On Top of the World

On a hot, summer desert night, Sugar Ray Leonard punched Thomas Hearns's lights out and became the undisputed welterweight champion
On a hot, summer desert night, Sugar Ray Leonard punched Thomas Hearns's lights out and became the undisputed welterweight champion
September 27, 1981

Little Ray Leonard, the 7-year-old star of those 7-Up commercials, studied the battered face of his father, who a few hours earlier had bludgeoned the hitherto undefeated Thomas Hearns into submission at 1:45 of the 14th round. Little Ray was alarmed by the face of the man he adores: handsome features blurred by numbing fatigue, left eye purple and swollen shut.

Little Ray bit his lower lip, blinking away the tears in his bright eyes. "It was a tough fight," he told his 25-year-old father. "But you were tougher." After a moment's thought, little Ray said, "Daddy, why do you keep on fighting? Why don't you take up another sport?"

The exhausted and now undisputed welterweight champion of the world reached deep within, as he had reached within against Hearns, for the strength to smile. "Like what?"

"Like basketball."

Little Ray had watched with his mother, Juanita, from a $500 ringside seat in the temporary stadium erected on the Caesars Palace tennis courts in Las Vegas while Leonard artfully defused Hearns, transforming him from a redoubtable puncher into a bewildered and largely ineffectual boxer until Referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight.

Leonard dominated the fight and dictated the pace. The only excitement and action were produced by Leonard. There were only three lopsided rounds, the sixth, seventh and 13th, and Leonard won them all. And the only fighter really hurt was Hearns. But each of the three judges for the WBC-WBA title unification bout had Leonard behind—by four, three and two points—at the end. All of them inexplicably equated a slap on the wrist with a mugging.

Leonard had Hearns reeling in the sixth and seventh rounds; was within a couple of punches of knocking him out in the 13th; and finally bullied him so brutally in the 14th that Pearl had to stop it. However, if the fight had run its 15-round course, Hearns no doubt would have won because of the judges' distorted scoring.

The scoring was on the 10-point must system, which is a fair method if competently applied. The winner of a round receives 10 points while the loser has to settle for nine or less. It is the "or less" that seems to have been miscalculated by judges Lou Tabat—who has been known to count punches on his fingers—Duane Ford and Chuck Minker. Pearl, who didn't have a vote, said, "I figured Hearns was winning all those light-hitting rounds. But Leonard was doing all the heavy damage. I thought it was close. Jeez, what if I had let the fight go on and Ray just barely won the last round, and they gave Hearns the decision? Caesars wouldn't have had to tear the stadium down for the Grand Prix [a Formula I auto race that will take place on the hotel grounds Oct. 17]. The people would have done it for them."

The flaw in the 10-point system was plainly evident when you compare the scoring for Rounds 1 and 2 with that for Rounds 6 and 7.

Hearns won Rounds 1 and 2, with a 10-9 edge, mainly because he was the one moving forward. Leonard's powerful domination of 6 and 7 was unjustly rewarded by one-point margins also. The opening rounds were so dull, in fact, that Pearl said: "What do you say we get something going here? Hell, you're both making $10 million. Let's fight."

For Leonard, it was a strategic pacifism. His early orders were to make Hearns move, always turning away from the right hand that had contributed mightily to his record of stopping 30 of his 32 victims. "Hearns can't go but one way, turning to his right," said Janks Morton, Leonard's trainer. "Everybody lets him because they are trying to get away from the jab. And there's no way he's going to jab Ray."

They also wanted Hearns in continual motion because, at 147 pounds, his stamina is highly suspect. At 6'1" and heavily muscled from his narrow waist up, Hearns has to battle to make 147 pounds. He sheds more than pounds in the sauna. For this fight, which may have been his last as a welterweight, Hearns spent time in the sauna the two nights preceding the weigh-in. Between trips he drank Gatorade.

The drying out worked too well, and Hearns came in at a skeletal 145, one pound less than the 5'10" Leonard. And he was so dehydrated that even under the intense heat generated by the television lights, no sweat appeared on his spindly legs until the 12th round.

