It took eight years, two Leonard retirements, and some bumps in the road for Hearns for one to come about.
After Leonard stopped Hearns in a dramatic 14th round in '81, he retired in '82 due to a detached retina, made an aborted comeback in '84, and then came back again in '87, beating Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship and then moving up to a 168-pound catchweight to beat a drained Donny Lalonde, winning Lalonde's 175-pound title and the WBC's vacant super middleweight title in one fell swoop.
Hearns was stunned in the 1988 Upset of the Year against Iran Barkley, and had also done battle with Hagler, losing the classic three-round war of 1985.
It took a lot of money ($13 million to Leonard, $11 million to Hearns, as was reported at the time) and a lot of criticism for this fight to come about. Many felt that Leonard only took the rematch because he deemed Hearns a shot fighter and a non-threat to him, but Leonard himself said publicly that he felt Hearns' obsession with getting revenge for the 1981 loss would make him dangerous enough.
The rematch came. Hearns was now 30 years old, Leonard 33. They fought for a super middleweight title, with Hearns weighing in at 162. The official scores were 113-112 Leonard, 113-112 Hearns, and 112-112, a draw. To this day, many feel Hearns deserved the win. Let's take a look back at this still-debated fight between these two legends, with a round-by-round breakdown of the action.
"The War" - WBC & WBO Super Middleweight Title Unification - Rematch
SUGAR RAY LEONARD (35-1, 25 KO, WBC Titleholder)
THOMAS HEARNS (46-3, 38 KO, WBO Titleholder)
June 12, 1989 | Caesars Palace - Las Vegas, NV
Leonard moves forward before the bell even rings. Leonard bounces around at a very safe distance, Hearns flicks a jab out. Leonard moving around the ring, occasionally dipping low and moving in, but never uncorking either hand. Left hook by Leonard as Hearns tries to jab him, Hearns misses another jab, this one thrown harder. Leonard charges in with a 1-2, doesn't find the mark. Hearns with a jab to the stomach that just connects. Hearns rips the right hand upstairs, but it's blocked, and then Hearns swings to the body with the right two times, missing both. Jab by Hearns. Leonard throws a massive left hook, but Hearns ducks under. Right hand from Sugar Ray does land. Leonard throws another enormous left hook, again it doesn't get there. Leonard moving Hearns back when he does throw, and there's that huge left hook again, and again it doesn't get in. Slow first round, with Hearns landing the better punches and Leonard staying a mile away from Hearns.
Worth noting they fought at a crisp 90 degrees outdoors in Vegas for this fight. Hearns shimmying, trying to feint his way into an offensive opening. Leonard moving in with big swings again. Marvin Hagler, on commentary, notes that both of them look "very slow." Hearns with a right upstairs, just misses near the shoulder. Hearns flicking jabs, then misses another big right. Left hand by Hearns lands. Both connect on jabs. Hearns with the 1-2, again the right is barely short. Chopping left hook by Hearns glances. Leonard misses another big left hook swing. Hearns swings a big, slow right and it doesn't make it to the chin.
First two rounds are very tactical, both guys trying to impose their will, and in the second round even more than the first, there is nothing major landing. But Hearns starts throwing the jab very well in the final minute, minute and a half of this round, deterring Leonard in a major way. Hearns eats a left near the end of the round, but Ray takes the last shot of the round when he switches to southpaw.
Leonard starts the third staying deep out of the pocket again. Hearns lands a good left. Ray keeps trying to come in but isn't quite getting there. Left hook lands high on the body for Sugar Ray. Hearns keeps using the jab effectively. Right hand lands, but not on the button for Hearns. Leonard starts trying to roll the shoulder and deke, but a HUGE right lands for Hearns, and moments later a mostly-missed right hand comes in, followed by half a shove, and DOWN GOES SUGAR RAY! That first right took it out of him, and Hearns found him again. Leonard up quickly, and now Hearns pounces! Tommy throwing the big shots, backing Leonard down, and Sugar Ray looks like he's on very bad legs.
