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Ray Leonard tossed and turned and dreamed of death. Sweating, he awoke with a feeling of dread in the darkness of his Reno hotel room. He had dreamed that he was standing over a challenger for his undisputed world welterweight championship, whom he'd knocked down, and the opponent wasn't moving.
"For a terrible moment it was awfully real," Leonard says. "But then I realized it had just been a bad dream. I managed to get back to sleep, but it was an uneasy sleep."
The following morning, Feb. 15, after weighing in for his title defense that night with Bruce Finch, Leonard went to his suite at Harrah's for breakfast with his older brother Roger. As they were eating, Ray was uncommonly quiet, and Roger casually commented, "You know, Ray, you hit so hard, someday you're going to kill somebody."
Once more the nightmare came to mind. Shaken, Leonard replied, "Naw, that's never going to happen." The subject was changed; the bad dream retired to a neutral corner of the champion's consciousness.
That night at the Reno Centennial Coliseum, while country singer Mickey Gilley was in the ring rewriting the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, Leonard warmed up for his first defense of the title he had unified by stopping Thomas Hearns last September. Although Finch was so lightly regarded that no gambler could make a bet on the outcome—unless he wanted to wager on when Finch would be stopped, before or after eight rounds—Leonard had trained diligently, and as he shadowboxed in his dressing room he felt his body was finely tuned.
Trainer Janks Morton checked his watch. It was nearly time for the lightly sweating Leonard to earn his $1.3 million. Finch, 28-3-1 and ranked No. 4 by the WBC only because the world has run out of quality 147-pound fighters, was to be paid $85,000, about $82,000 more than he had ever earned for a bout.
The door to Leonard's dressing room opened and a TV emissary entered. "We're having a technical problem," the man said. "There's going to be a slight delay."
Reno's first championship fight since Jack Johnson knocked out James J. Jeffries in 1910 was being telecast live by Home Box Office. Delayed broadcast rights had been purchased by ABC. In the 10-minute delay Leonard lost his fighting tone.
He had planned for a quick ending. "I won't carry an opponent for anyone," he had said a few days earlier. "If I can take Finch out in the first round, I will. I'm going right after him." Vulnerable to a left hook, Finch, a converted southpaw, had been stopped by Pete Ranzany in five rounds, Larry Bonds in five and Hearns in two. All three had been knocked out by Leonard.
But now, as he entered the ring in search of his 32nd victory in 33 fights, Leonard realized it would take more than three minutes just to get his body retuned.