The heat wasn't as much of a factor as it could have been. The late-summer Las Vegas weather had been in the 100s for days before the fight, but was only 91° at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when the fight was to start. With celebrity introductions and the late arrival of the contestants, it didn't begin until about 7:45, when it was cooler still with a slight breeze. And thanks to TV Producer Ken Wolfe, the TV lights were no real bother. Exactly 24 hours before the fight Wolfe conducted a test of the 500-candlepower lights above the ring. Concluding that they were too powerful, he called Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney, and said, "You better get down here and check these lights." Trainer did, and he agreed with Wolfe, who then had the 500s replaced by 350s, thus reducing the probability of the fighters being broiled.

"They probably wrapped Hearns in something all night before the weigh-in," Morton guessed. "We knew he'd come in strong but that he couldn't hold up. Look at all his films. After the sixth round he's out of gas. We just wanted Ray to keep him moving and missing, to make him weak."

This fight was also a major test for Leonard's chin, which had never been exposed to the kind of power Hearns carries in his right hand. "Somewhere along the way we're gonna find out," said Angelo Dundee, Leonard's corner strategist.

Hearns, who was paid $5.1 million to put his WBA title on the line, seemed in no hurry to have his chin examined. Hearns had always been a fast starter, but he came out almost leisurely against Leonard, as though content to discover how much of Leonard's elusive head he could find with his snapping jab before applying the right hand.

Then, just past the two-minute mark of the second round, Leonard paused, and Hearns drilled a right to his head. Nothing happened. Things like this tend to fluster fighters who bank excessively on punching power. Leonard rolls with the big punches, pulling his head back and away, reducing the impact. It's a move he learned from Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali. He looks as though he has been tagged, but it's an illusion. Thirty seconds later Leonard gave Hearns a look at his own right, which missed, and then hooked him hard to the body.

After the round Dundee told Leonard, who would make slightly more than $11 million for his night's work: "Go out there and outsmart him. Cut him off."

Instead, Leonard went straight at Hearns, dipping to jab to the body, then coming up with two hooks to the head. Hearns responded with a right and left to the head, missed with two wild rights and then went back to his jab, which was working well enough to bring a slight puffiness right under Leonard's left eye.

Two weeks prior, Leonard had caught an elbow below the eye while sparring with Odell Hadley. After the swelling developed, Dundee worked on it with a miniature flatiron, like something you might find in a dollhouse. "It's better than ice," Dundee said. "You put it in the ice bucket and it comes out twice as cold." For the full minute between rounds, either Dundee or Morton would press the iced iron against the swelling.

Fed up with being the target of Hearns's jab, Leonard switched to southpaw in the third round and caught Hearns with a right jab; he then switched back and caught him with a looping right. Near the end of the round Leonard darted inside, drilling both hands to Hearns's head. Hearns was totally baffled by Leonard's quickness and agility; it was like trying to catch a puff of smoke, only this smoke was throwing thunderbolts.

When Leonard came back to his corner, Dundee growled at him. "What are you doing fighting him? Don't stand and fight him. Move. Make him move."

The fourth round, won by Hearns, was memorable only because of a brief flurry after the bell. It wasn't the first. "I don't think Ray was trying to hurt him," Pearl said later. "He just slapped him playfully alongside the head." Hearns didn't think it was playful and hit Leonard in the mouth.

Between the fourth and fifth rounds, Pearl ordered Hearns to stop hitting after the bell, "or it's going to cost you points." In the other corner Dundee and Morton were telling Leonard, "You're in good shape. Just keep moving." Leonard moved so well in the fifth that he neglected to punch, although he did score with one good right to the head.

The Leonard who came out for the sixth—the man many said couldn't punch with Hearns—was all over Hearns, blasting through his amateurish defense, driving him backward, digging hard countering hooks to the body, snapping rights off the jaw. With 26 seconds to go Hearns threw a wild right, and Leonard countered underneath with a hook that almost separated Hearns's ribs from his body. Later, Emanuel Steward, Hearns's manager, would say this was the punch from which Hearns never recovered.

Leonard roared in furiously, firing from the hip. Just before the bell he draped Hearns's lanky frame against the ropes. Hearns weaved his way back to his corner like a man who had spent a long night in a bar.

