Fifty-four seconds was all the time Gerry Cooney needed to prove himself. In less than one minute, the undefeated heavyweight contender from East Northport, N.Y. punched former champion Ken Norton into submission in their May fight in New York's Madison Square Garden. In that bout, Cooney demonstrated that, yes, he does have a right hand and that, no, not all of his 21 knockout victims have been stiffs. Cooney also set boxing fans to salivating over his forthcoming match with champion Larry Holmes on the Ides of March in Las Vegas. The fight of 1981 was also in Vegas, on Sept. 16 at Caesars Palace. On a hot desert night, Sugar Ray Leonard needed 13 rounds and 1:45 of the 14th to put away a valiant Thomas Hearns, unify the welterweight championship and reserve his place in boxing history. In the month of December, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali—two champions for all time—unfortunately needed one more fight apiece to prove to themselves, and to everyone else, that their time had unalterably passed.
Holmes defended his WBC title three times, gaining a 15-round decision against Trevor Berbick (at right), knocking out former champ Leon Spinks in the third round and putting away Renaldo Snipes in the 11th after Snipes had put a scare in Holmes with a seventh-round knockdown. In the sequence below, heavyweight Michael Dokes gives Randy Gardner the best seat in the house in their preliminary to the Holmes-Spinks fight (note the flying mouthpiece). At the far right, Frazier and Ali sit exhausted in their respective corners during their comeback fights. Frazier, 37, returned to the ring after a 5½-year layoff to fight unranked Jumbo Cummings and was given a generous draw by the judges. Ali, 39, wasn't so lucky: He lost a 10-round decision to Berbick. But at least he promised that after 61 pro fights in 21 years there would be no more.
Marvin Hagler floats like a butterfly after beating Vito Antuofermo on a fifth-round TKO to retain his middleweight championship. In another title defense, Hagler TKO'd Mustafa Hamsho in the 11th round. Alexis Arguello (below) stings like a bee—he lowered the Boom Boom, Ray Mancini, in the 14th round to retain his WBC lightweight crown.
Hearns is entangled in the ropes, Referee Davey Pearl is counting and Leonard is prancing triumphantly, but this was only the 13th round—the fight wasn't quite over yet.
A KING AND HIS CROWNS
The end came with a minute and 15 seconds left in the 14th round. The referee stepped in and turned the beaten fighter toward his corner. Hearns's handlers did not protest, even though all three judges had their man ahead on points.
The fight had begun in 90° heat in a temporary arena erected over tennis courts. Leonard, the WBC welterweight champion, would earn more than $11 million, Hearns, the WBA welterweight champion, $5.1 million. The live crowd was 23,618, the worldwide TV audience 300 million. After the fourth round, Sugar Ray playfully slapped Hearns on the head, and Hearns not-so-playfully hit Leonard in the mouth. With 26 seconds to go in the sixth round, Leonard countered with a vicious hook to the ribs, then flailed away at the shaken Hearns until the bell sounded. Sugar Ray gave him more of the same in the seventh, but Hearns refused to go down. Leonard, who seemed concerned about protecting his swollen left eye, allowed Hearns to get back into the fight. In the 11th, Hearns hurt Sugar Ray with a three-punch combination, and, suddenly, Leonard was running out of rounds. But in the 13th, realizing he might need a knockout to win, Leonard struck Hearns on the temple with a right hand, staggering him. A barrage of punches put Hearns through the ropes, although Referee Pearl ruled it was a push, not a knockdown. No matter. Arising, Hearns was hit by a left-right-left combination, then two rights, and he was down again as Pearl counted past the bell ending the round. Hearns was up at nine, in the 14th, Leonard took up where he had left off, until Pearl called it off at 1:45.
Earlier in the year, Sugar Ray had sweetened his pot by winning the WBA junior middleweight title, from Ayub Kalule on a ninth-round TKO. Both the light heavyweight crowns changed heads: Michael Spinks beat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the WBA title, and Dwight Braxton won the WBC version from Matthew Saad Muhammad. Salvador Sanchez retained his WBC featherweight title by knockhig out heavily favored Wilfredo Gomez in the eighth.