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40 Years Ago This Week: Sugar Ray Leonard TKOs Thomas Hearns in an Instant Classic

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  • 40 Years Ago This Week: Sugar Ray Leonard TKOs Thomas Hearns in an Instant Classic

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    By Bernard Fernandez

    Whoever coined the phrase that “you can’t please ’em all” might have been referring to someone like Doug Blackburn, one of the rare dissenters in assessing what he had seen during the classic welterweight unification showdown of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981, in the outdoor stadium at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace.

    Writing for the Town Talk in that noted boxing hotbed of Alexandria, La., Blackburn, who saw the fight at a closed-circuit venue, wrote a column in which he offered his opinion that the matchup of two great champions in their prime “like many heavily-hyped, much anticipated meetings, failed to live up to prefight expectations. Despite Sugar Ray’s dramatic rally, neither man can be too satisfied with the way he fought.”

    Yeah, well, there are still people here and there who insist that the Earth is flat and the sun revolves around the moon. But for most fight fans fortunate enough to have witnessed Leonard-Hearns I – there would be a too-long-delayed rematch, on June 12, 1989, which ended in a desultory split draw that many thought should have gone Hearns’ way – the classic original, in which Leonard, trailing on all three scorecards, staged a dramatic rally to win on a 14th-round stoppage, is a gold standard for what such megafights are supposed to be, but frequently aren’t.

    Think not? In the 40 years since Leonard and Hearns made ring magic, similarly stratospheric hopes were tied to the Sept. 18, 1999, unification bout between undefeated welterweight titlists Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, which was not exactly a thrillfest when measured against Leonard-Hearns I. The outcome was tinged in controversy, true, but only because De La Hoya, mistakenly thinking he was too far ahead on points to lose on the scorecards, coasted the last three rounds and was stunned when Tito was awarded a majority-decision victory. There would be no rematch.

    In a financial sense, the May 2, 2015, pairing of celebrated welterweight champs Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao obliterated all revenue records with an overall take of $600 million, far outdistancing the then-high-water mark of $50 million-plus nearly 34 years earlier for Leonard-Hearns I, when the technology for milking every available dollar from fights of that scope was still comparatively primitive. But Mayweather, an indisputably great fighter whose strengths are pinpoint counterpunching and impenetrable defense, was content to craft another workmanlike performance in handily outpointing “PacMan,” who claimed he was hindered by a shoulder injury. Both fighters greatly enriched themselves, but the fight, which was generally conceded to be four to five years past its optimal date, did little to satisfy most fans’ craving for the kind of two-way action that was promised but not delivered.

    Leonard-Hearns I, on the other hand, had more than its share of exclamation-point moments, for each fighter, the most obvious being the finishing flurry in which Leonard, his left eye badly swollen and increasingly aware that the victory he had presumed would be his was becoming less and less likely, seized command in the 14th round with, depending on whose count you choose to believe, 23, 25 or 28 unanswered blows. It was left to referee Davey Pearl to rescue the dazed and defenseless Hearns after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 45 seconds.

    At the post-fight press conference, Leonard, his ugly, purplish left eye and puffy cheekbone hidden behind oversized dark glasses, explained why and how he had been able to mine a vein of toughness many had presumed the 1976 Olympic gold medalist lacked.

    “I was afraid of the right hand of his until the very end,” Leonard admitted of Hearns’ vaunted power. “He dropped some real bombs on me, and I knew he had another one left.

    “I pulled this one out by reaching down into my guts, into my heart. I knew I was behind. I knew I had to keep the pressure up. There wasn’t anything I could do but find out what was inside me.”

    Sometimes, the beauty of boxing is most illustrated by the unsightly. Leonard, whose inner iron had been glimpsed most notably in his close, unanimous-decision loss to Roberto Duran on June 20, 1980, in Montreal, demonstrated to any remaining doubters that he was so much more than the possessor of a dazzling smile, matinee-idol looks and a glib way in expressing himself.

