A second look: "Sugar" Ray Leonard vs. Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing (Jan 9, 2013)
A little over thirty years ago two superstars got together in Las Vegas.
One was an Olympic champion with charisma to spare. The other burned with intensity and packed dynamite in his right hand.
medalist Sugar Ray Leonard (30-1, 21 KOs) captured the WBC welterweight
championship with a fifteenth-round stoppage of Wilfred Benitez in
1979. He lost the title to Roberto Duran and regained it five months
later in the infamous 'no mas' fight.
Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns (32-0, 30 KOs) won the WBA welterweight belt
by stopping Pipino Cuevas in two brutal rounds. The fight, held in
Hearns’ hometown of Detroit, Michigan, was a beat down from the opening
bell. At ‘6”1" and 145 pounds, Hearns was built like a muscular
Leonard and Hearns, unlike Messers. Mayweather and Pacquiao, talked the talk and signed the contracts.
“The Showdown” as it was called was set for September 16, 1981 at Caesars Palace.
Hearns, 22, entered the ring with advantages in power, height (four
inches) and reach (nearly five inches). Leonard, 25, had the edge in
speed. He also had a chip on his shoulder. The criticism that he was
nothing more than an over-hyped pretty boy had stung. He was determined
to prove the naysayer’s wrong.
The Vegas bookies had installed Hearns a 6-5 favorite.
According to some reports, the temperature inside the ring was over 120 degrees.
The first two rounds mirrored each other. Leonard used the ring and
jabbed to the body while Hearns stalked. Hearns, like a man with a
magnum 44 connected to his right hand, looked for places to fire it.
Leonard moved away from the danger, not allowing Hearns to set his feet.
When Hearns did land, it wasn’t his right, but his left that stung
Hearns found Leonard’s chin with a another solid left in round three.
Leonard continued to circle, but his punch output was limited. Hearns
stinging jab kept bouncing off Leonard's face - whose left cheekbone
was already showing some damage. Hearns finally landed his lethal right
near the end of the round, but Leonard took it well and countered back.
At the bell he made eye contact with Hearns and raised his arms as if
to say, ‘I got this.’
In round four, Leonard scored with quick combinations to the head of
Hearns. He was finding his rhythm, but still not doing enough to win
many rounds on the judges’ scorecards. Hearns stabbed with his left.
After Leonard missed with a big hook, Hearns unleashed a left and right
combination that connected solidly to Leonard's chin. Hearns stalked
some more in round five, utilizing his jab. Leonard used his legs but
missed most of his salvos.
Hearns was winning the fight. All three judges had him comfortably ahead.
the fight, Leonard had felt he could outbox Hearns. With five rounds n
the books, Hearns jab was still controling the bout.
six proved to be the turning point. Leonard had to know he was behind
on points. He immediately landed a heavy right hand that surprised
Hearns and drew a roar from the sellout crowd. Leonard bounced on his
toes while Hearns pursued, his left hand dangling precariously low. With
a minute to go in the round, Leonard missed a right, and dodged a
Hearns counter. He then dipped and let fly with an inside left hook. The
impact of the punch caused Hearns to wobble to the ropes. Leonard
staggered Hearns again with a right, but the undefeated Detroit bomber
came back punching. His right stopped Leonard in his tracks. Leonard
landed a wicked left hook to the side that made everybody at ringside
wince. The round concluded with Leonard pounding Hearns with a four
A determined Leonard came out flatfooted in round seven. He intended to
end the fight. Hearns saw things a bit differently. He strafed Leonard
with combinations. Leonard countered back with a flashy combination that
hurt Hearns again. He dug two left hooks to the body that backed up
Hearns. Another round of punches drove Hearns into the ropes. At the
bell he staggered to his corner like a man who had one to many.
In round eight Hearns reverted back to the boxer he was as an amateur.
He circled and jabbed while Leonard, now the stalker, walked after him.
Leonard connected with an overhand right, but Hearns took it well. In
rounds nine through 11, Hearns continued to outbox Leonard. He would jab
and move away. Leonard found Hearns with a few right hands, but the
effect was minimal on the WBA champion.
Leonard was making the classic sluggers' mistake-loading up and looking for one shot.
Through 11 rounds, the judges had Hearns ahead (106-103,
107-103,107-102). Leonard once again needed something dramatic to
happen. His left eye was almost closed. The right side of his face was
also showing damage. Hearns looked rejuvenated as he motioned to the
crowd. At the bell he changed back to the “The Hitman,” cracking right
hands to the body. Hearns also did well in round 12, but it was obvious
something was wrong. His second wind was proving to be short-lived.
Round 13 would be anything but unlucky for Leonard. With a little over a
minute to go in the stanza, a Leonard right caused Hearns to teeter
again. WBC champion Leonard jumped in and fired combination after
combination, eventually sending Hearns sliding through the ropes.
Referee Davey Pearl (who did a great job) ruled against a knockdown.
Hearns was up and on his bicycle. The problem was one of his wheels was
flat. Leonard pounced and put Hearns down again. This time Pearl gave
Hearns the count. The weary battler dragged himself up at nine as the
In round 14, Leonard went to work on the head and body of the exhausted,
but super game Hearns. A Leonard right had Hearns reeling along the
ropes. Leonard motioned for Pearl to wave the fight off. When he didn’t,
he went back to hammering Hearns until Pearl finally stopped the bout
at 1:45 of the round.
Hearns was leading by scores of 124-122, 125-122, and 125-121 at the time of the stoppage.
The announced crowd was 23,615 fans.
The two Hall of Famers would meet again eight years later.
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