Real Steel - Sugar Ray Leonard
Boxing consultant Sugar Ray Leonard © 2011 DreamWorks II

In 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard won the gold medal at the Olympic Games as a Light Welterweight, before going on to a successful professional boxing career, winning titles in five different weight divisions. He was named Boxer of the Decade in the 1980s.

Sugar goes behind-the-scenes with Hugh Jackman’s new movie Real Steel, helping the actor, who plays washed up boxer, Charlie Kenton, with his left hook. Times are hard and Charlie has become a robot fight promoter. Leonard also choreographed the robot boxing matches.

I spoke with Sugar Ray about his new job as ‘Boxing Consultant.’

Did you get this job because of your friendship with Steven Spielberg, who produced Real Steel?

Atom (left), the Challenger, fights Zeus, the WRB champion © 2011 DreamWorks II

It didn’t hurt! No, no, to be honest I don’t know how it happened. (Producer) Stacey Snider showed me a script and said, ‘Ray I may have a job for you.’ I read the script and I said, ‘Wow, this is great. I’d like to be a part of this.’ And it went from there.

How long did you work on it?

I had a few weeks to work with Hugh and to formulate the boxing style for the robots. It was really a great time and opportunity to do something that I’ve never done before. It was like on-the-job training, but I do know a little bit about boxing!

How difficult was it to choreograph the robots’ fights?

Sugar Ray Leonard demostrates the moves © 2011 DreamWorks II

I didn’t know how much these robots could duplicate moves, and their capabilities, how much they could do. But because of the technology these robots could do as much as we can do. It was amazing.

That’s why I started to give them their own personal style, depending upon their make up and design. Like Zeus is such a big strong humongous piece of metal, I gave him a George Forman type style. Boom, boom, boom!

For Atom, who reminded me of myself, because he was unassuming with big eyes and sad looking, but he was fast, I used that to add my style to it.

Along with the style, did you also try to make up a set of rules that they would have to operate under?

Atom prepares to fight Zeus, the greatest robot boxer of all time © 2011 DreamWorks II

Not really. I tried to make sure that it stayed close to boxing but there has to be the fact that they’re robots and they can do some things that normal boxers can’t or are not allowed to do.

What was it like working with Hugh?

My thing with Hugh was not really as much physical as it was the visual. I wanted him not to just box but be the Boxer. When he threw a punch [I wanted him to] have a certain type of expression, a conviction, an intentional upper-cut.

A fighter and a trainer are very special people that have great relationships. It’s very intimate because that trainer knows that fighter well and visa versa. So I said, ‘Hugh, you don’t always have to talk, sometimes you look at that fighter and he knows what you’re thinking.’

I tried to make sure that he captured that, because that is so important in boxing. That relationship is really harped upon.

Was your participation in the Olympic Games one of your proudest moments?

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) © 2011 DreamWorks II

Without question. It wasn’t about money or fame, it was about me representing myself and the country and bringing home the gold medal, which I was able to do. I look back on that and it was kind of bittersweet because I thought that would be my last fight.

I had no intentions on turning professional, because I’d heard about these fighters that made money, then all of a sudden they end up broke and become homeless. I didn’t want that to happen.

So I was going to the University of Maryland to further my education and proceed with a good job. But my dad got sick. I turned pro to pay the bills, and buy them a new house, and then retire them. And within a year, I said, ‘You know what? My dad’s better now. This is not a bad job.’ (he laughs) So I kept going and I’m here.

Why did you choose to go back in the ring after your eye surgery when you knew that you could possibly go blind from the wrong hit?

Robots fight it out following the advice of boxing consultant Sugar Ray Leonard! © 2011 DreamWorks II

There was concern about me going back because of the detached retina, which I didn’t know what the hell it was at the time until the doctor explained to me the significance of it. I had the surgery and the doctor said, ‘We did a great job, if you want to go back and fight you can.’ I was at the top of my career and the doctor said it was okay.

I did understand the risk factor, but that’s what makes me who I am. Anyone that is a Boxer assumes the risk factor.

I felt safer in the ring, because when I was out of the ring I was more self-destructive. I drank more, I did more cocaine. I was not happy.

What’s the most misunderstood aspect about boxing?

That all the guys are knuckleheads, that they are all thugs. Boxers, for the most part, are very sincere and very compassionate. [It’s misunderstood] because of the nature of the sport, that our intent is to knock the other guy out. But for me it was always an art form. It wasn’t my intention to hurt [anyone].

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane