These third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were impressed. They had done enough quick research to know that Sugar Ray Leonard was a former boxing superstar.
The adults in the room — they seemed a bit star-struck when Leonard arrived at Eugene Field Elementary on Thursday. The former six-time world champion was given an extensive tour of the school’s beautiful garden, which is maintained by students as part of the Global Gardens outdoor classroom program.
On Thursday night, Leonard was the keynote speaker at the Champions of Health Gala, which benefited the Oklahoma Caring Foundation.
“I made an impact in the ring,” Leonard said, “but I want to make a stronger impact outside the ring. Hard work, being around good people, gardening, being respectful — all of those things (are positive).”
Before his introduction to Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist and before his tour of the school’s garden, Leonard was involved in a Q&A session with students.
Among the questions were these: Can you do backflips? Did you win a thousand matches? Could you beat my dad? How old are you?
Leonard is 63, but he isn’t old. From a distance, he looks to be about 40. Up close, he could pass for 48 — and yet 43 years have passed since he was an Olympic gold medalist in Montreal.
As Leonard emerged as a charismatic force in professional boxing, the legendary Howard Cosell referred to him as being “the new Muhammad Ali.”
After having her picture taken with Leonard, Gist said, “Thank you so much for being here. It means so much to us. Aren’t (the students) beautiful? They’re ready to take you on a tour, and they love their Global Gardens.”
While in the garden, Leonard and the students snacked on watermelon slices. The Global Gardens mission statement: “To empower students in low-income communities to be agents of change ... through hands-on science and peace education. We believe helping students create a garden is a way to not only assist them with learning about science, health and the environment, but also challenge them to become caring, forward-thinking and confident individuals.”
Leonard’s involvement in children’s causes isn’t occasional. It’s part of his routine. He is the president of the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation, which, according to its mission statement, “is committed to funding research and creating awareness for childhood type 1 and 2 diabetes, and to help children lead healthier lives through diet and exercise.”
Today, an obviously fit Leonard weighs only a few pounds more than the 158 he carried on April 6, 1987, when he returned from a three-year break to win a 12-round decision over Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Before that fight, the heavily favored Hagler was considered invincible.
Leonard-Hagler was among the more celebrated events in boxing history. Leonard also was involved in two famous bouts with Roberto Duran (including the infamous “no mas” fight in 1980), along with a classic 1981 triumph over Thomas Hearns.
A native of Wilmington, North Carolina (Michael Jordan’s hometown), Leonard was Sports Illustrated’s 1981 Sportsman of the Year and the fight game’s most popular figure during the ’80s. When he retired for good in 1997, he had a 36-3-1 record and championships in four weight classes.
On Thursday, Leonard was accompanied by his son, Ray Leonard Jr. When the younger Leonard was a child, he and his father were featured in 7-Up commercials.
“Boxing saved my life,” Sugar Ray said. “It enabled me to take care of my dad, who, by the way, passed away last year. He was 95. It made my life better and enabled me to do things for other people. I’m blessed.”
Because he has aged so well — and still looks just like Sugar Ray Leonard — he is recognized everywhere.
“I’m humbled by that,” Leonard said. “I’ve had an incredible journey.”
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