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Looking Back – Sugar Ray Leonard Vs Thomas Hearns I

Photo via Box Rec

We take a look back at the first Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns fight.

This is supplemental material to our new podcast series The Fabulous Four. Our third episode, up on Wednesday, discusses the fight in heavy detail.

The Stage

September 16, 1981

Sugar Ray Leonard: 30-1 with 19 KOs, WBC Welterweight champion
Thomas Hearns: 32-0 with 30 KOs, WBA Welterweight champion

Duan: It’s crazy to think Hearns is only 22 years old going into this one and even crazier still that this is already his 33rd fight. He looks gaunt during introductions, and the commentary team almost immediately make note of their concern over how light he weighed in. Ray looks exceptionally confident in the pre-fight. The two bouts with Duran have him prepared for pretty much all possibilities.

GG: I wonder about the weight cut. Who is to blame? There were lots of things said after the fight about how that camp was run.

The Fight

Round One

Duan: There’s hardly a clean connect in the first round. Ray got straight down to using the ring and Tommy looked to pressure him coming forward with the jab. He was never really able to find much of a target. There were no major battles won by one or the other here, but you have to give the round to Hearns on endeavor. He was the one dictating the fight. The biggest highlight of the round came after the bell when things looked just for a second like they might be about to boil over.

GG: I think Duan’s right that Hearns won the round, but you have to love Leonard’s movement. Hearns is moving well too, but Leonard’s strategy (thankfully for him) was to use his boxing skills and movement to put Hearns in bad situations. You could see Tommy getting just a tad bit frustrated.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Two

Duan: Dundee is happy with what he sees in the early going and calls for more of the same from Leonard. That little flash of temper from The Hitman at the end of the last session probably told Angie that the tactics were working.

Tommy looks super anxious to land something of note and he eventually does. A hard jab to the body. He was missing up top a lot early in the round, switched down low and found a home for the lead hand. Once he connected with it, it was like he had his range from then on. You can see Leonard is finding the reach disadvantage a problem to overcome too. He’s slipping a lot of the shots, but some of them are brushing off him as he tries pull back.

GG: Hearns figures out the range here and it seems that his confidence grows immediately. Of course, Leonard’s body language says that he has it all figured out. But Ray hasn’t really done anything yet of note offensively, so you can’t really give him either round.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Three

Duan: Tommy’s hand-speed in this round is outstanding. Maybe as good as any welterweight I’ve ever seen. Very impressive for such a tall guy. He snaps off the jab so quick it’s hard to even see the movement on camera. Now he’s starting to find the right for the first time as well.

Ray tries take the fight to him late in the round and misses wildly while windmilling away. I feel Leonard knew he needed to do something before a pattern took hold of the fight. A war is beginning to breakout at the end of the third.

GG: This was a really good round. Hearns’ reach was frustrating Leonard, so rather than just let Hearns cut him off and hit him with fast jabs, Leonard tries to bring the fight to Tommy. He didn’t really land much, but it made Tommy step up and take notice. But it was almost like Christmas for Hearns. He started to smile, knowing he’d get to unleash that wicked right hand.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Four

Duan: Leonard was actually boxing quite nicely in the early part of this round. Some of the venom has left Hearns’ punches already and Ray was doing a nice job of timing his shots and connecting on the counter. Then in the last minute or so, he stood stationary a little too long and got waffled a few times and gave away the round. Leonard felt the sting of one of the shots for sure.

GG: Interestingly enough, Leonard didn’t steal a round late. He actually gave it away. He boxed well and it seemed like he was waiting until the last minute or so to do some damage, but Hearns was ready for it and Leonard got hit while being stationary.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Five

Duan: Ray is giving himself a mountain to climb here. You can see that the gears are turning and he’s trying to figure things out, but he’s yet to find a way to offset the physical advantages of Hearns. He’s for the most part outboxed and outworked again in this round, with the exception of one moment where he suckered Tommy in and walked him into a sweet shot about midway through the session. Hearns starts mimicking Ray’s showboating moves leading up to the bell. Possibly a sign of Tommy losing his grip on the mental game. He’s five rounds to the good, he shouldn’t be bothered by what his opponent is doing.

