When it comes to boxing and the real steel of fighting, Sugar Ray Leonard doesn’t need an introduction. Having learned to box at the age of 14, Leonard’s career includes three National Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships and the 1975 Pan-American Games crown. After winning a gold medal in boxing at the 1976 Olympic games, Sugar Ray Leonard turned pro and was an immediate media favorite given his charm.
In 1977, at the age of 20, Leonard won his first professional fight. During his 20-year professional career, Leonard also won world titles in the welterweight, junior middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. He was the first boxer to win world titles in five different weight classes, a record that stands to this day. Along with his famous battles against Roberto Duran and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, Sugar Ray Laonard’s comeback fight with Marvelous Marvin Hagler was one of the greatest boxing events in history.
In 2011, Sugar Ray Leonard went behind the scenes on the action packed robot fight movie Real Steel with Hugh Jackman to serve as fight consultant and help make the Real Steel combat look just that… real!
Ahead of the January 24 Blu-ray release of Real Steel, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard discussed working on the movie, training Hugh Jackman, and how the world of Real Steel differs from his days in the ring.
How did you come to consult on Real Steel?
SUGAR RAY LEONARD: Stacey Snider’s kids go to the same school that mine do. She approached me at a parent-teacher meeting and gave me a script to read. She said, “Ray, I might have something for you.” When she told me the premise of the movie I said, “Wow, this is great.” Then she said Hugh Jackman was in it and I jumped at the opportunity.
What was your job on the movie?
LEONARD: With Hugh, my objective was to make him look like a real fighter. I conveyed to him that boxing isn’t just about throwing a punch. As a fighter you have to have conviction and intention when you throw a punch. Landing a punch to someone’s face has to match that intention.
The biggest thing he struggled with was letting go, surrendering and dropping his guard to be a fighter. When I look back at boxing films, the only ones that come to mind where the actor let go and became that fighter were “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Fighter.” It’s very hard for a superstar to do that—let go of their thing and for a moment know what it’s like to be a fighter.
Working with Hugh was a pleasure. He’s an A-list actor but he was so eager to learn. He had such a thirst for learning and really performing. I’m sure when he went home he was probably in the mirror boxing. He’s a real perfectionist.
Hugh plays the trainer of the robot fighter Atom. The relationship between trainer and boxer is very, very intimate and powerful. I told Hugh that he needed to get to a point where he was talking to Atom with his eyes. The audience will feel that. He pulled it off.
With the robots, my job was to give them a personal boxing style that matched their design. For instance, Zeus is big and strong so I thought of George Foreman. With Atom, I saw a lot of me in him because he was unassuming, kind of innocent looking and fast. That’s why I gave him a few of my signature moves.
Hugh Jackman has boxed for fun and he’s in excellent physical condition. With so much already going for him, did you have any unexpected challenges when you were trying to train him?
LEONARD: I always expect unexpected challenges. Boxing is not an easy sport. My whole thing with Hugh was for him to have the right expressions on his face so that he looked like a fighter. I wasn’t that interested in the physicality of what boxers do. I just made sure that when he delivered the punch, he felt the punch connect.
Was there a particular fight scene that was more of a challenge for you?
LEONARD: Once I choreographed the combinations for the fight it was essentially ready to go. You can just repeat the combinations over and over again. I just didn’t know if the robots could really emulate the kind of punch that I was demonstrating, but the robots were very loose. They did a great job.
Your son was the same age that Dakota Goyo is when you were boxing. Did you see any similarities in the father/son relationship in Real Steel?
LEONARD: I get sad sometimes because I was a kid myself when I had a kid, Little Ray. I didn’t really spend that much time with him because I was always working and all he wanted was my time. He just wanted me to love him. Max says in the movie, “Fight for me,” and I totally understood that. Kids just want you.
It’s ironic that that’s the kind of relationship that Charlie and Max have. It really hit home for me and I think people will understand it when they see the movie. There’s a very powerful message in the movie about fighting for something that is very special, important and innocent.
One of the messages of the film is that the robots are essentially soulless and don’t have the spirit of a real fighter in them. Was there a difference in your approach to Atom and the other robots for that reason?
LEONARD: There was a sense of something human about Atom. I took my wife and kids to the set and their reaction to him told me a lot.
Did you always know you’d be a boxer?
LEONARD: No one, particularly my mother and father, thought I was going be a boxer. I always felt that even football and baseball were too dangerous and I was just a very quiet kid. I found boxing when I was 14 years old. My brother, who used to beat me up all the time, introduced me to it. He took me down to the boxing gym. It turned out that boxing was a sport I felt safe doing because I could control what was going on in the ring. I was the most disciplined guy around. I would get up at five o’clock in the morning and run five miles and then go to school. I knew what I wanted.
Many years ago, when I was 15 or 16 and I had started climbing the ladder of success in amateur boxing, a reporter asked me, “What do you want to be?” I think he was expecting me to say “champion.” I said I wanted to be special. I don’t know why I said that but I didn’t just want to be a fighter. I wanted to have an impact on people, particularly kids. I look back now and realize that I worked hard to be respected.
Do you miss the boxing lifestyle?
LEONARD: I don’t miss getting hit but I do miss the camaraderie. I still choreograph fights in my head. I choreographed every fight I ever had and nine times out of ten it came to fruition. I had this ability to draw a plan in my head, have a vision, and then complete it.
You know, when people meet me for the very first time, they’re surprised. Even my wife said, “I can’t believe you were a fighter.” She thinks I’m such a sissy now because of my demeanor. But I’ve always been quiet and kind of shy. Because of my exposure in the world and around the press I know how to do interviews. But if I walk into a party I’ll probably end up in the corner.
What is it about boxing that makes for such good cinema?
LEONARD: It’s raw. It’s very primal. It’s one on one. Going mano a mano is that gladiator, warrior thing. The guy sitting on his sofa lives vicariously through the boxer. I think it’s just the ultimate “stand up and show who’s best.” Ultimately, a fight is about who the best boxer is pound for pound. Both fighters claim that they are. They fight each other. The money will put them in a whole different tax bracket but it goes beyond the money. It’s about your legacy. It’s about history. It’s about bragging rights.
What drew me to boxing was the fact that it was such a one-on-one thing. When you walk from the dressing room to the ring you must bring your A game. The three fights that I lost I knew—not that I was going to lose, but that it was going to be a long night. When I walked into that ring I said to myself, “I wonder if they would mind postponing this?” I believe in body rhythms and I believe in being “up.” There are certain days when you just don’t want to go to work and I didn’t want go to work on those nights. I really wished I could have postponed the match on those three nights.
Real Steel is available on Blu-ray and DVD January 24.