After a seemingly endless string of forgettable champions defending even more forgettable titles (super-junior-cruiserweight), the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title conciliation fight next Wednesday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas comes as a refreshing rain after a season-long drought. It is a classic matchup: Hearns, 22, the undefeated WBA champion, is 147 pounds of corded muscles tightly coiled around a freakish (for a welterweight) 6'1" frame; and Leonard, 25, a loser only to Roberto Duran, is a baby-faced amalgam of speed, grace and magnum power. Leonard, the 5'10" Olympic champion, holds two crowns: the WBC welterweight title, which he will risk against Hearns, and the WBA junior middleweight championship, which he won three months ago and is holding in reserve as a hedge against unthinkable defeat.
Both have predicted a knockout. By a long ton, Leonard is the superior boxer. Hearns, who fancies himself a boxer, is pure slugger, about as scientific as a wrecking ball. If it should end with both fighters on their feet, Leonard will be the one with his hands in the air.
This will be the richest fight in history. Caesars paid $3.75 million to host the fight, and then spent another million for promotion and to erect a temporary 25,000-seat stadium a stone's throw from the parking lot where heavyweight champion Larry Holmes dispatched Muhammad Ali last October. With a $500 top, the arena is scaled to do $6 million. Ten days before the fight, the promoters announced a sellout.
Top Rank paid $1 million for foreign TV rights and expects to bounce the fight off three satellites and into 40 to 50 countries. As for closed-circuit TV, Main Event Productions—run by the curious combination of a rock-concert promoter, an attorney and a college basketball coach, and which operates out of a one-story building it shares with a barbershop in Totowa, N.J.—has put the fight in 275 locations, with a potential audience of two million. At an average of $20 a seat, the closed-circuit gross could hit $40 million. Another $10 million to $15 million is possible from the pay-per-view market, which has approximately one million outlets in 20 cities.
"The response has been so tremendous it's scary," said Shelly Finkel (the rock promoter), who will share a fixed promoter's fee of $1.5 million with his two rookie partners, Dan Duva, the Clarence Darrow of the threesome, and Dan Doyle, who last season coached Trinity (Conn.) College to a 22-4 basketball record.
Total revenues from all sources already have passed $32 million. The previous high was the $29 million for Leonard-Duran I in Montreal in June 1980. That night Leonard lost his welterweight title but gained $9.7 million. "I would be totally shocked if he doesn't exceed that on this fight," says Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney. Hearns's share will be $5.1 million, plus one-quarter of the net above $21 million. Leonard's post-tax net could surpass Hearns's pretax gross. There's no debate about which fighter is the drawing card.
Sugar Loaf Mountain lies in the northwest corner of Michigan, on a slender finger of wooded land that juts out into Lake Michigan, and it was at a ski resort here, after a four-hour ride in the rain from Detroit (he missed his plane), that Hearns did his early training. It is an area of splendid solitude, a backwoods hush that gives a man time to reflect. This is fishing country, which suited Hearns, and each fall the hardwood forests are invaded by battalions of deer hunters. Sugar Loaf isn't actually a mountain; it's a 600-foot hill with a 33-degree slope—called "Awful, Awful"—that drops off for a mile. Sometimes on his morning runs Hearns would assault the slope, but mostly he was content to run the adjacent golf course, which is bordered by cherry orchards. By either route, hill or rolling pasture, he covered between three and five miles.
A ring was set up in a large barnlike structure normally used for indoor tennis. The building is called Sugar Barn, but if Hearns read any significance into the appellation he let it slide. When he was not at work, the fighter could usually be found in Baronet No. 8, one of the town houses on the perimeter of the resort, where he whiled away his otherwise unoccupied hours watching video-tapes of kung fu or Elvis Presley movies. The telephone seemed programmed to ring at 30-second intervals; mostly it was ignored.
Late one afternoon, after a 45-minute training session in the barn, Hearns returned to his sanctuary trailed by a covey of press people. He'll never be mistaken for an orator, but he tries. His normal expression is that of a veteran poker player; he is a man of closet emotions.
"I have nothing against Ray Leonard," he said in response to a question. "I still think he's a nice fellow. He just happens to have something I want. If I beat him, I will get the recognition. I need the recognition. I've always wanted to be the best." A tiny crack appeared in the ice; a glimmer of a smile. "Ray has really never done anything to me. He's run off at the mouth a few times, but that's something we are going to fix upon September 16th."