The Man Sugar Ray Fears
What Shalit Be?
It's a curious thing. Now that the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns showdown is a reality, all the talk centers on what will happen after the fight. The New York Times reports that there will be three Leonard-Hearns fights. The Boston Globe promises that after he beats Hearns, Leonard will give middleweight champ Marvin Hagler a well-deserved payday. The New York Post claims that Leonard will retire after the September bout--win, lose or draw.
Eventually we'll find out who's on the mark. For my part, I'm more interested in the three-year build-up than what will happen after it's all over.
Sugar Ray Leonard has avoided Thomas Hearns since 1978. After winning the Olympic gold--and America's bicentennial-crazed hearts--Leonard became the television champ. He beat a series of slow-footed club fighters in his first two years as a pro and got paid $50,000 for each encounter.
Hearns, meanwhile, was also beating slow-footed club fighters, but he got paid accordingly.
After Hearns and Leonard together entered the bottom of the welterweight rankings, their paths quickly separated. Leonard had no trouble finding inferior but higher-ranked (you know what a joke the ratings are) fighters to beat on. At the same time, no manager in his right mind would put his fighter against the Hit Man from Detroit.
Angelo Dundee was one of those wary managers. He said Hearns would have to beat a top contender before he could challenge Leonard, because Sugar Ray as through fighting lower-ranked boxers.
When Leonard won the WBC welterweight crown, Hearns's manager, Emmanuel Stewart, asked Dundee for a shot at the title. Dundee told him to first get the other half of the title--the WBA half-owned by Pipino Cuevas. That was a good idea, but Cuevas wanted no part of Hearns either. Finally, the WBA ordered Cuevas to give Hearns a shot. It was set for August 1980, a few months after the first Leonard-Duran fight.
At the press conference following Duran's victory in Montreal, a reporter told Leonard that Hearns would give him a shot at his title after his fight with Cuevas. "Would you prefer to fight Duran again, or will you fight Hearns for the other half of the title?" the reporter asked.
"Let him win the title before he starts offering me a shot. He's got to beat Cuevas first, and Cuevas is a great fighter. Cuevas will knock him out, and I don't want any more questions about Hearns. I want to fight Duran again."
Hearns demolished Cuevas, knocking him out in the second round. Leonard beat Duran in their rematch, landing about six punches while the champ got sick to his stomach.
So now they finally fight. They say this will be the biggest fight ever. Maybe $10 million will go to each participant. The total profit should exceed $30 million. The whole world will watch, and the bets will total half our GNP.
All of that matters to Sugar Ray Leonard, but I don't think Hearns cares a bit. Hearns would fight Leonard for free. Hearns would fight Leonard in an alley, even if he couldn't tell anybody about it the next morning.
The two fighters shared top billing last Thursday night as Hearns defended his title against Pablo Baez and Leonard went for the WBA junior middleweight crown held by, Ayub Kalule. What happened in the ring that evening is a good indication of what we can expect from their September showdown.
Hearns was on first, and he simply demolished his little-known opponent. Hearns's jab is his most effective weapon--it sets up his jackhammer right hand. Baez caught about 30 Hearns jabs in each of the first three rounds, and his face was swollen as he began the fourth. Midway through the stanza, Hearns followed his jab with a straight right which made Baez's head snap like a speed bag. About 20 punches later, the referee stopped the bout.
Leonard had a much tougher time of it. It was Sugar Ray's first venture into the junior middleweight division, and the usually quick-footed boxer looked rather ordinary; the added weight definitely slowed Ray down. For his part, Kalule seemed an unwilling opponent. Like the boxing light-heavyweight champ, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Kalule threw only about ten punches per round. Still, his awkward southpaw style gave Leonard trouble, and in the seventh round, a straight right jab put Leonard on queer street.
In the ninth round, Leonard mounted his attack, and a five-punch combination (along with a little help from a confused referee) gave Sugar Ray his second professional title.
When Leonard and Hearns meet on September 16, Ray will be lighter, and presumably his usual fast self. Foot speed won't be enough, though, and Hearns should dominate the fight.
The most telling factor will be Hearns's reach advantage. Leonard has a 70-inch reach, which is normal for welterweights. Hearns's reach is an incredible 78 inches. Those extra eight inches will give Leonard fits, because he's boxer, not a brawler. It's not his style to bob and weave to get inside--the way Joe Frazier had to against Ali to offset a four-inch reach disadvantage. And even if Leonard did bob and weave. Hearns is an expert at throwing his left jab to keep an opponent at bay.
To win, Leonard will have to get inside and score inside. He has no chance there either, because Hearns is the better inside fighter, as he proved in beating Cuevas for the title.
Leonard's other problem is that he can be hit with a good right hand. He has tagged about a dozen times by Duran's right lead in their Montreal fight, and two of these rights almost put Leonard down. And last Thursday Kalule connected repeatedly with his right jab. Hearns's right hand is a middleweight's right. When it connects it invariably stuns. Leonard can be hurt, and he won't be able to avoid the Hearns right for more than a few rounds.
As Hearns lands his powerful rights, another Leonard flaw will come to the surface. When Sugar Ray fought Duran that first time, it became apparent that not only was Leonard losing, but he was intimidated, even scared. Now Leonard is no Kenny Norton--he won't buckle at the first hard body shot--but he does seem to lose heart when things don't go his way. When he sees that he's having trouble reaching Hearns, and when Thomas starts slamming left hooks to the liver, Sugar Ray will wilt.
It should end around the seventh or eighth round, and I'll be surprised if Leonard takes even a single round up to that point. Sugar Ray is a good fighter, but Hearns is a great one. What will happen after the fight is heard to say. Maybe, as the Globe says, Leonard will challenge Marvin Hagler. Maybe, as the Post claims, Leonard will retire. But Leonard climbing into the ring for a second or third Hearns fight? After what will happen on September 16, I seriously doubt it.