by Chuck Mindenhall
June 29, 2016
Sugar has always been a key ingredient in the so-called sweet science, and Ray Leonard was an example of just how sweet and refined boxing could be. Beginning in 1976 when he won Olympic gold in Montreal, “Sugar” Ray never saw the fight that didn’t entice him, which was a hazardous way to be given the mean set of contemporaries surrounding him during boxing’s boom period of the 1980s. Hovering in his orbit were names like Roberto Duran, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Puerto Rico’s own Wilfred Benitez — heart-strong fighters, marauders, knockout artists, world champions.
Each who could have defined that era themselves, had it not been for Sugar Ray. He wanted to fight them all, and he did.
Yet perhaps none were more feared than Detroit’s Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, who found himself on a warpath with Leonard from 1977, the same year that both men turned pro. In September 1981, just six weeks after MTV was launched on cable television in the U.S., and a night before Ric Flair defeated Dusty Rhodes to win the first World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in Kansas City, Leonard and Hearns finally met at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, under the stars.
It was the most highly anticipated bout featuring welterweights to that point. The golden age of the heavyweights had passed, and Leonard — who was named after singer Ray Charles but monikered after the great Sugar Ray Robinson, who got into the sport because of Muhammad Ali yet idolized the movement and philosophy of Bruce Lee — was bringing the lighter weight classes into the spotlight.
He’d won Olympic gold, and had taken the WBC welterweight title from Benitez with a 15th round TKO victory in ’79. His back-to-back series with Roberto Duran in 1980 was the stuff of legends. Leonard lost the title “Hands of Stone” in June, and — haunted by the memory of his first loss — recaptured it in November during the infamous “No Mas” incident.
Sugar Ray followed that up with a TKO victory over Ayub Kalule, in which he won the WBC middleweight title just three months earlier. He was already a star. For as nasty as he could be in the prize ring, he was equally a gentleman outside of it, with wholesome good looks and Hollywood charisma. He was the envy of the boxing world, because he was bigger than it.
It was billed as “The Showdown.” Hearns, who called himself the “Motor City Cobra” at the time, was carrying the WBA welterweight title. He was 32-0, with 30 knockouts. He was long, angular, serious. He had the reach, the height, and the youth over Leonard. His right hand had been cataclysmic for a great many men he’d faced. His length and deceptive speed had been impossible to solve.
Yet heading into what was the battle to end all disputes as to who was the best welterweight at time, the question was…could he hit Leonard? Could he find that chin?
Leonard was a genius at turning himself into a mirage, a swinging, bobbing, flickering blur that could hit and hit hard, in torrents and flurries inside, outside and everything in between. His footwork was such that he could vanish in front of you then reappear with a fusillade of punches before you knew he had rematerialized. He’d done it against Benitez. He’d done it against Duran and Kalule, too. And, perhaps more importantly as it concerned Hearns, he’d done it against the far bigger, rangier Marcos Geraldo in Baton Rouge in 1978.
That was the bout he learned to outfox bigger men in the prize ring. He credited that fight as the moment he knew he could beat anybody.
The first Hearns-Leonard was an instant classic. Still a year before Duk-Koo Kim and Ray Mancini’s fight forced rule changes, it was scheduled for 15 rounds, and the narrative was full of feints and dekes and red herrings. Leonard, evasive as ever, was reluctant to let his hands go. Hearns, spidery from range and snapping when Leonard trying to close it, got off to a big lead. Then Leonard came on in the middle rounds. He turned the tide by the seventh, as Hearns was unsteady on his feet.
Just when it seemed like Leonard had seized the momentum, on came Hearns again — steadily taking back over the fight, cutting angles, paralyzing Leonard’s instincts to counter. He began packing the rounds, keeping Leonard at the end of his punches. It wasn’t until the 12th round that Leonard came storming back yet again. In the 13th, after rocking him with a couple of shots, he shoved the crumpled, limp figure of Hearns — who had never been in a fight that lasted so long before — through the ropes. Leonard knocked Hearns down at the end of the round for good measure.
But he’d need to finish the fight if he were to win. The judges still had it for Hearns by wide margin. Leonard, now sensing how bad his man was hurt, began to stalk — and it was chilling how easy he made it look that deep into the fight, strolling towards his prey as if arriving at that moment had been inevitable. After a right hand sent Hearns rolling off balance in trying to get his bearings, Leonard lifted his arms. The showman shook out his glove. Now with swagger, he came in with another barrage.
Referee Davey Pearl called the fight. Leonard had come back. He celebrated with his famed trainer, Angelo Dundee. He had won.
And that fight not only began his rivalry Hearns (they would fight to a draw in 1989), it was the catalyst in “Sugar” Ray becoming the fighter of the decade. He showcased his entire in-ring prowess that night in Las Vegas — namely, that he had more layers than any fighter of his time could peel back. He was patient, a thinking man calculating and executing his adjustments. He was opportunistic. He was blinding speed and menace when the time came. He was strategy and savagery, yet he doled the one side only when Hearns was sure it was the other.
He was insolvable.
It was classic Leonard. Sugar Ray had many great fights in the nearly two decades he fought and, like all great competitors, he had a difficult time walking away from boxing. He retired on multiple occasions, only to realize he wasn’t done yet. The lure of the challenge kept motivating him to try and try again. He retired for good in 1997, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame that same year.
Sugar Ray Leonard goes down as one of the greatest boxing has known.
Taking the “Sugar” nickname that Ray Robinson memorialized for a quarter of a century between 1940-1965 serves as a window into Leonard’s competitive mind. By carrying that hallowed nickname, Leonard had to live up to something. And it was none other than the late boxing historian Bert Sugar who declared that Leonard had more than hit his own unique sweet spot.
“[Leonard] had flashed across the boxing skies like a sparkling meteor and lit them up,” he wrote. “And with almost every performance he had more than earned the right to carry the name ‘Sugar.’”