Sparring with Sugar Ray Leonard: How I Made Them Say “What’s Wrong with Ray?”

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns II: Darin Allen recounts how he got the best of Sugar Ray during the training camp leading up to this epic showdown.

Sugar Ray Leonard Thomas Hearns boxing, 1989.

June 12, 1989 Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. (From Getty Images.)

One night I receive a call at 3 0′ clock in the morning from Sugar Ray Leonard’s training camp saying that Ray needed some work in preparation for his rematch with Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns, and I had the boxing style and physique to fit the bill. The only problem was they wanted me to fly down to West Palm Beach, Florida and be there the same day by 12:00 noon for the first sparring session. 

It was 1989, a few months after I had just turned pro; I was living in Columbus, Ohio and still married to my first wife, who was starting to complain mightily about the lack of steady income I was pulling in to support our household. And now the Leonard camp was on the phone offering me $500 a week to spar with Ray. Therefore, it was a forgone conclusion that I would accept their invitation.  Although in retrospect, because Ray’s handler JD Blythe called me at 3:00 a.m. in the morning with such a strong sense of urgency in his voice–I should have asked for more money. Anyway, I said “yes” to the terms so long as they would agree to fly me back in a few days so that I could keep the plans my wife and I had made for a trip to Disney World with our family. JD agreed. I hung up the phone and tried to catch one more hour of sleep, before I got up, packed my bags and rushed to the airport in time to make the 6: 00 a.m. flight to West Palm Beach.

The plane ride to West Palm Beach from Columbus seemed like it only took 5 minutes, because I was hoping that it would take a year: I was not looking forward to sparring with the great Sugar Ray Leonard. I mean come on! Who would?

Immediately after touching down, I was up picked up at the airport by some of Ray’s handlers who took me straight to the gym–luggage and all. No hotel, no bite to eat, nothing—just straight to the gym! These guys meant business.

Good Work for Ray

I walked into that gym more scared than a pork chop at a Muslim convention. A large crowd of gawkers had gathered inside the gym to see Sugar Ray Leonard train, and I  was trying to bob my head up over them to see if I could get a glimpse of Ray too when suddenly, Ollie, one of Ray Leonard’s handlers, looks over at me and says, “Get dressed you’re up next to spar.”  I’m thinking to myself “man, what? I just got here and you want me to jump into the ring with Sugar Ray?”

Luckily, it turned out that I was scheduled to spar with another sparring partner of Leonard’s named Lindsey Morgan from Youngstown, Ohio. After sparring two rounds with Lindsey, one of Ray’s guys hollers out “We seen enough. We’ll take him; he is good work for Ray!”

Wow! My mind is really spinning now thinking that these guys spent all this money to fly me down here and didn’t know for sure whether or not they could use me? Whew! These are people with some deep pockets. And sure enough after I showered up they took me to a nice hotel where they treated me superbly: free food, spending money–everything. I even met a couple new friends, sparing partners for Ray, who were both nursing black eyes courtesy of Leonard.  Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?

The next day Ray’s bus comes to pick us up at the hotel and drive us to the gym, and when we arrive I see Ray Leonard warming up and showing off in front of a large crowd of people. Then one of his handlers, standing behind me lays his hand on my shoulder and says, “Get ready.  You’re up next.”

My First Sparing Session with Sugar Ray Leonard

I’m battling panic attacks as I step into the ring, but there was no time to pray because soon as both my feet were squarely planted on the ring’s canvas–the bell rang.  Ray took the tip and immediately began to pound on me for three rounds. After the session was over, all I could think about was how sore my ribs were and how big of a mistake I made by coming to West Palm Beach to get beaten up by Ray.

The next day, Ray’s camp came through on their promise to fly me back home so I could make the trip to Disney World with my family. Four days later, I was back in West Palm Beach and being driven from the hotel to the lion’s den to spar with Ray. However, this time when I got to the gym there were no other sparring partners dressed, which meant I would be the only one to spar with Ray that day.

Leonard’s Manger Dave Jacobs Told Me I Had No Heart

A few years ago while I was still an amateur, Dave Jacobs, one of Ray Leonard’s trainers, told me that I didn’t have any heart. I never forgot his words, but after taking a pounding from Ray like I did a few days earlier and coming back to face him again—I knew I had heart.  My problem was never a lack of heart–it was a lack of discipline.  I was thinking about what Jacob’s said to me when Ray entered the ring.  It motivated me and this time—even to my surprise—I did a lot better.

Jesse Jackson Visits Sugar Ray’s Camp

The very next day Rev. Jesse Jackson and BET personality Donnie Simpson came by the gym to watch Ray’s training and sparing sessions. Once again I performed a little better. My discipline was getting better and my mind was getting stronger. In addition to having to spar Ray, I was getting up early every morning and going on long grueling runs and working hard in the gym.  It was all starting to come together for me–I began to compete on Rays Leonard’s level. Before long my sparring sessions with Ray began to become more of a chess match between us rather than a lopsided work out on his part. As the camp wore on I got better and soon I was in complete control of Sugar Ray Leonard. 

I Was Better Than Ray Leonard

I was faster, stronger and younger than the aging thirty-three-year-old superstar–I was better than Ray Leonard! There were times during our sessions that I caught myself holding back trying not to make Ray look too bad. It even got to the point where I believed that if I wanted to–I could knock Ray out.

