Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Style Breakdown

Sugar Ray Leonard is regarded as one of the most exciting and fluid fighters of his era. With beautiful footwork, fantastic punch combinations, and devastating knockout power! Leonard has to be one of the most exciting fighters to watch. 

Having won world titles in five weight divisions, Olympic gold, and being part of “The Four Kings”, there is no denying that Leonard was one greatest fighters are sport has seen. Even if he did have the most retirements and comebacks I can think of! 

In this boxing style analysis, I’ll be taking a closer look at Leonard’s actual fighting abilities that got him to the very top of boxing! 

You can watch my video version or can continue reading below:

Career background 

Amateur Career

Born in North Carolina, Leonard would soon move to Maryland at a young age. He then took up the sport of boxing due to his older brother Rodger, who was already boxing at the time, encouraging a young Ray to start up the sport. 

From here he would enter the amateur system and see much success winning multiple national and Golden Gloves Championships. He would then be noticed and picked up from the US Boxing Team.

Due to Leonard’s first name being Ray and his flashy but devastating style in the amateurs. It was only a matter of time before people would start calling him Sugar Ray. Obviously after the man, many consider being the best boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Ray then went on to win gold at both the Pan American Games and Montreal 1976 Olympics which took him stardom! He finished with an amateur record of 165–5 and 75 KOs. Due to some personal issues after the Olympics, he had to support his family, by turning professional instead of going to college. 

Turning Pro

Duran vs Leonard (Getty Images)

Once a pro, Leonard competed in the welterweight division where he made a quick and steady rise defeating the likes of Floyd Mayweather Sr and former amateur rival Randy Sheilds. He would then get his chance against Wilfred Benitez for his first world title in what was a classic between two up and coming stars. 

Leonard would then go on to have his famous back-to-back fights with Roberto Duran, where he would lose the first, but forced Duran to famously quit in the rematch which is famously referred to as No Mas. Sugar Ray then faced the much-feared Tommas Hearns who he famously knocked out in their classic fight in 1981. 

The Comeback

Hagler vs Leonard Promo

Sugar Ray Leonard’s famous retirements and comebacks would start to take place in the latter part of his career. The most famous comeback fight was his fight with Marvin Hagler, which to many is one of the controversial fights as Leonard won in a split decision. 

Leonard would then retire again before winning taking the opportunity to win the new Super Middleweight championship and vacant light heavyweight belt against Canadian Donny Lalonde. Before taking up some big payday fights with Hearns and Duran again.  

There is no denying Leonard had an eventful career, with some brilliant defining moments, which fans still cherish to this day. There may be some fans that are split regarding some fights throughout his career, but despite what you think, he was an incredibly exciting fighter. 

But now let’s go into detail about how Leonard made his career so successful.

Ray Leonard’s Boxing Style 

Sugar Ray Leonard (L) in action vs Thomas Hearns during the fight at Sports Pavilion of Caesars Palace. CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Sugar Ray Leonard was very much a boxer-puncher, where he would mix up being an out puncher gliding around the ring with his footwork. Before he would quickly step up his attack by looking to counter and using his devasting combination punches to try to take out his opponent. 

The term boxer-puncher gets thrown around a lot in boxing. But to explain, this is someone capable of using both defensive and offensive styles throughout a fight. Leonard for the most part was very much capable of doing both which no doubt made him very successful. 

In an interview with ABC, they compared him to being the next Ali and asked how that sat with him. However, his response was interesting as he talked about the influencing styles which made him. 

“It was very flattering and very stimulating. I watched Ali, studied Ali and I studied Sugar Ray Robinson, I watched them display showmanship, I watched them use pizzazz, personality, and charisma. I took things from them and borrowed things from them because boxing is entertainment. Boxing is a sport but it’s also entertainment. I wanted to transcend the sport and be considered just not as a fighter, or a champion, but someone very special.”

Sugar Ray Leonard

From watching his fights throughout his career, I have to admit I can very much see the out fighter movements of Ali and the killer combinations of Ray Robinson adapted into his style. But most importantly he wanted to entertain. This sometimes however may not be a good thing, as seen in some of his closer fights and losses.  

