Written by Tré Berry III | 09/16/2021
On this date September 16th, 1981 – Forty years ago to the day…a super-fight was fought, and its action established itself as one of the greatest Welterweight Championship bouts in boxing history, as well as one of its greatest events. Both at the top of their game, brimmed with expectation, and both in their prime, Gold-Medalist, and Ring-Magazine/WBA Welterweight Champion of the World 🇺🇸Sugar Ray Leonard (30-1-0, 21KO) and dangerous unbeaten WBC Champion 🇺🇸Thomas “Hitman” Hearns (32-0-0, 30KO) met for their pivotal unification bout for Undisputed World Champion, in a bout that was pivotal for their legacy.
The 14 rounds that they shared in this encounter set the tone for what was arguably the greatest time period of boxing, given its overarching performance & them exceeding nearly impossible expectations that was established throughout the world leading up to the bout. Despite Leonard only being 25 years old, and Hearns being 22, they both put their best foot forward, and established themselves against the best that the division had to offer.
This bout had everything you could ask for….skills, versatility, flare, showmanship, moments of vulnerability for both, and a climax that burned, as well as etched itself into the memories of those who witnessed it. Those that are of age, can tell you where they were when they seen it unfold, and the younger generations after viewing the fight mirrors the action, holding it to boxings highest standard of combat, for all following acts to follow in the sport.
CULTURAL IMPACT – An event of this level of magnitude was reflected well when you look at how widespread the show was covered from a global perspective. It was available for closed-circuit television in 298 different locations, with reportedly 300 million people worldwide tuning in for the mega fight in roughly 50 countries, whether it was by tape delay or in supplying live coverage.
THE DETAILS OF SUGAR RAY LEONARD VS. TOMMY HEARNS, HOW IT WENT DOWN
Sugar in the early going graced around beautifully on his feet, circling and surveying, while Tommy enacted his lightning quick jab both to the head and body, using his reach as means to cut the established distance. You could cut the tension with a knife with the palpable air that had encapsulated itself at the Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Tommy was doing a very good job in matching him step-for-step to cut the ring off, making Ray uncomfortable in his movement. Ray didn’t do much of anything in the first round, taking that time to get a feel for Tommy’s movement, speed, dimensions, and tendencies, while Hearns compiled the points. There was some post-bell activity with Ray taunting Tommy, and Tommy firing a right hand through in retaliation, further heightening the tension brewing between the two, that hadn’t bubbled up to full surface quite yet.
The more time went on, the distance got shorter, and shorter between the two fighters, and you could see Hitman’s confidence growing, finding increased success in finding the intended target with Ray’s limited openings. The first big blow landed was by Hearns in the 2nd with his patented lethal right cross, taking advantage of Leonard’s switch in approach to defense, having his lead hand down low in order to draw something different out of Tommy, and in search of openings Leonard was looking for in order to start getting off.
It didn’t hurt Ray, but it sure got his attention, as it did the spectators. It was enough of a shot to make Ray stay stationary for the first time in the bout, looking to get a little return fire in some payback, and landed a nice up-jab as the two were selectively trading shots. Ray began to level change, getting down lower in his stance, feinting upstairs, to sneak the jab under Hearns elbow to get to the torso, and was the first consistent work he was able to string together.
They both landed 2 big left hooks simultaneously, with Ray’s being more of the sweeping variety in the 3rd round. From this point forward, you could see Hearns fully cocking the right hand, looking to find the right opening to land his historically devastating punch. Ray at this point had increased awareness, perhaps an indicator of him feeling the brunt of Hearns power, to where he needed to be very, very careful when it came to his timing & selection of punches.
Ray, though he was trapped in the corner a few times, was very elusive upstairs, and evaded the combinations that Tommy was issuing up in those moments, to get out of harms way. Ray started to find the rhythm, and had a beautiful moment where he feinted the right hand, jabbed, hesitated with the right hand, then fired it perfectly over the top, and slipping the return fire, drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd.
At this point was when the real tone of the fight started, with Ray standing flat footed in sports, and firing the overhand right, while Tommy was intent on countering. To emphasize how great a shape both boxers were in, particularly Leonard given that he did the bulk of the moving in the bout, it was an outdoor setting, and it was reported to be around 97 degrees out in Las Vegas on this particular day.
Ray was trying to overpower Tommy with his superior low core strength, and doing so was stifling Tommy due to his lengthy reach, in not being able to fully extend on his punches once Ray made the decision to get up into his chest. Hearns restored some order in the third when he got some room, and landed a stiff 1-2 that made Ray reconsider his tactics, forcing him to go on the retreat a bit.
By round 4, you could tell the level of respect (and fear in some cases) that Ray had for Hearns, as Ray stood in range, trying to find openings, but was clearly worried in keeping his left hand out there, fully cognizant about the damage that Tommy’s right hand could do. Also getting Leonard bottled up was him learning that Hearns was as quick as he was in pulling the trigger, making Sugar a little gunshy with return fire in the case of a cross, or a left hook.
