Exclusive Interview: Thomas Hearns Speaks On The Sugar Ray Leonard Classic

Two great welterweights collided 40 years ago in Las Vegas. It was, quite simply, a fight the whole world watched. And celebrated. And still celebrate. Thomas “Hitman” Hearns Vs. Sugar Ray Leonard, for the undisputed welterweight championship. It was a fight that promised so much and it delivered it all – and then some.

Switching momentums, savage exchanges, beautiful skill, boatloads of courage, and then, finally, a turnaround win from a busted-up Leonard. Hearns was made to wait eight long years for his rematch, yet today, Hearns and Leonard are good friends. Simply put, these two primed and peaking welterweights brought out the greatness in each other. And Hearns and Leonard gave the world a true Super-Fight. A fight for the Ages.

A fight never to be forgotten.

Hearns, now 62 yet still in trim fighting shape, will certainly never forget the back and forth fight of fights that went down on September 16, 1981.

Here, “The Hitman” kindly speaks about the epic for ESB readers:

Q: It’s an honour to speak with you, champ! When you look back on your great fight with Leonard, how would you sum it up in a few words?

Thomas Hearns: “Well, first of all, it was a great opportunity for me, an opportunity for me to show the world my greatness. And when I look back, it’s pretty simple: it was a really good fight, a great fight.”

Q: Leonard had to really raise his game to beat you, he had to dig deeper than ever before. When you watch the fight today, what do you think about what you would have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight?

T.H: “I probably would have done a little bit more punching than I did. Also, I would have given him more angles, I’d have given him different angles every time, after every attack.”

Q: Although you lost, do you look at the Leonard fight as one of your best fights? What are your memories of the fight in terms of satisfaction and pride?

T.H: “I do look at it as a good performance from myself. I fought hard, we both did, and I put on a great show.”

Q: One of the things that have come out about that fight is that you overtrained, you came in light, well below the 147 limit. You were so desperate to win and you had in fact trained too hard?

T.H: “Yeah, I came in light. But you know what – it was just about being ready, putting on a great show for the fans. I understand that yes, I did push myself too hard to get ready for the fight. You know, if the fans think it’s one of the greatest [welterweight] fights, then I agree with them, of course!”

Q: You had to wait eight long years to get your revenge. You did say back then that you thought about Leonard all the time?

T.H: “Oh, a long time! I still think about Ray Leonard even now. I mean it when I say, if I had a chance to do it again right now, I’d take that challenge.”

Q: You hurt Leonard plenty in the first fight, busting up his eye. While in the second fight you dropped him twice. Were you a better fighter in the second fight?

T.H: “I do think I was a better fighter in ’89. I worked harder, I trained harder. For the second fight, I really, properly got myself ready and I showed him how great a fighter I really was. He was surprised himself [in the rematch], he really was. He was surprised how I was in such great shape.”

Q: You are good friends now?

T.H: “Yeah, we’re good friends. We made each other a lot of money, so we’ve been friends for a while now.”

Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns - Boxing History

Q: When you think back, that fight was made quite easy. Neither of you had any ideas of dodging each other? Unfortunately, it’s not the same now?

T.H: “Well, today, the guys seem to find a way of getting out of it [taking the risky fights]. They can make good money anyway, with easier fights. With me, it was always about being the best and proving it; showing the people that I was the best. And I worked hard for it.”

Q: There’s no doubt about that. You realise the affection so many millions of fans have for you?

T.H: “Well, I think the fans appreciate the fact that I always gave a great show and that I worked hard so I could do that. My thing was always the same: getting myself ready to go out there and put on a spectacular show. When the people pay their money, that’s what they deserve.”

Q: Was Ray Leonard the best boxer you fought?

T.H: “Well, [Iran] Barkley was great. But the first fight [with Barkley] I made a mistake, as I was getting ready to knock him out, but I couldn’t do it.”

Q: Do you miss the 15 round fights?

T.H: “I think the 15 round fights should have stayed, they gave the fighter the chance to show how great they really could be. If he’s a good fighter, he’ll stay for the full 15 rounds no problem. If he’s not a good fighter, he’ll get tired and he won’t be able to make the fifteen rounds.”

Q: You beat Wilfred Benitez over 15 rounds in 1982. How great was Benitez?

T.H: “Wilfred was an excellent boxer. He really knew what he was doing in the ring. In our fight, I had to show him that I was also a great boxer. I was hitting him with one-twos. I hit him more [than anyone else had at that time].”

Q: The Leonard fight was so great, but when, ideally, would you have liked the rematch? If not for Leonard’s eye trouble, when do you think you would have got the rematch?

Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns - Boxing History

Photos from Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson

T.H: “I felt it would happen in 1982, ’83. But it never happened. If it had, I think that fight would have gone to a whole different level.”

Q: Was there a time when you actually worried you would never get that rematch?

T.H: “All the time I thought about that! I lost a lot of sleep about that. I was worried, thinking, oh, he’s retired, he don’t wanna fight me no more. I worried he’d had enough of me (laughs).”

Q: You two should have had a third fight! Maybe at light-heavyweight?

T.H: “No, he didn’t want a third fight. And I think he was too small for light-heavyweight. I think if we had fought again it would have been a super-middleweight fight.”

Q: And if you had fought again, say in 1991, after you beat Virgil Hill, do you think you’d have knocked Leonard out? A lot of people thought you would have done.

T.H: “Well, you can say that, but if he hadn’t been able to take my best shots the way he did, he wouldn’t have been Ray Leonard. He could take a shot.”

Q: My final question, champ – is Ray Leonard the best you ever faced?

T.H: “I think Ray was the best. Ray Leonard was definitely the best I fought. That fight seems a long, long time ago now. Nobody can ever forget that fight, no matter how many years are to come.”

Amen to that.

Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns - Boxing History