SUGAR RAY LEONARD unified the welterweight division in style, stopping the unbeaten Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, at Caesars palace, Nevada.
Leonard, a much decorated amateur, racking up multiples honours including an Olympic gold medal, quickly demonstrated his pedigree in the pro game, claiming the welterweight crown within two years.
In 1979, Sugar Ray succeeded in his first assault on a world title, against New York-Puerto Rican great, Wilfred Benitez. The man born in the Bronx, who is the youngest ever world champion, winning the WBA lightweight strap, at age 17, was dispatched in the 15th.
A year later, the champion locked horns with fellow Hall of Famer, Roberto Duran, in notable back to back wars. The Panamanian relieved Leonard of his title in a close decision in their first encounter. Sugar Ray avenged his solitary defeat in style, forcing Duran to quit during their return, in 1981.
Thomas Hearns, the knockout artist from Detroit, was making his own waves in the welterweight division, bludgeoning his way to the WBA crown, with a formidable KO ratio. In 1980, a home crowd gathered in the motor city, as “The Hitman” bulldozed the champion Joes Cuevas, stopping him within two rounds.
The welterweight king’s trajectories were finally due to collide, as “The Showdown” was signed for September 16, 1981, in Las Vegas.
With the world watching on and both belts on the line, Hearns, with a noticeable reach advantage, peppered Leonard with a stiff, sharp jab, repetitively snapping his head back during the opening rounds.
As the bell sounded signalling the end of the fifth, the pair exchanged shoves and verbals. This set the tone for an aggressive sixth. Sugar Ray wobbled the man from Detroit, with a sharp hook; “The Hitman” retaliated, buzzing Leonard. The fighters ended the round in the centre of the ring, swinging.
In the 13th, Leonard, who had switched tactics by moving into range, began to chop away at Hearns, connecting with a barrage of short uppercuts and hooks. Hearns tried to tie his man up, but the sustained beating took an accumulative affect, as “The Hitman” hit the deck.
Sugar Ray returned to his corner with his hands aloft. Hearns returned to his feet and was greeted by Leonard, who came storming in. They traded again, before Hearns began to run. His avoidance tactics were no match for Leonard, who could smell blood. The North Carolina man, with his opponent lingering on the ropes, hurled a string of decisive blows, Hearns, again, was given a 10 count.
The death knell had rung for “The Hitman” as he once again cornered, with seemingly nothing left to stop the onslaught. Leonard, utilising his full momentum, hurled a big overhand right, catching his rival. Although still standing, the official had seen enough and put an end to the epic encounter.
“I proved I’m the best welterweight in the world. This fight surpasses all my professional accomplishments,” Leonard said after the fight.
“I knew I was ahead,” Hearns said. “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.”