After a seemingly endless string of forgettable champions defending even more forgettable titles (super-junior-cruiserweight), the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title conciliation fight next Wednesday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas comes as a refreshing rain after a season-long drought. It is a classic matchup: Hearns, 22, the undefeated WBA champion, is 147 pounds of corded muscles tightly coiled around a freakish (for a welterweight) 6'1" frame; and Leonard, 25, a loser only to Roberto Duran, is a baby-faced amalgam of speed, grace and magnum power. Leonard, the 5'10" Olympic champion, holds two crowns: the WBC welterweight title, which he will risk against Hearns, and the WBA junior middleweight championship, which he won three months ago and is holding in reserve as a hedge against unthinkable defeat.
Both have predicted a knockout. By a long ton, Leonard is the superior boxer. Hearns, who fancies himself a boxer, is pure slugger, about as scientific as a wrecking ball. If it should end with both fighters on their feet, Leonard will be the one with his hands in the air.
This will be the richest fight in history. Caesars paid $3.75 million to host the fight, and then spent another million for promotion and to erect a temporary 25,000-seat stadium a stone's throw from the parking lot where heavyweight champion Larry Holmes dispatched Muhammad Ali last October. With a $500 top, the arena is scaled to do $6 million. Ten days before the fight, the promoters announced a sellout.
Top Rank paid $1 million for foreign TV rights and expects to bounce the fight off three satellites and into 40 to 50 countries. As for closed-circuit TV, Main Event Productions—run by the curious combination of a rock-concert promoter, an attorney and a college basketball coach, and which operates out of a one-story building it shares with a barbershop in Totowa, N.J.—has put the fight in 275 locations, with a potential audience of two million. At an average of $20 a seat, the closed-circuit gross could hit $40 million. Another $10 million to $15 million is possible from the pay-per-view market, which has approximately one million outlets in 20 cities.
September 13, 1981
"The response has been so tremendous it's scary," said Shelly Finkel (the rock promoter), who will share a fixed promoter's fee of $1.5 million with his two rookie partners, Dan Duva, the Clarence Darrow of the threesome, and Dan Doyle, who last season coached Trinity (Conn.) College to a 22-4 basketball record.
Total revenues from all sources already have passed $32 million. The previous high was the $29 million for Leonard-Duran I in Montreal in June 1980. That night Leonard lost his welterweight title but gained $9.7 million. "I would be totally shocked if he doesn't exceed that on this fight," says Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney. Hearns's share will be $5.1 million, plus one-quarter of the net above $21 million. Leonard's post-tax net could surpass Hearns's pretax gross. There's no debate about which fighter is the drawing card.
Sugar Loaf Mountain lies in the northwest corner of Michigan, on a slender finger of wooded land that juts out into Lake Michigan, and it was at a ski resort here, after a four-hour ride in the rain from Detroit (he missed his plane), that Hearns did his early training. It is an area of splendid solitude, a backwoods hush that gives a man time to reflect. This is fishing country, which suited Hearns, and each fall the hardwood forests are invaded by battalions of deer hunters. Sugar Loaf isn't actually a mountain; it's a 600-foot hill with a 33-degree slope—called "Awful, Awful"—that drops off for a mile. Sometimes on his morning runs Hearns would assault the slope, but mostly he was content to run the adjacent golf course, which is bordered by cherry orchards. By either route, hill or rolling pasture, he covered between three and five miles.
A ring was set up in a large barnlike structure normally used for indoor tennis. The building is called Sugar Barn, but if Hearns read any significance into the appellation he let it slide. When he was not at work, the fighter could usually be found in Baronet No. 8, one of the town houses on the perimeter of the resort, where he whiled away his otherwise unoccupied hours watching video-tapes of kung fu or Elvis Presley movies. The telephone seemed programmed to ring at 30-second intervals; mostly it was ignored.
Late one afternoon, after a 45-minute training session in the barn, Hearns returned to his sanctuary trailed by a covey of press people. He'll never be mistaken for an orator, but he tries. His normal expression is that of a veteran poker player; he is a man of closet emotions.