    John Schulian, the outstanding sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, described Leonard’s come-from-behind surge thusly:

    After all those miles and all those smiles, Sugar Ray Leonard wasn’t pretty any more. He was a one-eyed man in an ugly fight that had nothing to do with the glitz and glamor that have been his calling card. There had been a time when he could have avoided this grim marathon, a time in the sixth and seventh rounds when he could have added Thomas Hearns to his list of victims. But the moment had passed and Hearns had escaped, and now Leonard, his handsome face a scowling bruise, was struggling for survival.

    And this, from the New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica:

    Away from the ring he fools you with the con man’s smile and the smooth patter and the slick attitudes about his own high finance …This is Ray Charles Leonard, child of hype, maker of millions, the 25-year-old man who will soon be the richest fighter in the history of the game. And that is why he fools you when he steps out of Dun and Bradstreet and into a pair of boxing trunks and becomes Sugar Ray Leonard. Boxing will never seem hard enough, dirty enough, bloody enough for Sugar Ray Leonard. Only in special moments will we see the man’s steel, and heart, and extraordinary ability to bang and grapple when a fight is on the line. Only when someone tries to take his title away from him will we realize there is a hoodlum inside the tuxedo.

    To the winner go the spoils, or at least that is what usually happens. While Leonard added another layer to his burgeoning reputation as a special fighter, a historically significant fighter, the vanquished Hearns – not known as a fount of nifty sound bites and attention-grabbing quotes – might have gained nearly as much in defeat as had the triumphant Leonard. It had been generally conceded going in that, were the fight to end in the early rounds, it would be Hearns who would have his hand raised. If enough rounds tolled by, perhaps all the way to the conclusion of the scheduled 15, the momentum would necessarily shift to Leonard (30-1 with 21 KOs entering the bout), widely seen as a less devastating puncher than Hearns (32-0, 30 KOs) but also as a more polished stylist and executor of strategical options. That scenario was repeated so often during the run-up to the bout that it almost came to be accepted as incontrovertible fact.

    Team Leonard, for the most part, rolled with the notion that Hearns was a human robot whose Plan A was to land that pulverizing overhand right, as early as possible and as often as necessary. His Plan B would be … well, there really wasn’t one, if Leonard and his crafty trainer, Angelo Dundee, were to be believed.

    “This is the first time in my career I’ve had visions of a fight,” Leonard said a few days before he would get the opportunity to implement his imagination. “I see thousands and thousands of people. I see Hearns missing and being aggravated and frustrated. I see me raising my hands. I’ve had this dream, this vision, for over two months. It just has to come true.

    “I’ve said Hearns fights one way and can’t fight no other way. I heard he might try to box me. I wish he would try. Hearns is a puncher. With that reach of his, well, he’s a freak, really. He comes straight at you. He doesn’t need to think.”

    And if the “Motor City Cobra” did find that he might need to think?

    “He’ll blow a fuse.”

    Added Dundee: “Hearns might be 6-foot-2, (actually 6’1”) but he spreads his legs and that will bring him eyeball-to-eyeball with Leonard. He tries to sucker you by carrying the left real low like Bobby Foster used to do, and then he rears back and nails you with the right. But Leonard isn’t going to fall for any of those traps. It will be interesting to see what happens to Hearns if he sees he can’t take Leonard out in a few rounds. Will he panic and punch himself out like Foreman did against Ali?”

    Like Ali, Leonard was a master of mind games meant to mentally discombobulate an opponent if possible. But Hearns’ manager-trainer, Emanuel Steward, had worked with Hearns since he was 12, and he insisted that Leonard’s taunts and posturing would have no effect on his guy.

    “Both (Wilfredo) Benitez and Duran took a lot out of Leonard, physically and mentally,” Steward suggested. “I know that after the Benitez fight Leonard was mentally exhausted. Besides, now that he has made all those millions from all those fights, he no longer has that burning ambition. The fire is gone out of him.”

    Perhaps the most prescient prefight comment came from Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali’s longtime personal physician, who insisted that Hearns was hardly the one-trick pony described by Leonard. Pacheco predicted that Hearns’ 78-inch reach, unusually long for a welterweight, would help Hearns control the flow of the fight until the proper moment presented itself for him to deliver a put-away right.

    “Leonard will have to pay an awful toll to travel down that 78-inch speedway,” Pacheco said. “Thomas will control him with his long, hard jab, and somewhere along the way Leonard will move into a right hand he won’t see. It will be like a fuse going off in his brain. All the lights will go out.”

