Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns (1st meeting)

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1981-09-16 : Sugar Ray Leonard 146 lbs beat Thomas Hearns 145 lbs by TKO at 1:45 in round 14 of 15


  • Leonard and Hearns fought for the Undisputed World Welterweight Championship. Leonard was the WBC champion, and Hearns was the WBA champion.
  • The fight was promoted by Main Events. This was their first major promotion.
  • In his 2011 autobiography, The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, Leonard wrote: "Everything was proceeding according to plan until, about two weeks before the bout, one of my sparring partners, Odell Hadley, accidentally struck me on my left eye with his elbow. . . . By the next morning, my eye started to swell, and there was talk of possibly postponing the fight. . . . There would be no postponement. I was determined to fight on September 16 as long as I could breathe."
  • On September 3, 1981, a right hand by Hearns broke the jaw of sparring partner Marlon Starling, who had been scheduled to headline the live card accompanying the closed-circuit telecast at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut.
  • Leonard was guaranteed $8 million, and Hearns was assured a minimum of $5 million. Each boxer also received a percentage of the revenue. Leonard ended up with more than $11 million, and Hearns got about $8 million.
  • The fight was shown live on closed circuit television in 298 locations, with 1.5 million seats in the United States and Canada.
  • Pay-per-view was available to one million homes in 24 cities in the United States.
  • The fight was televised live or delayed in about 50 countries. Some 300 million people worldwide saw the unification match.
  • HBO secured the rebroadcast rights for $750,000 and aired the fight on September 26, 1981.
  • Tickets were priced from $50 up to $500 for ringside seats.
  • A sellout crowd of 23,618 attended the fight in a temporary outdoor arena erected on the Caesars Palace tennis courts.
  • The fight grossed over $35 million. The live gate was $5.9 million, and the revenue from pay-per-view was $7.5 million.
  • Leonard, who opened as an 8 to 5 favorite, was a 7 to 5 underdog by fight time.
  • In a UPI poll, 34 of 48 writers picked Leonard to win.
  • Dave Anderson of the New York Times reported:
When the bell rang for the 14th round, Sugar Ray Leonard was trailing substantially on all three judges' scorecards. Unless he was able to dominate Thomas Hearns so much that some of the officials awarded him a 2-point edge, 10-8, in a round or two, there was no way he would have won the undisputed welterweight title.
And so Sugar Ray Leonard did what he had to do. He did what a great fighter does. He knocked out another great fighter who was beating him. Always remember that as good as Sugar Ray Leonard was last night, Thomas Hearns was almost as good. In a sense, Thomas Hearns was even better over the first 13 rounds. But then Sugar Ray knocked him out in a fight that will be remembered as long as people talk about boxing.
Through the early rounds, Thomas Hearns was in command. Dictating the tempo with his long left jab, the almost stick-like slugger from Detroit kept moving at Sugar Ray, who was dancing away, the red and white tassels on his high white boxing shoes flopping rhythmically the way Muhammad Ali's once did. But in the sixth round Sugar Ray began landing the punches that Thomas Hearns, unbeaten in 32 previous bouts with 30 knockouts, had been expected to land.
In the seventh, Sugar Ray strafed Thomas Hearns with some solid right hands. When the bell ended that round, Hearns wobbled back to his corner.
But in the eighth, Thomas Hearns was up on his toes again. Obviously he had summoned his second wind. He hurried through the ninth round, then both took a rest in the 10th. In the 11th, with Sugar Ray's left eye slowly closing and a dark smudge developing under it, the 1976 Olympic champion appeared in jeopardy.
By then all the sneering and the smiling and the snarling and the staring had ended. All the psychology had been forgotten. At the end of some of the earlier rounds, Sugar Ray Leonard had smiled smugly at Thomas Hearns, as if to show that the punches hadn't really hurt. At the end of other rounds, Thomas Hearns had stared down at his shorter foe. But when the bell ended the 12th round, they softly tapped gloves. At last each had earned the other's respect.
During the intermission before that 12th round, a chant of Tommee, Tomm-ee thundered through the desert night. Hearing it, Thomas Hearns jumped up from his stool and began waving his arms, as if cheering for himself to finish Sugar Ray Leonard then and there. But he didn't. And he would never get another chance.
In the 13th, Sugar Ray somehow landed a right hand that shook Thomas Hearns to his toes. Sensing a chance for the kill, Sugar Ray pounced as if he were a puma leaping out of a tree. And if there were any doubts that Sugar Ray is not a gladiator, he dispelled them now. Slashing and shoving, he half-punched and half-pushed Thomas Hearns through the ropes onto the ring apron which Referee Davey Pearl ruled to be a push rather than a knockdown. But moments later Sugar Ray clearly knocked Thomas Hearns through the ropes. Davey Pearl counted to nine and was waving Sugar Ray Leonard to resume the brawl when the bell rang.
But through 13 rounds, Thomas Hearns was ahead on all three officials' cards - 125-121, 125-122, 124-122. On my card, Hearns was ahead, 124-123 in points and 7-5-1 in rounds.
Through those 13 rounds, Thomas Hearns had outboxed Sugar Ray Leonard most of the time. But now Sugar Ray Leonard was about to outpunch the puncher. When Referee Davey Pearl stopped it after 1:45 of the 14th round, Sugar Ray Leonard was swinging savagely but Thomas Hearns was still on his feet. Wobbling, but still on his feet. That's the way this one should have ended. No matter which fighter was the loser, he deserved not to be counted out.
  • The three official judges — Duane Ford, Chuck Minker and Lou Tabat — agreed on 10 of the 13 finished rounds: round one (Hearns 10-9), round two (Hearns 10-9), round four (Hearns 10-9), round five (Hearns 10-9), round six (Leonard 10-9), round seven (Leonard 10-9), round nine (Hearns 10-9), round 11 (Hearns 10-9), round 12 (Hearns 10-9) and round 13 (Leonard 10-8). Ford scored rounds three and eight 10-9 for Leonard, and he had the 10th round 10-9 for Hearns; Minker awarded rounds three, eight and 10 to Hearns by 10-9 margins; and Tabat scored the third round 10-9 for Hearns, the eighth round 10-9 for Leonard and the 10th round 10-10.
  • The scoring was controversial, as many felt rounds six and seven should have been scored 10-8 for Leonard. Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated opined:
The scoring was on the 10-point must system, which is a fair method if competently applied. The winner of a round receives 10 points while the loser has to settle for nine or less. It is the "or less" that seems to have been miscalculated by judges Lou Tabat--who has been known to count punches on his fingers--Duane Ford and Chuck Minker. . . . The flaw in the 10-point system was plainly evident when you compare the scoring for Rounds 1 and 2 with that for Rounds 6 and 7. Hearns won Rounds 1 and 2, with a 10-9 edge, mainly because he was the one moving forward. Leonard's powerful domination of 6 and 7 was unjustly rewarded by one-point margins also.


