Thomas Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard II – The Last Great Fight From The ‘Four Kings’ Rivalry

By James Slater - 06/12/2023 - Comments

Thomas Hearns’ name goes first in the above headline because, as is boxing tradition, the winner goes first. Okay, officially there was no winner when Hearns and Leonard got it on in their long-time-coming rematch, the official result that of a 12 round draw. But if you asked anybody back then who won, and if you ask anybody the same question now, around 90 percent of the replies you get will say “The Hitman” was robbed, that he deserved that decision.

June 12 1989 marked the last great fight in the decade-long rivalry that has been celebrated as The ‘Four Kings.’ Between them, Leonard, Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran – true kings all – lit up the sport, they dominated the world of boxing, taking the attention from the heavyweight division. And what epic fights these four legends gave us; three of these giants still with us to bask in the glory today.

Duran-Leonard in Montreal kicked it all off, and for some, the 15 round battle Duran and Leonard gave us stands out as the best of the thrilling ‘Four Kings’ wars. For others, it’s the three-round slugfest that is Hagler-Hearns. For others still, it’s the first showdown between Leonard and Hearns, this when the two at their peak welterweights collided in a unification fight.

But some fans love the Hearns-Leonard rematch best of all, if not that drawn verdict that accompanies it.

Eight long years after the first fight, and up at super middleweight, the veteran versions of Hearns and Leonard rumbled in Las Vegas. And though both men had slowed down, the action was at times savage. There was pride on the line, that and one monstrous craving for revenge on the part of Hearns. The 1981 stoppage loss hurt Hearns bad, it irked him severely. The Detroit “Hitman” had to make amends. For years, Hearns feared he would never get a return go at his nemesis. Sugar Ray had retired due to retinal trouble in 1982, he had then returned but had once again retired again after shocking Hagler in 1987.

Hearns in the meantime, had got busy collecting belts in three additional weight divisions, this proving his greatness. But the Leonard loss remained as Hearns’ defining fight, the one he was still best known for (the Hagler war ran it a close second). And then, finally, with Leonard having launched yet another comeback, the return fight was on.

Hearns was 30, Leonard was 33.

Dubbed “The War,” the sequel proved to be a far better, more action-packed fight than many had anticipated. Hearns, the thinking went, was shot, Tommy having been shocked by Iran Barkley the summer before, Hearns then barely surviving the heat of a determined James Kinchen. Leonard, going into the rematch, stated how it would be “a good fight for five rounds, then it’s my show.”

Instead, it was a great fight for all 12 rounds. Leonard, once again having real and constant problems with Hearns’ long reach and the wickedly powerful right hand behind it, was soon in trouble. Decked in round three, Leonard was four points behind after three sessions (or so we thought). Leonard, rallying in spurts, had his moments, with him hurting Hearns badly in the fifth. But Hearns was utterly a man possessed, his performance inspired by a thirst for revenge as well as by the soundbites that came from his trainer, the great Emanuel Steward – “this is what makes a great fighter!”

It was life and death for Sugar Ray once again. Hearns seemed to leave no doubt when he dropped Leonard heavily in round 11, his vaunted right hand once again striking with venom and accuracy. Leonard wore a bemused look as he listened to the count of the referee. A final desperation rally by Leonard, who dug in and showed some of his old greatness, came close to putting Hearns down in the final round. But this time, unlike in the 13th and 14th rounds in 1981, Hearns was able to hold on.

The two embraced at the bell and all of Vegas applauded their efforts. But then came the decision – 113-112, 113-112 each, the third official having it even at 112-112. The two were now, in the words of Leonard “one and one.”

So, we’d see a third fight, right?

No. Leonard had had enough of Hearns, even if Hearns wanted more of Sugar Ray. The two fought on, with Hearns becoming light heavyweight champ for a second time in 1991. Leonard and Duran closed out the ‘Four Kings’ rivalry with a dull affair in December of ’89, before Leonard pushed his luck in two further comebacks, with losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho to show for it.

Maybe Leonard would have been better off fighting a third fight with Hearns instead? We fans sure wanted to see it.

Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard – two all-time greats who brought the special stuff out in each other.

YouTube video