It’s been 40 years. Unbelievable!
On September 16, 1981, in a makeshift arena that was the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, “Superfight” took place.
In one corner stood the swift-handed, fleet-footed, once-beaten WBC welterweight champion of the world. In the other corner stood the undefeated knockout artist, the WBA welterweight champion of the world. In an era that produced many highly-anticipated fights, this was perhaps the most highly-anticipated one of all.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.
Leonard was 29-1, his only loss being the 15-round decision to Roberto Duran 15 months earlier. He eradicated that defeat five months later with perhaps the finest outing of his career, shutting out and stopping Duran in the eighth round of their title bout which is known as the “No Mas” fight.
Meanwhile, Hearns was doing all he could to prove he was the best welterweight in the world. In early August, 1980, about six weeks after Duran changed much of the talk from Leonard vs Hearns or Leonard vs WBA Welterweight Champion Pipino Cuevas to Duran vs Cuevas or Duran vs Hearns, Hearns put his name atop the list of welterweights with a second-round demolition of Cuevas. Watch that beat-down here.
Then came the “No Mas” fight, and once again, all attention turned to Leonard facing the frightening, menacing, destructive, Thomas Hearns.
As the calendar changed to 1981, talk of Leonard and Hearns facing one another grew louder and louder. By the time Leonard stopped Larry Bonds in round eight in March and Hearns TKO’d a game but outclassed Randy Shields in 12 the following month, the loud talk had grown into a roar.
Promoter Dan Duva, the President of Main Events, went right to work to match the two of them. Along with the negotiating and promotional skills of successful rock n’ roll promoter Shelly Finkel, Leonard and Hearns were put on the same card in Houston, Texas, on June 25. They were the star attractions in a title doubleheader. If both won their bouts, they’d go on to face each other in one of the most anticipated matches in the history of boxing.
Hearns took his 31-0 record into the ring first. Twenty-nine of those victories had come by knockout. His opponent was the tough Pablo Baez. Hearns upheld his end of the promotion, putting Baez to sleep in the fourth round. He made it look easy. It was then Leonard’s turn. He was in against WBA Jr. Middleweight champion Ayub Kalule of Uganda and his 36-0 record. Eighteen of those wins were by knockout.
The contest was competitive throughout the first eight rounds, with Leonard holding a slight edge. The promoters and their families were edgy. A mega-million dollar fight loomed if Leonard won. There were no talks of Hearns-Kalule. Suddenly, in the ninth round, Leonard broke through. His speed and power were unleashed in a blur against the Ugandan.
In a heartbeat, the fight was over. Leonard had won. He was now the WBC Welterweight Champion and WBA Jr. Middleweight Champion.
Promoter Dan Duva and Shelly Finkel, sitting near each other at ringside, exploded out of their seats and began hugging and embracing everyone around them. And why not? “Superfight”—“The Showdown”—was now a reality.
At the post-fight press conference, Duva confirmed what we all had been hearing: Leonard and Hearns would face each other on September 16, 1981, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I was then the Editor of Ring Magazine and a boxing analyst for ESPN. I was asked by promoter Dan Duva to serve as Statistical Producer for closed-circuit TV commentators Marv Albert, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and the legendary Don Dunphy. My seat on fight night put me between Marv Albert and the ABC-TV crew of producer Alex Wallau (who became the President of the ABC Television Network in 2000) and the legendary Howard Cosell. It was a night I’ll remember forever.
At the pre-fight production meeting in producer Mike Weisman’s suite, Dr. Pacheco asked a question of Weisman. Before Weisman could answer, Dunphy chimed in with, “I’d appreciate it a lot if you’ll keep your comments to a minimum, Ferdie. I find you talk more than you should during a fight. You abuse your role as a color analyst!”
Silence fell upon the room.
I looked at Pacheco. Albert looked at Pacheco. Weisman looked at Pacheco. Pacheco glared at the 70’ish Dunphy with fire in his eyes.