  • Sugar Ray Leonard: "I proved I'm the best welterweight in the world. This fight surpasses all my professional accomplishments."
  • Thomas Hearns: "I knew I was ahead. There was only one problem: I got hit with a good shot. I didn't think the fight should have been stopped. I wasn't hurt . . . but that's the breaks."
  • Cus D'Amato before the fight: "This fight won't be won by skill; it will be won by the one with the will to win."
  • Angelo Dundee, Leonard's trainer, to Sugar Ray between rounds 12 and 13: "You're blowing it, son. You're blowing it."
  • Janks Morton, Leonard's co-trainer: "The sixth should have been the last round. Ray had him and he got a little excited. If he had just shortened up his punches he'd have knocked him out."
  • Emanuel Steward, Hearns' manager and trainer, on the stoppage of the fight: "I have no qualms about the referee's decision. Some people said because Tommy was ahead on the scorecards he should have been given a chance to finish the fight, but the truth is, if he'd made it out of that round he couldn't even have made it back to the corner, much less lasted another round. His legs were gone. He was cooked."
  • Referee Davey Pearl on the scoring: "I figured Hearns was winning all those light-hitting rounds. But Leonard was doing all the heavy damage. I thought it was close. Jeez, what if I had let the fight go on and Ray just barely won the last round, and they gave Hearns the decision? Caesars wouldn't have had to tear the stadium down for the Grand Prix [a Formula I auto race that took place at Caesars Palace on October 17]. The people would have done it for them."