FOTY 1981: Leonard / Hearns

This is an entry in an occasional series of posts looking back at the Ring Magazine Fights of the Year from 1970 to 2009.

In 1981, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns fought for the unified (WBC & WBA) Welterweight championship. This was a true unification match as each fighter brought one belt with him: Leonard the WBC, and Hearns the WBA.

Hearns would win most of the rounds, but Leonard would win the fight with a dramatic 14th round TKO. I scored the first 13 rounds 121-125 for Hearns, which agreed with the widest of the three official scorecards. It is perhaps noteworthy that if Leonard had not gotten the TKO, and had instead only won the last two rounds, he would have lost a MD. If he’d won the last two rounds and scored a knockdown, he would have received a 3-way SD draw. He needed at least two knockdowns (or a KO) to win the fight.


This fight demonstrated two things: Hearns was a much better boxer than people gave him credit for, and Leonard a much better brawler. When Leonard tried to box with Hearns he lost decisively. This might have been partially due to Hearns’ unusual physical gifts (height and reach), but his skill should not be discounted. When the fighters traded blows, however, Leonard ultimately prevailed; he had a remarkable chin and underrated power, and Hearns could not, in the end, stand and trade with him. When one considers the fact that Hearns himself carried legendary power, it becomes clear that Leonard’s chin was the real story of the fight.

The action itself ebbed and flowed, as first one fighter and then the other was the aggressor. Since Leonard seems to have planned on winning by boxing, the course of the fight was largely determined by those moments when he felt desperate enough to try something new.


This fight really represents the best of boxing: A unification match between two of the best fighters in their division fighting at their natural weight, offering an entertaining contrast of styles that yielded drama and action. It’s a legendary bout for a reason.

There isn’t much else to say, except that I think the 14th round stoppage was a good one; I don’t believe that Hearns could have survived, and even if he could have, I don’t think the referee would have been right to let him take the beating necessary to do so. Hearns simply wasn’t able to fend Leonard off by that point in the fight.

Round Notes

1: Not much happens this round, as Leonard seems intent on staying away from Hearns. Leonard is an excellent boxer, and is able to use the entire ring to do this largely effectively. Hearns is no slouch, however, and lands a few effective jabs and what looks like a good hook. Leonard’s single good jab isn’t enough to win the round. Some words are exchanged after the bell, along with probably the best punches of the round.

2: The first half of this round has an even slower pace than the last one, as Hearns stalks and Leonard ducks. Then, with about 90s left, Leonard seems to settle down and the two boxers begin to measure one another for attacks and counters. Both men look lightning quick. I feel that Hearns gets the better of the exchanges, in addition to being the aggressor, and award him the round.

3: A great round. It begins slowly — although Leonard does get off two nice jabs to the body — but gathers pace as it goes on and the fighters begin to stand and trade. I have it even or leaning towards Leonard when a series of furious exchanges begins with perhaps 20s left. It is in this last 20s that Hearns wins the round with sharper, harder punching.

4: The first 2 minutes and change of this round are a jabbing contest, as Leonard stops moving. Hearns lands the better jabs, but Leonard gets the better of the few combinations that land. Then, as in the last round, the pace picks up at the end, and Hearns comes on to win the round with consistent hard shots. There is another exchange after the bell.

5: Leonard seems to adopt a hybrid strategy of moving less than in the 1st and 2nd rounds, but more than in the 3rd and 4th. It doesn’t work, as Hearns jabs him to death. Theatrically this might be Leonard’s worst round so far, as he breaks out the bolo punch showboat routine, and Hearns effectively (and mercilessly) mimics and mocks him for it. Of course, one shouldn’t attach too much importance to these things …

6: The first two minutes of this round are almost a copy of the 1st, except for the one occasion on which Leonard tries to come in and gets caught with a nice left hook. In the last minute Leonard lands a hard shot that phases Hearns. They trade, and Hearns seems to get the better of the exchange for a moment, until Leonard answers in kind. In the last seconds Leonard has chased Hearns to the ropes — the first time that either fighter has been there. Leonard wins his first round.

7: Leonard stands in close and trades with Hearns. Both fighters take and land tremendously hard punches, but Hearns gets the worst of it — or at least suffers the worse effects. The round ends with Hearns in a neutral corner, reeling from Leonard’s attack.

8: A role-reversal, as Hearns dances away from a pursuing Leonard. I think Hearns does a better job of it that Leonard did, as he scores repeatedly with his jab while circling the ring. Leonard lands a handful of very effective punches, but I score the round for Hearns on the basis of ring generalship and the many, many jabs he lands.

9: Another copy of one of the first two rounds, with the fighters swapping places. The difference, again, is that of the few punches that land, most are thrown by Hearns. He wins the round on punching and ring generalship, which outweigh Leonard’s aggression.

10: Once again, very little happens. The round begins with the two fighters circling one another and trading jabs on mostly equal terms, and ends with Leonard pursuing and Hearns circling away as they continue to trade jabs. I score it for Leonard on the basis on aggression, but you could make an argument for just about any scoring you wanted.

11: Leonard comes out aggressively, immediately throwing a lead right. He seems to do a better job of cornering Hearns, but after one exchange about midway through the round, the character of the fight changes once again. Hearns lands a solid right that sends Leonard into retreat, and from this point on Hearns is the aggressor, lands the clearly better shots, and wins the round. Leonard displays remarkable toughness, but that doesn’t win points.

12: Much like the last half of the last round, Hearns is the aggressor and lands the better punches. Most punches are jabs, but Hearns lands at least one spectacular right. Leonard lands as well, but not enough to win the round.

13: Leonard stands in, and Hearns circles him. Hearns is still the aggressor, but the color of the fight has changed once again. The fighters tangle near the ropes, and Hearns falls down – no KD. Back in the center of the ring they trade, and Leonard lands a solid right that rocks Hearns. Leonard pursues, landing furious combinations and battering Hearns around the ring. Hearns falls through the ropes, but it is bizarrely not scored a KD. The action resumes, and although Hearns lands some solids shots of his own, he cannot stop Leonard’s attack. In the closing seconds of the round Hearns goes through the ropes again, and this is properly scored a knockdown. 10-8 Leonard, though it should arguably have been 10-7.

14: Leonard comes out aggressively, landing a right to the body almost before Hearns is out of his corner. Leonard is pursing now, while Hearns counters him as he comes in. Leonard is probably losing the round this way, but it doesn’t matter: He lands a devastating right, and raises his arms as Hearns staggers. Leonard chases Hearns, landing punch after punch. Hearns does fight back, landing some great shots of his own, but they don’t deter Leonard. As Hearns is trapped against the ropes, and apparently unable to defend himself, the referee stops the fight. (A good stoppage in my view; Hearns would have eventually been knocked out, but he would have taken a tremendous amount of unnecessary punishment along the way.)

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