On Aug. 12, 1979, 9-year-old Albuquerquean Andy Rivera saw Sugar Ray Leonard fight for the first time.
That day, the 1976 Olympic boxing gold medalist turned red-hot pro prospect dismantled respected veteran Pete Ranzany en route to a victory by fourth-round TKO.
Watching on television, dazzled by Leonard’s flashing hand speed, almost artistic style and finely honed skills, Rivera instantly became a fan.
Rivera went on to become a boxer himself, a 1998 New Mexico Golden Gloves amateur champion – though of course not nearly of the same stature as the legendary Sugar Ray. Still, they had that in common.
Then, more than four decades later, Rivera discovered he and Leonard had something else in common: a traumatic experience from years past that lingered in each man’s consciousness no matter how hard they tried to forget.
They both were sexually abused as youths.
It was that shared experience, Rivera says, that led him in January to email Leonard through the retired boxing superstar’s charitable foundation – not knowing whether the email would ever reach Leonard and certainly not expecting a response.
Even after Leonard’s personal assistant emailed back acknowledging Rivera’s email had been received, even though he’d included his phone number, he had no expectations.
Then, two or three days later, Rivera’s cell phone rang with a call from a number he didn’t recognize. He ignored it, even though it was a Face Time call – still assuming it was a nuisance call of some kind.
When he got another call from the same number, Rivera again chose not to pick up. Do these car-warranty people, he wondered, really use Face Time?
But then, when call three arrived, Rivera was curious enough to answer.
“Is this Andy?”
“Andy, Ray Leonard.”
Yes, it was really him. Rivera, a fan for more than four decades, immediately recognized the voice. Then, on Face Time, the face.
Thus began a comforting and therapeutic dialogue between a famed boxing superstar and an Albuquerque athlete/bank employee/boxing writer.
The scars may be permanent, they agreed, but they can be salved by talking with someone who understands.
And by sharing, they agreed, someone else with similar experiences might be helped.
Rivera and Leonard had met once before, in passing, when the former champion served as a celebrity guest at an August 2003 pro boxing card at Sandia Casino. Rivera was thrilled, of course; Leonard, of course, had no reason to recall that meeting. Neither had talked publicly at that point about the sexual abuse they’d suffered.
Yet, now, here was Sugar Ray Leonard, on the phone, offering his counsel.
“If you want to say God, or whoever, the stars aligned to bring your idol back into your life,” Rivera said in a recent interview. “… And he says, ‘You have my number. Call me if you need anyone to talk to.
‘If you’re feeling down, call me, and vice versa.’ ”
The young Andy Rivera was quite an athlete in his own right, having pitched a couple of no-hitters in youth baseball. Confident and popular, he was, he said, “a big man on campus” at Our Lady of Fatima parochial school.
But, he said, during a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest he and his family had known for years. The abuse continued for some two years afterward, approximately from ages 12-14.
Life went on, of course. Rivera played basketball for legendary coach Jim Hulsman at Albuquerque High, then studied business at UNM. He entered the work force, boxed as an amateur and became a successful boxing writer.
Rivera was just 19 when his father, Emilio Tapia, took his own life on Easter Sunday 1988. The grief, the heartache, was palpable – more so than the memory of the abuse that he’d manage to suppress.
Suppress, but never escape. How could one?
Leonard first addressed his experience with sexual abuse in his 2012 autobiography, “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out the Ring.” In the book, he described incidents that took place 30 years before, when he was 15.
A highly placed amateur boxing coach, he wrote, had accosted him sexually. He did not identify the offender, nor has Rivera identified his – though he was a party to a financial settlement years later.
The reaction to Leonard’s disclosure, at least in some quarters, was skepticism. Why now, the critics said, so long after the alleged abuse?
The answer, Rivera said, is painfully simple and the same for Leonard as for himself: fear and shame.
For years afterward, Rivera said, he blamed himself, not only for what happened but for his silence afterward.
Had he spoken out, he said, he might have prevented that same individual from molesting others in Rivera’s circle of friends. That in fact did happen. But, as a kid – or as a teen, as was Leonard – the fear of accusing an authority figure was daunting, if not paralyzing.
So, too, was the shame. What was wrong with him, that he was targeted? What would his peers think of him if it all came out?
He and Leonard, Rivera said, have discussed those issues.
“He said, ‘Let me guess. When you’re growing up (should you disclose the abuse), you’re thinking a lot of people are gonna think you’re a wimp.’
“Or actually the word he used was ‘wuss,’ ” Rivera said.
In his autobiography, Leonard wrote about feeling lost as his storied boxing career wound down – drifting into drugs and alcohol without the focus that training for a fight had always provided. His memory of sexual abuse, though perhaps not front and center, was never far away.
In May 2012, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Leonard spoke at the Penn State University campus. The alcohol and drug abuse, he said, was in part an attempt to numb those memories.
“I beat myself up for years,” Leonard said. Speaking out, he said, did not erase the memory or the pain. But it helped – a lot.
It’s the same for Rivera.
Before his talks with Leonard, he said, “I would only tell my close, inner circle friends and close, close family.”
Rivera’s crutch, he said, was not drugs or alcohol but junk food, leading to drastic weight gain. At one point he had ballooned to well over 300 pounds.
He had long since improved his diet and controlled his weight, the subject of a 2011 Journal story as Rivera, then 42, prepared to compete in an amateur boxing tournament.
But it was Leonard, he said, who gave him the strength and confidence to talk publicly about his ordeal.
“Now, if I hear somebody talk about abuse, I do say, ‘Hey, it’s not the child’s fault,’ ” Rivera said. “Because I’m going through that, too.”