Before “The Fight Doctor” could speak, yell, or scream at Dunphy, a soothing Albert hand on Pacheco’s arm calmed him down. As we walked out of Weisman’s suite, however, Pacheco was still fuming.
“That son of a bitch!” he muttered over and over. “That old son-of-a-bitch! The nerve of him! I think I’ll talk throughout the fight!” Albert and I just looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Pacheco just kept muttering.
“That son of a bitch!
The fight card began late in the afternoon, somewhere around 4:00. Without the TV lights above the ring, it was nearly 115 degrees at ringside. The main event was still around four hours away.
I arrived shortly before the start of the first undercard fight, and was joined in the next half hour by Albert, then Pacheco, then Dunphy. Nowhere was it hotter than down at ringside by us. Ferdie had a big hello for both Albert and me. When Dunphy showed up with a “Hello boys, hot enough out here for you guys?” Pacheco merely nodded his head slightly. Ice would not have cooled off the tension between those two!
The ABC-TV crew of Howard Cosell and Alex Wallau showed up shortly after the arrival of our closed-circuit announcing team. Cosell, who drew one of the biggest ovations of the night from the still-filing-in-crowd, was dressed in one of ABC’s cheap-but-colorful sport jackets which looked great on TV, emblazoned with the ABC logo. In his mouth was one of the longest cigars I have ever seen. Not even Bert Sugar ever smoked a cigar that long! (Click here to read more on the Gordon-Sugar relationship, from ESPN New York.)
It was shortly before the start of the fight card that a honeymoon couple approached the ringside gate which separated the ringside ticket holders from the working press.
“Mr. Cosell, Mr. Cosell!” called the pretty, new, young wife. “Mr. Cosell, Mr. Cosell! She called, waving a fight program.
I tapped Cosell—who was wearing his headset while reading a local newspaper—on his right shoulder. He looked at me.
“Howard, a young lady is frantically trying to get your attention,” I said to him. He turned to look at her. Then he turned to thank me. He stood up and walked towards the newlyweds.
I watched as he approached her and the man who stood next to her.
“Mr. Cosell, Mr. Cosell. My husband and I are on our honeymoon. We’re big boxing fans and also big fans of yours. Could you please sign this program for us?”
“Of course, my dear. I’ll gladly sign it. What are your names?” She told him. Howard signed the front page of their program. Then he shook both of their hands and kissed the young bride on her cheek. The joy on her face was obvious and her smile was radiant as her husband took a photo of his new bride with the heavyweight champion of sportscasters.
As he walked back to his ringside seat, Cosell said, in a loud voice to the newlyweds, “That must be a bigger thrill than the honeymoon itself!”
Columnist Dick Young shook his head and said to Cosell, whom he was at verbal war with for years, “You’re an egotistical maniac, Howard!”
And you’re just a jealous bastard!” Cosell shot back.
We sat through the searing desert heat for several more hours and a few more undercard fights. Included was a knockout victory for teenage sensation Tony Ayala.
Finally, it was time for the main event.
I took a thermometer which the TV production crew had given me and placed it on one of the ring’s turnbuckles. I left it there until it was time for Leonard and Hearns to make their respective ring walks.
Although the setting of the desert sun had “cooled” the arena to 92 degrees, the searing television lights had jacked the ringside temperature up by 35 degrees. Inside the ring, it was 127 degrees.
Picture getting into your car on a summer day—windows up—after it had been baking in the sun for hours. Now picture getting into that car and staying there in that heat for close to an hour! Got it? Feel it? Now picture working out in the car! It was unthinkable that any two athletes could perform the way they did in such stifling, searing heat, the night of September 16, 1981.
I looked around. The arena was packed. Flashes on cameras were going off all over the arena. Most fans were on their feet, waiting for the fighters. On my left, Howard Cosell was doing his stand-up open.
“HELLO AGAIN EVERYONE. THIS IS HOW/AHD COE/SELL.”
On my right were three sweating announcers on whom I was placing frozen bottles of water and mopping with towels provided by the hotel. I was wearing a suit and tie and could not have been wetter had I jumped in the pool at Caesars Palace.
