Some thought it was a matter of eight years, this rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard, 33, and Thomas Hearns, 30, but what it came down to Monday night was nine minutes—or, rather, the absence of them. In the same Las Vegas arena where he had been knocked out in the 14th round by Leonard in their classic welterweight matchup on Sept. 16, 1981, Hearns won—at least in terms of personal vindication—a 12-round draw, mostly because he twice dropped Leonard, the WBC super middleweight champion, on his red-and-white striped pants. And this time the judges got the scoring right.
At the end of the 12th round in their first bout, Hearns, who was a 7-5 favorite, was leading grandly, if somewhat insanely, on all three judges' cards. That night, however, he had three more rounds to fight, and after 1:45 of the 14th round, he was done. This time, few boxing observers expected him to do as well. He was a 3-1 underdog, with a chin and legs and stamina that seemed certain to fail Leonard's stiff examination.
When this fight is remembered in years to come, three scenes will stand out: Leonard on the canvas in the third round: again in the 11th; and Hearns at the end, barely able to stand, his mouth wide open in the bloodiest of smiles, after a vicious assault by Leonard in Round 12. At that moment Hearns knew he had buried a ghost. "That little monster has chased me for eight years," he had said as the bout at Caesars Palace drew near. "I've never gotten over that loss. I think about it every day. Sometimes I think I hate him. You have no idea how that man has weighed on my mind."
Monday night's proceedings began with a Leonard statement. He entered the ring in red-and-white splendor and with a single word, AMANDLA, which means "power" in Zulu, written across the back of his robe. Tribes in South Africa commonly use the word in anti-apartheid demonstrations. Hearns would soon make a statement of his own, by showing Leonard the power of courage and determination.
June 18, 1989
They began cautiously, each testing the other to see what toll the years had taken. Neither seemed in a hurry to earn his astronomical payday: at least $14 million for Leonard and $12 million for Hearns. Those totals were the guarantees against the first $30 million in receipts. As additional closed-circuit and pay-per-view money poured in, promoter Bob Arum predicted the fight would gross between $60 million and $80 million, which would send the boxers' purses soaring to national-debt levels.
The fight really started in the third round. Until then, Hearns was only showing his potent jab, throwing it short as though fearful of exposing a chin that had failed one recent test and barely survived two others. Leonard appeared content to throw right hands to the body, although most of them fell short. Suddenly, Leonard ducked low, moved inside and fired both hands to the body. Hearns greeted the onslaught with a chopping right to the head. Upon being caught on the side of the head by a second right, Leonard went down. He got up quickly, and patiently listened as referee Richard Steele counted to eight. He told Steele, "I'm O.K."
With more than a minute and a half remaining in the round, Hearns chased Leonard along the ropes and trapped him in a corner, but he didn't land another solid blow before the bell. Leonard then won the fourth round. At the end of it, he grinned at Hearns, as though to say, "Hey, great fight."
Few other fighters would have survived the battering Hearns took in Round 5. A right hand to his chin buckled his knees, and before he could steady himself, Leonard drove a hook to his head. Hearns's legs let go; little stiff-legged hops carried him back against the ropes, which he used for support. He somehow survived Leonard's furious attack for more than a minute.
Just before Hearns came out for the sixth, his manager, Emanuel Steward, hugged him. I'm fine," said Hearns. To prove it he won the round.
The fight continued to seesaw. When one man seemed to gain command, the other would respond with a powerful attack. After Round 7, Steward told Hearns, "Physical fight. Forget the boxing. Fight the man." On the other side of the ring, Leonard's people were telling him to attack both sides of the body.
It got bloody in the 10th round. A Leonard right hand opened a cut under Hearns's left eye, but thanks to the skillful ministrations of cutman Ralph Citro, it had no effect on the outcome. Leonard went down again under a flurry of right hands in the 11th. That only made him angry. "After two knockdowns, I didn't know what the judges were thinking," he said. "I figured I had better give them something else to think about."
Leonard came out for the final round in a fury. A left hook-straight right combination slammed Hearns against the ropes, and that spurred Leonard to an even higher level of violence. Hearns, his legs all but useless, reeled about the ring. He could do no more than paw at his tormentor. Just as Steele seemed ready to stop the bout, the bell sounded. And Hearns smiled. Leonard simply stared at him in amazement.
Like the fight, the scoring seesawed. Jerry Roth gave Hearns a 113-112 edge. Tommy Kaczmarek had Leonard winning 113-112. Dalby Shirley's card said 112 to 112: a draw, and a draw. Neither fighter protested the decision.
"I want to look at the films," said Leonard. "But, I think we both showed we're champions. I accept the decision."
With the ghost of Leonard-Hearns I exorcised, Hearns agreed: "You have to leave it up to the judges. I respect their decision. I'm proud I had a draw. The judges could have ruled that I lost. So I'm thankful for what I have."