In the fight of his life, Sugar Ray Leonard wasn’t saved by the bell.
Or the referee.
Or the crowd.
Or the judges.
But by the truth.
Between the 12th and 13th rounds of his welterweight championship bout against Tommy Hearns in 1981, Leonard sat on his stool, dejected, defeated, dehydrated, his left eye so swollen he could only see what was directly in front of him. Which, for the previous 36 minutes, had been BAM!—and a relentless WHAM!—a punishing assault of SLAM!—jabs from a dude so devastating he needed two nicknames: The Hit Man and the Motor City Cobra.
Now, back in the early ’80s, whatever Tommy Hearns hit, he destroyed. He was Ivan Drago before Ivan Drago was Ivan Drago. And Hearns was no figment of Hollywood’s imagination. He was the real deal. Just ask the 30 guys he had KO’d leading up to this showdown with Sugar Ray.
Just ask Roberto Duran, the seemingly indestructible Panamanian legend that—albeit a few years later—was churned into 154 pounds of buttermilk, splattering across the canvas, courtesy of a whip-crack right hand from the Hit Man.
Just ask Leonard, for that matter. When reflecting on his career, Leonard said this night, this battle, this opponent, nearly killed him.
“Muhammad Ali told me when he fought Joe Frazier (the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975), it was the closest thing to death,” Leonard said. “And at the time, I couldn’t quite understand that. But after my fight with Tommy Hearns, I understood completely. For me, that was the closest thing to death.”
Dying in the ring that night? Very doubtful. Losing in the ring that night? Signs point to yes. Hearns was the bigger man. He was the stronger man. He was way ahead on the scorecards. Unless—speaking of “The Greatest”—Ali himself would lace up gloves and climb into the ring for the final three rounds, it seemed a done deal Leonard was done.
True enough, Hearns had momentum in his corner, but Leonard had Angelo Dundee. And Dundee, who had seen his share of fights—he was also Ali’s corner man—over the years, didn’t sugarcoat the situation. He didn’t tell Leonard what he wanted to hear. He didn’t, to use the parlance of the pugilist, pull any punches.
He told his fighter the truth.
“You’re blowing it now, son. YOU’RE BLOWING IT!” Dundee yelled.
He told Leonard the game plan wasn’t working. He told Leonard he was losing. He told Leonard—a stick-and-move virtuoso since his days as an Olympic gold medalist—that he had to go for the knockout.
So he did.
And he did.
Midway though the next round, Leonard unleashed an umpteen-punch combination of looping lefts and roundhouse rights—imagine an octopus shooing away a swarm of bees—that sent Hearns through the ropes and onto his backside, the “Hit Man” suddenly becoming the “Sit Man.” When the bell for the 14th round started, Leonard sprinted across the ring and pummeled Hearns before he could get out of his own corner. Ninety seconds (and almost as many punches) later, Hearns couldn’t defend himself and the referee had to stop the fight.
Chalk one up to straight talk. Years later, Leonard said it was indeed Dundee’s no-holds-barred berating that changed everything.
“He kept saying, ‘You’re blowing it, you’re blowing it.’ And that little pep talk, that little sound bite made a huge difference in the outcome of that fight.”
So, who’s the Angelo in your company? Who’s that one person willing to say what everyone else wants to say, but is afraid of the confrontation?
Take a look back over your own career. Think of those poor souls you’ve watched self-destruct and self-immolate. Could be they developed a toxic attitude. Could be they resisted the inevitability of change. Could be they started slacking off. Could be they never stopped slacking off. No matter the prelude, what got them there got them here: flushing their careers and their livelihoods down the toilet.
But what if there had been an Angelo? What if someone, anyone—perhaps you yourself—had told them the truth, that they were indeed “blowing it?” Would they have changed tacks, like Leonard did, and turned the agony of certain defeat into the thrill of victory?
At least that would have given them a fighting chance. Getting fired for some is like a sucker-punch; they never see it coming. They simply lack the self-awareness to know if they are cruising to an easy victory or are indeed blowing it. And if they’re not blowing it, maybe they’re about to. They’ve filled their cheeks full of air and puckered their lips into a balloon knot.
That’s human nature for you. As Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” The same can be said for the course of your career. There will be ups. There will be downs. There will be leaps forward and stumbles backwards. And there will occasionally be—not literally, as was the case with Sugar Ray—blood.
We all need an Angelo in our corner. And when that criticism rains down upon us, we need to take it like Leonard did: not as a dressing down, but as heads up, as a rallying cry.
Something else: we also need to drape that white towel over our shoulder and get into the face of someone who’s not getting the job done. Sure, it’s uncomfortable. Sure, it’s awkward. Sure, it may take a drink or two (or three) afterwards to calm those nerves. But it’s incumbent upon us, as stewards of our company, as comrades to our colleagues, to let people know when they are indeed blowing it.
They’ll hate you now, but love you—and thank you—later.