The judges were in place. The ring was clear, except for referee Davey Pearl and ring announcer Chuck Hull.
Then came the voice of Mike Weisman in our headsets.
“The fighters are on their way!”
“The Showdown,” as promoter Dan Duva named it, or “Superfight,” as so many fans and members of the media so rightfully called it, was minutes away from starting.
Thomas Hearns entered the ring first. He was loose. Sweat glistened off his lean, rail-thin and almost weak-looking 147-pound body. Yet, despite his lack of musculature, there was no getting away from the fact he was crushing welterweights with relative ease. Only two out of 32 opponents had lasted the distance with him. Both of them took such a beating over 10 rounds that they would have been better off being knocked out. He had won the title from Pipino Cuevas 13 months earlier. In that fight, Hearns used a frightening right hand to lay the rugged Mexican face down and out in round two.
Hearns was taller than Leonard by nearly four inches. He also outreached him and outgunned him in the power department. In the speed department, he seemed to be Leonard’s equal. That’s why Hearns was made a 6½-5 favorite.
That’s why I made an unusual bet with Shelly Finkel.
He picked Leonard. I picked Hearns. Had Hearns won, Finkel would pay me $500. Had Leonard won, I would shave my moustache of 10 years.
I figured I couldn’t lose the bet. That’s because I figured Hearns couldn’t lose the fight. He had all the physical attributes over Sugar Ray.
Then Leonard entered the ring.
On the back of Leonard’s robe was the word “DELIVERANCE.” Nobody realized it, but that word conveyed the feelings Leonard carried into this fight. So many fans and members of the boxing press thought he was nothing more than a fluffed-up media darling and pretty boy.
Leonard was out to prove them wrong.
For the first two rounds, Hearns patiently stalked Leonard, who bounced left, then right, then left again, never giving “The Hitman”—one of Hearns’ two nicknames—a clear shot at him with his vaunted, powerful right. When Hearns did land, it was with a stinging left jab to the face.
By the third round, a small mouse appeared under Leonard’s left eye. It was in that round that Leonard absorbed, for the first time in the fight, a sharp right to his chin. Hearns had landed what looked to be his “Sunday Punch,” but Sugar Ray was still on his feet.
The temperature inside the ring was close to 130 degrees. Although it was around 35 degrees cooler at our ringside positions, all of us at ringside were drenched in sweat.
“How could these two fighters possibly be performing at this level under such extreme conditions?” we wondered.
Late in round three, Leonard turned his laser hands loose, scoring with a fast combination to the head. Hearns looked surprised, though not hurt, by the assault. Then he continued to pursue Leonard. As Hearns pressured him, Leonard danced and made Hearns miss.
At the end of the round, Leonard threw his hands into the air as if in victory. For him, the round was a positive step. He now knew, not only that he could win, but that he would win.
Rounds four and five were much like the first two—with Hearns pursuing behind controlled aggression and a long, hard, steady jab to Leonard’s puffing left eye.
Round six would be a turning point in the fight. Leonard knew he was behind on the scorecards and realized he couldn’t allow Hearns to build much more of a lead. He began to take the fight to the “Motor City Cobra”—Hearns’ other popular nickname. For the first time, Leonard’s hand speed was very apparent. His right shot over Hearns’ low-held left. His left zeroed in on Hearns’ just-as-low right. Hearns was content to keep spearing Leonard with his jab, and the mouse under Leonard’s left eye grew nastier and nastier.
Suddenly, Leonard ripped a vicious left hook to the side. Hearns doubled in agony.
“THE RIBS OF THOMAS HEARNS ARE BROKEN! THEY ARE BROKEN!” screamed Howard Cosell, who was two seats away from me.
I looked at Cosell and shook my head, trying to tell him I didn’t believe Hearns’ ribs were broken. Cosell, however, stayed with his thought.
“THE RIBS OF HEARNS ARE BROKEN, AND HE’S IN BIG TROUBLE!” Cosell announced.
I wrote a note and passed it to the man on my left, ABC-TV’s Alex Wallau.
