SI Vault
Pat Putnam
September 28, 1981
On a hot, summer desert night, Sugar Ray Leonard punched Thomas Hearns's lights out and became the undisputed welterweight champion
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September 28, 1981

On Top Of The World

On a hot, summer desert night, Sugar Ray Leonard punched Thomas Hearns's lights out and became the undisputed welterweight champion

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Little Ray Leonard, the 7-year-old star of those 7-Up commercials, studied the battered face of his father, who a few hours earlier had bludgeoned the hitherto undefeated Thomas Hearns into submission at 1:45 of the 14th round. Little Ray was alarmed by the face of the man he adores: handsome features blurred by numbing fatigue, left eye purple and swollen shut.

Little Ray bit his lower lip, blinking away the tears in his bright eyes. "It was a tough fight," he told his 25-year-old father. "But you were tougher." After a moment's thought, little Ray said, "Daddy, why do you keep on fighting? Why don't you take up another sport?"

The exhausted and now undisputed welterweight champion of the world reached deep within, as he had reached within against Hearns, for the strength to smile. "Like what?"

"Like basketball."

Little Ray had watched with his mother, Juanita, from a $500 ringside seat in the temporary stadium erected on the Caesars Palace tennis courts in Las Vegas while Leonard artfully defused Hearns, transforming him from a redoubtable puncher into a bewildered and largely ineffectual boxer until Referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight.

Leonard dominated the fight and dictated the pace. The only excitement and action were produced by Leonard. There were only three lopsided rounds, the sixth, seventh and 13th, and Leonard won them all. And the only fighter really hurt was Hearns. But each of the three judges for the WBC-WBA title unification bout had Leonard behind—by four, three and two points—at the end. All of them inexplicably equated a slap on the wrist with a mugging.

Leonard had Hearns reeling in the sixth and seventh rounds; was within a couple of punches of knocking him out in the 13th; and finally bullied him so brutally in the 14th that Pearl had to stop it. However, if the fight had run its 15-round course, Hearns no doubt would have won because of the judges' distorted scoring.

The scoring was on the 10-point must system, which is a fair method if competently applied. The winner of a round receives 10 points while the loser has to settle for nine or less. It is the "or less" that seems to have been miscalculated by judges Lou Tabat—who has been known to count punches on his fingers—Duane Ford and Chuck Minker. Pearl, who didn't have a vote, said, "I figured Hearns was winning all those light-hitting rounds. But Leonard was doing all the heavy damage. I thought it was close. Jeez, what if I had let the fight go on and Ray just barely won the last round, and they gave Hearns the decision? Caesars wouldn't have had to tear the stadium down for the Grand Prix [a Formula I auto race that will take place on the hotel grounds Oct. 17]. The people would have done it for them."

The flaw in the 10-point system was plainly evident when you compare the scoring for Rounds 1 and 2 with that for Rounds 6 and 7.

Hearns won Rounds 1 and 2, with a 10-9 edge, mainly because he was the one moving forward. Leonard's powerful domination of 6 and 7 was unjustly rewarded by one-point margins also. The opening rounds were so dull, in fact, that Pearl said: "What do you say we get something going here? Hell, you're both making $10 million. Let's fight."

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