Left hooks by Hearns, right hand is short. Leonard keeps his hands high but loose, and Hearns seems to have let him off the hook. Leonard throwing bombs, but Hearns is just landing the harder shots, and it's clear.
As for the knockdown: It was legit, but it was not a good, clean shot that really put him down. Hearns grazed Leonard at best with the right hand that actually preceded Leonard hitting the mat, then his body sort of moved into Leonard's, and Ray went down. Leonard was clearly still hurt from the big, clean right hand that had landed moments before, and he was hurt for the rest of the round.
Hearns comes out ripping the jab at Leonard, who tries to get inside and do work to the body. Jab lands for Tommy, and then he fires off three of them. Another jab lands, and those bad boys are starting to really sizzle. Leonard with an overhand right, just misses, then Leonard goes to the body. Tommy moving around, throwing the jab, but the commentators note that he's dropping his left hand now. Right hand from Leonard is blocked. Hearns with a short right, but Leonard comes back with some solid shots inside. Right hand from Hearns, and now he throws a cannon of a right hand that doesn't land. Leonard's legs look good again in the fourth, and he stings Hearns with a left hook near the end of the round. Hearns still outworks him overall, but you can see Leonard creeping back into it after a rough second and especially rough third.
Hearns getting cobra-like, dropping his hand, firing his jab in an almost arrogant manner. Leonard can't jab at all from the distance he's stuck at, and he misses that leading overhand right again. Nice right hand inside by Tommy Hearns.
And just like that, a huge left hook by Leonard sends Hearns flailing across the ring, and the tide turns. Hearns ties up, then has to cover up after they break, with Sugar Ray trying to close the show on the notoriously china-chinned "Hitman." Hearns covering up high, but Leonard just tearing into him, breaking the guard with an uppercut and throwing some vicious rights down the pipe. Hearns on terrible legs, but by God, he's throwing back what he has to to keep Leonard at bay, and Sugar Ray throws until he doesn't have much left. Great comeback round for Leonard, and Hearns survives the assault. What a round!
Hearns heads into round six being told by Emanuel Steward that Leonard is out of gas. Hearns jabbing again, keeping his right hand very high, and Sugar Ray is breathing heavy. Hearns rips some left hooks, one gets through. Right hand is blocked by Sugar Ray. Leonard ducks down, and comes up with that left hook again, this time missing. Every left hook he's thrown has been with serious purpose.
Hearns with some long shots, not landing square, but goes back to the jab now. Leonard starting to get into a jab war with the longer man, the first time he's shown sustained interest in throwing the jab, and clearly using it exclusively to set up big power shots. A 1-2 doesn't work. Hearns misses a right hand as Leonard ducks under it, but a left hand lands shortly after. Hearns trying to fake, Leonard trying to fake, both guys playing the tactical game. Both have felt the other man's power, and both men leave the sixth round behind as one where they just wanted to see where the other's head was at. Would Leonard go for the kill? Was he tired? Would Tommy get too aggressive? It wound up a close Hearns round for me, with Leonard gasping for wind through much of it, but this could be scored for Leonard, who kept pumping his hands.
Hearns with a right to lead the round, then he gets Leonard on the ropes and tears away at the body. Left hook lands upstairs as Tommy keeps throwing viciously, but missing a lot. Great defense from Leonard, total instinct stuff. Leonard with a hard left hook to the body. Now Leonard working really well as they get in close quarters, and Sugar storms back with some more good stuff. Hearns with a thudding right that sends Leonard back. Leonard throwing the left hook three times, two upstairs and one downstairs, nothing clean. Leonard just working and working, with Hearns slowing down in a major way and starting to look gassed. Age and years of battle show for both by this point, and both have already gone for the knockout. A great turnaround in this round after a dynamite start from the "Hitman."
Steward begs Hearns to "fight the man."