“I don’t think the ribs are broken…Wind just knocked out of him.” Wallau nodded. He kept it to himself, though. When Cosell said something while on-air, he usually tended to stay with that thought. There was no way he was going to change his broken rib theory.
At this point, Marv Albert, who was providing between-rounds commentary for closed-circuit viewers (ancestors of pay-per-view buyers) of the “Showdown,” hit his “Cough Button,” which turned his microphone off.
He leaned over to me and asked, “I can hear what Cosell is saying. Do you think Hearns’ ribs are broken?”
I shook my head, but told him I’d find out by running over to Hearns’ corner and asking Emanuel Steward, Hearns manager, trainer and cornerman.
Our announcing position was in a neutral corner, and I ran around and over to Hearns’ corner. I waited for Steward to come down and take his corner position on a stool between rounds eight and nine.
“Manny, Howard Cosell is announcing that Hearns’ ribs are broken. Are they broken? Should we go with that for the closed-circuit telecast?” I asked him.
“They’re not broken,” Steward told me. “He had the wind knocked out of him, that’s all.”
I said “Thank you,” and ran back to tell Albert. He looked at me, anxiously awaiting my answer.
“Steward said they are not broken,” I told Albert. “Hearns just had the wind knocked out of him.”
Cosell heard me tell that to Marv. He leaned in front of Wallau and towards me.
“I’m telling you,” said Cosell, “that Hearns’ ribs are broken. It’s obvious.”
Through the seventh and eighth rounds it certainly looked to be that way. Every time Leonard moved in close, Hearns would tuck his right elbow in close to his body to protect his side from the onslaught which he knew was coming.
“BODY, RAY, BODY!” screamed a voice from Leonard’s corner. “BODY!
In the ninth round, tired of the beating he was taking, Hearns reverted to becoming the boxer he was as an amateur, when he won almost 170 fights, but knocked out only 11 opponents.
With all that was inside him, he pecked and poked away with jab after jab at Leonard’s puffing left eye. Suddenly, the vaunted slugger had become the masterful boxer. And just as suddenly, the masterful boxer had become the aggressor.
Leonard’s problem was that every time he stepped within range, he got popped by a jab and then his target moved away. And so it went from the ninth round through the 11th. Hearns moved and boxed, Leonard pursued and stalked, though rather ineffectively.
Because of the buildup of points early in the fight by Hearns, and because of the success he was having in this portion, it was obvious who was headed towards victory.
However, Emanuel Steward didn’t like what he was seeing from his fighter, despite the fact that he was boxing and winning. The almost-frightened look on Hearns’ face told him something. Steward implored him, “If you’re not going to fight, then I’m going to stop it!”
Over in the other corner, Angelo Dundee was even more animated.
“You’re blowin’ it, son!” he exhorted after the 12th round. “You’re blowin’ it!”
Leonard didn’t need an explanation. He came out for the 13th round knowing what he had to do.
He went right after Hearns, whose legs looked wobbly, as much from the blistering heat as from the 36 previous minutes against his WBC counterpart.
Working in close, Leonard leaned on Hearns, who toppled backwards. Then, in an effort to stay up, his legs entwined with Leonard’s and he went down. He was up right away, but Leonard was on him again. This time, “The Hitman” was hit. Again and again. Hearns backed to the ropes. Then, with Leonard still in pursuit and still throwing, Hearns folded up at the middle and began to slide through the ropes. He was as much outside the ropes as he was inside them. Referee Davey Pearl then told Hearns to “get up.”
Angelo Dundee was enraged. He had felt Hearns exiting the ring was because of punches. He jumped up on the ring apron screaming “Bullshit!” Pearl was quick and adamant in telling Dundee to get down from the ring apron.
Leonard was quick to pounce back on Hearns. Another flurry put him down. This time, Pearl ruled it a knockdown. Somehow, a weary Hearns managed to rise at the count of nine, just as the bell sounded.
As tired and battered as Leonard was, one glance across the ring let him know that Hearns was in worse shape. Far worse shape.
