Over the course of boxing history, only a handful of special fighters are involved in an event that transcends the sport. Sugar Ray Leonard fought 40 professional bouts, with memorable encounters against Robert Duran, Marvin Hagler, Wilfred Benitez and Hector "Macho" Camacho, among many others.
But there was perhaps no greater achievement than his showdown against an undefeated Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981.
At the time, Hearns was 32-0 and the reigning WBA 147-pound titlist. Leonard was the defending WBC champion. They clashed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for the undisputed welterweight crown. It was a matchup of two of the very best boxers in the world -- each with sizable followings -- and both in their physical prime.
Leonard was the pure boxer, with "The Hitman" Hearns -- utilizing his vaunted right hand -- being the puncher.
The fight ultimately didn't fit into that linear structure, and instead unfolded like a great novel. The early chapters were dominated by the boxing of the tall and angular Hearns, who kept Leonard at bay with his rapier jab.
"That jab is a thing of beauty, it's not just fast, it's hard too," says Leonard, who claims that punch was much more of a factor than Hearns' power shots.
"It was miraculous the way he boxed. I said, 'this guy's moving around laterally, inside, outside, up and down jabbing, I couldn't get him," says Leonard, who for the first several rounds was stuck on the outer perimeter of the ring, not able to create much offense. "Tommy was a freak of nature, and when he showed his boxing ability, that blew my mind. I was like, 'What the hell is going on here?'"
Early on, Hearns was piling up the rounds by controlling the distance and the spacing in the ring. After five frames, he was on top by the scores of 49-46 on two cards, and 50-45 on the other.
Leonard knew he had fallen behind on the cards. "Fighters know when they're losing, we know that, trust me. They know, they won't tell you, but they know. We know."