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The Heart-Wrenching Reason Sugar Ray Leonard Became A Professional Boxer

He felt he had no other choice.

For most athletes, standing atop an Olympic podium would be the happiest moment of their career. But when Sugar Ray Leonard won the gold for boxing at the 1976 Olympic Games, he admits he was filled with mixed emotions. 

"I was standing on the podium with a gold medal draped around my neck, the National Anthem being played – and I didn't know whether or not to cry or just scream out with joy," Leonard says. "I really felt at that time that my career was over."

Though the obvious next step was to turn professional, Leonard didn't want to go that route. "I had no thoughts about being a professional fighter because I've heard some horrible stories," he says. "I didn’t want to be one of them."

But in an instant, everything changed. "I got home and my dad went into a coma and we had no money," Leonard shares.

The decision was made: he would go pro. "I didn't think twice about that. I turned professional to help my dad," he says matter-of-factly. "To pay the bills."

As a professional boxer, Leonard went on to win world titles in five weight divisions and earn the nickname "the boxer of the 1980s." Boxing gave him plenty of fame and recognition, but more importantly, it allowed him to provide for his family. "I know my father’s proud of me," Leonard says. "When I presented my parents with their first home paid for, they shared tears like a waterfall. And I did the same."

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