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17th May 2020
By: Noah Abrahams
A six-time world champion, Olympic gold medallist and one of the greatest boxers of all time, today Sugar Ray Leonard celebrates his 64th birthday.
Conquering belts both lineal and undisputed in five weight divisions, Sugar achieved the unthinkable during a fruitful 20-year career. Whilst most boxing fans remember Leonard for his legendary victory over Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns in 1981, the Angelo Dundee prodigy will forever go down in history as a pound-for-pound all-time legend.
An International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, the American’s journey began long before the 1980’s ‘Famous Four’ quartet of Leonard, Roberto Durán, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler.
A kind-hearted, hardworking and respected athlete, the ability to forecast the next punch traces back to a shy but talented young fighter. Olympic stardom was the pinnacle of an exciting amateur career, one that boasted success three years prior to the 1976 Montreal games.
Nurtured through National Golden Glove and Pan American Games triumph by those including trainer Dave Jacobs and former US Olympic Boxing team coach Sarge Johnson, it was no wonder that Sugar Ray Robinson comparisons were made to “the kid as sweet as sugar”.
The Olympic light-welterweight representative for a country famous for its boxing alumni, Sugar thrived as the world watched him drop Cuba’s greatest knock out artist Andrés Aldama in the second round of the tournament’s final bout. Whilst Aldama trained harder for an Olympic return in Moscow 1980, Leonard revealed that he had no further interest in the sport.
Olympic glory was rewarded by a University of Maryland scholarship; Sugar exclaimed that education was the priority.
“I’m finished. I’ve fought my last fight. My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school,” he told the media.
Thankfully, this wasn’t to be the case. An extraordinary final amateur record of 165 wins with 75 knockouts resulted in retirement plans being voided.
Returning to the ring as a professional in 1977 and with the trainer of Muhammad Ali and George Forman in his corner (Dundee), an exciting future beckoned.
Defeating Luis “The Bull” Vega on his pro-debut and comfortably beating the following 12 opponents, Leonard earnt the right to face his first world-ranked competitor, Floyd Mayweather. Ranked 17th in the world rankings, Mayweather was knocked out in the tenth round of the Rhode Island-based contest – the only definitive Sugar Ray victory over a Mayweather!
Four years after dedicating his life to boxing, Leonard fought for the WBC World Welterweight Championship on November 30th, 1979 at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. In a competitive and tactical event, Sugar challenged “The Bible of Boxing”, Puerto Rica’s Wilfred Benítez, for his belt.
A technical yet defensive fight, Benítez suffered a third-round knockdown, the bout eventually stopped by the referee in round 15 – “The Radar” hitting the canvas with six seconds left on the clock. Complimentary towards a bleeding Benítez, who displayed a nasty cut after an early clash of heads, Leonard said of him that: “No-one, I mean no-one, can make me miss punches like that.”
A toe-to-toe bout, Leonard’s performance solidified The Ring magazine’s choice of naming him as 1979’s “Fighter of the Year.” Defending his title for the first time in what was to be a famous decade, Sugar knocked out British challenger Dave “Boy” Green on March 31st, 1980.
Known for his blinding hand speed, superior foot movement and unique style, Leonard ought to have gone his whole career undefeated – a naturally gifted boxer if ever there were one.
Tasting defeat for the first time, however, in “The Brawl in Montreal”, Leonard’s 1980 return to Canada’s Olympic Stadium proved that even the best are not invincible.
The highly anticipated fight against former undisputed lightweight champion and the then number one-ranked welterweight contender Roberto Durán was one of Panamanian dominance from the start. Lasting the full length, “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone) was the aggressor throughout, toe-to-toe tactics failing Leonard, his usually slick style nowhere to be seen as a close-range fight favored the victor.
A unanimous decision in favor of Durán was widely considered the correct one, Leonard caught on the ropes and vulnerable on more than one occasion.
Summarising Leonard’s first professional loss, Durán said: “He does have a heart. That’s why he’s living.” It was Sugar’s heart that won him the immediate re-match and set him on course for ‘The Showdown’ just under a year later.
Defeating an overweight Durán, Leonard secured the fight date early after the initial loss. Out-boxing an out of touch opponent who’d lived a party life for almost five months, Sugar won by a technical knockout in the eighth round, Durán famously turning his back to Leonard and quitting. He uttered “no más” (no more) to referee Octavio Meyran.
Back on top and having comfortably beaten Larry Bonds and Ayub Kalule, it was Sugar Ray’s chance to write his name into boxing folk law.
Recently chosen by boxing experts Steve Bunce and Mike Costello as one of the nine greatest fights in history, ‘The Showdown’ of 1981 between Leonard and Thomas Hearns was unforgettable.
For the undisputed welterweight championship, the bout was a legacy shaper and a history maker, Hearns’ first loss and Sugar’s sweetest victory.
Watched ringside by Muhammed Ali and 300 million people globally on television, Las Vegas hosted a ferocious night of boxing under the stars. Hearns’ fast and powerful jab was just the beginning.
On the evening of September 16th, “The Hitman” set the pace and built a considerable lead in the early rounds. Held at bay by his opponents reach, “The Sugarman” knew that, on the back foot and with a swelling left eye, he had to reverse roles and turn aggressor.
“The Cobra” (Hearns) may have dominated the first third of an incredible fight, but the sixth round was monumental.
Leonard, according to statistics, was usually finished with an opponent by round seven. The grudge match that began when Leonard uttered “I’ve got you sucker” following the first bell was thunderous following round five. That was when proceedings properly began!
“Always possible but not probable” according to commentators on the night, Sugar turned the fight around. Battering Hearns in rounds six and seven, Leonard wobbled his opponent in the former round with a sharp left hook and shot to the body that would signal the beginning of the end for his fellow countryman. Leonard recalled that: “He was in great shape but that shot hurt him.”
In 33-degree heat, the roles had reversed, Sugar out of the quicksand for now – but this was not to last. This was a bout for the ages. In a trade-off that at points had both corners threatening to stop the fight (Hearns winning rounds nine through twelve on all three scorecards), a calmly spoken Dundee said to Leonard before round 13: “You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it.”
Costello believes that round 13 was “one of the most momentous rounds in the history of boxing.” Throwing a left-right combination with complimentary blows to the body to follow, Sugars’ power resulted in Hearns falling through the ropes. Referee Davey Pearly made the judgement that the fall, though, was not a legitimate knockdown but a push.
Hearns told to “get up” by an experienced officiator, the second plummet to the ropes meant that for the first time in his career, “The Cobra” looked vulnerable. Almost counted out as the penultimate round approached, the final moments of the fight will be remembered forever as magical.
Stopping Hearns by technical knockout after a strong right hand, Sugar Ray, in his prime, young and hungry, displayed a level of quality that is often rare during such competitions.
Friends who simply got the best out of one another, Leonard initially retired, before then beating Marvin Hagler in 1987 and eventually drawing to Hearns in an eventful 1989 re-match.
Hanging up his gloves aged 40 after a boxing career that The Ring magazine considers the ninth greatest of the last 80 years, Sugar Ray remains an inspiration and a superstar.
What some of his greatest knockouts below…
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