"I have nothing against Ray Leonard," he said in response to a question. "I still think he's a nice fellow. He just happens to have something I want. If I beat him, I will get the recognition. I need the recognition. I've always wanted to be the best." A tiny crack appeared in the ice; a glimmer of a smile. "Ray has really never done anything to me. He's run off at the mouth a few times, but that's something we are going to fix upon September 16th."
Shortly after arriving at Sugar Loaf, just 26 days before the fight, Hearns and his crew drove 20 miles to Traverse City, a picturesque fishing village at the southern tip of West Bay. A softball game had been scheduled against a team of local media. A first baseman, Hearns played seven innings, the last two in the gathering dusk. As a hitter he went I for 5; as one of the stars in a $40 million-plus fight, he struck out against common sense.
"You don't want to do anything to upset his normal routine," explained Prentiss Byrd, outfielder, close friend and No. 2 man to Emanuel Steward, Hearns's manager and trainer, at Detroit's Kronk gym. Countered a listener, "If he breaks a leg playing softball, you're going to upset his normal delivery of $5 million to the bank."
Another game was scheduled for the following night, this one against the police and firemen in nearby Cedar. Steward, who had pitched the night before, elected to pass. After taking heat from the media in residence, he also ordered that Hearns could play only in the safety of rightfield.
It was left to Byrd to relay to Hearns his banishment to the outfield. The fighter proved stubborn: "I want to play first base."
"No, the boss says..."
"Then I'll play second."
"No, the boss says..."
"I don't give a damn what the boss says," Hearns snapped. Angered, he turned his car homeward, refusing to test the Steward theory that rightfielders don't suffer grievous injury.
As part of his training regime, Hearns engages in simulated fights with Steward, who, after donning gloves that resemble catcher's mitts, directs the combat in pantomime. It's like painting by the numbers. The strokes are crisp and clean; the painting resembles a masterpiece. It fails, however, to make of the painter an artist.
Steward: "Tommy does everything exactly as I tell him. He listens intently to what I say and then goes out and executes exactly what I tell him. Tommy is like a robot."
Harold Weston Jr., now the assistant matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, agrees, but without applause. In May of 1979 Weston, already partly blind in his right eye because of a detached retina, fought Hearns in Las Vegas. In the sixth round, with Hearns fading badly, Weston was struck in his good eye. He claimed it was a thumb. Whether it was or not, Weston, who had won the fifth and sixth rounds and seemed en route to a rout, was left almost sightless and was forced to retire in his corner.
"Hearns is a programmed fighter, as Steward claims," Weston says. "But if the fight doesn't go the way they plan, he's totally lost. He cannot adjust. Like in my fight, he went back to his corner and said, 'He's not falling. He's not falling. What do I do now?' He was getting scared to death."
A few weeks ago Weston discussed strategy with Leonard in Las Vegas. Weston came away convinced that Leonard will win by a knockout. "I like his strategy," he says. "I like his attitude. His thinking is a lot like mine was. When I fought Hearns, my strategy was to stay low, get inside and dig body punches and keep the pressure on. I knew if I did that, his hand speed would slow down, his punching power wouldn't be as effective and I'd knock him out in the eighth or ninth round. We were headed in that direction when I got hit in the eye. I knew I had him because he started running, and he had never run from anybody. I was fast, but Leonard is about three times as fast as I was. I don't think Hearns has ever been hit as fast as he'll be hit on September 16th."
As an amateur, Hearns was strictly a singles hitter. He had 163 fights, won all but eight, but had only 11 knockouts. Not until after he became a professional did he master the leverage that converted him into such a devastating puncher. As a pro he has stopped 30 of 32 opponents. Most were intimidated by his 78½-inch reach and 73-inch height, which seems even greater in the ring because he wears elevator boxing shoes. The majority of his opponents came in handcuffed by fear, ready-made victims.
Hearns will enjoy no such advantage against Leonard.
