In order for all the fights to be different for the robot boxing drama Real Steel, the production hired one of the all-time greatest boxers, Sugar Ray Leonard. Having won titles in five different weight divisions, he served as a consultant for the robots and a trainer for the film’s star, Hugh Jackman.
At the film’s press day, the famed fighter talked about how the job came out of his friendship with DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider (their kids go to the same school), giving the robots each their own personal fighting style, the challenge of getting Hugh Jackman to let go and surrender to the fight, how different he is from his own boxing persona, and how his life changed after writing his personal memoir. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Here’s the film’s synopsis:
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback.
Question: How were you first approached for this project, and what was your reaction when they told you they wanted you to choreograph boxing for robots?
SUGAR RAY LEONARD: The way it started out was the fact that I had become friends with (DreamWorks CEO) Stacey Snider. Our kids go to the same school, and she was at one of those parent-teacher meetings. I noticed she had papers in her hand, and she said, “Ray, I may have something for you.” I didn’t quite know what she was talking about, but then she allowed me to read the premise of the movie and the script, and I said, “Wow, this is great!” Plus, when she said that Hugh Jackman was in it, I jumped at the opportunity. Getting on set, I couldn’t visualize robots being in a movie, except for Transformers. But, as things were progressing, to have seen the finished product, I was blown away.
My main objective was to not really make Hugh a fighter, but to make him look like a fighter. So, I conveyed to him the fact that it’s not just about throwing a punch, but it’s about looking and feeling the punch. When he threw the punch, as a fighter, there has to be a conviction and an intention of landing that punch. The face has to match the intention. As a trainer of a robot fighter, that relationship is very, very intimate, very real and very powerful. I told him, “You need to get to a point where you’re able to let go and feel and talk through your eyes. If you can do that, the audience will feel that.” And, he pulled it off and was able to do that.
And then, with the robots, my job was to give them their own personal style, depending upon the design of each robot. With Zeus being big and strong, I thought of George Foreman. That was the perfect mix because George didn’t really throw legal punches. With Atom, I saw a lot of me. He was unassuming and innocent looking and fast, so I gave him a few of my signature moves.
Your son was the same age as the boy in this film, when you were fighting. What connection did you have to the father-son relationship in this story, and what did that mean to you?
LEONARD: When I think back, I get sad sometimes because I was at a point in my career where I was a kid myself when I had a kid and didn’t really spend that much time with him, as I was always working and fighting. All he wanted was my time. He just wanted me to love him and fight for him. Kids want you. That’s the same kind of relationship with Max (Dakota Goyo) and Charlie (Hugh Jackman) in the film. It home ‘cause I knew that relationship was something people would understand. Particularly moms and women will find that to be a powerful message for fighting for something that is very special and important and innocent.
With Hugh Jackman already being in such excellent physical condition, did you have any unexpected challenges while you were training him?
LEONARD: I always expect unexpected challenges. Boxing is not an easy sport. You can’t just have it happen that quick. But, my whole thing was for him to visually show the face, and to have that look and those expressions on his face. As far as the physicalities of what boxers do, I wasn’t too interested in that. But then again, I made sure that when he delivered a punch, he felt the punch.
What did Hugh struggle with most?
LEONARD: The biggest thing he struggled with was to let go and surrender, and drop his guard and be a fighter, and forget about Hugh and Broadway, and be the fighter and the trainer. That’s really difficult. With fight films and boxing films, the only ones that come to mind where the actor and actress let go and become that fighter were Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Fighter. They were people who had dropped their guards, and that’s very hard to do, for a superstar to let go of that thing. Once you do that, you know what it’s like to be a fighter, for a moment.
Did you have to beat it out of him?
LEONARD: A couple times!
Was there a scene that was the most difficult to do?
LEONARD: Once I gave them a style or choreographed a certain move or combination, that made the fight. They can just repeat that. That wasn’t much of a problem. I just didn’t know if they could really emulate or mark the counter-punch that I was demonstrating. I didn’t know how much the robots could do. I didn’t think they could be as limber and as controlled as they were. Their joints were very loose and big.
LEONARD: That’s a good question. I’m so opposite of my profession. No one – particularly my mother and father – ever thought I was going to be a boxer because I always felt that football and baseball were too dangerous. I was just such a quiet kid. I found boxing when I was 14 years old. I went down to the gym because my brother, who used to beat me up all the time, introduced me to boxing. I found boxing to be a sport that I felt safe in because I controlled what was in those four squares. To say what I would have been if I wasn’t boxing, I don’t know why, but I always wanted to be an x-ray technician or a substitute teacher. Those two occupations always stuck with me, maybe because my substitute teacher didn’t give us homework, or because I’ve always had x-rays of my hands. Also, I wanted to be a recreation director because I’ve always wanted to help kids.
