April 20, 1987 12:00 PM

Oh, how everybody resisted him. He offered romance, people gave him reasoning. He said he had a vision of himself in the center of the ring with his hands held high. He said he saw the reigning middleweight champ, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, everywhere—in the mirror when he got up in the morning, on the road when he went out to jog. He said he knew the Marvelous One could be had. And everybody said, Why, Ray? What about the surgically rebuilt left eye? What about history—that not even the great Joe Louis was able to come back and win a title? What about the three-year layoff and the thunder in Marvin’s left hand? Besides, Sugar Ray Leonard, at 30, had more than most men could cram into one dream: $20 million in the bank, an Olympic Gold Medal, welterweight and junior middleweight championships, and a kid so cute he could star in soda pop commercials.

A few rounds into last week’s “Duel in the Desert” in Las Vegas, and even the cynics resisted Sugar Ray no more. Suddenly, people became a party to his romance. In a 12-round, split decision, the 3-to-1 underdog proved too elusive, too sweet, too quick with his storied left hand for Hagler, 32. He danced, juked, mugged and flurried. He amazed and frustrated his foe.

To be sure, there was a period of crisis. For five rounds in the middle of the fight, Hagler ate Leonard up, fed on his liver, as the challenger languished, seemingly spent, on the ropes. Ray was only storing potential, converting pain by a boxer’s alchemy into energy.

When it was over, Hagler wandered bewildered around the ring. Leonard grabbed the microphone and said, “Thank you, thank you. I will see you in six months and 15 pounds later.” Subsequently, Ray said he was “only kidding” about the move up to light heavyweight and another fight. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps he’d had another vision. No one would resist this time.

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