A second look: "Sugar" Ray Leonard vs. Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns

A second look: "Sugar" Ray Leonard vs. Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing (Jan 9, 2013)

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns
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.

Gold 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 toothpick.

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 Leonard.

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.

Before the fight, Leonard had felt he could outbox Hearns. With five rounds n the books, Hearns jab was still controling the bout.

Round 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 punch combination.

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 round ended.

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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