Leonard knew this would be the last round of the fight. So did the 23,615 fans in attendance and millions watching on worldwide closed-circuit.
Leonard doubled his hook to the body and head, following with crisp rights to the head. Yet, Hearns remained upright. Leonard punched in volleys, then motioned to Pearl to stop the fight. When the ref did not end it, Leonard hammered away at Hearns some more. At that point, at 1:45 of the round, Pearl stepped in a pushed Leonard off of Hearns.
At that point, I was very curious as to which of the two warriors had been leading at the time of the stoppage. I jumped into the ring and waited until Chuck Hull had made his announcement.
“…NOW THE UNDISPUTED WELTERWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, SUGAR…RAY…LEONARD!”
I then asked the commission member who was holding the three scorecards if I could see them for a moment. I said I needed the scores for television. There is no way that commission official should have given them to me without checking with Nevada’s Executive Director, first. But he did. For some reason, he simply handed them to me.
I scooted across the ring and threw them to Marv Albert, who began to read them to the audience. Incredibly, all three judges—Lou Tabat, Duane Ford and Chuck Minker—had Hearns ahead. They had him ahead by four, three and two points, respectively.
Thankfully, the scoring didn’t matter. What mattered was the heart and effort by both of these ring legends. They were Herculean in both victory and defeat.
For Ray Leonard, the victory gave him what he had stepped into the ring for, what he wore on his robe: DELIVERANCE. The fight also gave credence to him, from that moment forth, to be called “Sugar Ray.” He had certainly earned the name.
A few minutes after “The Showdown” ended and Marv Albert had signed off of the closed-circuit telecast, I looked across the ring and saw Shelly Finkel, with whom I had made the bet.
Remember, he bet on Leonard. I bet on Hearns. I lost. I would have to shave my moustache.
Finkel looked at me and smiled, then made a shaving motion with his finger under his nose. I knew exactly what he meant. I walked over to him and told him he could see the results on ESPN the next night from Atlantic City, where Sal Marchiano and I would be calling the Irish Teddy Mann-Mike Baker fight.
A late-night flight would take us from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and then a red-eye would get us across the country to Philadelphia, where we would then rent a car and drive the one hour to Atlantic City. After a few hours of sleep, it was into a shower, lathering my face and, using a new razor, saying goodbye to my moustache, which had been with me for the last 10 years of my 32 years of existence. My upper lip felt as if I had been given novocaine!
When we came on the air, my then-four-year-old daughter, Ali, was watching ESPN in our home, 150 miles North on Long Island, waiting for her daddy to appear on the screen.
“From the Sands Hotel & Casino, it’s another edition of ‘Top Rank Boxing,’” said Sal Marchiano. A wide-angle view of the Copa Room—the large theatre inside the Sands—came on the screen.
“Here comes daddy,” said Ali’s mom. The camera cut to us.
Ali just stared in disbelief, and then broke into tears.
“That’s not my daddy!” she sobbed. In her four years, she had never seen me without a moustache. That moustache she once knew has made only one, quick appearance since that time.
After the fight, which was won by Teddy Mann on a decision, Sal and I conducted an on-camera interview with Mann.
As the interview was ending and always a jokester, Mann said, “I know both of you were in Las Vegas last night for the big fight and traveled through the night to get here for my fight. So, I got both of you a little present.
He reached in the pocket of his boxing robe and pulled out two packs of “No Doz.”
We enjoyed the laugh.
Over a post-show dinner with Marchiano and the ESPN crew, we talked about the show we had just announced and the show we had been at ringside for less than 24 hours earlier, in a venue 2,561 miles from where we were now.
To me, this was the pinnacle. It was everything I had ever dreamed of doing in boxing. It was more than having the best seat in the house at the Sugar Ray Leonard v Thomas Hearns—now considered a boxing classic…about losing my moustache on a bet…an all-night flight across the country…then calling a fight on ESPN with a humorous post-fight interview..
It was among the most memorable times of my professional life.
Forty years later.
I remember it as if it were yesterday.