It was thirty-three years ago today that Floyd Mayweather Sr. stepped into the ring with boxing sensation Sugar Ray Leonard in a nationally-televised event from the Civic Center in Providence, RI. For Mayweather, it still seems like yesterday – But that's what happens when a man misses an opportunity that could have changed his life forever. Even after all these years, the thought of what could have been won't let him forget the night of September 9, 1978.
Like many of Sugar Ray's future opponents, Mayweather ceded any pre-fight advantage he may have had to Leonard. "People don't know this but I only had two weeks to get ready for Leonard. I took the fight on short notice," said Floyd.
"I wasn't scared of Leonard at all. I knew the moment I stepped into the ring I could beat him."
Floyd Mayweather didn't find a confident Sugar Ray Leonard (then 13-0, 8KO) when they met in the center of the ring for the pre-fight instructions. "He wouldn't look me in the eye (during the stare down). Then at the last minute, he looked up and winked at me, trying to play it off like he wasn't nervous."
And the twenty-two year old Leonard had every reason to be nervous - This was his first fight against a legitimate, world-ranked welterweight. Floyd Mayweather Sr. was also a two-time Michigan Golden Gloves Champion (1973 and 1974) and 15-1 with 8 knockouts as a professional at the time.
Standing in front of the 1976 Olympic gold medalist face-to-face moments before the bout, Floyd was confident he could beat Leonard.
Unbeknownst to most, Floyd carried a secret with him into that fight. "I fractured my hand in the fight against McKnight in the 8th round," expressed a regretful Mayweather. Floyd had won a unanimous decision over Art McKnight in Houston, TX just two weeks prior to the Leonard bout.
Although Mayweather's hand improved, two weeks wasn't enough time for it to heal satisfactorily - Especially given the caliber of his opponent and the magnitude of the event. "I told my manager that I didn't want to do it. He told me not to worry (because) a doctor would be there to give me a shot so I could compete... Well, guess what, he never showed," said Mayweather.
The fight was called by legendary boxing announcer Howard Cosell and several times during the first half of the fight he's heard complimenting Mayweather on his impressive boxing skills. "Notice that quick, flicking left of Mayweather. Quick-handed fighter. Good left jab, Mayweather has," said Cosell during the fight.
Despite the injury, Mayweather used his right hand sparingly in the early rounds. And the fight footage reveals the twenty-four year old from Michigan was arguably on even terms with Leonard after the first two rounds due to his effective aggression and success with his long, quick left jab. "It didn't take me but a minute to see that he was loading up on all his punches. All of his punches were wild. I could see everything he was throwing."
And Floyd still vividly remembers the moment in the sixth when Sugar Ray wound up his famous Bolo punch. "He tried to wind up his right hand and get all showy with me. I jabbed him real good a couple of times and knew he couldn't play me."
After Leonard won rounds three and four, Mayweather rallied in the fifth but was no longer able to unleash his right hand with any meaningful force from that moment on.
Footage of the fight corroborates Floyd's story. He couldn't throw his right hand after the fifth and the two knockdowns scored against him in the eighth were from punches that hit his right glove (the fractured hand). "He didn't know it but he was hurting me by hitting my right hand. I was blocking his lefts and my (injured) hand was screaming."
Even one-handed, the gritty Mayweather was a puzzle that was not easy to solve. Floyd admirably held his own until Leonard began punishing his foe by jarring Floyd with hard combinations from the eighth round on.
The fight was stopped by the referee in the tenth after Sugar Ray unleashed a barrage of hard, unanswered punches that wobbled the defensive-minded Mayweather.
Reflecting on that night, Mayweather said, "I don't want to take anything away from Leonard. I respect everything he accomplished in the game - But I know if my hand was okay I could have beat him."
To add insult to injury, Mayweather learned after the fight his manager had ripped him off after he was presented with a check which he calls a 'joke.' "They had the fight in Rhode Island cause that's where Dundee was from. We were in his backyard. It was like a sauna in there that night. My hand was broke and my manager was a crook."
What would have happened that night if Floyd's hand was healthy? What would his career have been like had he defeated the future legend? These unanswered questions are like thorns in Floyd's side.
Would things have been different had Floyd been able to drop his right hand and effectively defend against Leonard's left?
What could have been?