Hearns here began to target the body with the jab and the cross, taking advantage of Ray’s high guarded stance. Leonard began to pepper a series of jabs over the top, hoping to catch the tall Hearns while he was bending down to do that bodywork he was effective in enacting. Here is where Leonard landed his first three punch combination, that being a 1-2-3 to the chin.
Ray from that success began to let the hands fly a little more, realizing that he was having greater success when he played the role of the aggressor, despite the level of danger that he had to face in getting up in there. A war broke out in the last 20 seconds of the 4th round with a blistering pace of back and forth action, with mal intent behind every punch.
Hearns remained coiled like a cobra (he was named Motor City Cobra for a reason), and took advantage of every little mistake Ray was making, and looked especially sharp in his counterpunching pursuit, catching the normally slick Leonard, and doing so at will. Round 7, Leonard got back to using the space inside of the ring and bouncing on his feet, searching for answers while giving different looks, The differences this time around was that unlike the first few rounds, Ray was subtly beginning to sneak the cross in.
ROLE REVERSAL THE TIDE OF THE FIGHT BEGINS TO CHANGE FOR THE TWO BOXERS
Sugar Ray Leonard’s left eye started to show its first signs of damage, as it began to swell from the accumulation of Hearns sweeping his jabs across the face. Looking vulnerable, and short of answers, Leonard FINALLY found what he was looking for, as he snuck in a short 45 left hook to the jaw that took the sturdiness out of Tommy’s legs. Wobbling back to the ropes, Ray jumped on him immediately, hurting him with a series of left and right hooks while walking him down at a feverish pitch.
Hearns got Leonard’s respect for a moment with a right hand, freezing him, but Ray got back to work, and unleashed a barrage of serious left hooks that bounced the Detroit fighter around the ring. How Hearns escaped the round to hear the dings of the bell is beyond me, being that he was in serious, serious trouble, with a fighter refusing to let up with the power he was dishing out.
Round 8, things completely changed, as it was now Leonard fully in aggressor role, while Hearns fought off his backfoot. Hearns was an exceptional boxer as well, so that was him using his versatility as opposed to Leonard taking him out of his comfort zone.
Much of Sugar’s work here was predicated off of the jab up top, and the whipping left hook to the body he was landing in efforts to bring Tommy down to his size (Tommy was around 3 inches taller than Leonard). A massive 5 punch combination from Sugar busted Hearns upstairs, and once again, the Hitman was falling backward off his backfoot from the pain inflicted from these serious blows, and Leonard rushed him once again. If the place had a roof, it would’ve been blown off from the road of the crowd echoing off every surface at the venue as Tommy was hurt once again, with plenty of time left in the 8th round.
Tommy fought like a dog while hurt, attempting to push forward, and exert his will, relying on the power of the right hand to try and restore order. Ray landed some crippling shots to the body when Tommy was on the ropes that finally made him double over in a heavily defensive posture. Ray Leonard got tired from swinging for the fences, but he was pushing through his weariness, understanding the moment. Hearns did just a good enough job of pop-shotting to reduce the level of danger he was in, landing effectively upstairs.
That minute intermission between rounds (well, 55 seconds) was exactly what Hearns needed, to regain his legs, and to get a breather, and he came out visibly refreshed for the 9th round, and got right down to business in mid-distance, trying to reset, and re-establish his jab. Once he did that, then it was Hearns who was moving gracefully, and circling off of the jab, which gave Ray all type of fits, given the amount of ground he had to cover in trying to catch up to Tommy Hearns, to land something of significance.
For the first time in the fight (and perhaps in his career), Leonard looked visibly confused on what to do with the tactical change that Hearns had just implemented. Leonard wasn’t cutting off the ring like he should have (in the manner that Tommy was doing earlier), and Hearns took big advantage of these moments, regaining momentum back with a firm hand.
Ray eventually found out that elongating the right hand, and looping it would get through, given that Hearns kept moving to his left, and had a habit of leaning back out of the way of the punch, so he actually backed up into the few that Leonard was able to land. With that being said, Hearns still managed to win the round by my account.
Round 9 came, and Hearns continued to counter, and probe with the jab off of the backfoot. Ray continued to look bewildered on how to take Tommy’s legs away consistently enough to get his work in, but to no avail.
This was the only portion of the bout that didn’t wield much entertainment, and those in attendance began to whistle as a means of telling the boxers to pick it back up….but no one was frustrated with anything when the fight concluded. A boring moment heavily favored Tommy, who neutralized everything Ray was trying to do, and dominated him with the jab.
THEY SWITCH ROLES AGAIN, AS THE FIGHT NOW BEGINS TO REACH ITS CLIMAX
There was more fervor in Sugar Ray Leonard’s movement coming forward, understanding that he was running out of time, and that something had to change in his fortune, behind his will to make it happen. Hearns essentially stuck to the old mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, in the moment, so boxing Ray, and keeping him at the end of his own punch was the way to go for him. Hearns did land a stiff right cross in the 11th round, to where he stood firm and flat footed, to try to inflict more damage following the blow.
