Sugar Ray Seales: Blind Man's Bluff
By Richard E. Baker on February 10, 2020
Seale’s beautiful hands became rocks in those fights with Marvin Hagler. (Richard E. Baker)
Only the toughest boxers would be crazy enough to fight Marvin Hagler, not just once, but three times: a unanimous decision loss, a draw, and a loss by TKO. Whoever said that boxers have any sense?
It was 1992 and Sugar Ray Seales was training Rocky Lockridge. Seales, the Olympic gold medal in his pocket, a medal won through determination, a determination that comes with only the finest athletes, diligent work, and a belief in himself, a belief that comes from the inside, from not just the mind but also the body, sat in a cloud of smoke over the outdoor fire. Lockridge was on a run. I remember him disappearing down the logging road of a forest long since worked-out yet still covered in older trees along with the new growth, through the mist, and into the evergreens. The mountain air smelled like sweet spring water mixed with sage and thyme, a smell as old as the country when the first evergreen seed took hold, determined to push its way through the soil and reach toward the sky and what sunlight that peaked through the rain clouds. The former champion, who recently died, was training for a comeback against Rafael Ruelas, always a bad idea and seldom successful, especially when it was done from desperation. Lockridge had squandered millions. Desperate boxers do not fight well. They fight decently when they are new and broke, then continue to do well as their skills improve and the money problems start to lessen, and at their best when the money problems are solved. The money soon becomes more important than their skills and they start to decline. Then the money goes. They become desperate and, unlike when they first started to box and improve their skills to earn a living and respect, they fight just for money, the least valuable product in the world. Any more money above that needed for basic living usually leads to misery, guaranteed!
Seales never attempted a comeback, just quietly went blind. Money never came easy to him and what money he did earn was spent on medical care leaving him destitute. The difficult times never erased his smile and sunny outlook, never tarnished his gold medal, never dragged him onto the streets and into drugs and destitution, as it would eventually do to Lockridge.
The aroma of fresh steaks over an open fire mixed with the brisk air. The smoke rose and surrounded Sugar Ray Seales, Olympic gold medalist and former middleweight contender with a 58-8-3 record. From the back he looked as if he were on fire, the flame burning from within and the smoke that used to cotton up around him from his chest, shoulders, and head when he was in the corner between rounds of an important fight. He was training his friend Lockridge while preparing dinner: steak and fresh vegetables with a fruit chaser. The flames glowed in his thick glasses. The lenses were not thick like the old cliché’ about Coke bottles. They were thick like the ice on a Montana lake in winter, ice that refused to dissipate even with warming temperatures and that lasted long into spring. For a time he had been completely blind in both eyes, something that took away his sight but not his spirit. A series of surgeries had restored the memory of sight in one eye, a hazy world in which he lived without complaint, a smile on his face and easy to laugh.
“He was a great fighter,” he said, motioning to the road on which Lockridge disappeared. “He beat some tough boys: Roger Mayweather, the recently deceased Harold Knight, Kamel Bou-Ali, and Barry Michael.”
Seales always went to the positive, not like a preacher whose ultimate goal might be to pick your pocket, but more like a comedian ready to pick up a person’s spirits through humor. He did not mention Lockridge’s losses to Wilfredo Gomez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Tony Lopez, Eusebio Pedroza, and Sharmba Mitchell. He held his hands over the fire. They were soft and pliable, the color of a worn saddle, more like glove leather than the hard hands soaked in brine people imagine boxers to have, hands built and molded into hard choices and destruction. It was difficult to imagine the damage his gentle fists had done during a long career.
“How are your eyes?” I asked him.
“Better than before.” His wide smile reminded me of the Chasseur Cat in “Alice and Wonderland.” He would look natural sitting on a tree limb and giving advice.
Seales may be one of the few Olympic gold medalists who earned no benefit from the award. Surprising since he was the only American to win a gold in the 1972 games. He returned home to little fanfare, no parades, few adoring crowds, parties from people wishing to say to their peers that they knew the champion, had, in fact, partied the night away with him talking boxing. His first professional fight earned him $1,000. Sugar Ray Leonard earned $40,000 for his and everything was uphill from there. Seale’s uphill was little more than a gentle incline just before the decline.
“I always thought small,” said Seales. “I never conceived of having a big promotional management contract. There is no one to blame for my small earnings except me. I knew nothing about business, about promoting myself. About going for the brass ring. I just wanted to fight.”
Seales brushed the smoke from his face to keep his good eye protected, an eye that often sees more deeply than two good eyes.
A product of the Tacoma Boys Club, Seales was managed by a man who owned several taco stores in town and, as is often the case with boxing managers, knew little about being a manager.
Seales moved from the Virgin Islands with his family to Tacoma. His father was an Army boxer.
