Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, the two greatest welterweights of their era, had met in 1981. A boxing classic had ensued, with Leonard sensationally rallying to stop Hearns, who led on the cards at the time, in the fourteenth-round. Ever since, a chance at redemption had been something Hearns had been waiting for, obsessing over. Hearns had wanted to prove that he was still the better fighter of the two.
Finally, eight years later, up at super-middleweight, “The Hitman” got his chance. So much had happened to the two all-time greats since their first super-fight in Las Vegas, and neither man was the same force he had been. Yet pride was at stake in the long-awaited rematch; plenty of it. The two men were into their thirties now, yet the fire still burned – in the case of Hearns especially. Who would win the rematch dubbed “The War?”
After weeks of hype, June the 12th 1989 finally arrived and a sell out crowd, along with a huge pay-per-view audience, sat back and awaited the start to the 1981 sequel. Leonard had been angered by Hearns’ dig at him when he’d accused his rival of having used steroids to achieve the strikingly muscular physique he’d been sporting recently. “The Hitman” really got under Leonard’s skin with a quip that had started off as a joke. He didn’t really believe he’d dabbled in steroid use, but the wind up worked and now maybe Hearns had the upper hand in the psychological games.
Leonard entered the ring with the words ‘Amandla’ written on his trunks. This was a display of his feelings regarding the apartheid situation in South Africa. Hearns wore his usual Kronk colours. After his long introduction by M.C Michael Buffer, Hearns, in intimidating style, beckoned to Leonard with his right arm extended. Sugar Ray did his best to ignore him, and, after his own lengthy intro, the two awaited the first bell.
Hearns came out stalking, his left jab serving him well as usual. Leonard looked quite slow on his legs as he fought in a fairly flat-footed style. In training, Leonard had repeatedly practised putting everything into one punch, loading up and scoring with power. His game plan, judging by his start to the fight, was to get a spectacular KO win. These tactics, if they didn’t get the desired result, would surely see him fall behind on points.
In the third-round, all thoughts Leonard may have had towards having an easy night vanished as he was sent to the deck courtesy of “The Hitman’s” right cross. The punch landed flush but Leonard tried to fain not being hurt. The follow up punch barely clipped the back of his head but the damage had been done by that first right hand. Leonard sank to his knees and had a worried look on his face as he took the count that told us the knock down was indeed genuine.
It had looked like a slip at first but, with the benefit of slow motion replays, all could see the big right hand that had caused the knockdown. As in their first fight, Leonard would have real problems with Tommy’s height and reach, as well as with his class boxing skills. This fight was really going to be something and if Leonard had thought Hearns was a shot fighter, he knew now that he’d made a serious error.
The fourth round also belonged to Hearns, and he was winning the fifth until Leonard had his first big success. He caught and hurt Hearns with a good shot before opening up and letting blows fly from all angles. Hearns had to soak up a lot of punishment, but this he did, and in so doing proved that all talk about his chin being virtually non existent was unfounded. Leonard had thrown everything he had in an effort to get his man out of there, and failed. The sixth-round belonged to Hearns and he was really starting to stack up the points by this stage.
He rocked Leonard in the seventh-round and backed him to the ropes. Leonard had never looked so hittable as Tommy blazed away. But he managed to come back as his rival’s attack slowed and a two-sided round delighted the crowd. It may not have been as good as their exceptional first encounter, but this fight’s billing as “The War” was being more than justified.
Going into the last third of the bout it was looking as though the revenge Hearns craved so much just might be his. Hearns’ trainer Emmanuel Steward was pumping him up all the way, telling Tommy that this fight was the one that was going to make him great. He also pleaded with him to throw more right hands. In the eleventh “The Hitman” obliged. He landed the sledgehammer that he’d first made famous a decade ago again and again and Leonard was in desperate trouble. For the second time that evening Leonard found himself down on all fours.
This fall bore no resemblance at all to being a slip, this was the nearest Leonard had ever come to being KO’d in his career at that point in time. He beat the count but looked totally demoralised as he did so. He knew then, that were he to last out the remaining four minutes of action, defeat would be a very likely possibility for him via the scorecards. He fought back valiantly through what was left of the 11th-round and then spent every last ounce of his strength in the final round in an attempt at making the point totals redundant. Hearns was rocking and reeling as Leonard teed off on him.
Would we see a repeat of the 1981 fight, when a desperate Leonard had salvaged victory with a late stoppage? No.
Hearns knew now how to hold and his survival instincts and great courage saw him battle through the crisis. Leonard tired in the last few seconds and Hearns was still standing, and smiling, at the bell. “The War” was over. Surely, even with the probability of a 10-8 round for Leonard in the 12th it would not be enough to prevent Tommy’s hand being raised? Hearns had scored two knock downs and he’d out-boxed Leonard almost throughout.
But Hearns didn’t win. Neither man did. “This bout is a draw, ladies and gentlemen!” bellowed Michael Buffer. And the boos cascaded upon the ring. Once again a win over Ray Leonard had eluded Thomas Hearns. This time, however, it was different. Even Leonard himself was to eventually say how he now considered him and Hearns to be, “One and one.”
Despite this, there was no third fight. Perhaps there should have been.