On September 26, 1981 a World Welterweight unification title match was held between “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, AKA “The Hitman”. Leonard, who the media had groomed to be the heir apparent to Muhammad Ali, was already a media icon. He had charisma, was photogenic and he had dazzling speed. More importantly Leonard could really fight. Leonard had won the WBC Welterweight Title in 1979 with a 15 round KO over Wilfred Benitez and lost it in June 1980 in a close decision to Roberto Duran. Five months later “Sugar” Ray won the title back in the famous “No Mas” fight when a humiliated Duran quit in the 8th round.
Tommy Hearns won the WBO Welterweight Title with a sensational 2nd round KO of Jose “Pipino” Cueves in Detroit, Michigan. “The Hitman” defended his title successfully against Luis Primera, Randy Shields and Pablo Baez. Hearns was not the media darling that Leonard was, but nevertheless he received a lot of attention due to his outstanding boxing record.
The fight was to be held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and was promoted as “The Showdown” so that It could be further hyped by the media. Coming into the fight Leonard (30-1, 21 KO’s) and Hearns (32-0, 30 KO’s) were both confident of their own abilities. Magazines from all over the world had written numerous articles about the fight and it was a sellout with a live crowd of 23,618. The TV audience was estimated at 300 million. Hotels and motels in Las Vegas were filled to capacity. The fight began as expected with Leonard boxing from the outside and Hearns, as expected, head hunting and using his long reach to deliver damaging left jabs to Leonard’s face. By the sixth round Leonard had a nick over his left eye and Hearns had built up a substantial lead. In the same round Leonard had hurt Hearns and the “Hitman” began to box conservatively, while Leonard became the aggressor.
Over the next few rounds Leonard played catch up, attempting to close the lead that Hearns had built up. By the end of the 12th round “Sugar” Ray’s left eye was nearly closed and he was still well behind on the score cards. Leonard was running out of time. It was during the interval between the 12th and 13th rounds that trainer Angelo Dundee uttered his legendary wake up call to Leonard. “Your blowing it son; Your blowing it.” That was all Leonard needed to hear.
“Sugar” Ray came charging out of his corner for the 13th round like a lion, throwing caution to the wind. He hit Hearns with a series of lightning quick combinations that sent him to the canvas and nearly knocked him out of the ring. The “Hitman” rose from the canvas and was met by another series of rapid combinations near the end of the round sending him to the canvas once more.
When the bell rang for the start of the 14th round Hearns appeared to have used up all his energy. Leonard on the other hand appeared to be reinvigorated. He had weathered everything that Hearns could muster and now he was in control appearing much fresher.
Ray pinned Hearns against the ropes where he unleashed a barrage of lightning quick combinations, whereupon referee David Pearl stopped the fight. Sugar Ray Leonard had unified the World Welterweight Championship. In the aftermath of the fight it was revealed that Leonard had suffered a detached retina. Ray retired for the first time in 1982 and would come back and retire several more times winning more championships along the way. Because of his media image he was able to endorse a number of products.
Hearns also went on to win championships, but he always resented the attention that Leonard had received from the media. Leonard credits Hearns with being the toughest opponent he ever faced.