“He was an excellent boxer. He taught my brother and me boxing. He did not push boxing on us. We pushed it on him. I especially loved it. I could give and I could take. I enjoyed giving more.”
The money did not come fast or in bunches. “I often fought for $50 a round. Pathetic. I liked to fight and would have fought for nothing. What a big mistake. Sure, you can love to box but as a professional you need to earn a living wage. No one will take care of you in your old age. I learned that the hard way.”
I remembered all the times smiles crossed the faces of big-time promoters when a newly signed boxer said, “I don’t care about the money. I just want to be champion of the world.” Boxers often walk off with a belt—the promoter with the money. They both often fall into anonymity, the boxer broke and wandering the streets or wiping up spit is an obscure gym down some dark alley, the promoter to his retirement home on some southern beach sipping flowered drinks.
“My three fights with Marvin Hagler were wars.” Seales moved the steaks to the side of the grill to keep them warm. He slid the coffee pot to the center of the flames. His hands worked like butterflies. No one would suspect violence from them, the ability to crush an opponent’s head or ribs. The coffee seemed to be for guests since they did not appear to drink much. “My amateur record was 338–12 and about 21 wins as a pro; not bad, but not enough to go against Hagler. He handed me my first loss. We fought in Boston and he pulled off a unanimous decision. He beat me fair and square and I had no complaints. I fought him to a controversial draw two months later in Seattle. The decision annoyed me. I felt I had won the fight, and so did a lot of other people.” He scratched his chin. “I suppose every boxer feels that way at a close loss.”
He poured coffee into a tin cup. The cup helped warm my hands. He rubbed smoke from his blind eye as if it had blurred his vision. The Hagler fights were beautiful and classic contests, man against man, will against will, two stars on a collision course streaking across the universe. Fists flew in machine-gun fashion as each landed blow for blow, sweat geysering up before falling like hot rain on bodies thick with sweat and taught in twisted muscles. Ribs buckled. Noses flattened. Seale’s beautiful hands became rocks in those fights.
“I don’t know what happened in the third fight about five year later. I came out in the opening round steaming with confidence, got tagged, and the fight was over. I suppose it can happen to anyone.”
“What happened in the Minter fight?” I said.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s a vicious right hand you have.” He started to laugh. To know Seales is to know a happy man. His good eye lights with joy.
“If I had beaten him I would have gotten a shot at the title. I beat Minter almost to death. He was chopped up from one end to the other. I popped him on the forehead raising a knot that looked like the Hindenburg. He was exhausted, a beaten man. Nothing is certain in boxing. The fight was in the bag. In the fifth round Minter came staggering forward. I waited to put him away. I knew he would not last the round. Then…” Seales tapped a finger against his lips and started to laugh almost as if he enjoyed a joke played on him. His hands cradled his cheeks then he drew one back and smacked himself on the chin. “He hit me with a tremendous right and down I went for a meal of canvas. I never got that shot at the title.”
Lockridge emerged from the mist. Seales placed the steaks on a plate and we went inside. Lockridge seemed pleasantly anxious about his upcoming fight.
The house seemed unusually neat. Men often live in an unnoticed mess content to wallow in piles of dirty clothes and eat off plates caked with a thin plaster of dried food. Lockridge flopped into the arms of a large recliner that faced a small television.
Seales emerged with the meal. Had his hands been covered in white gloves he might have been a butler. He placed the plates in our laps. Lockridge are slowly, probably thinking about the fight. Seales cut his steak into small portions and ate slowly as if at a formal dinner party. He had removed his gold medal from his pocket to around his neck.
The fight against Jamie Thomas in Baton Rouge in 1981 took his vision, or at least started the vision loss. “After a decent punch I started to see blood,” he said.
The blood started as a slight discoloration, a thin layer of pink fog indicating not the beginning or morning, but the advancement of night, a night of blood red that refused to lift, refused to drain away after the fight, a blood red that stole his career, although Seales would not believe it was over at that point, refused that he would be completely blind, refused to believe the years of diligence, hard work, hopes and dreams were slowly bleeding to death even as he was awarded the unanimous decision.
He fought another eight bouts winning all but one against James Shuler. He was forced to change his style. He usually boxed from the outside, winging and picking with his long arms. He now had to fight inside. His opponents were mere apparitions and he no longer saw punches coming his way. He moved into dance mode, a more intimate form of fighting. He learned to feel the muscles of his opponents tense when they got ready to throw a punch and he fired back knowing his foe was wrapped in one of his arms. Fighting completely blind, he won his last fight by TKO against Max Hord.
When I left Seales stood at the doorway. Lockridge was working on the heavy bag beside the house. Several flakes of snow started to fall. One mighty hand held the medal as if keeping the gold protected. The other hand waved like an overhand right in the fading light.