The tide had turned from the first time we spared when Ray had battered me unmercifully. Now I was the one making him grunt and groan. I was dominating him so much that one day Ray (or his handlers) decided to just spar to the body—thinking my body was my weakness. To Ray’s surprise I still got the better of him. I was enjoying hearing him go “um, and uh, with every body blow I delivered. I’ll never forget the “who in the hell is this guy look” that Ray and his handlers gave me after that sparring session.

What’s Wrong with Ray?

I was doing so well against Ray that the mood in the camp began to sour: “What’s wrong with Ray? Something has to be on his mind. Maybe this is wrong or maybe that was wrong.” The truth of the matter is that Ray Leonard was old and in the ring with someone who was more talented than him–even better. I just did not have the mind of Ray Leonard: his I will never quit and when I smell blood I’m going to tear the living hell out of you kind of mindset. If I would have had Ray’s strong willed take no prisoner mind—I would have finished him off a week ago.

Instead, I carried Ray for the rest of my stay at the camp.

Las Vegas Camp

Some of Ray’s West Palm Beach sparring partners went home after camp, but a few of us got to go to Las Vegas to train with him before his fight with Tommy Hearns.  However, though I was invited, I never stepped foot in the ring to spar with Ray during the three weeks we were in Vegas.  It was smart move on Ray’s part, because not only was my body in superb condition my mind was in shape as well. I was beginning to think big!  And word was getting around about what took place in West Palm Beach. Consequently, he and his handlers didn’t want me to show out on him in front of all the media and reporters from around the world that converged on Vegas to cover the fight.

I received a lot of my respect from my showing at the Leonard’s West Palm camp. Even Dave Jacobs indirectly apologized to me one night at dinner by saying “You have something in the pros you didn’t have in the amateurs.”  He didn’t know but I knew what it was. My mind was simply elevated with the conditioning and the peace of being away from my wife. Even more, I was determined to make Dave Jacobs eat the words he once spoke to me about my lack of heart.

A Door Closes and another Opens

I once had it all and now when people I run into say “man. I heard you were a world amateur boxing champion and fought for the Light Heavy Weight Title as a pro. That’s amazing.”  I respond, “You’re wrong.”  What’s amazing is how I blew an opportunity that not too many people have.

Readers of this may be thinking “you sure are talking a lot of stuff and boasting about how good you once were. You are going to turn people off by talking like that.”  The truth of the matter is that I turned a lot of the most important people in my life away with the lack of effort I put into the God given talent I once had.  A few months back I was talking to a former trainer and good friend of mine and I told him “I blew it” (my boxing career). “We all blow things in our life that we think we are called to do. When one door closes another door opens,” he said. He’s right! I was blessed with a beautiful new wife and children.

By the way, on June 12, 1989, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns fight ended in a 12 round draw. Tommy knocked down Ray twice in that fight. Many observers thought he should have gotten the decision. Leonard fired Dave Jacobs after that fight and ever since the rest of Ray Leonard’s West Palm Beach camp have kept their experience with me under the rug as much as possible.   As for Ray himself—he never spoke to me again. 

Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns II Highlight Video:


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About Darin Allen

Darin Allen is a former American amateur and professional boxer. As an amateur boxer he won a middleweight World championship and U.S.A. amateur championship. Allen went on to have a mildly successful professional boxing career that was highlighted by a world light heavyweight championship fight.


  1. Do you think had you had a real fight with the 1989 version of Ray Leonard you beat him?

    Remember Donny Lalonde was nailing him also and he found a way. The same with the 2nd Hearns fight. Had that gone 15 rounds. Same results

  2. david leonard was a winner he found away to win.I agree a slower Leonard when he fought Hagler.

  3. I mean retired from 1982-1987. To me thats where he lost a lot of his skills, speed and snap and probably why he was reluctant to take on younger fighters like Michael Nunn and Mike McCallum.

  4. You dont think it would have been that much of a difference. Ray at 147 is much quicker than the 1988 version. Hand and foot speed. His in and out movement was very quick and better stamina back then.

    He also had more snap in his punches. Remember he was retired from 1982-1982. Even in the Hagler fight i thought he looked much slower than when he was at 147. The snap wasn’t the same.

    Youtube some of his old fight, but the ones where he isnt champion yet. That snap on his shots. When he was older it was like he was pushing his punches. In that Hearns fight he looked so slow.

  5. YeS I do agree a younger Ray Leonard would have been different. I really do not think that much of a difference.

  6. Honestly in a real fight dont you think Ray would have probably fount you different and maybe boxed more. Also the 1989 version of SRL is so slow.

    Much slower than the 1978 to 1982 version

  7. Ray punished me early as I said in the article mailnly because of fear and conditioning but once I got into better shape the rest was history. Yes at that point in Rays career he was easy to hit and I was hitting him at will. Like I said I was holding back.

  8. Hey dude, Hearns smashed Sugar in this fight. Only reason it was draw is because Ray looked like he wanted it more in the 12th and the judges loved him. Hearns never looked good at the end of a fight. I never understood that part of his game. Was Ray that easy to hit when you spared him?

  9. Pingback: Hot Links 4: Darin Allen Spars Sugar Ray Leonard | High School Sports America

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