It was here where they went back to the original gameplan’s that they came in with – Tommy standing his ground looking to generate maximum power in his counterpunching, and Leonard relying on his movement…but this time, using it as means to try to preserve himself, and to gain cognition back after getting hit with that right hand.
Hearns gift to Leonard was another big right cross – this one a heavier one, further damaging the wound of what was a Leonard left eye swelling up to the size of a golf ball. Leonard’s body language began to go south, with Hearns belting him around with big, big combinations to the head.
Ray looked very vulnerable in the 12th round, and the Cobra smelled wounded prey, so he slithered his way in, walked Ray to the ropes, and made him pay with the jab, and the right hand. Now looking defeated….left eye virtually closed, bleeding, and swelling forming up by the right cheek bone, Ray needed something…something to get his spirit going. Cue in Ray Leonard’s HOF Head-Trainer Angelo Dundee, who from observation knew that the fight was slipping away from his immensely gifted protegé…..“You’re blowing it, son. You’re blowing it.” were the words that echoed in Leonard’s head, as he was reminded how dire the circumstances were, with the need for him to pull a rabbit out of the hat made very clear in an honest assessment, and he only had 9 minutes left in order to do so.
The desperation for Mr. Leonard was apparent, and you could see that Dundee lit a fire under him, as Ray pushed forward, sometimes with reckless abandon. Halfway through the 13th…..Leonard FINALLY found home with a jab, and a cross hidden behind the jab, and that bomb made Tommy slowly lean to the left. Ray’s right eye got wide (remember, the other one was closed), and he let the inner monster out, jetted in, and put full force in his left and right hooks, wailing away at a Champion whose cognition had just exited the building.
The swell from the crowd erupted in this unexpected turn of events, and Ray hit him with seemingly 15 unanswered blows in a span of 4-5 seconds. Hearns rocking back to the ropes, the accumulation of the damage, and Leonard bulldozing his way through forced Hearns body to slip through the middle, and top rope, falling backwards to the seat of his pants on the ring apron – what a moment. Referee Davey Pearl elected not to call it a knockdown, which was a good call given the height of the moment.
Despite that, the pot overflowed, as everyone at the venue, those watching at home, and those watching the next day were witnessing a fighter out on his last legs, with very little left in the preserves to try and stop the onslaught. Ray Leonard was hellbent on finishing this thing, and was leaving no stone unturned. As Tommy got up, he held on for dear life, while Leonard worked the body. To Hearns credit, he did muster up a couple of good left hooks that landed right on the button, but Leonard had a fantastic chin – perhaps his most underrated trait as a prizefighter.
Leonard with seconds to go in the round, worked Tommy back to the exact same spot on the ropes, and the punishment delivered made Hearns slump down into the ropes, which compelled the Referee to administer the first count of the night. The bell sounded, and despite Hearns being 5 feet away from his corner, he barely even managed to stagger back to his stool, highlighting how hurt he was in the moment. Round 14 came about, and Ray bum-rushed Tommy to the body. Tommy tried to play keep-away for as long as possible, but nothing was going to stop Leonard.
Those same overarching right hands that Ray was managing to land in the middle rounds by overshooting the target….that was the punch that infinitely hurt Tommy midway through the 14th, and this one, Leonard had managed to land the right hand perfectly. Ray knew what time it was, and put both of his hands up in celebration, before he jumped in there to pummel the hitman with every punch in the book you could think of.
A heavy uppercut to the chin, and left hook to the body combination forward Pearl to step in to stop the fight. The place went ballistic in unison, as they had just witnessed the menacing Motor City Cobra lose for the first time, not quite making it to the finish line, while Ray authored up the greatest moment of action in his career up to that point.
The “Fight Doctor” Ferdie Pacheco, who by this time was working as a color-commentator, didn’t agree with the stoppage, but overruling him in this rationale was Tommy’s man himself, that being Hall-of-Fame Trainer Emmanuel Steward, who had no qualms at all about the stoppage…saying that even if Tommy heard the bell at the end of the 14th round, that his fighter probably would’ve have been able to make it back to his corner, citing that his legs were gone – that they were completely shot.
Extra sting on Tommy and company, they were ahead on all 3 Official Judges scorecards, citing his early work, and mid-round precision, but Tommy couldn’t quite make it to the finish line, due to the level of will put forth by a desperate Leonard, who made his mind up to walk through the fire and get the job done.
This bout was one for the ages, and it got its full recognition, as Ring-Magazine awarded this bout 1981 Fight of the Year, and in 1996, they had it ranked as the 9th greatest title fight of all time. This was one of those bouts, where the reputation of both fighters were heightened, win or lose, as they had shown the levels that can be reached, and what a Championship fight should look like – setting the tone for all major fights to follow.