Special Fight: Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns
By Sina Latif
There has been numerous great fights in history.
Extraordinarily significant fights like Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling II and Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier I. Captivatingly exciting fights like Micky Ward vs Arturo Gatti I and Jose Luis Castillo vs Diego Corrales I.
However, there is one fight that is truly special for this writer.
The night Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns squared off in the ring for the undisputed welterweight championship of the world at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas in 1981, that was a truly special event. An action-packed legacy defining fight, and one surrounded by greatness.
It was a phenomenal showdown between two young, pound-for-pound greats and two men amongst the best welterweights ever.
The eb and flow made it a brilliant fight. However, looking beyond the two combatants in the ring made this a special event and a perfect embodiment of boxing royalty.
In the blue corner there was the WBC welterweight champion, Leonard.
Leonard combined elements of the skill and will of Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter of all time, inside the ring, and the charisma of Muhammad Ali outside the ring.
Behind that dazzling smile laid a ferocious killer instinct and Leonard fought the best of his era, including Hearns, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Wilfred Benitez, and beat every single one of them.
Beating such high-profile Hall of Famer’s means Leonard possesses one of the finest resumes in the history of boxing. He became a five-weight division champion from welterweight to light-heavyweight.
In Leonard’s corner was legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. As a cornerman, Dundee helped Ali to reach the pinnacle of boxing in the 70’s, and did the same with Leonard in the 80’s.
Dundee was absolutely pivotal in the key moments of the fights which became the makings of both legendary fighters.
After the fourth round in huge underdog then-Cassius Clay’s showdown with the feared Sonny Liston, a burning sensation in his eyes had left Clay frustrated, squinting his eyes and telling Dundee to remove his gloves and stop the fight. Dundee refused, made Clay get up and gave him one simple instruction.. RUN!
Clay’s vision later cleared and Liston quit on his stool at the end of the sixth round. This was the fight that started the legend of Muhammad Ali and his path to greatness. If not for Dundee, the then-Clay will have been the one quitting and history will have been so different for the man known as ‘The Greatest.’
In this showdown against Hearns, with ‘The Hitman’ rallying after the 12th round and Leonard’s left eye badly swollen with his reputation at stake, Dundee fired Leonard up by famously saying: “You’re blowing it now son, you’re blowing it. Ray, we need fire, you’re not firing.”
Leonard came out in the 13th, fighting with urgency and aware that there was no boxing Hearns, and to win, he had to have a huge final three rounds or stop ‘The Hitman.’
Leonard took the fight to Hearns, then landed a crushing right hand which buckled the knees of Hearns, and Leonard did not let ‘The Hitman’ off the hook.
An amazingly quick-fire flurry of unanswered punches had Hearns staggered and he fell through the ropes. Hearns got up, and Leonard pounced on him again and Hearns was slumped on the ropes, with a referee’s count this time.
Hearns showed courage to see out the 13th round, but he was on shaky legs in the 14th round, and once Ray caught him with a big right hand again, being the great finisher he was and smelling blood in the water, he started ripping inside to the body and head of Hearns and with the ‘Motor City Cobra’ deemed defenceless and unable to clinch and hold, referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight.
Hearns had proved to be the better fighter for the first twelve rounds, and with Leonard trailing on all three judges’ scorecards and needing a knockout in the final three rounds to get a victory, he pulled it out of the bag.
Dundee provided Leonard with the motivation necessary to score this late remarkable knockout that boosted his standing as a boxing legend.
It is no mere coincidence that two of Dundee’s most high-profile fighters are known to have had endless reservoirs of heart in the ring which helped them to prevail in the most testing of fights.
Leonard stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“He activated that nerve, that thing inside you. . . . Ali spoke of that feeling, too, when he said beating Joe Frazier in their third fight was the closest thing to death he’d ever experienced. People can do more than they ever believe they can do.”
The supposedly invincible Hearns may have lost to another all-time great on this particular night, but he still went on to become the first six-weight division champion and the greatest super welterweight of all time.
No fighter in the history of the welterweight or super welterweight division punched as hard as Hearns and when he connected with that demonic right hand, on more occasions than not, it was lights out.
Aside from Leonard, Hearns also fought Hagler, Duran and Benitez, along with many other great fighters of his time.
Although he did not win them all, losing to Leonard in a fight where Sugar Ray proved his own greatness, and to Hagler in the most action-packed eight minutes of action you will see, these losses still went some way to shaping his legacy.
Losing to two other all-time greats in highly competitive fights which they proclaimed to be their career highlights bears no shame for Hearns. To achieve greatness, one must fight other in-prime great fighters who have an equal chance of victory. Hearns certainly did that.
In Hearns’ corner was a young Emanuel Steward. Steward would go on to train the likes of Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko later in life, along with numerous other great champions from his renowned Kronk gym in Detroit, but his star pupil was Hearns.
Emanuel took Hearns’ amateur pedigree as a youngster, taught him about leverage using his 78-inch reach, and with that came Hearns’ vaunted power. This extraordinary partnership turned Hearns into one of the most fearsome fighters of his generation.
The impact that Steward had on his fighters was truly amazing. Steward teamed up with Lewis when ‘The Pugilist Specialist’ had just lost his world title and unbeaten record with a shock first professional career defeat to Oliver McCall, and helped Lewis to become a formidable heavyweight who possessed the skills to go along with his physical attributes to hold his own against any heavyweight in history.
In Steward’s first fight with Klitschko, the Ukrainian lost via a shocking fifth round loss to Lamon Brewster, but Steward re-built Klitschko into one of the most dominant heavyweights in boxing history.
Steward could pair up with fighters whilst they were at their lowest point, and help to maximise their attributes, alter their styles and turn them into some of the most accomplished fighters of all time.
Upon hindsight, when re-watching this fight, it is truly a very special night in boxing. Two all-time greats at the peak of their powers, with two legendary trainers in each corner, and the most iconic boxer of all time, Ali, the idol of both fighters in the ring, visibly sat ringside.
That ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on the night of Wednesday, September 16, 1981 produced a monumental moment in the history of boxing that will forever be talked about throughout the existence of the sport, and the surroundings of the ring ensured that it truly was ‘The Showdown’, the showdown that brought boxing greatness together for one special night.