Janks Morton, Leonard's prime trainer since his ring infancy, says, "The one thing I was afraid of the most when Ray turned pro in 1977 was that we might overmatch him. He wouldn't know he was overmatched. He'd just fight until he died. But I don't worry anymore. Hey, after two wars with Duran, to hell with Hearns. Hearns can knock the wall down coming out of the dressing room. Ray will still be standing in the center of the ring waiting for him."
Cus D'Amato, 73, manager of former champions Floyd Patterson and Josè Torres, sees the fight as a contest between an experienced and very competent amateur (Hearns) and a true and—by D'Amato's tough yardstick—rare professional (Leonard). After praising Hearns as a devastating puncher and a savage finisher, D'Amato, boxing's resident oracle, says, "I don't believe he's as good a fighter as everybody thinks. He doesn't throw punches with combination rhythm. Like ta-ta-ta, like an Ali or a Robinson, or a LaMotta when he was LaMotta. Hearns goes ta-ta-ta. There's a break in the rhythm. A man of experience, like Leonard, can avoid every one of them. Leonard throws combinations. You can probably avoid the first, but you'll get hit with the second, or the third, or the fourth. Some guys can hurt you with the first punch, or the last one, but they aren't like Leonard, who can knock you out with any punch he throws in a combination."
They take a different stand in the Hearns camp, of course, but Steward sounds like a man with his fingers crossed. "Sugar Ray Leonard never knocked out anybody with his ability," he says. "They all just got tired because they were in a brawl. Besides, Tommy has got the greatest chin I ever trained, and he isn't easy to hit. He just holds out those long arms of his and says stop."
If Hearns has a great chin, Leonard surely will discover it. Hearns can be hit; he's just never been hit by a real hitter. Last April he stopped a one-armed Randy Shields on cuts in 12 rounds. Shields, whose left arm was useless because of a training injury that was exacerbated during the fight, wasn't intimidated.
"They keep talking about his mean eyes," Shields says. "No professional is going to be bothered by that. He tried it on me before the fight and I felt like laughing in his face."
Unblessed by power, Shields is, in the vernacular of the trade, a cutie: quick of foot and head, a defensive fighter who could make a firing squad look bad. Late in 1978 he went 10 rounds with Leonard and lost a very close decision. Before being stopped by Hearns on the cuts, he had drilled at least a dozen clean right hands to Hearns's angular chin.
"Like all guys who rely on power, Hearns has neglected other areas, like defense," D'Amato says. "If Shields had any kind of power he'd have knocked him out. And that last guy he fought down in Houston, Pablo Baez, who wasn't too much, hit Hearns a right hand and drove him into the ropes, and Hearns covered up à la Ali. Somewhere along the line, Leonard will get him in the position where one of those incompetents got him—I mean incompetent compared to Leonard—and hit him like a dozen right hands to the jaw. Or if he gets him on the ropes like Baez had him, he'll stop him. Leonard won't let him get away. Leonard is one hell of a finisher, like Robinson was."
The opening bell has just rung and the two fighters move forward. The temperature is between 75° and 85°, but in September there is always a refreshing coolness to the Nevada desert at night. The fight has started at twilight and the heat is not a factor.
Hearns begins with a rush. He has always been an overanxious starter, as though he needed early knockouts to overcome Leonard's gold medal and cosmic personality. "He comes out like an amateur," Weston says with disdain. Hearns is the Hitman, a nom de guerre he despises but one he seems subconsciously determined to justify.
When people speak of Hearns, it's always of the right hand. But it's the left that is the killer. The left hand forces the head under the blade; only then does the right drop the guillotine. While Leonard is amassing a ton of points, Hearns's jab strikes out, again and again, a hissing snake searching for a victim...but finding only the Nevada air.
Odell Hadley is 6'2", and as he spars with Leonard in the ring set up in one of Caesars Palace's cavernous convention rooms, he is doing his best to imitate Hearns's jab. Leonard has already gone three smartly paced five-minute rounds with 6'1" Ray Kates, and he has yet to draw a deep breath. "His legs are like steel," whispers Victor Abraham, another sparring partner, as he watches Leonard in action.
