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Sugar Ray tells youth to avoid vices, work for dreams

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ENEMY SWIM, S.D. ? Students at Enemy Swim Day School and nearby Waubay School District eagerly awaited the arrival of a larger-than-life sports legend many may have only read about.

In his Sept. 5 appearance, boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard encouraged the youngsters to live a healthy lifestyle and follow their dreams.

The six-time World Champion and Olympic gold medallist, relived little of his history with the young fans. Instead, he delivered a message about diet, exercise and determination to meet goals.

'It takes a lot of determination,' he said.

Although he grew up in the inner city, Leonard said he looked to boxing as a way to escape. 'I stayed away from drugs and alcohol.'

He said he was once just a young man with big dreams but those dreams began coming true after hard work.

Leonard reminded students their education was important and another avenue for fulfilling dreams.

Seeing a man some might have seen on television or on the covers of newspapers and magazines was exciting for the more than 300 students who waited patiently for their chance to greet Leonard with a handshake. They stood in long lines for autographs, many of them asking him to sign T-shirts, tennis shoes and sheets of paper.

Eleven-year-old Andrew Owen of Waubay waited and waited while high school students moved through the line. Eager to get an autograph, the Enemy Swim Day School sixth-grader watched for his chance to meet Leonard. Owen's grandmother captured the moment with a camera as Leonard struck a pose.

'It was cool,' the young fan said, visibly excited about seeing and meeting Leonard.

Leonard, clad in casual clothes, left the small tribal school still sporting a larger than life image as he rode away in a white limousine.

The Hall of Fame athlete, a five-division title boxer, is making appearances at area schools including the Tiospa Zina Tribal School. His appearances on the northeastern South Dakota reservation are part of his involvement with a nationally televised event at the Dakota Magic Casino.

ESPN2 was scheduled to broadcast the first of his Friday Night Fights from Dakota Magic Convention Center Sept. 7. The event could bring as many as 74 million viewers to the casino's boxing ring, promoters said. It was one of the first events from the Northern Plains casino to be carried on a national television network.

Leonard's message about a healthy lifestyle and avoiding vices is a personal one. He is a former national spokesman for the DARE program and serves as a spokesman for the National Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. His father suffered from the disease.

Leonard said his commitment to children is because he is the father of four and he understands the challenges youths face in isolated and economically challenged communities.

Leonard was born Ray Charles Leonard, named after the singer Ray Charles. He came from a family of seven, living in a lower middle class Wilmington, N.C., neighborhood.

By the time he was 14, Leonard said he had learned to box as a way to escape the Inner City. Before he was 20, he boasted an impressive boxing record ? three National Golden Gloves titles, two AAU championships and the 1975 Pan-American Games crown.

The young boxer was a natural athlete who soon captured the hearts of Americans when he won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. His swift, graceful style made him a media favorite.

While still dreaming of victories in the ring, he watched boxing greats Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Later he was called 'Sugar Ray' after the great boxer.

Facing the need to help support three generations of his family, on the heels of his Olympic victory Leonard turned to professional boxing.

In 1977, he won his first professional fight against Luis Vega.

Leonard would win his first 27 fights against some of the finest boxers of the modern era including Wilfred Benetiz, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.

After one more fight, Sugar Ray Leonard, suffering from a detached retina in his left eye, retired. Not satisfied with his already long list of victories, he returned to the ring in 1984 and knocked out Kevin Howard before retiring a second time.

In 1987 Leonard came out of retirement to defeat 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler in what was considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history to become the WBC Middleweight Champion.

Two years later, he met Roberto Duran for the third and final time retaining his WBC Super Middleweight Title. Leonard's last bout was against Hector Comacho March 1, 1997, in Atlantic City, nearly 20 years after he entered into the professional ranks. His final record is 36-3-1(25) KOs.

Leonard won world titles in the Welterweight, Junior Middleweight, Middleweight, Super Middleweight and Light Heavyweight divisions, a record that stands today.

Leonard lives in Southern California with his wife Bernadette.

Despite a busy schedule and pressure from the national media to limit his time with tribal youth, he fulfilled a promise to spend time talking to youngsters about making positive choices.

Leonard, who has served as a network commentator, launched Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Inc. (SRL Boxing), a boxing promotional company, in June. His company formed a partnership with ESPN to televise fights the first Friday of each month for the year.

matches, featuring co-main bouts with defending NABF champion O'Neil Bell vs. 'King' Arthur Williams and former WBA world champion Verno Phillips vs. African sensation Kassim Ouma.