When most people hear the name Sugar Ray Leonard, belonging to a man who won a gold medal in boxing at the 1976 Olympic Games and was named “Boxer of the Decade” in the ’80s, words like “tough,” “fighter” and “champion” probably spring to mind. But “victim”? Never.

Unbeknownst to most of his fans (and they are legion), Leonard fought a private battle that ate at him throughout his long, celebrated career — and it wasn’t a secret about what he had done, but what had been done to him by a person Leonard thought he could trust. “It was one of those things that ate at me for over thirty years. It was killing me, it was really killing me,” the boxing legend said in our exclusive interview, referring to a 1971 incident in which Leonard, only 15 at the time, was sexually abused by a prominent Olympic boxing coach.

The incident, which Leonard elaborates in his autobiography, The Big Fight: My Life in and out of the Ring, left him scarred and ashamed at a time when he was quickly climbing the ladder toward becoming one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport. So what inspired him to come forward and talk about the intensely private and painful experience, after all these years? “One day I saw [Diff’rent Strokes actor] Todd Bridges on Oprah, and what he said and the way he stated how he felt after revealing that [he had been sexually molested at age 11], it kind of gave me a little bit more incentive, more courage to talk about it.”

Similar to that of Bridges, Leonard’s sexual molestation led to deep emotional pain, which in turn led to drugs and domestic violence. Unlike Bridges, however, Leonard fortunately was able to continue on a prolific career path well beyond his early years — something he attributes to his personal hero, his mom. “I look at my career, and I got my strength from my dad, but I got my firepower, you know, from my mom,” he said. “She’s feisty, she’s 83 and she’s still feisty. I just have that fighting spirit from my mom: she never gave up, she didn’t think twice about losing, she was just one of those women who was strong-minded, and I think I got that part from her.”

With the 2012 Olympic Games just around the corner, it is difficult not to look back at Leonard’s historic gold medal 36 years ago with a sense of awe. Leonard says he is still stunned. “There was nothing greater, there was nothing bigger, there was nothing more exciting, first of all to be on the Olympic team, and then to have brought back a gold medal,” he said. “I mean ‘ultimate’ is not even justifiable with words, but it was kind of bittersweet, because at the point after winning the gold medal, I was going to quit boxing because I didn’t want to pursue a professional career. But that aside, winning the gold medal was one of the biggest if not the biggest accomplishments of my career, and life.”


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