Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard talks Real Steel, working with Hugh Jackman

Sugar Ray Leonard was an icon when I was a kid and he has a resume which speaks for itself (three National Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, 1975 Pan-American Games crown and a gold medal in boxing at the 1976 Olympic games)

In 2011, Sugar Ray Leonard went behind the scenes on the action packed robot fight movie Real Steel with Hugh Jackman to serve as fight consultant.

This is his interview with Deadbolt discussing the project:

How did you come to consult on Real Steel?

SUGAR RAY LEONARD: Stacey Snider’s kids go to the same school that mine do. She approached me at a parent-teacher meeting and gave me a script to read. She said, “Ray, I might have something for you.” When she told me the premise of the movie I said, “Wow, this is great.” Then she said Hugh Jackman was in it and I jumped at the opportunity.

What was your job on the movie?

LEONARD: With Hugh, my objective was to make him look like a real fighter. I conveyed to him that boxing isn’t just about throwing a punch. As a fighter you have to have conviction and intention when you throw a punch. Landing a punch to someone’s face has to match that intention.

The biggest thing he struggled with was letting go, surrendering and dropping his guard to be a fighter. When I look back at boxing films, the only ones that come to mind where the actor let go and became that fighter were “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Fighter.” It’s very hard for a superstar to do that—let go of their thing and for a moment know what it’s like to be a fighter.

Working with Hugh was a pleasure. He’s an A-list actor but he was so eager to learn. He had such a thirst for learning and really performing. I’m sure when he went home he was probably in the mirror boxing. He’s a real perfectionist.

Hugh plays the trainer of the robot fighter Atom. The relationship between trainer and boxer is very, very intimate and powerful. I told Hugh that he needed to get to a point where he was talking to Atom with his eyes. The audience will feel that. He pulled it off.

With the robots, my job was to give them a personal boxing style that matched their design. For instance, Zeus is big and strong so I thought of George Foreman. With Atom, I saw a lot of me in him because he was unassuming, kind of innocent looking and fast. That’s why I gave him a few of my signature moves.

Hugh Jackman has boxed for fun and he’s in excellent physical condition. With so much already going for him, did you have any unexpected challenges when you were trying to train him?

LEONARD: I always expect unexpected challenges. Boxing is not an easy sport. My whole thing with Hugh was for him to have the right expressions on his face so that he looked like a fighter. I wasn’t that interested in the physicality of what boxers do. I just made sure that when he delivered the punch, he felt the punch connect.

One of the messages of the film is that the robots are essentially soulless and don’t have the spirit of a real fighter in them. Was there a difference in your approach to Atom and the other robots for that reason?

LEONARD: There was a sense of something human about Atom. I took my wife and kids to the set and their reaction to him told me a lot.

What is it about boxing that makes for such good cinema?

LEONARD: It’s raw. It’s very primal. It’s one on one. Going mano a mano is that gladiator, warrior thing. The guy sitting on his sofa lives vicariously through the boxer. I think it’s just the ultimate “stand up and show who’s best.” Ultimately, a fight is about who the best boxer is pound for pound. Both fighters claim that they are. They fight each other. The money will put them in a whole different tax bracket but it goes beyond the money. It’s about your legacy. It’s about history. It’s about bragging rights.

What drew me to boxing was the fact that it was such a one-on-one thing. When you walk from the dressing room to the ring you must bring your A game. The three fights that I lost I knew—not that I was going to lose, but that it was going to be a long night. When I walked into that ring I said to myself, “I wonder if they would mind postponing this?” I believe in body rhythms and I believe in being “up.” There are certain days when you just don’t want to go to work and I didn’t want go to work on those nights. I really wished I could have postponed the match on those three nights.

Check out the full interview:

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