"The sixth should have been the last round," Morton said later. "Ray had him and he got a little excited. If he had just shortened up his punches he'd have knocked him out."

Hearns came out for the seventh like a man going to the guillotine. He was confused by Leonard's blinding speed, and dazed by his unexpected power. Don't let Leonard's baby face and angelic smile fool you; within, there is that same mean beast that inhabits all great fighters.

Now he went after Hearns and tried to dismantle him. He drilled two hooks to Hearns's aching body, ignored a weak right hand and unloaded another volley of hooks. He worked close to Hearns, where Hearns, a long-armed, straight puncher, is particularly ineffective. "Stay inside!" Dundee screamed from the corner. Leonard seemed to take him literally. Hearns looked ready to go at any moment; only his great pride kept him on his feet as hook after hook thudded into his rail-thin body. Then, with 18 seconds remaining, a right hand sent him reeling into a corner. Leonard fired four more shots before the bell.

These were the rounds given to Leonard only 10-9 by all three judges, the same margin that they had awarded Hearns while he pitty-patted his way through Rounds 1 and 2. Tabat, Minker and Ford seemed to find violence repugnant.

The expected roles now were reversed. Leonard had backed Hearns up for the first time in Hearns's pro career. Under orders from his corner, Hearns, the feared bomber, suddenly began to ride his bicycle. With his right elbow tucked against his aching side—he didn't dare throw the bomb again until midway through the 11th—he became a relatively unskilled boxer. He circled, ran, jabbed. And Leonard, the master boxer, became the flat-footed puncher, stalking his fleeing victim with patient fury.

After a minute of chasing, Leonard trapped Hearns, caught him with an overhand right to the head, slammed a hook and scored with another right to the head. As the eighth round wound down, Leonard connected twice more with rights, then snapped Hearns's head back with a combination. Leonard won the round easily. Minker gave it to Hearns.

Then Leonard got lazy, which can be fatal to an ordinary fighter. He was worried about his left eye, in which the vision was now 50%. Almost casually he stalked Hearns, who was on his bicycle and jabbing at the injured eye. With Ray's guns silent, Hearns won the ninth.

Between rounds, Morton told Leonard to go back to work. "Hit him back," Dundee added. "O.K., let's go do something."

The fires were still banked. The 10th was a dull round, with Hearns still retreating, while Leonard, halfheartedly trying to cut off the ring, managed to land only one good punch, an overhand right. It was Leonard's round, but Minker and Ford gave it to Hearns, who hadn't hit anything but the floor with his feet. Tabat, at least, called it even.

At this point Hearns, a badly beaten and frustrated fighter running to survive, was leading on all three cards: by four points on Minker's, three on Tabat's and two on Ford's. In the 11th Hearns, regaining his confidence, went back to doing what he does best: throwing long, snapping left jabs while cocking the ominous right. Moving in for the first time in five rounds, Hearns fired a right hand to set up Leonard—who was briefly stunned—for a three-punch combination, one of the few times he was able to put punches together. For a split second the strength left Leonard's legs; then, recovering immediately, he danced out of harm's way.

Emboldened by his success in the previous round, Hearns came out firing at Leonard's injured left eye, which was closing further with each passing round. Staggered by a short right, Leonard tried to retaliate with two jabs and a looping right. But Hearns walked through the weak barrage to unload a series of head-snapping jabs.

Before the bout Cus D'Amato, the fabled boxing oracle, had said: "This fight won't be won by skill; it will be won by the one with the will to win." He would prove a prophet.

Hearns began the 13th round by tripping over Leonard's feet. Hardly had he recovered when his head was snapped back by a vicious right to the temple. In a delayed reaction, he weaved slightly to his right and then staggered to his left along the ropes. Leonard raised his arms above his head in a brief salute to his own prowess, then unloaded 25 straight punches, which sent Hearns reeling through the ropes.