Leonard pumping the jab again. Hearns not working again, with Leonard dancing, shooting in, and then getting back out. He's not landing a lot of strong shots, but he's just outfoxing Hearns now. Leonard flicking a jab is more than Hearns is doing, and then Hearns explodes with a massive couple of right hands, one landing a little bit, the second missing a backpedaling Leonard. Hearns stalking Leonard again, now trying to use the left hook to lead. Leonard pops a jab in again. It's obvious now: Both men are very, very tired. Better shots of a slow round came from Hearns, and they end up throwing shots after the bell.
Low blow from Hearns with a left hook, quick warning from Richard Steele. Low blow from Leonard, Steele warns the other side now. Hey, eye-for-an-eye. So to speak.
Leonard eats a right hand counter, but Leonard also landed a clean shot in the same exchange. Left hook to the body by Hearns. Left hook and a right downstairs by Leonard, clearly had an effect on Hearns. Leonard was told by his corner to target the body between rounds, and he's trying to in spurts. Now it's Leonard backing Hearns down, and he lands a great combo as they fight in close. Hearns clearly loses that exchange, and his legs again don't look so great. But then there's a HUGE right from Hearns, and Leonard shakes him hard with a left hook! Hearns on wobbly legs, trying to throw big shots to keep Sugar Ray back, and the bell might have saved Hearns in this round.
At this point in the fight, you've got a back-and-forth fight that is a downright slugfest at moments, and a sneakily slow affair at other times. Two aged fighters leaving what they've got in the ring. A great first nine rounds, full of tension.
Leonard going right back on the attack, and Sugar Ray starts measuring him with the jab. Wicked left hook by Leonard lands again, and he's starting to take over the fight in a major way. Jab from Hearns, but Leonard fires back with another charging left hook. Hearns jabbing a bit again as Leonard slows a hair, but it looks like Sugar Ray is just waiting for a chance to find that left hook again. Ray misses a right, Hearns misses a shaky-looking right. Leonard back to working his way around the ring, looking to land power combos. Nice left by Hearns. Left hook by Leonard grazes as he comes up from under. Hearns flicks the jab again. Short right by Hearns, but Leonard counters him right, and lands two nice rights near the bell.
Emanuel Steward positively begs: "Throw the right hand, Tommy!"
Leonard tries to charge across the ring, but Richard Steele blocks his progress. Ray strays low again, then throws and misses that overhand right. Now they work in close again, and Leonard wins the exchange, but Hearns got a good shot in. BIG RIGHT HAND BY HEARNS, AND ANOTHER, AND LEFT HAND, RIGHT AGAIN AND LEONARD GOES DOWN!
Leonard up and fighting back, and immediately they let loose the bombs on one another. Leonard with a short right, Hearns with a hard right hand, and Hearns isn't getting too aggressive. Hearns with a pretty right hand counter. Right hand Hearns again, and it's like the dragon woke from his slumber. Left hook to the body by Hearns. Ray fires back! Hearns comes right back at him! Leonard misses a big, slow right hand, but then a follow-up right hand finds the mark. Hearns tiring near the end of the round, and Leonard counters back after a right hand lands. Great round.
Leonard's corner: "You've got to knock him out to win."
Hearns comes out like a house afire, throwing everything he's got at Sugar Ray, and Leonard has to stand up to it. Hearns makes it clear that he's not going to give Leonard any easy final round. Leonard with a big right, backs Tommy to the ropes, and Hearns clinches! Hearns trying to lay on Leonard and stem the tide. Hearns firing back, but now he eats big shots near the ropes. Hearns is positively gassed now, and Leonard is landing clean shot after clean shot! Leonard trying to finish, Hearns throwing back! What a fight this is!
It's a wonder Hearns isn't going down, especially considering the fact that his iffy chin wasn't just hype. There's something bigger holding Hearns up here, that desperate desire to avenge his 1981 loss. Leonard just keeps throwing, hitting to the body and the head, and Hearns trying to fight back enough to keep Leonard back just a bit. The fight ends with both men near ready to fall over from exhaustion.
