From Welfare to $21 Million: That's the Love Story of Sugar Ray and Juanita Leonard
Juanita Leonard had not wanted her husband, Ray, to box again. His opponent, Roberto Duran, the strange, savage Panamanian, puzzled and worried her. At their first fight in Montreal last June, Juanita had fainted at ringside even before a battered Ray lost the decision, his first defeat as a pro. In Montreal and again in New Orleans before the rematch, both Duran and his wife, Felicidad, had made obscene gestures at Juanita and cursed her in Spanish.
This time Ray insisted she sit in a box high up in the New Orleans Superdome, far away from the violence. When the fight began Juanita was on her knees praying, her back to the ring. Midway through the first round she turned. Soon she was yelling, flailing her arms, jumping up from her seat with every solid blow. As Ray clearly took control, she hugged everyone around her. When Duran quit in the eighth round, Juanita shrieked, “I can’t believe it!” Racing down to the arena floor, she climbed over the press tables and threw herself in Sugar Ray’s arms. “We got it!” she exulted. “We got it, baby,” he replied. Then they kissed.
The victory meant many things to the Leonards. The World Boxing Council’s welterweight championship, which went to Duran in June, was Sugar Ray’s again. The $7 million purse brought his career earnings to $21 million in three years. The TKO also reaffirmed Leonard’s box office power.
Perhaps most important, the triumph was shared by Ray and Juanita together. In the emotionally bruising nine years since they met in the low-income, predominantly black Washington suburb of Palmer Park, Md., no other moment has been half so sweet.
Their first date, via telephone, came when Juanita was 14. Ray, already a hometown hero as an amateur boxer, was a year older. “One of my girlfriends gave Ray my picture,” she remembers. “He called at 4 in the afternoon, and we talked until 4 in the morning. He told me I had met my match. I told him, ‘You’ve met yours too!’ ”
Their sparring began a few days later when they met in Ray’s front yard. “There was this bony kid with the big Afro,” Juanita says. “I thought, ‘What does everybody see in him?’ ” Ray remembers that she “was tomboyish, with an earring in her nose, like a bull, and we weighed the same, 125 pounds. But she was cute-looking.”
“We’d break up and go back together,” says Juanita of their teenage courtship. When, at 16, she learned she was pregnant, “We weren’t even together.” After Ray Jr. was born, she stayed with her father. While finishing high school, she got a job to support herself and the boy. Ray was too busy training to work full-time.
The strain on their relationship increased as Ray advanced in the boxing world. At 15, he competed in his first Olympic trials and lost, but five years later he won a gold medal in the 1976 Games in Montreal. Returning home, he planned to hang up his gloves and go to college. With ill parents and a 3-year-old son to provide for, Ray turned pro instead.
Shortly after the Olympics, Juanita’s application for welfare for their son prompted authorities to charge Ray with nonsupport. Reports that it was a paternity suit chagrined Juanita. “Ray never denied anything,” she says. “I never denied I knew who the father was or where he was.”
She and Ray Jr. finally moved in with Leonard in 1977. “We used to have major arguments,” Leonard recalls. “I’d keep all the pressure inside and the first thing she’d say, I’d blow up. Then she’d blow up. We tried to talk to each other more and more, but it took time.” “Everybody said it would never last,” Juanita agrees. “They didn’t believe us until I sent out the wedding invitations.”
That was last January. Despite elaborate plans, a bridal party of 18 (Ray Jr. was ring bearer) and 350 invited guests, Ray and Juanita almost canceled the ceremony. “We had a big argument the day before,” says Ray, who can’t remember now what it was about. “We decided to telephone all the radio and TV stations and call it off. Then we thought about it and started laughing.”
To lure Ray to the altar, Juanita says, “I used reverse psychology. I told him he could still do what he wanted to do after we were married. I figured that would make him feel guilty so he wouldn’t go out. It’s worked a little bit.”
Before they were married, Ray says, “I used to stay out all night. Sometimes I wouldn’t come home for two days. That changed because I realized I loved her and she loved me. Now I’ve started liking things at home more than playing the streets.”
Christened Ray Charles (after his mother’s favorite singer, who sang America the Beautiful at the Duran rematch), Leonard was one of seven children. Ray’s father, a supermarket manager, and his mother, a nurse, now live comfortably in a $65,000 split-level, which Ray bought for them in suburban Washington. But during his childhood, Ray says, money was tight.
Juanita Wilkinson has similar memories. Her father, a grocery store produce manager, and her cashier mother were divorced when she was 6. At 8, Juanita moved to Palmer Park, living first with her mother, then her father. One of six children, Juanita got her first job, pumping gas, at 14. “I wanted to be independent,” she says, “to be somebody.”
Now Juanita is content to be a housewife. “I love housecleaning,” she says, explaining why she hasn’t hired a maid for their luxurious five-bedroom home in suburban Maryland. She cooks—Ray’s favorite is fried chicken—and he sometimes does the dishes. “Ray is very macho,” she notes. “He buys all my clothes and wants me at home.” Still, Juanita hopes someday to open a day-care center in her old neighborhood. “I’d like to help pregnant girls who are still in school,” she says. “I was in their place once.”
Ray’s next opponent is uncertain, except that it won’t be Duran. “There’s no way I’m going to fight him again.” Juanita still hopes her husband will give up boxing. “I can’t stand to see him get hurt,” she explains. Switching careers would also mean escaping Ray’s zealous female fans, and that wouldn’t bother Juanita either. “If Ray did get involved with another woman,” she says, “I don’t think he would do it the way Ali did—exploit it all over the world and have your wife see it. Ray would come to me, and we’d decide what we wanted to do.” In any case, Ray seems untempted.
To celebrate the championship, and their first anniversary, the couple plans a vacation in Europe next month. “And we want to have another baby,” says Juanita, 23. “Let’s have several,” suggests Ray, 24.
Their sense of shared adversity is powerful. “If I lost Juanita, I wouldn’t have anything other than my son,” Ray reflects. “I’ve been through so much with her.” Adds Juanita: “The bigger Ray got, the more people tried to run over us. We were young and didn’t know anything about life. We got hurt in the process of learning.”
“We cried one night, didn’t we?” asks Ray.
“Yes,” says Juanita, “and the last thing you said to me that night was, one day we’re not going to have to depend on anybody.”