Many athletes consider representing their country in the Olympics to be a great honor. Boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard certainly felt that way. He was willing to go to great lengths to get on the Olympic team — even if it meant not always telling the truth. Here’s a look at Leonard’s early career, including how he made it onto the Olympic team.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s early boxing career
Leonard says he was “goaded” into boxing by his brother Roger, who took up the sport as a teenager and won some trophies, which he showed off to his younger brother. At 13 years old, Leonard started training. By 15 he was competing as an amateur boxer in the AAU’s national division.
In 1972, Leonard made it to the quarterfinals in the featherweight division at the National AAU Tournament. He lost the fight in a decision, giving him the first defeat of his amateur career.
Leonard tries out for the 1972 Summer Olympics
Leonard was born in May 1956, so he was only 16 when the 1972 Olympics came around. That is notable because the minimum age to compete in the Olympics was 17. But that didn’t stop the teenaged boxer.
Leonard hadn’t thought about competing in the Olympics until Bobby McGruder, who a fellow boxer who he fought, told him that the ’72 Olympic Trials were coming up and that he thought Leonard could make the team. Hearing McGruder say that, reports ESPN, sparked something in Leonard that caused him to try to make the Olympic team. Because he wasn’t old enough, Leonard had to do something to be able to try out for the Olympic squad, so he lied.
He told organizers that he was 17 — and he was able to land a spot in the Eastern Olympic Trials. He made it to the semifinals of the trials before losing to Greg Whaley — but he didn’t go down easily. Whaley won a controversial decision, but the result could have easily gone the other way.
Leonard recalls that he “beat the crap out of that guy” and thinks that he broke Whaley’s jaw. Despite Whaley winning the match with Leonard, the future pro did so much damage to the victor that Whaley was unable to fight the next day and continue in the trials.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s reaction to missing the Olympics
When Leonard found out Whaley couldn’t continue competing in the trials, he went to the organizers and told them he could fight in the next match, but they didn’t go for it because that’s not how the system works. After the loss to Whaley, reports ESPN, Leonard remembers being in the dressing room when “it dawned on [him] how close [he] came to making the Olympic team.”
The boxer says he started crying. But he felt better when Sgt. Thomas Johnson, who would go on to be the assistant boxing coach for the Olympic team four years later, went up to Leonard and told him “Sugar man, don’t you worry about it, you’ll be OK.”
Leonard describes Johnson as “a very spiritual man, with a very deep voice.” When he said that to Leonard he felt, “It was like God talkin'” to him, which made him feel better about the situation. “I was still devastated, but I felt a little better,” according to Leonard, who turned that devastation into determination and represented America on the Olympic boxing team in 1976. That year, he won gold in the light welterweight division.