MILLIONS expected to see the Sugar Ray Leonard of old, but Hector “Macho” Camacho battered him into a humiliating fifth-round stoppage defeat before 10, 324 shocked fans at the Atlantic City Convention Center.  The time was 1-08.

Camacho was hardly fantastic, but he stunned everyone by flooring the betting favourite earlier in the round, then jumped right on him again as the dazed legend was trying to survive along the ropes.  As lefts and rights crashed home, shaking the once-invincible Leonard like a cheap rag doll, referee Joe Cortez jumped in to protect him.

“Ray played me cheap”, said Camacho, but if Leonard did anything, it was to overestimate his once-formidable ability.

“I’m not like everyone else.  I can come back,” Leonard said beforehand. The 1991 brutal beating at the fists of Terry Norris should have told him otherwise, but Leonard, despite his exceptional intelligence, let his massive ego and desperate craving for the spotlight overrule his normally sound judgement.

Leonard’s balance was so atrocious that he looked like a six-round novice.  Camacho is hardly a puncher, but this vintage Ray couldn’t take any sort of a shot.  He was wobbling like a willow in the wind, even from glancing blows.

“I never could get into it,” Leonard admitted. “I was trying to establish my jab and just couldn’t get going.  I fought a better fight than I thought I’d fight after being absent so long from the ring, but I didn’t have the balance I once had.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Camacho (which of course, is exactly what he did), but the rumours that I was in the hospital were true. I had a calf injury. I couldn’t spin off, but my career is definitely over in the ring.”

Ray’s obvious reluctance to commit himself clearly didn’t come from any injury.  He was simply “bailing out.”  He didn’t want to get hit.  It is natural fear, once conquered, that re-emerges when you have been out of the ring.

Leonard, 36-3-1 (25), looked in superb condition at 11st 5lbs.  His stomach was rippled.  His biceps were huge.  But none of that helps if you are not in “boxing shape”. You can hire all the “strength coaches” and “nutritionists” in the world, but there is no way to tell until you get tagged in the ring.

Camacho, a podgy 11st 4 3/4lbs from Orlando, Florida, had won his previous 19 in a row, including a controversial points decision over Roberto Duran last June.

Garbed in a cheap Roman Gadiator outfit that looked pinched off the set of a B-movie, the round-faced Puerto Rican was hoisted aloft on a hand-held platform and carried through the crowd.  Boos broke forth, but as Camacho peered out, in his mind he was Julius Caesar (not Chavez) arrogantly looking down on the clamouring minions of ancient Rome.

Camacho, who revels in these theatrics, still couldn’t unnerve Leonard, from Washington D.C., who waited a good 15 minutes before Camacho finally climbed through the ropes.

Leonard, the darling of the 1976 Olympics, brought boxing into the colour TV age, but only seconds after the first bell it was obvious he was finished.  Leonard zipped out one beautiful jab, but Camacho sent him clambering from a light left. Sugar Ray stumbled all over himself, then dangled his left and tried to find his old self, but it was sad to watch him sling a slow, sloppy lead right.

Ray’s rhythm was horrible, but he did score with a nice lead right and for the briefest of seconds there was hope. A quick follow-up right, again very amateurish, dashed it.

Beforehand, Camacho promised: “I’m going to be on his ass.  I ain’t gonna run from him. He won’t be no better than the Norris fight. This is his last ‘comeback’, I guarantee it”.

As Hector advanced, Leonard grew warier. Suddenly their feet got tangled and Camacho, 34, proving far stronger, pushed Ray down where he landed heavily on the deck. It was a strong psychological message.

Leonard, once so silky smooth and quick, was sputtering like an ancient Model T in the second. Leonard handled Marvin Hagler brilliantly, but 10 years later  he looked befuddled by his southpaw opponent. Ray jiggled his left at his side or pawed.

As Leonard back-pedalled and circled, he was trying to buy time, which was running out fast. Leonard’s body and face still looked much the same, but he was present in name only. Camacho was warned for pulling down Leonard’s head as it became sloppier.

Camacho went right after Leonard in the third. Ray tried to throw long rights, but he still wasn’t bending into his punches. He was pulling back before he got hit. Leonard looked bad, but Camacho, in “walking-around shape,” was beginning to jar him.  The once-flashy Puerto Rican may be a blown-up light-welter – he won his first ‘world’ title at a super-feather – but speed is power and Camacho’s hands were still quick.

As Leonard floundered, having little control over his legs, it was hard to believe he had gone back this far. Leave us with our memories, ringsiders seem to say, but Sugar Ray kept lunging as he tried to catch Camacho with his right.

The punches had no power. Finally, a sharp Leonard right penetrated, but Camacho shook it off easily and a left to the body knocked Leonard off balance at the end of the round. Ray hadn’t won 20 seconds of the match. The only question was when the roof would fall in.

Leonard dipped and stabbed some jabs, but the old maestro couldn’t get going, let alone explode. Ray’s instincts were so badly corroded that all he could do was emit a sad smile when Camacho started scoring repeatedly.

Late in the round there was a hard clash of heads that opened a bad gash under Leonard’s left eye. He began to bleed. Who would have thought that Camacho would make Leonard run?

By the fifth, the “Macho Man” looked cocky. He started to rough Ray up in close.  Leonard tried to cuff, hold and skitter away, but Camacho, 64-3-1 (32), is much better than he is given credit for. In close, the brawny 5ft 6in underdog shook Leonard along the ropes. Suddenly, the old man was lurching.

Camacho shouldered him in tight and came up with a hard left uppercut to the chin. A second left uppercut caught Leonard flush as he tried to slide away and the former five-time ‘world’ champ ended up flat on his back.
Leonard, who has been dropped repeatedly since his prime, stumbled up, but it was painfully obvious Camacho had plenty of time to wreak more havoc.

Eyes wary, as the crowd screamed, Leonard backed to the ropes. A hard left to the jaw hurt him as Hector exploded in close. As Leonard tried to fire back, Camacho rocked him with another left. A third left to the temple forced the Hall of Famer to falter as he slumped forward. A powerful right to the body made Leonard grab Camacho’s head with both hands. Camacho broke loose with a right hook to the jaw, a cracking left to the chin and another right to the jaw.

Still on the ropes, badly disorientated and trying to cover, Leonard took a slamming right uppercut to the chin. Camacho pawed briefly and faked, then staggered the tarnished legend with a left uppercut, wobbling Leonard badly.

Leonard sat on the second rope to prevent himself going down again. It all happened quickly but Cortez jumped in to protect him as he was so close to being floored again.

“I enjoy performing. I enjoy defying the odds,” Ray had said beforehand, but even then his voice sounded ominously weak and hoarse, like an old man’s.

With seven fights in the last 15 years, it was painfully obvious that the once-great fighter should no longer have been in the ring. Incredibly, talks had reportedly started on a rematch with Norris. Then Ray was going to bridge the generation gap by facing Pernell Whitaker or, more likely, Oscar De La Hoya.

The whole scheme was far-fetched.

READ Sugar Ray Leonard: ‘If I saw blood, I went at you like Dracula’