Bruce Lee Inspirations

I also always fought it was interesting that one of Ray Leonard’s biggest inspirations was Bruce Lee. And you can very much tell from watching Leonard, that he put into practice the thoughts and teaching of Lee. Here is Ray talking about Bruce Lee:

Now it’s important to go breakdown each of the individual elements that made Leonard so successful. 

The lead hand 

This was the cornerstone of Ray Leonard’s success in the ring, as everything for the most part would come off from a jab or lead left hand. He would tend to circle to his left trying to keep the center ring while throwing quick sharp jabs from different levels

For Leonard, he would have your typical orthodox stance. But would change his guard from a higher to a lower half guard depending on the opponent’s approach. 

This was so he could throw his jab from below his opponent’s vision and from a low angle. Here it would also allow Leonard to throw multiple quick jabs at once from different angles. 

Ray also had a very strong power jab where he would snap his jab forward with his lead foot. 

Another part I loved about Leonard was the way he would use defensive movement to throw the jab by rolling his opponent’s jab, before quickly firing back with his jab to the body or head or even a sneaky slap left hook to change it up further. He would double or triple up the lead left hook very similar to how Ray Robinson would throw it!

Watch Ray throwing the lead hand below:

The Right Hand

Now one of Leonard’s favorite punches to throw was of course that lead right hand.

You will have no doubt seen the clips of Ali or Floyd Mayweather throwing this lead hand by leaning to the left waiting to counter the opponent’s jab before firing a quick overhand right over the top. 

This was of course a favorite of Leonard’s. It was all about timing this punch against his opponent being lazy with their jab, or Sugar Ray knew he had the speed to counter them with it. 

Bolo Punch

Most famously, Ray was also known for throwing the Bolo punch, as he would tend to wind up his punches to generate power at times. 

It works by using circular motion performed with one arm to distract an opponent, causing the opponent to either take his eyes off the attacker’s other arm or focus on the fighter’s circling arm. 

When the opponent concentrates on the hand that is circling, the bolo puncher will usually sneak in a punch with the opposite hand. When the rival concentrates on the hand that is not moving, the bolo puncher will usually follow through with a full punch. 

He most famously did this vs Duran, Heanns, and even Hagler. This is a dangerous move to do as it can leave you open for a countershot. It just shows you the confidence and ability Sugar Ray had to pull this off. 

Punch Flurries and Variation 

One of the things I want to address around Leonard was of course the quick devastating punch combinations he would throw out of nowhere sometimes. 

From watching his fights, I feel Leonard attacks with a vast amount of punches it was more instinctual and from muscle memory from his training. Rather than specifically planning out an exact punch combination to take them out. 

For sure now and again he would put together planned out combinations due to opening in front of him. But I feel it was more the demon inside he let out in those moments. 

Not that I think this is a bad thing, as Leonard would have much composure and wait for his opponent to be hurt first before attacking with these famous flurries. But it was knowing that he could inflict some serious damage with his unreal speed no doubt gave him confidence 

That’s not to say he didn’t think through some of his combinations, as Leonard would try to pick up on gaps and openings. (Just watch below).

Feints and showboating 

A great part of Leonard’s overall approach was his use of constant feints. Due to his more fluid approach and open stance. He would have to throw feints and use upper body movement to create hesitation from his competitor. But he would also use it as a way to create an opening for himself to see how his opponents would react as they would be very cautious about him unleashing a quick flurry.

His most famous was stepping in with his feet to feint. Quite often many only think you can feint up top with upper body movement, but due to Leonard’s brilliance, he was quick for most opponents to react in time.

Psychological Showboating

No doubt, Leonard likes to entertain when in the ring and taunt his opponent. In a way, this can very much throw off your opponent as it can make you very unpredictable with your next move. His most famous moment of showboating was of course his rematch with Roberto Duran which was almost shocking at how much this psychologically threw Duran off. 

However as much, as this gets highlighted, Leonard was quite composed in his approach and would only use this on certain occasions. 

Footwork & Defense

Dazzling footwork

Now one of the reasons Leonard was so successful in my opinion was his beautiful and intelligent footwork. This in my opinion was Leonard’s first line of defense especially when he was fighting on the outside.