Hadley's long left arm flicks out, again and again, and Leonard uses it to see where he is positioned after the jabs slide harmlessly past his left ear. Now and again Leonard lobs a stern right hand to Hadley's head. It's not the classic straight right; it comes in an arc, like a mortar shell.
"Anybody who thinks that Sugar Ray Leonard can't punch is in for a big surprise," says Jimmy Jacobs, the manager of WBC junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez. Leonard won his welterweight title by stopping Benitez in the 15th round, in November of 1979. "Before that fight," Jacobs goes on, "we studied films of about a dozen of Leonard's fights. Half of them ended in one-punch knockouts. It was a tremendous thing to see."
To the amazement of no one at ringside, Leonard has been outjabbing his two taller opponents. "And he'll outjab Hearns," predicts Angelo Dundee, who worked with Muhammad Ali and is Leonard's trainer. He'll huddle with Morton just before the fight to plot strategy. "They talk about Hearns's height and his 78½-inch reach. Ray's is 74 and he'll neutralize the difference with speed and movement, like Willie Pastrano. Willie had the shortest arms in history, but he was so quick he outjabbed everybody. Ray has that same ability."
Hadley is now in his third round, Leonard in his sixth. Between rounds they are resting for only 30 seconds. At the five-minute mark no one calls time. At the seven-minute mark Leonard, tired of practicing the jab, moves inside. He comes in quickly, bobbing and weaving, behind a flicking left hand, and then, his right glove tucked up under his chin to ward off a counter uppercut, he slams a hook to the body. Then he's gone.
A moment later, Hadley, while trying to ward off another assault, accidentally catches Leonard in the right eye. Grimacing, Leonard steps back, pawing at the eye. Then, in a cold fury, he moves in and rips tight, vicious hooks deep into Hadley's side. "God, when he hits you like that it's awesome," Abraham says. "And it's always in the same place." Lightly, Abraham jabs a finger into a listener's body, low, just a shade below the rib cage.
The round lasts 9½ minutes.
The following day Leonard was committed to appear on the Tonight Show in L.A., which Bill Cosby was guest-hosting. So, except for his usual 4:30 a.m. run, he took the day off. A little after 3 p.m., he and four friends flew to Los Angeles.
Flying doesn't appeal to Leonard. By talking about the fight he was able to take his mind off being at 38,000 feet. He had a window seat, but he rarely looked out.
His thoughts were on the first Duran fight, the one he lost in Montreal. "All that pressure," he said, shaking his head. "It was the first time I was in a position like that. Like Hearns is now. He's going to taste it. It's uncomfortable, it really is. He said it won't bother him. I said the same thing. But it eventually got to me. It bothers everyone until you've gone through it once. I'm interested to see how he handles it."
Another theory in Hearns's camp is that Leonard is no longer hungry, that he has lost his appetite for fighting. Leonard laughed. "Hungry for what? They use money against me because that's all they have. But I like to win, period. I like the sport; I like the artistry of boxing. I like the challenge. I like the competition. I like it when they say I can't beat a fellow, and then when I beat him I look forward to the excuses they make. If it's only money, why is Pete Rose still playing? Why is Tony Dorsett still playing? I want this fight bad. The same as Duran Two. I wanted him bad the second fight. I know what I can do now and I can do it even better because of the experience. I didn't want the Hearns fight just to beat him; I wanted this fight so I can show the world just how good I really am. Hungry? I'm darn hungry."
The two champions are in the final round now. Past the 10th, but not yet to the 15th. Hearns has been taking a fierce beating to the body. He has been missing wildly all night, and when he misses, he leaves himself woefully off-balance. For an instant after he throws a jab, his back foot is off the floor, making him a one-legged fighter. When he misses, Hearns rebounds with a backhand, as much to recover his balance as to distract his opponent.
"That's when Ray will nail him," Morton said. "To the body, kidney shots, under the heart. Steward taught Tommy how to punch. But he forgot to teach him how to duck."
Still trying, Hearns throws a jab. Leonard swats it aside with his left hand and, stepping in smartly, arcs a right to the jaw.
After that, all they have to do is go to the bank.