Unblessed by power, Shields is, in the vernacular of the trade, a cutie: quick of foot and head, a defensive fighter who could make a firing squad look bad. Late in 1978 he went 10 rounds with Leonard and lost a very close decision. Before being stopped by Hearns on the cuts, he had drilled at least a dozen clean right hands to Hearns's angular chin.
"Like all guys who rely on power, Hearns has neglected other areas, like defense," D'Amato says. "If Shields had any kind of power he'd have knocked him out. And that last guy he fought down in Houston, Pablo Baez, who wasn't too much, hit Hearns a right hand and drove him into the ropes, and Hearns covered up à la Ali. Somewhere along the line, Leonard will get him in the position where one of those incompetents got him—I mean incompetent compared to Leonard—and hit him like a dozen right hands to the jaw. Or if he gets him on the ropes like Baez had him, he'll stop him. Leonard won't let him get away. Leonard is one hell of a finisher, like Robinson was."
The opening bell has just rung and the two fighters move forward. The temperature is between 75° and 85°, but in September there is always a refreshing coolness to the Nevada desert at night. The fight has started at twilight and the heat is not a factor.
Hearns begins with a rush. He has always been an overanxious starter, as though he needed early knockouts to overcome Leonard's gold medal and cosmic personality. "He comes out like an amateur," Weston says with disdain. Hearns is the Hitman, a nom de guerre he despises but one he seems subconsciously determined to justify.
When people speak of Hearns, it's always of the right hand. But it's the left that is the killer. The left hand forces the head under the blade; only then does the right drop the guillotine. While Leonard is amassing a ton of points, Hearns's jab strikes out, again and again, a hissing snake searching for a victim...but finding only the Nevada air.
Odell Hadley is 6'2", and as he spars with Leonard in the ring set up in one of Caesars Palace's cavernous convention rooms, he is doing his best to imitate Hearns's jab. Leonard has already gone three smartly paced five-minute rounds with 6'1" Ray Kates, and he has yet to draw a deep breath. "His legs are like steel," whispers Victor Abraham, another sparring partner, as he watches Leonard in action.
Hadley's long left arm flicks out, again and again, and Leonard uses it to see where he is positioned after the jabs slide harmlessly past his left ear. Now and again Leonard lobs a stern right hand to Hadley's head. It's not the classic straight right; it comes in an arc, like a mortar shell.
"Anybody who thinks that Sugar Ray Leonard can't punch is in for a big surprise," says Jimmy Jacobs, the manager of WBC junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez. Leonard won his welterweight title by stopping Benitez in the 15th round, in November of 1979. "Before that fight," Jacobs goes on, "we studied films of about a dozen of Leonard's fights. Half of them ended in one-punch knockouts. It was a tremendous thing to see."
To the amazement of no one at ringside, Leonard has been outjabbing his two taller opponents. "And he'll outjab Hearns," predicts Angelo Dundee, who worked with Muhammad Ali and is Leonard's trainer. He'll huddle with Morton just before the fight to plot strategy. "They talk about Hearns's height and his 78½-inch reach. Ray's is 74 and he'll neutralize the difference with speed and movement, like Willie Pastrano. Willie had the shortest arms in history, but he was so quick he outjabbed everybody. Ray has that same ability."
Hadley is now in his third round, Leonard in his sixth. Between rounds they are resting for only 30 seconds. At the five-minute mark no one calls time. At the seven-minute mark Leonard, tired of practicing the jab, moves inside. He comes in quickly, bobbing and weaving, behind a flicking left hand, and then, his right glove tucked up under his chin to ward off a counter uppercut, he slams a hook to the body. Then he's gone.