1980sBoxingHBOLarry MerchantSugar Ray LeonardThomas HearnsWelterweight ChampionsWelterwt Championship Fights

Boxing – Welterweight Title – Sugar Ray Leonard VS Thomas Hearns


A common thread of gold that ran through the very heart of the golden age of boxing (1964 – 1995) was the number of times that boxing legends fought each other….and this one was as big as it got….WBC welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard vs WBA welterweight champion Thomas “Hitman” Hearns….as this war of boxing titans…was at a time in this incredible era of boxing that TV dollars were starting to skyrocket…..cuz the simple truth was that from 1964 to 1995, the title fights like this one….trumped the box office of all sports….including the NFL & MLB….which were were both huge at the time.  The byproduct of these “high dollar” TV fights between legends of the ring was that the boxers made enormous amounts of money….unlike anything known to boxing before then…..and this fight was as big as it got during this golden age of boxing.

Another common thread of boxing during this age…..was that as a fan, you always knew you were going to get a great fight….and a good chance of seeing a legendary fight….Ali vs Frazier, Leonard vs Duran, Hagler vs Hearns et al…..so, there was always an extra portion of excitement and expectation leading up to these fights of legends…..cuz every fight fan had who they thought would win and good reasons why their choice would win….for there was no room for “wishy washy opinions” when Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns step into the ring.

Promoted as “The Showdown”….Sugar Ray fought Hitman on September 16, 1981 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to unify the World welterweight championship in a scheduled fifteen-rounder. They fought before a live crowd of 23,618….a fight for which Hearns was paid $5.1 million….with Leonard maing over $11 million….in a fight that grossed over $35 million…with the live gate being $5.9 million….and the revenue from pay-per-view was $7.5 million.  

Hearns was 32–0 with 30 knockouts coming into the fight having won the WBA welterweight championship in 1980 by scoring a second-round knockout of José “Pipino” Cuevas….then making three successful title defenses by stopping Luis Primera, Randy Shields, and Pablo Baez. On the other side of the ring was Leonard who was 30 – 1 coming into the fight…..having taken back the WBC welterweight title from Roberto Duran after losing it in their 1st fight.

The fight began as expected with Leonard boxing from a distance….while Hearns was stalking….for Sugar Ray had difficulty with Hearns’ long reach and sharp jab….which resulted in Leonard having a growing swelling under his left eye by the end of the 5th round….as Hearns had built a considerable lead on the scorecards….that is when Leonard, became more aggressive….hurt Hearns in the sixth with a left hook to the chin…..as Leonard battered Hearns in rounds six and seven….but Hearns regrouped and started to stick and move….as he began to pile up points again. At this point, the roles reversed and Leonard became the stalker with Hearns becoming the boxer. The fight billed as a classic showdown between a powerful knockout artist and the best boxer/puncher the welterweight division had seen in decades suddenly devolved into a tactical and boring fight….where Hearns won rounds nine through twelve on all three scorecards. Between rounds twelve and thirteen, Angelo Dundee told Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it!”…..and that is when Leonard, with a badly swollen left eye,came out roaring for the thirteenth round. After hurting Hearns with a right….Leonard exploded with a combination of punches…..as Hearns’ legs were clearly gone….and after more pressure from Ray…..he was bundled-up through the ropes….which wasn’t a knockdown cuz it wasn’t caused by a punch that sent him there. Hearns managed to rise….and was immediately dropped by a flurry of hard punches near the end of round 13.  In round fourteen, after staggering Hearns with an overhand right….Leonard pinned Hearns against the ropes….when he unleashed another furious combination….prompting referee Davey Pearl to stop the contest….and award Sugar Ray Leonard the Unified World welterweight championship. Hearns was leading by scores of 124–122, 125–122, and 125–121.

After the fight, there was controversy due to the scoring of rounds six and seven….even though Leonard dominated by hurting Hearns and battering him….all three judges gave both rounds to Leonard by a 10–9 margin….as many felt that the ten-point must scoring system was not properly used….and those rounds should have been scored 10–8.  Some also considered the stoppage premature….like veteran ringside commentator Don Dunphy….who said “They’re stopping the fight. I don’t believe it. Hearns was ahead on points.”….however, Emanuel Steward, Hearns’ manager and trainer said….”I felt that the referee was justified in stopping the fight … Tommy did not have enough energy to make it through the fight.”  

The fight was named “Fight of the Year” by The Ring…..Leonard was named “Fighter of the Year” by The Ring and The Boxing Writers Association of America….and he was also named “Athlete of the Year” by ABC’s Wide World of Sports and “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.  This fight was in my lil ole Sportsphile opinion…..one of my top five of all time….for the action started when the first bell rang and continued to the dramatic ending…..truly a fight worth watching over and over again.

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