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Sugar Ray Leonard Exclusive: Hearns and The Showdown - 30 Years On
By Tom Gray
“Muhammad Ali sat at ringside with the same look on his face a law professor might wear while sitting in the back of mock court as his protégés argued cases brilliantly.”
The late Ralph Wiley remembers Leonard vs. Hearns in his 1989 book, Serenity.
The definition of “Showdown” is an event, especially a confrontation, which forces an issue to a conclusion. The event, on September 16th 1981, was the undisputed welterweight championship of the world, the confrontation was between “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and the conclusion saw one man’s true greatness established - forever.
Leonard vs. Hearns took place in the car park of Caesars Place, Las Vegas on a scorching Wednesday night, with eighties glitterati sprinkled around an electric blue canvas; Muhammad Ali himself, Larry Holmes, Richard Pryor, Burt Reynolds, John McEnroe and Cher were among the luminaries who descended on Sin City to witness welterweight gold.
Thomas Hearns, the WBA champion, was undefeated with a terrifying record of 32-0 (30 KO’s). In August of 1980 he had defeated the fearsome Pipino Cuevas, to win his championship, scoring an explosive second round knockout, and many felt the new “Sugarman” could be in real jeopardy against the Detroit star.
Leonard recalls; “Tommy Hearns was a beast, an absolute monster, within the welterweight division. I remember him as amateur, when he was mainly a boxer, but more so as a professional. He was so dominant and just a force to be reckoned with. I was very impressed by him.”
Sugar Ray Leonard, in 1981, was the best pound for pound fighter on the planet. His lone defeat, one year earlier, to the legendary Roberto Duran, was avenged when the great Panamanian surrendered during the eighth round of the infamous “No Mas” affair in New Orleans. With Ray’s Revenge came the WBC title, renewed popularity and public demand for a showdown with rival champion, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
Larry Merchant, working with HBO, recalls the pre fight hype; “Ray had been in with Duran twice and the Hearns clash had been cooking for a couple of years. Everyone wanted to see what would happen and it exceeded all the expectations. I leaned slightly to Leonard because he had the higher aspirations. Hearns wanted to be a great fighter but Ray wanted to be a great man, by transcending the prize ring.”
This reporter asked Sugar Ray about his preparation and unique confidence; “We brought in so many sparring partners for that fight. Odell Hadley was 6ft 2in, but there were other guys 6ft 3in and 6ft 4in. The key with that was to simulate Tommy Hearns, which is very difficult because he was so rangy and such a great boxer. We had very tall guys, treelike fighters, who had a strong and fast left jab.”
“The confidence came from a fight I had in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with Marcus Geraldo in 1979. He was a middleweight who hurt me so many times. I went the distance with this big dude, won a decision, and from there I felt I could beat anybody.”
On fight night, Leonard and Hearns entered the ring with warnings emblazoned on the back of their respective robes. Hearns, anxious for glory and respect, carried the phrase; “Winner Takes All” while Sugar Ray, intent on crushing his rival’s dreams, had one simple word; “Deliverance”. The famed announcer, Chuck Hull, completed the introductions and the boxing world held it’s collective breath.
The atmosphere in the first round was one of electric anticipation. Leonard moved beautifully from side to side, displaying defensive finesse as bombs went off all around him. “The Hitman” could only land the jab on his elusive opponent, but that in itself was bad news for the former Olympic champion, who was struggling to find the target.
“It was discouraging to say the least” laughed Leonard. “I was really impressed, in the ring, and I was just trying to catch up with him. Tommy was out boxing me, giving me angles and I was saying to myself; “Who is this guy?” I knew Tommy could box but I didn’t know he could box that well.”
The pattern continued until the sixth round when Leonard suddenly broke through with a shocking left hook which snapped his opponent’s head back; “I think the Hearns camp knew that I could punch but they didn’t know I was capable of outpunching Tommy” remembers Leonard. “They figured that Tommy would have done away with me before I could get any big punches off.”
Hearns was being torn up on the inside, in round seven, and was close to being stopped when famed Detroit trainer, Emmanuel Steward, instructed him to box from the outside in an astonishing role reversal; “This was not a scenario that we had imagined” remarked a surprised Larry Merchant. “To his credit Hearns had these resources to call upon, when Leonard hurt him, and he managed to get himself back into position to win the fight. That only added to the drama of the occasion.”
