Sugar Ray Leonard Talks About Abuse: 'I Was Knocked Down, Not KO'ed'
Sugar Ray Leonard doesn't talk about his childhood sexual abuse very much.
In fact, at Penn State's Child Sexual Abuse Conference on Monday, in front of a sold-out crowd of survivors and supporters, Leonard told his story for only the second time.
The American boxing world champion survived abuse from two assailants as a minor, both whom he once believed wanted the best for him and his boxing career.
"Trust is a very sacred thing," Leonard said, describing the first time he was molested. "I jumped out of the car and I ran home. I was trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
"I cried – I was in my bedroom, I cried more. I cried so much it was painful. I never told anyone about that."
There would be another incident after that one – another man, years later. Leonard said as he was driving his 1967 blue Chevy to the man's house, he felt deep down that something wasn't right. When he realized what was happening, Leonard knew he had to get out.
"I was shaking like a leaf ... I just put my head down and I wanted to scream."
The second time around, Leonard continued to suppress his pain and kept the abuse to himself because he felt so alone.
"To me, it only happened to me," he said. "I was the only one that was victimized by an abuser."
Leonard would go on to win a gold medal, but being an Olympic champion didn't trigger the change he wanted. He was married and thought opening up to his first wife would finally help him heal. Instead, she said nothing. Eventually, their marriage fell apart.
Already a boxing legend, Leonard felt like he had nowhere to turn. He sought solace with the aid of alcohol – and it turned into an addiction.
The memories still came back. They were vivid and they were destructive. Leonard wanted to turn his life around, but he didn't know how. It wasn't until he saw Todd Bridges, from 'Different Strokes,' on 'Oprah' talking about the abuse he suffered as a child that Leonard finally opened up.
Now the father of a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, Leonard still struggles with his abuse but doesn't underestimate the power of getting people to talk about it, acknowledge it and allow victims to get the help they need.
"We can't let this thing destroy our kids," Leonard said. "Yeah, I'm a world championship boxer. Yeah, I danced on 'Dancing With the Stars', but if I were to end – if I were to eradicate child sexual abuse, that would be the greatest accomplishment of my life.
"People need to hear more of this. Use me, I am that leader."
Leonard described his life post-abuse as an odyssey, a journey and even a nightmare. Despite the pain and suffering that may never fully subside, Leonard said he knows how lucky he is to have recovered from his lowest point. He's been sober for six years.
"I would be dead if I didn't have the courage to finally stand up and say, 'Ray, it's OK.' It's OK to talk about these things. As we work together, as we collaborate, we will find a way to end this thing.
"There's such a stigma to being sexually abused – that you're weak, that it's your fault ... I won't forget it, I'll never forget it. But you have to surrender and move on with your life.
"Boxing gave me solidarity."
When the news about Jerry Sandusky's sex crimes broke in Nov. 2011, Leonard said he cried again, being able to empathize with the pain. He said society can move forward by opening the door to talk about child sexual abuse and not 'candy-coating' the subject when talking to children.
Leonard still struggles, but finally talking about his abuse gave him the strength no amount of time in the gym could.
"I was knocked down, but not knocked out," Leonard said.
The conference, being held at the Penn Stater Conference Center and Hotel, continued on schedule despite classes and all other afternoon activities being canceled at University Park. Penn State officials announced it will continue to run on schedule and any necessary adjustments will be announced as they are available.