I didn't miss it at first. I enjoyed being back home with Juanita and Ray Jr., now eight. We watched television, went bowling, did a lot of things normal families do. ... It felt no different from the breaks I regularly took after every fight. Three months went by between Bonds and Kalule, five between Hearns and Finch. Long gone were the days of fighting once a month. Plus, with the endorsement opportunities and the chance to do more boxing analysis on television, there would be plenty to keep me busy.

Yet as the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, I was overcome with more and more anxiety. Whenever I had felt those emotions before, and it was fairly often, I headed to the gym. There was nothing like pounding the bags, or some poor soul's face, to flush the anger out of my system. Without the gym, I needed a new haven.

It didn't take me long to find one.

I don't recall where I was or who I was with when I did cocaine for the first time that summer. I was wary, I must admit, knowing how much drugs messed up Roger (his brother), as well as my sister Sharon. Yet I wasn't weak like they were. If I could handle Benitez, Duran, and Hearns, I could certainly handle a little white powder. Besides, during my trips to California, the people I did coke with did not work on the streets, as did the drug dealers back in Palmer Park. They lived in mansions with swimming pools. They were some of the most high-profile stars in music and movies, people of stature. If they thought cocaine was cool, who was I to argue? Wherever I went, cocaine was on the table, as if it were part of the furniture. I was surprised when it wasn't there.

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The high I got from cocaine was incredible. I tried pot a few times as a teenager, but it made me paranoid, and I was too serious about boxing to mess around for long. Coke made me feel like I did in the ring, in complete control. I became funny, engaging, articulate. Coke made the anxieties go away. I was Sugar Ray again.

Except that they kept coming back, over and over. Which meant I needed more coke. Lots more.

Fortunately, due to my celebrity status, I didn't have to buy my own. The high rollers I hung with were thrilled to share with the champ, coke being another symbol of their vast wealth and power. As time went on, though, and my appetite grew, I couldn't wait for the next party in Bel Air or the next visit to a swanky club in West Hollywood. I paid for the stuff myself, doling out one thousand dollars here, two thousand dollars there, which seemed a bargain for the buzz cocaine gave me. Only, those dollars began adding up in a hurry. One friend I used as a supplier estimates that I spent a quarter of a million dollars per year on coke, and I bet he's not far off ... I kept my habit a secret, but always worried that people would find out. Each time I visited Dr. Michels (his eye doctor) for a checkup, I wondered: If you do cocaine, can your pupils still dilate? If he did observe a difference, he never said anything. Nor did anyone else. Yet they had to know.

One time, a member of my team tried to convince me to stop taking drugs by appealing to another vice of mine, and smartly picked a time when he knew I couldn't walk away. We were thirty-five thousand feet in the air, flying to somewhere I don't remember.

"Ray, did you happen to know that cocaine kills your sex drive?" the person said.

I appreciated the effort. I knew, however, that there was no validity to that statement, not for me. Cocaine, if anything, increased my sex drive.

***

The public, thank goodness, had no clue as to who I had become. They still saw me as the kid who took the gold in Montreal, and the three of us as the all-American family they wanted us to be. It's strange to believe that so many fans would be fooled, but it was a role my wife and I knew how to play. We were experts. When a TV crew or magazine reporter came to the house for a puff piece, we posed for cute pictures and said all the right things. The moment they left, we returned to being as dysfunctional as ever.

I assumed nothing could take me down, and that included the authorities, although there were some awfully close calls over the years ... (One) moment that stands out came as I was about to board the Queen Elizabeth II for a cruise to England in the late summer of 1982. I had agreed to appear in a documentary film to be shot on the ship. The way I was acting, leaving the country was the best move I could make.

When I was about ten or fifteen yards from being searched by customs at the gate, I suddenly remembered the cocaine in my pocket and started to panic. How would I talk my way out of this one? Thinking fast, I slipped he cocaine to Ollie Dunlap, my administrative assistant. I figured it would be easier to get Ollie out of jail than me. I didn't tell him what was in the aluminum foil, though by the expression on his face I could tell that he had a pretty good idea. He broke into a cold sweat and kept his hand clenched until we passed through customs. Once I was safely in my cabin, I got the cocaine back and never carried it in public again. I apologized to Ollie. I could have ruined his life. It was bad enough that I was ruining my own.

To buy The Big Fight, click here. Email co-author Michael Arkush at arkinojai@yahoo.com.

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