Updated: Aug 7, 2019
16th September 1981, Caesars Palace, Outdoor Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada,
WBC & WBA Welterweight Unification Bout
Ray Leonard (WBC Champion) Vs Thomas Hearns (WBA Champion)
Thomas Hearns, the freakishly tall welterweight, who wasn't much of a puncher in the amateur ranks, blasted out seventeen opponents on the bounce in a two year period. The first man to take him the distance was the former USA Pennsylvania State welterweight champion Alfonso Hayman. Hearns won every single round in the ten rounder, but failed to knock the tough Philadelphia fighter off his feet.
Seven fights later Hearns was matched with middleweight Mike Colbert, where he had to negate the full ten rounds for only the second time in his career as he went 24-0. Two fights later he stopped Angel Espada in four rounds for the vacant USBA welterweight championship.
The 'Hit Man' continued to knockout his opponents and was pitted against WBA welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas. The champion, hailing from Mexico, took the crown from Angel Espada in July 1976 with a second round TKO.
Cuevas was making the twelfth defence against Hearns and the man from Detroit needed just two rounds to win the title. The new champion made four successful defences, all stoppages on his way to meeting WBC welterweight champion 'Sugar' Ray Leonard.
Since beating Roberto Duran in the infamous 'No Mas' contest, Leonard defended the belt for the first time with a tenth round technical knockout of Larry Bonds. He then became a two-weight world champion when he defeated WBA light-middleweight champion Ayub Kalule.
On the same night Leonard became a double weight champion, Hearns defended his welterweight championship with a fourth round TKO over Pablo Baez, to go 32-0 with thirty kayos, setting up the big money unification welterweight match-up.
The excitement of the crowd was spilling around the arena as they expected Hearns to come out bombing. The WBA champion did take the centre of the ring, working behind his long left jab, as Leonard moved around, offering lots of lateral movement. The WBC champion did land a good right at the halfway mark, but it was the 'Hit Man' that was the aggressor.
There was a minor altercation as Hearns landed a few shots on the bell, with Leonard pushing his opponent's head, but Hearns retaliated with a soft right and Leonard showboated by faking his legs had turned to jelly.
Leonard looked relaxed as he sat on his corner stool and stated "He's throwing bombs already."
"Don't worry about it." Angelo Dundee replied. "Out box him. Out smart him. Cut him off."
Hearns had even more success with the jab as the WBC champion skipped around the ring, not offering much in an offensive capacity. Leonard also had to take a glancing right hand, Hearns' best punch of the fight so far. Leonard did land a solid left hook in the closing stages of round two, but it wasn't enough to cancel out Hearns' good work so far.
Leonard was still darting around as Hearns chased him having success with both the left and right. Leonard looked to throw some more punches, but missed widely with a lead right and a follow up left hook. The pair traded for the first time with the seconds ticking away to end round three, as Leonard returned to his corner, raising his arms aloft.
The Hearns jab was a dominating weapon again, plus he was landing well with a straight right to the body. Whatever Leonard threw, his opponent would have an answer for it. They had another good exchange just before the bell, with the Detroit man coming out on top. Plus Leonard's left eye, the one he damaged in sparring, was beginning to swell.
Leonard conceded the fifth round too by staying on the outside too long and getting picked off by the long arms of the WBA title holder. Finally in the sixth round the Maryland fighter came out positive with a left hook, right hand combination, but he soon got back on his bicycle as Hearns resumed with picking his man off with the jab.
Suddenly a left hook exploded on the tall, spindly man's chin and he wobbled to the ropes. Leonard came on strong, forcing Hearns to punch with him, but the 'Hit Man' was hurt and shaken at the bell. The WBC champion finally had the big round his corner was waiting for.
Leonard dispensed with the lateral movement in round seven and came out flat-footed. He now knew he could hurt his opponent as he looked to land solid shots. Hearns punched with him at times, but it looked as if the momentum had shifted as Leonard landed with some good uppercuts and attacked the vulnerable looking body, scoring heavily in the process.
Emanuel Steward told his man to start throwing some punches or I'm going to stop the fight during the interval. In a role reversal it was Hearns who came out boxing on the back foot, flicking out his jab as Leonard stalked his prey, looking to land a fight changing right to the jaw.
