IT was billed as ‘The War’, and for once the hype proved justified as Sugar Ray Leonard drew over 12 thrilling rounds with old rival Thomas Hearns to retain his WBC super-middleweight title at Caesars Palace on June 12, 1989.
In a fight which saw both men on the brink of inside-the-distance defeat several times, Leonard had to get off the floor twice, in the third and 11th rounds, to snatch the draw with a big last-round effort.
All three officials (referee Richard Steele did not score) gave the last round to the champion, Las Vegas judge Dalby Shirley by a 10-8 margin. That brought the score to 112-112 on Shirley’s card, while the other two officials both had it 113-112 – Jerry Roth of Las Vegas for Hearns and Tommy Kaczmarek of New Jersey for Leonard.
The split draw decision was far from popular, with many fans and journalists feeling Hearns had done enough to win, despite the fact that he himself was badly hurt on several occasions, most notably in rounds five and 12 when he appeared out on his feet.
Perhaps an indication of the fighters’ attitudes towards the verdict was given at the post-fight pres-conference, when Leonard appeared noticeably subdued, in stark contrast to a smiling and relaxed Hearns, who arrived second but soon took control of the proceedings. If you had missed the fight and turned up for the press conference you would have thought Hearn’s was commenting on a great victory, not a frustrating draw not only left Leonard champion but also denied the Detroit boxer revenge for his 14th round stoppage loss to the former Olympic champion in their welterweight unification fight back in September 1981 at this same venue.
Hearn’s himself did not complain about the verdict, in contrast to some of the more vociferous members of his entourage.
“I leave it up to the judges – it’s their decision,” he said, “ I’m proud of the draw. They could of gone the other way,” he added.
He seemed, happy in fact, content that he had answered the critics who had said he was over the hill following his third round loss to Iran Barkley a year ago and subsequent unimpressive points win over James Kinchen.
“I answered the question about my chin,” he stated and Leonard Helpfully put his finger to his own chin encase anybody had failed to hear what his opponent had said.
“All my parts are still in working condition,” he then joked, placing one on to the table – a reply to those who had said he no longer had the legs for a big fight.
But he was also quick to pay tribute to Leonard, whom he had said proved had heart, before jokingly pleading, “Ray, next time, don’t fight me so hard!” Leonard, for his part, was fulsome in his praise for Hearn’s. “ Tommy proved he was a real champ tonight,” he said. “He overcomes adversities.”
But Ray was reluctant to be drawn on the possibility of a third fight with his Detroit rival, claiming his plans for the immediate future are to spend time with his family, “taking it easy”.
Hearn’s seemed more decided, stating, “ I’m not tired of fighting. I still love boxing.”
But whether they would be well advised to go on is debatable. While they managed to put on an exciting fight, the entertainment they provided cannot – should not – disguise the clear decline in the respective abilities.
The fight turned out close – and a thriller – because Leonard proved incapable of recalling as much of his old magic as before. He had come of the floor to demolish Donny Lalonde last November when winning the inaugural WBC 12st title, but the Canadians crudity had allowed Leonard to look like his old self. But against Hearn’s the evidence of an irreversible loss of abilities was clear and undeniable. It seemed almost unreal to see Leonard on the floor, taking a count, or being pummelled on the ropes.
Ray still produced some nifty footwork (mostly in the first half of the fight) but he was never the dazzling boxer who dominated the scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The extra years – he’s now 33 – and extra pounds have caught up with Sugar Ray. What makes it worse is that Hearn’s is clearly not the fighter he was either. True, he came through the bad patches to hand Ray more punishment than anyone had ever done before, but the way his legs buckled when he was caught does not suggest a new, improved fighter.
But the two men’s faults combined to produce a tremendous fight, one of as much incident and excitement as they’re previous encounter, itself recognised as a classic of recent years. The beginning was actually quite uneventful, with little happening in the first two rounds. Leonard (11st 6lbs) moved around the ring a lot in the first as Hearn’s (light at 11st 8 _ lbs) advanced on him, throwing left jabs and a few rights, most of which missed.
Leonard also missed with plenty, including a big right swing and some right crosses.
The story was similar in the second with both continuing to stand off and trying to jab their way in. But then there was a sign of things to come that Hearn’s got through with a good right cross and Leonard’s head near the end of the round.