Was the discipline necessary for boxing something that came easy for you?
LEONARD: That was no problem. At 14, I was the most disciplined guy around. I would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and run five miles, and then go to school. Sometimes I would run behind the school bus and the kids thought I was just crazy. I knew what I wanted. When I was 15 or 16 and I started climbing up the ladder of success in amateur boxing, a reporter asked me, “What do you want to be?” I think he was expecting me to say, “A champion.” I said, “I want to be special.” I don’t know why I said that, but I didn’t just want to be a fighter. I wanted to have an impact with people, particularly kids. I look back on why I said that, and I meant that because I worked hard to be respected.
LEONARD: I don’t miss getting hit. I miss the comradery. I choreograph fights in my head. I choreographed every fight that I’ve had. Nine times out of 10, it came to fruition. Every now and then, a guy would ad-lib, which made me so mad. But, I had this ability to draw a plan in my head, visually, and compete. I’ve always been quiet and kind of shy. Because of my exposure in the world and around press, I do this easy. I’m sociable, but I would probably migrate to a corner.
Where do you think the sport of boxing is headed?
LEONARD: To robots. That Mayweather-Ortiz fight that took place was an unfortunate situation. That head-butt by Ortiz was flagrant and intentional. That head-butt could have caused a career-ending injury. What Floyd did wasn’t right and wasn’t necessary legal, but you’ve gotta keep your hands up. Would I have done it? No, but I understand. He was still pissed with Ortiz. Ortiz tried to ram his head into his face.
LEONARD: It’s raw. It’s really primal. It’s 1-on-1. It’s mano-a-mano. It’s that warrior type thing. The guy sitting on his sofa lives somewhat vicariously through that boxer. It’s just the ultimate stand-up and show me who’s the best type of thing. That was what drew me to boxing. It’s such a 1-on-1 thing. When you walk from the dressing room to the ring, you must bring you’re a-game. In the dressing room, the three fights that I lost, I knew it would be a long night. When I walked to that ring, I used to say to myself, “I wonder if they wouldn’t mind if we postponed this for awhile.” I believe in bio-rhythms. There are certain days you don’t want to go to work, and I didn’t want to go to work those nights and really hoped that I could postpone.
How did your life change, as a result of writing your book and getting some of that stuff off of your chest?
LEONARD: Doing the memoir was really difficult. It took me almost two years. I’d heard people talk about how, when they got things off their chest, they felt better. I was the kind of kid and guy that kept things to myself, with the sexual abuse with the boxing coach to another guy that I trust that lent me money. Those things happened in my teens, when I was 14 or 15 years old, and I had not reached the Olympic level yet, but I was heading that way. One of those individuals was an Olympic coach, so he had the experience and I would have done anything to make the Olympics. The other guy provided me with money to buy groceries or help my illegitimate son. When those things happened and I kept it to myself, as the years went by, I fought harder because I felt safe in the ring.
Years later, I married my first wife, who was the mother of my kid, and I gained the courage to tell her what had happened. The look on her face was so painful ‘cause she didn’t know what the hell to say to me. She was stunned, so I changed the subject and pushed it under the rug. Some 10 or 15 years later, I met my second wife and gained the courage to tell her, and she had the exact same look as my first wife, so I instinctively changed the subject and pushed it under the rug. So, I lived with that for another few years, and I found myself dying inside. But, it didn’t hit me until I drank heavily. I would break down and cry, and found myself crying uncontrollably sometimes. The cocaine had stopped back in the ‘80s, but the alcohol escalated, and I knew I was starting to have an alcohol problem.
I did the Regis & Kelly show and I was hung over the next day. It’s not good, being hung-over after doing an interview. After doing the interview, my kids called me and said, “Papa, what happened to you? You didn’t look good.” And then, my wife got on the phone and she was in tears and said, “Why did you drink?” Right away, I lied and said, “I didn’t drink.” I got home and went straight to AA, and it’s been five years now. My life has changed. I made amends with my first wife. It’s just an amazing time in my life. I realized my toughest fight was myself. For me to disclose and let these things out was not easy because we don’t want to seem weak or like we are different, but I learned that it’s okay. I feel better in my skin now.