Where Hearns was boxing on unsteady legs in the last round, in round nine his legs looked much stronger as he continued to offer lateral movement. Leonard was still stalking, but throwing nothing as the 'Motor City Cobra' picked up points with his left lead.
The long range boxing continued from Hearns in the tenth, as the role reversal of the two fighters carried on. The only difference was that the WBA champion was actually throwing punches as Leonard seemed content to throw the odd right hand or ineffective jabs to the body.
Leonard started the eleventh positively with a lead right, but Hearns was on his bicycle again, jabbing whilst his opponent refused to throw anything significant. Then, the 'Hit Man' lived up to his name as he came forward, landing with some good rights and a left to the body. Leonard's left eye was starting to get worse as the WBA champion had another dominant round.
The crowd were chanting "Tommy! Tommy!" before the bell rang to commence the twelfth, as Hearns raised his hands and encouraged the fans to shout louder. It was another round dominated by the Detroit man. At the end of the other rounds Leonard would smile smugly at his opponent, or Hearns would stare down his shorter foe, but at the end of this round they both tapped gloves, finally respecting the prowess of the other. "Your're blowing it son. You're blowing it," Angelo Dundee told his boxer during the minute's rest.
Round thirteen was new territory for Hearns. Leonard's left eye was almost a slit and he was 125-121, 125-122 and 124-122 behind on the scorecards; all Hearns had to do was stay on his feet for another nine minutes and he would be the undisputed welterweight champion.
They came together early in the round and Hearns lost his footing, with referee Davey Pearl ruling it a slip. All was going to plan, the WBA champion was boxing behind his jab, winning another round when suddenly Leonard cracked him with a right to the jaw. The 'Hit Man's' legs betrayed him as Leonard went all out to try and finish the contest. He had his man on the ropes and Hearns fell through them.
Leonard backed to the neutral corner, raising his hands in victory, but Pearl adjudicated it as not a knockdown. Leonard chased his man down again, this time punching his opponent through the ropes, causing a count and finally a dominating round for Sugar Ray, as Hearns was saved by the bell.
The crowd were going wild as Leonard went all out in the fourteenth round. Hearns was on shaky legs but he was back-pedalling, trying to get some life into his shaky pins. He was boxing well until he got nailed by a right high to his head. Leonard teed off on him and Hearns, who didn't have the experience to grab hold of a fighter when he was in trouble; as he never had to before, was taking punishment without firing back.
Davey Pearl waved the finish at the one-minute 45 second mark of the round with Hearns in no position to defend himself, meaning that the WBC champion now inherited the WBA version to his collection, joining Marvin Hagler as the only other undisputed champion in boxing at the time.
At the post fight press conference on the Thursday, eleven hours later, both men stood side-by-side wearing dark glasses to hide the bruises of battle inflicted by each gladiator. They joked, laughed and shook hands, showing the huge amount of respect for the other that was missing before fight night.
"I proved I'm the best welterweight in the world. This fight surpasses all my professional accomplishments," said Leonard. "In the sixth I hit him with the combinations and his legs buckled. I went in for the kill and I wanted to take him out there, but he proved he can take a punch. He took my best shots then, and he took them again in the thirteenth and fourteenth."
"The sixth should have been the last round. Ray had him and he got a little excited," said Leonard's co-trainer Janks Morton. "If he had just shortened his punches he'd have knocked him out."
Emanuel Steward agreed. "I thought the key was the sixth round. They traded left hooks and Ray came over Thomas' lowered glove and really tagged him. Thomas never really recovered from that punch. That was the biggest punch in the fight."
Leonard then spoke about his damaged left eye. "As his jabs kept getting through, the eye was getting worse. Then I had to change my strategy. I had been trying to outbox him, but had to go flat-footed for the rest of the fight, hitting him with body shots to keep him off me."
"I wasn't able to hit him with my best shot. I did land some good rights, but not the real good ones," Hearns said. "As I'd shoot the right hand, he'd move off to the left, and that took a lot out of the punches."
Leonard disagreed as he momentarily took off his dark shades and showed Hearns the extent of damage his punches had inflicted to his left eye, as he laughed and shook his head at his opponent's statement.
"I knew I was ahead," continued Hearns. "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."
"I have no qualms about the referee's decision," added Emanuel Steward. "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."