For the most part, he would use lots of lateral movement and always move around the ring. He would also time his opponent and take a small half step backward before once again moving laterally to reset himself. This made Leonard extremely difficult to tie down for any opponent trying to apply pressure which only the very best fighter had success. 

Other defensive moves

However, Leonard could not simply rely on fighting on the outside and he would also have to need to stand his ground in the center of the ring so he could counter-punch and then hurt his opponent with his quick and devastating combinations.

Here he would be very good at rolling shots with his shoulder and also using his lead forearm and elbow to deflect incoming shots. In particular, the right hand, which we saw him do to perfection in the first fight to neutralize Hearns’s famous right hand. He would then be able to counter back with a left hook. 

Leonard would also use his backhand to parry away incoming jabs or block hooks mainly as his lead hand would be in a lower position he would use this hand to defend against the lead hand.

Finally, Leonard had it all in terms of using upper body movement including rolling the right and even slipping shots, which made him a very hard elusive target. I also think due to his lowered guard and stance he was able to have more balance and fluidity with movements to help him doge punches with great ease. 

However, as Leonard got older I do feel his open guard and stance did let him down at the times, getting some unnecessary counter punches, which could’ve been avoided if he used a higher guard.  

Killer Instinct

(Getty Images)

To finish off I want to touch on Leonard’s killer finishing instinct when he was in the ring. Outside, Ray seemed like your typical nice charismatic sportsperson. But as fight night drew closer, it was very much the opposite for Ray. When in the ring, he had this killer attitude. 

It also helped that Sugar Ray also had enough power, as a natural welterweight, to stop super middleweights.

Leonard was a boxer first and foremost using his quick hands and beautiful boxing movement to his advantage. 

But make no mistake, when the situation called for it, Leonard would turn up the heat to take out opponents when the opportunity would arise! 

Traumatic past

The mental aspects of boxing can be a big influence on fighters’ abilities when in the ring. 

Leonard went through a traumatic experience as a young boy. As he was sexually abused by one of his coaches. Somehow he managed to grow past this and use his talent and aggression in the ring to achieve his dreams in boxing. This is what Ray Leonard said below on how he faced this dark and horrible thing and changed it into a positive. 

“Every time I stepped into the ring I had that chip of ice. My brother, Roger, saw it when we were sparring. I moved towards him and he said, ‘Stop, Ray! Look at your f****** eyes. You look like you wanna kill me!’ Maybe I used what happened to me outside when I ducked inside the ropes.

“But it was subconscious. Did I fight so hard because I was distressed by the sexual abuse? Not to my knowledge. Outside, I’m not a confrontational guy. Even if I’m used to talking on TV I’m actually reserved and quiet – almost shy. But I could be a mean guy in that ring because I felt confident.

I went through real darkness but the ring was my light. That was the one place I felt safe. I could control what happened in the ring. My heart turned icy.”

‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard

Although Leonard didn’t open up about the sexual abuse he received until later in his life, it’s a great lesson for us all that even going through pain, he was able to push through by focusing on his passion and talent to achieve his dream career, despite this horrible occurrence. He used this pain as a way to create the “eye of the tiger” so to speak in my opinion. 

Final thoughts 

For me, Sugar Ray Leonard is a fighter that encapsulates you to watch more of this great sport due to his speed, movement, and somewhat brutal finishing ability 

Leonard was in no way the biggest fighter, but his ability to throw his whole body into his punches made him one of the most dangerous combinations of punchers in my opinion.

His run at welterweight was of course the prime of his career and there is no denying he was at the top during that period! His comeback and victory over Hagler, have split people’s opinions on him, but you have to give respect for coming back to face the most feared man in boxing at that time despite what you think the result was. 

If you are someone who loves to box on the outside and attack with quick combinations, Leonard is a brilliant example to study.  


Why not check out my boxing style breakdown on another king and old rival to Leonard – Marvin Hagler

See my other boxer style analysis features here or why not look at the following boxing stars:

Jamie - Boxing Life

I'm an amateur boxer and blogger trying to pass on my boxing experiences and passion to anyone looking to learn or find out more about the sport of boxing. Whether that be reviews, news, training tips or my own personal journey, I'll be covering it on "Boxing Life".

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