September 16th 1981. Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
Fight fans were the happy and all too eager recipients of a Super-fight that lived up to all Super-fights on this day 38 years ago. Sugar Ray Leonard, one half of the dominant claim to 147 pound supremacy, met his all too obvious rival, Thomas Hearns, who held the other world title at the weight.
No messing around, no demands regarding who should have top billing or pull in more money – these two instead got on with business in an all too real attempt to find out who was the better fighter. In some ways, the welterweight classic that took place all those years ago was the last true example of old-school match-making.
The stage was set, and the two primed and peaking welterweight stars who knew each other so well got busy finding out who really was the best in the world.
Leonard was the golden boy, the Olympic gold medal winner, while Hearns was the blue collar hero in a city that knew all about hardships and deprivation. No way would their hero let them down. Sugar had been previously beaten – by the finest 135 pound fighter of the time, perhaps of all time: Roberto Duran – while Hearns was perfect as a pro fighting machine. Still, nobody was fooling themselves; it would be tough for Hearns to defeat Leonard.
In fact, the tough, you could say gut check of a close loss to Duran, aided Leonard tremendously in the Hearns fight. When things got tough, as in seriously tough, and painful, Sugar was able to reach back 15 months and recall the way he had pushed himself further and harder than ever before in Montreal. Hearns was not short on heart, yet he had at the time of his defining fight with Leonard not been to the places Sugar Ray had been.
The war of 1981 saw pure punching, pure boxing, switching momentum and a number of twists in the plot. Hearns was the boss, then Leonard was the boss. Hearns was the puncher and then the boxer, then Leonard was the boxer and then the puncher. It was mesmerizing, unforgettable stuff. Nerve, skill, courage and brutality were abound and fight fans the world over loved it and celebrated it.
They still do.
Leonard rallied back from a major points defecit, along with a badly swollen eye and, with no small help from his legendary trainer Angelo Dundee (“youre blowing it, son, you’re blowing it!”) Turned things around to sensationally win the unification battle in the 14th round.
We had to wait eight long years for a rematch.
Plenty of boxing fans say we are still waiting for a greater, more drama-filled and stupendous welterweight championship fight.
Thanks, Sugar. Thanks, Hit Man.