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05.19.11

The Strange Timing of Sugar Ray Leonard's Sex-Abuse Story

During my hundreds of hours of interviews with him, the boxing champ never mentioned his bombshell revelations of abuse at the hands of a coach. So why are they coming out now?

The New York Times published an eye-popping story yesterday. Sugar Ray Leonard, the last boxer to hold the world in his hands with his speed and stamina and charisma, is about to publish a book in which he claims he was sexually abused as a teenager.

The book, The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, is not slated for publication by Viking until next month. But the Times’ Harvey Araton got a copy. Quoting at length from the book, he relates that Leonard was intimidated into having oral sex with an Olympic coach before the 1976 Summer Olympics. The specific age of Leonard was not given, but according to the Times’ story, the two were alone in a car together when the coach noted how important winning the gold medal at the games in Montreal would be to the young boxer’s future. Leonard was flattered, whereupon, as he writes in the book, according to the Times: “Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life. I didn’t scream. I didn’t look at him. I just opened the door and ran.”

I happen to know Sugar Ray Leonard. I happen to know him well when it comes to the intimate details of his life. In 2007 and 2008, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing him for a screenplay that never came to fruition. The interviews were on tape and owned by the production company Redbird Cinema. In addition, Leonard had the contractual right to reject anything that he felt might not be appropriate. There was no reason for him to hold back, and he did not hold back.

He went into great detail over all the positive aspects of his life—the triumphant victories over Roberto Duran and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns and Marvin Hagler that made him world welterweight champion. But he spent just as much time on the bad—the abuse and terrorization of his first wife, Juanita; his disenfranchisement from his children; the copious intake of cocaine followed by the copious intake of alcohol; the distrust that developed over everyone, including his own brother, as he became convinced that they perceived him only as a money pit; the firing of his best friend from childhood, who became so devastated that he turned to crack and prostitutes and contracted AIDS and was visited only once by Leonard in the hospital as he was dying. He was honest about his failings, and so brutal about them that it became wrenching.

The one incident he never mentioned was the sexual abuse.

The revelation, 18 days before publication of Leonard's book, has set off a publicity bonanza.

I keep asking myself why yesterday, given his wincing candor about so much else. Did something happen with that coach? Something must have. But was it embellished for the sake of a book about to be published?

Maybe after 35 years as a journalist I am too cynical. But at his peak, nobody in sports knew how to market himself better than Sugar Ray Leonard. And the revelation, 18 days before publication, has set off a publicity bonanza. The immediate effect—last time I looked, approximately 350 stories had been written based on the Times story—has been what every author prays for.

Was he too embarrassed and ashamed to mention it to me? Perhaps. But Leonard told me things in terms of his own personal conduct equally shocking and personally shameful as the allegation of being sexually abused. Such as hitting Juanita while she was holding their child, who was just several months old. Or, in the last fight they had before she left, taking out a gun and threatening to shoot himself.

I am not questioning the horror of sexual abuse. It is an unspeakable horror. But unfortunately, in this day and age of the celebrity book, it has become a virtual cliché, a marketing tool to sell something. Which only diminishes the impact on those who have actually suffered terribly at the hands of it.

If Leonard wanted to open up about what happened, why not do it the way Rick Welts, the president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, did this week in publicly coming out as gay: no book to sell, but a one-on-one interview with New York Times reporter Dan Barry, in which his feelings and motivations and fears were thoroughly explored. It was a true public service for other gay athletes confronted with homophobia in the locker room. Inserting the issue of sexual abuse into a book about to be published is a selling service.

There are two people who know what happened, Leonard and the coach in question. Any kind of corroboration seems to be impossible. According to Araton’s story, nobody in Leonard’s inner circle was ever told anything. The coach himself is dead, according to the story.

Yet he is not named in the book despite the basic rule that the deceased cannot be libeled. Why would Leonard, given the vile act he writes about, remotely want to protect him? My impression of Leonard is that he is a kind and decent and forthright man, but to the degree of shielding a predator?

Leonard also writes that he actually gave the writer who assisted him, Michael Arkush, two versions of what happened. In the first, he says the coach stopped before anything physical took place. In the second version, Leonard went further to say that coach basically forced oral sex upon him. According to the Times story, Leonard said he decided to reveal everything after watching actor Todd Bridges reveal the sexual abuse he suffered as a child on Oprah in connection with his own memoir.

At a minimum, Leonard should release the coach’s name. I asked him to do that in an email I sent him yesterday. I know he received it, and he chose not to respond. Neither did his personal publicist. Neither did the director of publicity for Viking.

Perhaps the problem is with the growing nature of celebrity books, in which hideously scarred childhoods and teenage years have become a requirement. The latest was Massachusetts senator Scott Brown’s autobiography, Against All Odds. He too said he suffered sexual abuse. He too told no one, except of course Lesley Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview to promote the book.

Such a public service …

The propensity of authors to use memory as marketing is also becoming a runaway fad, as witnessed by the controversy over Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and allegations that his assertion of being kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers were false. Given all the fakes and frauds in published books, I am suspicious of “holy crap!” revelations in which the only motivation, regardless of any attempt to put some socially redeeming Saran Wrap around them, is to sell books. Leonard is also motivated to sell books as he fights to come back into the limelight after his last boxing match 14 years ago (his recent appearance on Dancing With the Stars didn’t quite turn the corner for him). He wants his book to sell. All authors want their books to sell. And sensation sells.

According to the Times story, Leonard writes that he had terrible flashbacks of the incident and believes that what happened, along with the volatile relationship between his mother and father growing up in Maryland, helped contribute to his later problems with cocaine and then alcohol and domestic abuse. But based on what Leonard told me, it was another traumatic experience entirely that began his descent.

It occurred in 1982 after he was famous around the world and the welterweight champion, with epic wins and multimillion-dollar purses. While training to defend his title against Roger Stafford in Buffalo, he saw a floating spot in his left eye. He was examined by a world-renowned specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who determined that he had suffered a partially detached retina. Leonard had no real choice but to retire at 26, and it was then that the descent into booze and coke began, even though he did rise again to defeat Marvin Hagler in 1987 after only one fight in five years. The demons went away in the glow of that remarkable victory. But eventually they returned, in particular after he retired for good in 1997.

The recounting of sexual abuse in the car with the coach did catch me off guard. Maybe it was the shock that bothered me—a man I thought I knew I never entirely did know. But one thing is irrefutable: Sugar Ray Leonard’s book, being published on the anniversary of D-Day, has a bomb burst all its own.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.