smile.

What about the lawsuits? What about Joe Mesi's departure? What about your onetime partner Ersoff and his lawsuit?

Only the mention of Ersoff stops him for a second. The hand with the channel changer droops from the wrist. "That's a personal matter. It doesn't have anything to do with the company now." His anger flares, then vanishes. Smile. Then the TV again. Click.


"Don King told me that you'll know you're a player once you start getting sued."

I find myself imagining what any number of entrepreneurs might do if they were in the room with Ray Leonard right now. They might take the clicker away, turn the TV off, stand square between Leonard and the dead screen and say: This is how it goes. This is what it's like. It's messy. It takes longer than you thought. Get used to it -- to the thousand distractions that jab at you, that threaten to separate you from the passion and vision that got you going in the first place. This is what everyone goes through, every business owner, each in his own way. Welcome to the jungle.

Maybe Leonard's company will step into whatever void will eventually be left by King and Arum. Lots of credible people think so. Maybe it'll happen because Leonard and Rebney are smart about using Ray's name, stature, and aura. His fame. Maybe they'll stage better fights, drawing more fans, attracting better ratings. Maybe they will, one day, treat the boxers they deal with better than they've been treated before. Or maybe, as others insist, they'll succeed because of Ray's fame and because they're every bit as willing to mix it up in a ruthless and conniving business as everyone else in the industry. Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe it's more a matter of being in the right place at the right time. "Ray seems passionate enough, knowledgeable enough to be a difference-maker," says Kery Davis, HBO's boxing chief and one of the most powerful men in the industry. "But in the end, if the next Oscar de la Hoya falls into your lap then you're boxing's next power broker."

By that yardstick, things are looking up. In recent weeks, Leonard and Rebney signed a 6-foot-4-inch Cuban boxer whom many consider one of the most naturally gifted boxers in the world. His name is Juan Carlos Gomez, and he was the WBC cruiserweight world champion from 1998 to 2002 before he decided last year -- like Evander Holyfield before him -- to lay down the title to move to the heavyweight division (he's now won four fights as a heavyweight). He is currently ranked No. 11 by the WBC and No. 5 by the WBO. He has been called the best unknown fighter in the world. Angelo Dundee, who trained both Leonard and Ali, will be training Gomez, and Dundee has already pronounced him the best heavyweight around. Maybe Gomez will be the fighter who establishes Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing.

"This is the guy," says Leonard. "He's undefeated in 36 fights. I think he has the potential to be the heavyweight champion of the world."

Tahl Raz is an Inc. staff writer.


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