GG: Leonard is either patient and not worried about closing, or Hearns’ style is just a labyrinth for him. A lot of the confident body language is gone. Some confusion. But he’s definitely trying to figure things out. Hearns is confident as if his style is impenetrable.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Six

Duan: Ray looks spent after the fifth. The swelling on his eye is starting to come through in a big bad way too. His corner want him to keep boxing – even-though he’s losing the boxing match.

This was the breakthrough round Leonard had been looking for though. He came out with the intentions of scoring big and he did. He wades through what Tommy has to offer and finds the type of fight turning punches he was in desperate need of.

Hearns is on jelly legs for much of the round. He took some huge head shots and maybe an even more devastating one to the body. That single body punch may have taken something out of Hearns, which was never recovered. Ray’s first round of the fight, but it’s also by far the biggest round of the fight.

GG: The round doesn’t look much different from the first five until Leonard lands an uppercut that badly wobbles Hearns. Hearns’ size and length, which was an advantage all fight long, becomes a disadvantage as he is simply now a big punching bag. To Tommy’s credit, he took some tremendous shots, bounced back and hung in there with him, throwing blistering right hands of his own. Ray hits him with a brutal left to the body. It’s close to a 10-8 round, but Tommy’s ability to hang in there and throw back keeps it 10-9.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Leonard
GG’s score: 10-9 Leonard

Round Seven

Duan: Manny Steward has said that he knew watching this fight that Hearns was done for and there was just nothing they could do about it. You can hear that concern coming through in his voice between rounds.

We are on to Plan B for Ray. He’s not moving anymore. He’s standing right in front of Hearns and trying to force Tommy to trade with him. Hearns starts to give ground and the fight dynamic has shifted completely.

Leonard is prepared to take the punches coming back his way, so that he can keep the attack flowing with with hooks to the body and head. He’s done more damage in these last two rounds than Hearns did in the first five.

GG: I’m sure this isn’t how most thought it would happen. Leonard becomes the predator and Tommy has to fight as a counter puncher. Leonard is the bully now. After the round was over, with Leonard digging on Tommy with Tommy’s back against the ropes, Ray kind of shoulder bumps him like a bully would to a small kid. Tommy couldn’t do anything except try and walk back to his corner without falling.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Leonard
GG’s score: 10-9 Leonard

Round Eight

Duan: Steward threatens to stop the fight if Tommy doesn’t start punching back. Hearns is now the one on the move, circling like Leonard did in the first part of this bout. Ray stalks after him trying to close out the show. We’ve now seen a complete role reversal. The puncher has become the boxer and the boxer has become the puncher.

As a recovery round, this wasn’t bad for Hearns. He was able to score some potshots on Leonard from the outside while backing off, but there’s no weight to behind them. The strikes that counted all came from Sugar.

GG: Tommy’s legs don’t look under him and he tries to outbox Ray. Ray looks so confident here, stalking Tommy and not really worried about the right hand all that much. He’s trying to get his right hand off instead.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Leonard
GG’s score: 10-9 Leonard

Round Nine

Duan: The 9th is a fascinating round to analyse because it’s one Hearns won with ease by just using his natural gifts. Even depleted and without the power that won him all of his 32 fights, he was able to out-skill arguably the most skilled fighter of this generation. This is three minutes you can look at and think that maybe Leonard just wasn’t able to beat Hearns in a technical box off.

GG: Tommy harkens back to his amateur days, when he wasn’t all that big of a puncher. He’s moving in round nine, just as well as Ray was moving in round one. So he has his legs under him now and he’s trying to win the fight as a boxer, which does tell you that he doesn’t want to sit and trade, though.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Ten

Duan: Ray just isn’t throwing enough. This was the slowest round of the fight and Tommy was able to steal it with nothing more than the jab. It was all hit and move stuff from Hearns, and Leonard just didn’t close him down effectively enough. Although, maybe rounds 9 and 10 were Ray putting money in the bank for later. His pressure made Hearns move much more than he would have wanted to on tiring legs.