    Truth be told, Steward’s fight plan did indeed call for heavy usage of Hearns’ jab, the presumed key which would serve to open the door to Leonard’s chin for that concussive right. And even if a terminating detonation of the right never occurred, what exactly would be wrong if Hearns confounded all the prefight conjecture by outboxing Leonard over the long haul? He’d still come away as the unified 147-pound champion, adding Leonard’s WBC and The Ring magazine straps to his own WBA strap. It was the same conservative mindset De La Hoya had in putting as much distance between himself and the dangerous Trinidad in those final three rounds 18 years later, with one difference – De La Hoya’s lead was not as wide as Hearns’. Leonard had won only four of the 13 completed rounds on two judges’ cards at the time Pearl waved the fight off, and five of 13 on the third judge’s tally.

    But in the 14th round Hearns – who had overcome shaky rounds in the sixth and seventh to again gain the upper hand -- chose to engage Leonard in another in-tight exchange, and got popped with a hard left hook that instantly shifted momentum. Leonard tore into Hearns with a renewed sense of purpose, and it wasn’t long before Pearl stepped in.

    “It was kind of silly,” Duke Durden of the Nevada State Athletic Commission said. “All Hearns had to do was either stay away, or grab and hold Leonard – spit in his eye, or anything – the rest of the way, and the fight was his.”

    Although he never could hope to match Leonard as a media darling, in losing his first bout as a professional Hearns demonstrated that he had ample charisma of his own, and a willingness to go for broke where it counted, inside the ropes, stamping his future fights moving as must-see events. Now 62, he is as fondly remembered for losing his epic, throw-caution-to-the-wind three-round war with Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 15, 1985, as for his spectacular, second-round stoppage of Roberto Duran on June 15, 1984.

    Given all that they had shared, and the place each holds in the other’s legacy, it should not come as a surprise that Leonard was Hearns’ presenter when his former arch-rival was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in Aug. 2017.

    “We’re friends now,” Leonard said in introducing Hearns. “Tommy had the whole package. He was a freak of nature with his height, with his reach, with his power, with his speed.”


    *Main Events president Dan Duva served as lead promoter, another building block in the march toward big-time status for the New Jersey-based company, which was founded in 1979 as a mom-and-pop operation. Main Events took another major leap forward following the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when it signed U.S. Olympians Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs.

    *Leonard opened as a 2-to-1 favorite, but by fight time enough money had come in on Hearns that he went off as a 13-10 wagering choice.

    *At a Leonard workout in Vegas, Muhammad Ali was asked who he liked in the fight. “I pick Leonard ’cause he’s just like me, fast and pretty. He’ll dance circles around Hearns,” Ali replied. Then, at a Hearns workout an hour later, Ali said the Detroit scrapper “is awesome, man. Tommy Hearns is sooo big to be a welterweight. He should knock out Sugar Ray.”

    *Celebrity quote of fight week came from Charo: “I think the beeg one – Hearns – will cuchi-cuchi Sugar to sleep.”

    *The live attendance at Caesars Palace was 24,083, with 1,100 credentialed media members.

    *Hearns’ best quote during fight week: “Everybody talks about how great a boxer Ray Leonard is, especially Ray Leonard.”

    *Because of the television lights, the temperature in the ring at the time the main event started was right at 100 degrees.

    *According to Emanuel Steward, preliminary negotiations for a rematch began on Sept. 21, five days after the fight. Hearns-Leonard II, however, did not take place until June 12, 1989, nearly eight years later.

    Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

  • #2
    Great fight but I’ve always been a little confused about the stoppage, thinking it was a little premature. I saw in the 13th that Hearns was having trouble staying on his feet but in the 14th he seemed to right the ship and was punching back. He got frozen on the ropes in a corner, got hit, and in flew the ref to wave it off. For my money they could have let that play out in a way that appeared more conclusive, rather than Leonard always getting every situation to go his way. Or maybe it goes to the cards. It was a sudden stoppage no doubt about it, Hearn’s was intelligently defending himself, I’m surprised he didn’t complain.