The champion began round three as before, with plenty of movement, but then suddenly Hearn’s shocked him with a big right cross.
Sensing his man was hurt, the challenger quickly followed up, and two more right crosses had Leonard down by the ropes.
Some observers felt a push was involved, but referee Steele picked up the count with the champion rising about “ three” and taking the rest of the count on his feet.
He was hurt, but for some reason the challenger chose to stand off and try to pick his follow-up punches, giving Ray the chance to recover, even coming back with a few of his own near the end of the round. All three officials marked the session 10-8 in the Detroit “hit man”, as required by WBC rules.
The fourth began with a clinch, but then Hearn’s scored with a left jab. The champion by now appeared to have recovered completely from that knockdown and he opened up in a flurry, landing a couple of good right-handers. But Hearn’s was now buoyed up by his early success, and he came fighting back with some right crosses of his own, although the champion ducked under one neatly near the end.
Then in round five the fight turned dramatically again – this rime in Leonard’s favour. Hearn’s attacked with a left and a right early on, but the champion followed a left hook that missed with a heavy right that sent the challenger into the ropes.
Leonard immediately opened up as his hurt opponent desperately tried to cover up on the ropes, hardly moving at all.
A big right shook Hearn’s again, but the Detroit man survived the storm, even managing to throw a few back himself. At the bell Hearn’s was seen to say something to the champion as they headed to their respective corners, but there was never really any bad feelings in the fight.
They seemed to be showing the effects of the pace in the sixth as both stood off and tried to work behind the jab. Both missed widely at times, Leonard with a swinging left, Hearn’s with a big right cross.
Hearn’s came out determinedly in the seventh, throwing a left and right straight away to force Leonard back. Then a similar combination left the champion badly hurt on the ropes, where Hearn’s opened up on him with a barrage from both hands for about 40 seconds. Ray looked in deep trouble, but somehow he weathered the storm before firing back with some solid shots to his opponent’s body near the end of the round.
Things were much quieter in the eighth with both moving slowly, flat footed, around the ring behind their jabs. The champion launched one brief flurry, but it had no great effect.
The most action came when Leonard landed a left-hander as the bell was sounding. Hearn’s briefly moved towards him, but the referee jumped between them before anything could happen.
Hearn’s started the ninth with a good left, then followed it with a low blow, for which he immediately apologised, Leonard tapping his glove in acknowledgement.
The champion got through with a combination of left and right in a rare spell of in fighting, but it was still a quite session until the closing seconds, when a big left hook rocked the challenger back into the ropes.
Leonard followed up with a heavy right that clearly shook Hearn’s, but the bell went before any damage could be done.
Ray was straight on to the attack in the 10th, scoring with a big left hook followed by a left jab and another left hook. But it was otherwise an uneventful round, until Leonard connected with a heavy right cross near the end.
However, the judges total were almost rendered academic in round 11 as Hearn’s came out punching to send Leonard back with a thumping right. A second right cross, followed by a left hook that didn’t land properly, sent the champion sprawling on his hands and knees in a neutral corner.
He was up at about five to take the remainder of the mandatory eight count on his feet, and at first tried to move out of trouble before punching back into the centre of the ring.
It was a display of sheer guts, but all three officials again marked the round 10-8 Hearn’s.
The challenger was first to land in the last, connecting with a right-hander. Both exchanged rights to the head before Leonard drove home a big right cross that left Hearn’s in trouble at the ropes.
Tommy tried to clinch, but the champion opened up to send his opponent back into a neutral corner where he hammered him with bursts from both hands.
Hearn’s looked spent, but Leonard was tired by now as well and somehow the challenger managed to hang on until the final bell as the packed 15,000 crowd in the open- air stadium rose in acclamation.
The drawn verdict was not well received by the crowd – American sports fans except to see a winner and feel cheated if they don’t get one – but perhaps it was the fairest one for both warriors.
Sugar Ray Leonard keeps his title, while Thomas Hearns has answered his critics with a result that goes part of the way to making up for that defeat eight years ago.
There will be no more talks of fights with Roberto Duran and Michael Nunn – both ringside spectators – but Tommy and Ray would do well to realise that their rematch, as exciting as it was, did produce a winner – father time. And he will be an even more formidable opponent if and when they fight again.
Originally published June, 1989