ELKHART — While he's one of the elite fighters in the history of boxing, there was nothing intimidating nor combative about Sugar Ray Leonard's presence on Thursday, Aug. 15, as he made the rounds at Beardsley Elementary School.
A relaxed Leonard, 57 years old and 16 years retired from a career that left him ranked No. 12 all-time by ESPN, was all smiles and drew plenty right back as he mingled with children in a variety of grades over the course of about an hour and 10 classroom stops.
He was accompanied by Beardsley principal Val Priller and a handful of other officials from both the school and the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart.
It didn't seem to matter a bit that the kids weren't old enough to remember him as a boxer, though some classes had watched biographical videos about Leonard earlier in the day.
“I get so much out of it,” Leonard said when the tour of classrooms and a visit to the Boys & Girls Club facility located within Beardsley were each over. “I think I get more out of it than the kids do.”
Leonard's low-key, informal appearance came near the end of the school day, and in advance of a VIP-style event featuring him that was slated for Thursday night at The Lerner Theatre.
The gathering was organized to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart.
Ryon Wheeler, associate executive director of the club, said he was hopeful that “in excess of $100,000” would be raised by way of the evening festivities, which were to include a silent auction and an after-dinner presentation by Leonard.
The man who won world titles in five different weight classes admitted he was surprised to learn from Wheeler that 97 percent of the Elkhart club's budget comes from private funding.
Tickets for Thursday evening's affair were $3,000 to $5,000 for a table of eight, depending on accompanying perks, and about 250 people were expected to attend, according to Wheeler.
Leonard, though, said the Beardsley drop-in, where no dollars were collected, was just as important to him.
“I've done this throughout my career,” Leonard said. “When I was fighting and going to training camp, I would make it a must to stop at a couple schools before I left that area, whether it was Miami, Arizona, Washington, D.C., wherever I am. It just feels good.”
And the Boys & Girls Clubs in particular have long held a feel-good feeling for Leonard.
“I was a Club kid,” said Leonard, who grew up in the D.C. area and estimated he joined around age 8. “It got me off the streets, it kept me away from the bad seeds and it made me think more positively about myself.”
Leonard said children today generally have it tougher than children in his day did.
“The peer pressure on kids today is unbelievably outrageous,” said the former Olympic champion, whose two youngest children among his four in all are a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
While noting that his own children are afforded a lifestyle more comfortable than most, he added that it pains him to see his daughter and her friends “think they have to starve themselves, weigh 90 pounds and look like models.”
Regardless of era, though, Leonard personally had it especially tough when he was growing up, and said protecting children must be a priority of society.
In his 2011 autobiography, “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring,” Leonard revealed not just his own failings, but that he had been the victim of sexual abuse by a boxing coach when he was 15 years old, and there was a repeat incident a few years later as he was getting ready for the Olympics.
“I felt shameful about it for 40 years,” Leonard said Thursday of why he didn't share the information sooner in life. “But that's why it's been an epidemic problem, because nobody speaks up. Nobody speaks up, but it stays with you forever. It has to be addressed.”