THE FINAL TALLY
Tom Kaczmarek, New Jersey: 113-112 Leonard
Jerry Roth, Nevada: 113-112 Hearns
Dalby Shirley, Nevada: 112-112
The word "robbery" is thrown around too much by boxing fans in general, and this is another case. The Vegas crowd chanted, "Bulls**t! Bulls**t!" after the fight, and I've never seen anybody say Sugar Ray won this fight, including Ray himself, who has long said he feels as though he and Hearns are tied, 1-1.
The difference in the fight is really the knockdowns. A combination of age, that Vegas heat, and some sloppiness nearly cost Tommy Hearns this fight outright. When he took the offensive, he had Leonard whooped in this fight. Sugar Ray was a true champion and an amazing, amazing fighter who still had a good speed advantage, but he wasn't the lightning man he was back in '81.
Hearns looked stronger, and not just because of the knockdowns, either. Sugar Ray was a good puncher, but up at 160 on the scales for this fight and landing some clean shots, he didn't get Hearns to the canvas, and again, Tommy wasn't exactly iron-chinned. He got Hearns in trouble at times, but he didn't finish, and Ray was a really good finisher.
This fight is odd to watch now, and I assume was then for a lot of folks, because it only barely resembles their 1981 bout. Both are significantly slower, they're 30 and 33 years old, and they've been through the grinder. Tommy hadn't looked very good at all in the fight previous to this one, and Leonard had been knocked down in his set-up fight against Lalonde, who at the time was being called a "nobody" by Hearns.
Great fights don't always have to come from truly great fighters. When people say "styles make fights," they're generally referring to the matchups of the fighters' skill sets. For a recent example, look at Bernard Hopkins. He's been troubled in his later years by quick, athletic guys (Jermain Taylor and Joe Calzaghe), but he's taken apart guys who don't have the speed to wear him out (Winky Wright, Kelly Pavlik, Antonio Tarver).
But "styles make fights" also easily translates to "styles make great fights." Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward weren't great fighters, but they meshed perfectly into all-out, blood-and-guts warfare. Similarly, what you had by 1989 were not great fighters in Leonard and Hearns. Leonard's win over Hagler was debated, and "Marvelous" Marvin was pretty worn out by that point, too. He had his struggles with Lalonde. Hearns had been beaten by Iran Barkley and had a devil of a time with Kinchen.
But they came together, both with diminished skills but no diminished heart, no diminished fire. They fought their hearts out and were spent by the end of it. It came back a draw. It should have been a win for Hearns, and time has indicated that just about everybody feels that way, frankly. But that's not to discount Sugar Ray Leonard's effort in this fight. Without the knockdowns, I have it one debatable round from a draw. Fact is, though, he did get knocked down.
Was Hearns robbed? I'll let other people get that dramatic about it. The last four rounds of this fight, sans that knockdown in the 11th, were the Sugar Ray Leonard show. But the first four rounds, which also included a knockdown, were all about Hearns. The fight was closer than its reputation now, and really was probably closer to the official draw result than some of the decades-old debate would lead you to believe.
WHY NO THIRD FIGHT?
There was some desire for a third fight, I've gathered through reading old articles and such, but it never came about. Some still wonder why. Why? Because Leonard had enough trouble with Hearns at this weight, and Hearns probably had to really strive to make it to begin with. Both would fight on, with Leonard taking a rubber match with Roberto Duran, winning a dull decision later in 1989. He came back in '91 to get smashed by Terry Norris, losing a hideously wide decison. After another retirement, he returned six years later at age 40, and Hector Camacho stopped him in five rounds.
As for Hearns, he's fought as recently as 2006, and talked earlier this year about wanting to fight yet again. He shocked a lot of people when he beat Virgil Hill in 1991, taking Hill's "0" and WBA light heavyweight title. He rematched Barkley in 1992, and lost a split decision. That was really his last notable fight. He has twice won very minor, totally irrelevant trinket titles at cruiserweight.
Leonard is now in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and Hearns will join him as soon as he's eligible.