Leonard agrees and found himself in awe of his opponent’s tactical superiority; “I was struggling because Tommy’s movement in rounds eight through twelve threw me off. Both of us were exhausted, although Tommy had more adrenalin because he was leading. I just wouldn’t give up but it did start to look bleak for me - very bleak.”
Going into the thirteenth round Sugar Ray Leonard was behind on all scorecards and needed a wizard’s touch. Angelo Dundee, another legendary trainer, knew the fight was slipping away and read his fighter the riot act; “You’re blowing it now, son! You’re blowing it! We’ve got to separate the men from the boys! You have to be quicker and you have to take it away from him!” and then he yelled “Speed!” Leonard nodded and advanced.
Midway into the session Leonard threw a quick one two combination, with the right hand landing flush on the jaw of Hearns, who reeled backwards, in clear distress. The first bullet had been fired and Sugar Ray now emptied the magazine; hooks and uppercuts to body and head, perhaps two dozen, were thrown in a kaleidoscope of ferocity, that culminated in Hearns’ body tangled between the ropes, one half of him deposited on the ring apron.
The referee ruled no knockdown but the physical damage inflicted was undeniable. Hearns got to his feet, but he was running on empty and Leonard had scored a legitimate knockdown by the end of the round. The Hitman looked finished as he returned to his corner, while a revitalized Sugar Ray threw his gloves in the air, in anticipation of victory.
“The Hitman” was wounded and Ray Leonard, a deadly finisher, smelt blood. He cut off the ring in the fourteenth, using his feet to trap Hearns, who instinctively moved to his left side just as “The Sugarman” released a whipping over hand right. The perfectly timed punch was thrown in an eye blink and clipped Hearns on the tip of the chin, short circuiting his equilibrium. Leonard then cherry picked to head and body until referee, Dave Pearl, stopped the contest.
“It was pure joy and such an incredible moment in my career” recalls the five weight world champion, with a touch of emotion in his voice. “To have defeated Tommy Hearns, such a terrific fighter, and now I’m the undisputed welterweight champion of the world. My brothers and trainers ran into the ring and lifted me up in the air but they were cutting off my oxygen and I could hardly breathe. I was physically spent, just exhausted.”
“Most boxers felt that I was the one with the silver spoon in my mouth because outside of the sport I also did commercials, endorsements and things of that nature. This led people to believe that I came from a middle class family and that I was already wealthy. The consensus was that I was given all my opportunities for that reason, rather than for my ability. The Hearns fight demonstrated that I could get deep down and dirty. Yes I could box artistically but I could also do what was necessary to win.”
Sugar Ray Leonard made $12 million dollars that evening, a record purse at the time, but there was only one place for him to celebrate his finest career win; “I went to bed, honestly I did, straight to bed” laughed the Hall of Famer. “I never celebrated after a fight and would just go straight home, or to my room, in order to calm myself down. I was twenty five years old, so recovery took a week and a half, two weeks at the most. In my twenties I healed up real fast.”
Esteemed British boxing writer, Colin Hart, covered the bout for The Sun and told this reporter; “Going in I felt Leonard was the better all round fighter. I have always said he was the finest, pound for pound, I have ever seen in the flesh. His first fight with Hearns was one of the all time classics and Tommy, himself, was a dynamite puncher and a terrific fighter.”
Both men would go on to win multiple world titles, establishing themselves as sporting icons, before meeting again in a 1989 rematch, which ended in a controversial draw; “We were always very cordial, civil and respectful to one another.” said Ray. “In fact I couldn’t get up for the second fight because there were so many people saying that Tommy shouldn’t be in the ring with me. My whole camp and the media were saying that and it affected my focus, but I knew Tommy would rise to the occasion, which he did.”
“He should have got that decision.”
At the peak of his powers Leonard was simply one of the greatest fighters ever and, like Ali; his charm, likeability and charisma belied that status. These inner qualities, comfortingly, still exist thirty years later and Larry Merchant perhaps explains it best; “Years after the first Hearns fight I spoke with Ray before he met Hagler. I told him that I was picking Marvin to win but as he left, I said to him; “make me a liar”. We’re all supposed to be professional and unbiased - but we’re also human.”
Thank you very much to Sugar Ray Leonard, Kieran Mulvaney, Larry Merchant, Colin Hart and PMK PR for their assistance in making this article possible.
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September 9, 2011