GG: The ability to change your gameplan midstream is amazing. Leonard wanted to box and wear Tommy down. Tommy wanted to throw big hands and knock Ray out. Then Ray becomes the big hitter. So what does Tommy do? He becomes Ray. And he’s doing a tremendous job with it. Hearns is on his horse, using his length, and all of a sudden, Ray looks like one who doesn’t have all the answer. Boxing is insane.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Eleven

Duan: This is the only time in the fight where Tommy looked like the more imposing force. After winning two decent rounds on the back-foot, he starts to believe in himself again and goes back on the offensive. The strength is there again for him, although Leonard can still walk through his best blows. Hearns looks super charged as a goes back to his corner.

GG: You have to wonder if Ray took the loss of that round to get Hearns to engage more, thinking that if he did, he’d be able to knock him out. He was down on the scorecards and maybe thinking he had to take him out. Hearns started to fight like this was the early rounds again and Ray didn’t really do much to get out of his way. It was almost as if he was baiting Tommy for the future rounds, knowing that he had to take some chances.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Hearns
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Twelve

Duan: I thought this was a Leonard round but just barely. Both of his eyes are now closing and he looks a sorry state, but I thought he was a hair quicker on the trigger in the 12th. It wasn’t a big round and it in no way suggested what was about to come next, bur he did take it for me.

GG: I still feel that Tommy’s in control here. Leonard is starting to do a little better, maybe figuring things out, but Hearns still has a hop in his step and he’s closing Ray’s eyes.

Duan’s score: 10-9 Leonard
GG’s score: 10-9 Hearns

Round Thirteen

Duan: Dundee knew exactly how to get through to his boxer. The famous “you’re blowing it son,” line set a fire in Leonard, and Hearns didn’t have enough left in the tank to match his intensity.

The distress signs are clear early. Tommy is bundled back against the ropes and his legs give way underneath him. He looks weary as he rises. Leonard finds a big right that rattles Hearns with 90 seconds left in the round. He follows it up with arguably the most violent flurry of his entire career eventually knocking Tommy through the ropes from numerous unanswered shots. The ref didn’t count it, but he should have. The fight was won and lost in that moment.

Tommy’s legs are gone when he does make it back to his feet. He tries battle through it bravely but he is battered back through the ropes a second time to end the round. This time the ref does count it – maybe he should have just waved it off instead.

GG: As Ray smells blood, he throws the most amazingly fast combination of punches that I’ve ever seen. Tommy’s simply trying to hold on and maybe get the referee to break the fighters. But what can he hold onto? Ray’s moving as fast as lightning. Hearns falls through the ropes, but I can’t tell if the referee counted that as a knockdown. Hearns goes through the ropes again and this time he surely does. The fight should be over.

Where’d Ray get that energy?

Round Fourteen

Duan: Leonard wasn’t letting him off the hook. He was faster out of his corner in the 14th than most are in the first. Tommy was boxing to try create distance, but Ray had him going again with the first big right he connected with and then pursued the finish from there.

Hearns didn’t know how to tie up. I don’t think he had the energy left to do it even if he had known. The ref jumps into save him with 1.20 left on the clock and I don’t think anyone could say he was too quick on the call.

GG: Ray knew it was over. He even celebrated early after landing a big shot. What a closer Ray is.


Duan: By 1983 the WBC had reduced the championship distance to 12 rounds. If this bout had been contested two years later than it was, it would have went to the judges after the 12th. On my card (and on the official cards) Hearns would have comfortably done enough to be champion. It wasn’t till after that round that Dundee got on Leonard’s case and the fight turned back around. This was the last time in his career that Ray Leonard ever had to go to a 13th round, but boy did he need it on this night.

There have been very few fights ever that can touch this one just for drama. Yes, Hagler/Hearns had the action and Leonard/Hagler had the controversy, but this was the Fabulous Four fight which told the perfect story. And that is what championship boxing at it’s best does like no other sport; it tells great stories.

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