Hearns vs. Leonard I: A historic fight for the agesWritten by Brian Opal
It is now fondly reminisced and discussed as one of the epic Welterweight prizefights in boxing history. Maybe even the best ever. It was billed and promoted as “The Showdown” because it featured the world’s two top 147-pounders at the time: Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns vs. “Sugar” Ray Leonard.
The fight was for the Undisputed World Welterweight Championship and was held in the outside arena at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1981. The desert air was warm, the temperature was in the mid 80s when the two combatants entered the ring and the surrounding atmosphere was electric, as the sold-out crowd of 23,618 buzzed with nervous anticipation. There were another 300 million TV viewers who couldn’t help but feel the vibrations that were generated by those in attendance and the excitement of the ESPN commentators.
Leonard was already a highly paid super-star with a record of 30-1 (21 KOs) and was coming off of big wins over Roberto Duran for the WBC Welterweight title and Ayub Kalule for the WBA Light Middleweight title.
And while Hearns was just 22-years-old, he'd already racked-up a very impressive record of 32-0 (30 KOs). He was the WBA champion, had a reputation as a feared knockout artist, was coming off of three successful title defenses, and was the 7 to 5 odds-on favorite.
It was the super fight that launched Main Events promotional firm onto the biggest stage in the sport, making it a major player in the industry.
Top trainer Javan “Sugar” Hill, the nephew of the late, great Haller-of-Famer Emanuel Steward, recalls:
"I can remember my first pay-per-view...it was Thomas Hearns vs. ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard I. There was such excitement...it was something that was everything...it’s a pay-per-view fight, this is a big fight, there’s no way anybody should miss this fight, it was talked about everywhere."
"It was two big powerhouse fighters going up against each other on pay-per-view. And that’s what pay-per-view was.
”As the bell rang and the action ensued, Hearns immediately established the role of effective aggressor and successfully worked from behind his long, stiff jab. He had Leonard backing up in purely defensive mode and continued to score with his jab and many solid right hands and body shots, winning the first five rounds. Then, Leonard turned the tide with a left hook that wobbled Hearns at 1:59 into the sixth stanza.
He continued to dominate Hearns for the remainder of the round and throughout the seventh. All three judges scored rounds six and seven in favor of Leonard. This turned out to be controversial because some believed they should’ve been scored 10-8.
The sixth and seventh rounds totally reversed the momentum of the fight as Leonard became the bull and Hearns became the matador. Boxing extremely well from the outside with great footwork and lateral movement, “The Hitman” won round nine and became the stalker in the 10th, 11th and 12th, dominating them on all scorecards.
At the end of the 12th, Leonard’s left eye was almost swollen shut and his trainer, Hall-of-Famer Angelo Dundee, told him: "You're blowing it now, son, you're blowing it!
In the 13th stanza, Leonard started pressuring and leading Hearns with new found determination and tenacity. He hurt his opponent with a jarring right hand and then unloaded combinations of scoring blows. Hearns fell through the ropes as a result of the onslaught, but it was ruled a slip. In the last few seconds of the round, the staggered Hearns was pressed through the ropes again, but this time it was ruled a knockdown. The assault continued in the 14th, as Leonard rocked his foe with a big right and trapped him on the ropes. He then hit Hearns with a combination to the body and head followed by a crushing left uppercut. The referee stopped the fight at 1:45 even though “The Hitman” was still standing and appeared to be intelligently defending himself.
Directly after the bout, there was a lot of controversy due to the fact that many considered the stoppage to be premature. Veteran sports announcer Don Dunphy was at ringside and exclaimed, "they're stopping the fight. I don't believe it. Hearns was ahead on points!" Although Hearns’ trainer and coach Emanuel Steward said, “I felt that the referee was justified in stopping the fight. Tommy did not have enough energy to make it through the fight.”
Javan “Sugar” Hill recently stated, “He [Hearns] lost that fight because he did not know how to hold properly when he got hurt. He’d never been hurt before, he’d never been in that situation and he didn’t know what to do.”
After his victory, Leonard was honored for a day in Washington D.C. where he met with President Ronald Reagan and received passage of a congressional resolution praising his boxing skills. He was quoted as saying, “If I’d known I would receive something like this, I would have knocked Hearns out a long time ago.”
Hearns was paid just over five million dollars and Leonard made over 11 million. Considering it was 33 years ago, both men received considerably large paydays for the superfight.
In fact, it was the biggest combined purse in boxing history up to that point.
The bout grossed nearly 40 million dollars worldwide, which set a new record. “The Showdown” was named 1981 "Fight of the Year” by The Ring Magazine. In 2010, Time Magazine ranked “The Showdown” as the third best prizefight in history.
Where does it rank on your list?