6. Sugar Ray Leonard Vs Thomas Hearns I
September 16, 1981
Las Vegas, Nevada
Venue: Caesars Palace
Thomas Hearns was the first fighter I idolized whose career I followed from the very beginning. The first two years of his career, I read every article I could find about him in newspapers and magazines. When my father and I finally got to see him on television for the first time in 1979, we saw a 20-year-old, 6’1 welterweight with Herculean power in both hands. I was only 11 at the time and didn’t see past the “Hitman’s” vaunted power. My father was amazed at how Hearns utilized his height advantage by keeping all his opponents at bay with a sledgehammer of a left jab. The jab would blind you before he’d crush you with his magnificent right cross, which he did in destroying WBA Welterweight Champion Pipino Cuevas when he knocked him out in the second round to win that version of the 147-pound title.
Sugar Ray Leonard, after making Roberto Duran quit in their November, 1980 rematch to regain the WBC Welterweight title, now turned his attention to a unification fight with Hearns. It would be the biggest fight in the history of the 147-pound division until the May 2, 2015 snorefest between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. While the latter fight made the majority of fight fans mad at the lack of action, the former was easily the greatest fight in the history of the division. It was one of the rare times that the two best fighters on the planet would face each other.
The media described the dream matchup as Leonard the boxer vs. Hearns the puncher. My father disagreed vehemently. As we sat in the same Puerto Rico Theater where we saw many of the great closed circuit fights of that era, my father explained to me that Hearns would control the fight by keeping Leonard at bay with his incomparable left jab. My father’s foresight was on point, as throughout the first five rounds, the 21-year-old Hearns landed his jab at will to both the 24-year-old Leonard’s head and body. Leonard was dancing and moving, but couldn’t land his signature, rapid fire combinations. He was being given a boxing lesson and way behind on points one-third into the fight.
The first half of the sixth round followed the same pattern as the first five rounds until Leonard rocked Hearns with a vicious right cross, left hook combination that stunned Hearns. Then, late in the round, Leonard hurt Hearns again with a left hook to Hearns’ ribcage. Round seven saw Leonard race out and stalk Hearns. He immediately landed a crippling five punch combination that once again hurt Hearns. Hearns was badly hurt and took a beating throughout the round. Leonard frantically attacked Hearns with one rapid combination after another. Hearns barely survived the round and my father was surprised that Leonard was able to hurt Hearns and attack him like he did. The eighth round saw a complete reversal of roles. It was Hearns who was now dancing on his feet, while Leonard began stalking Hearns.
Hearns’ outstanding jab, just like my father predicted, totally carried rounds nine through twelve. Leonard was winging shots but was thwarted by the constant jabbing of Hearns. Leonard’s left eye was badly swollen, a result of the punishment that Hearns was inflicting with his jab. At the end of the 12th round, Leonard’s trainer, the legendary Angelo Dundee, yelled to Leonard that he was blowing the fight. He needed a knockout in order to win.
Midway through the 13th round, Leonard staggered Hearns with a rocket of a right cross. As soon as Leonard saw that Hearns was hurt, he jumped on him and landed a barrage of punishing shots to both the body and the head. Late in the round Hearns went down, a combination of both fatigue and being hurt. He got up just as the bell sounded to end the round. Round 14 saw Leonard land another crushing right hand that had Hearns all but out on his feet. Leonard knew that it was just a matter of time before the fight would be stopped. He poured it on before referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight. Leonard was now both the best fighter and Undisputed Welterweight Champion of the World.
I couldn’t sleep that night as my favorite fighter in the world had blown a golden opportunity at immortality, although my father did explain to me how that fight was one of the rare occasions in which both fighters won. Hearns won by revealing how great of a boxer he was and the incredible heart he showed surviving the sixth and seventh round when he was in deep trouble. A year later, Hearns would outbox WBC Super Welterweight Champion Wilfred Benítez to win that title. In 1984, he would become the only man ever to put Roberto Duran to sleep as he knocked him out cold for several minutes in the second round. Then in 1985, he would challenge Marvin Hagler for the Undisputed Middleweight title. More on that later.
A little over a year after defeating Hearns, Leonard was forced to retire due to a detached retina that he suffered as a result of the punishment he took in the Hearns fight. He would make one of the most incredible comebacks in boxing history when he defeated Marvin Hagler to win the WBC Middleweight title. He would engage in a rematch with both Hearns and Duran in 1989. The fight with Hearns was a slow motion version of their first fight. Leonard was knocked down twice and was given a gift draw. He easily outboxed Duran in the worst closed circuit fight my father and I ever attended. On February 9, 1991, I took my father to Madison Square Garden to see Leonard’s only fight ever in the Mecca of boxing against WBC Super Middleweight Champion Terry Norris. Norris gave him a one sided beating, as Leonard barely survived the entire 12 rounds. Finally, after taking an unnecessary beating against Hector Camacho in 1997, Leonard retired for good at the age of 41.