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Pat Putnam
July 06, 1981
Against a background of lurid dealing, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns won their Houston semis and advanced to the welter finals
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July 06, 1981

Clearing The Way For The Big Payday

Against a background of lurid dealing, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns won their Houston semis and advanced to the welter finals

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Last week, even as Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns strode splendidly toward their September shootout, it was discouragingly clear, as if anyone ever doubted it, that boxing is more—much more—than the simple art of laying leather on another man's nose. Man against man in the ring is but a sideshow to men against men in the hotel suites, where the end of a round is signaled by the clink of ice in a highball glass. There paranoia and plunder, like a hook following a right cross, is the classic combination, and the rule of thumb (in the eye?) is something like, never buy cookies from a Girl Scout unless you get the options on the Thin Mints and the site rights to her wedding. And so it went in Texas last week.

Houston was cast as Fight Town, U.S.A., and while it drew some of the best in the sport, it also attracted the bad and the ugly, the big wheels and the bizarre. The star attractions, of course, were Leonard and Hearns, although not in the same act. If you're searching for two nicer people than that pair, you're on the wrong planet. Also in attendance were bit players like Hearns' opponent, Pablo Baez, who added five to 19 and got 22, and Ben Mugimba, a Ugandan witch doctor who once ran a gas station in Kampala. And there was Bob Arum, the boss of Top Rank Inc., which was trying to sell closed-circuit TV of last Thursday's fight card to theaters across the U.S. Arum was betting the no-pass line in a crap game against common sense.

In the bouts that involved exertion and took place in the Astrodome, Hearns hit the inept Baez in the mouth and dispatched him in the fourth round, thereby retaining his WBA welterweight title. And Leonard, the WBC welter champ, fighting with one hand—which seemed a reasonable impost—used all but one second of nine rounds of a tough and interesting fight to take the WBA junior middleweight title from Ayub Kalule, a Ugandan fighting out of Copenhagen.

For Leonard, who earned $2.5 million, and Hearns ($525,000), the night was a lucrative public workout meant to whet appetites for their megabuck bout on Sept. 16, most likely at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for the unification of the welterweight titles—perhaps.

The "perhaps" is contingent first upon the greed of the World Boxing Council. Word filtered into Houston that the WBC would henceforth demand 3% of every champion's purse, 1�% of the challenger's, and would exact 2% of the fighters' total purses from the promoter. Just to sanction the fight. If Leonard earns $8 million and Hearns $5 million at Caesars, which is more than possible, the official WBC benediction would cost $575,000. At those prices you can be sure the letters WBC will grace no fight posters come September.

Then there is the WBA. Pepito Cordero, a powerful voice in that group, claims to hold an option to promote one Hearns fight and is calling in his marker. Reportedly he wants $300,000 to get out of the way. The odds on Cordero's money grab are only slightly better than the WBC's. With brilliant foresight Leonard and Hearns signed contracts calling for only a 15-round bout at 147 pounds. There is no mention of them fighting for anyone's world title.

As for Arum, when he volunteered to handle the Leonard-Kalule fight, he came up with the idea, apparently all on his own, that he would then have a piece of the September show. A few days before the Houston fight, chewing on the fact that a New York rock-'n'-roll promoter named Shelly Finkel would have the closed-circuit rights for Leonard-Hearns, Arum went into a screaming rage.

"We never discussed the September fight with him," said Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney and financial guru. "He assumed he would be a part of it. He assumed wrong." Arum unleashed a volley of abuse. He said Trainer was idiotic for letting Leonard fight Kalule anyway, because the Ugandan was too strong for him. "This match wasn't my idea," Arum said. "They [the Leonard people] made me do it. I don't make stupid predictions. I don't have to." He was forgetting that a few weeks earlier he had picked Leon Spinks to beat Larry Holmes.

In an afterthought, Arum also picked Baez to beat Hearns.

It was enough to drive boxing writers to drink.

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