Pearl ruled that Leonard had pushed him rather than knocked him down and ordered Hearns to his feet. "Get up!" he said. Later the somewhat abashed Pearl said, "I meant to say, 'Can you get up?' but I couldn't get the words out." Hearns came up fighting, only to run into a three-punch combination and then two rights that returned him to his seat on the lower strand of the ropes.

This time Pearl picked up the count at two, reached six when the round ended and was at nine when Hearns recovered his footing.

Sprinting from his corner to begin the 14th, Leonard staggered Hearns with a right to the head, hooked him to the body, slammed four more rights to the head. Hearns was wobbling against the ropes, where there was no respite. Moving in swiftly, Leonard rained blow after blow against his helpless foe until Pearl came to the rescue.

"I didn't have to look into his eyes to see he had had enough," Pearl said. "He was defenseless. Too many unanswered punches. I was worried about the head shots; he could've been seriously hurt."

Gently, Pearl turned the non-protesting Hearns toward his corner. "When I didn't hear anybody shouting at me from Hearns's corner, I knew I had done the right thing," Pearl said.

Later, after being helped to his dressing room, Hearns asked how much time had remained in the round.

"A minute and 15 seconds," he was told. "O.K.," was all he said.

Pearl's decision was more popular with the live crowd of 23,618 than it was with the worldwide TV audience of some 300 million. Television is one-dimensional: Punches that look damaging are often not, and vice versa. Many of Hearns's jabs either were glancing or missed Leonard altogether. Also, the closed-circuit TV analysts, Ferdie Pacheco and Don Dunphy, were one-sided in their advocacy of Hearns. Both were amazed at Pearl's decision to stop the fight.

The usual post-title fight cry of "rematch" was subdued this time. "If we rematch them right away," Morton said, "Leonard would knock him out in six because Leonard learned from this fight and Hearns didn't." Indeed, when Leonard scored heavily in the sixth and seventh rounds, Hearns reverted to his amateur tactics of backpedaling and jabbing. He won 163 fights as an amateur, but only 11 by knockout. He knows Leonard can hit and hurt him, and Ray knows he can take Thomas' best.

Leonard wasn't surprised that the judges had him behind. "In New Orleans, when Duran quit, I was behind on the cards," Leonard said the next morning. "If the [Ayub] Kalule fight had gone the distance, I'd have lost that decision. I don't know why [they score like they do]. I'm an exception to their rules."

Next for Leonard? Probably Pipino Cuevas in a welterweight defense, early next year. Cuevas, a former champion, was KO'd by Hearns in the second round 13 months ago. Leonard will probably give up his junior middleweight crown (won from Kalule in June) and continue to fight at 147 pounds, his natural weight. Junior middleweights (155 pounds) can move down; junior welterweights (140 pounds) can move up. Leonard can choose from among Wilfred Benitez, Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, and Sean O'Grady, as well as Cuevas. There could even be a Hearns rematch. Hearns's next step could be against junior middleweight champ Benitez or even middleweight champion Marvin Hagler.

Leonard's closing act most certainly will be Hagler, but it won't be for some time. He still loves the sport too much to walk away. Little Ray will have to be patient. His dad isn't quite ready to take up basketball.

PHOTOPHOTOAlthough the first five rounds belonged mostly to Hearns, Leonard managed to get in a few licks.PHOTOWhen Hearns attempted to pull an Ali by placing his left on Leonard's nose, Ray slapped it aside.PHOTOWhile Hearns is generally ineffectual inside, this uppercut found the mark in the fourth round.PHOTOHearns's frustration frequently led to mugging.PHOTOLeonard's left cheekbone, injured while he was sparring, was an inviting target for Hearns's left.TWO PHOTOSLeonard rained rights and lefts off Hearns's jaw in the sixth and seventh, changing the tenor of the fight.PHOTOEven when he came on again in the 11th, Hearns was an easy target for Leonard's stinging jab.THREE PHOTOSHearns went through the ropes in the 13th in what was inexplicably ruled a push. Later in the round he was floored for the first time as a pro.TWO PHOTOSPearl rescued Hearns from the fury of Leonard's storm by ending it at the 1:45 mark of the 14th.TWO PHOTOSThe thrill of victory and the agony of defeat: Hearns is still the champ in his mom's book.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)