On September 16, 1981, welterweight boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard knocks out Thomas Hearns in the 13th round to unify boxing’s middleweight title. Leonard was behind on all three judges’ scorecards and fighting with one eye closed when he delivered a right hand to his opponent’s head that sent Hearns crashing to the canvas.
Leonard, 25, entered the fight as the World Boxing Council’s (WBC) welterweight champion with a record of 31-1, while Hearns, 22, was 32-0 with 30 knockouts and held the World Boxing Association (WBA) belt. On the day of the fight, 25,000 spectators packed a hastily built outdoor arena at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas to watch the two champions battle it out in 100-degree heat. As each man had talent and drive to spare, even odds-makers had difficulty picking a favorite.
Hearns shadowed Leonard in the first round, landing a punch only after the closing bell had sounded. Referee Davey Pearl stepped in to separate the fighters after the late hit, and when the match resumed, Leonard danced around Hearns, unable to get inside to land blows to his body. In the third round, as Hearns was starting to tire, Leonard caught him with two right hands that sent Hearns reeling into the ropes. In the fourth, Leonard gained confidence, and the two traded punishing blows, before the bigger fighter shook Leonard with a left hook. While Hearns danced around the ring mimicking Leonard’s trademark style in the sixth, Leonard landed a left-uppercut that doubled Hearns over. Leonard stalked Hearns for the next two rounds, but the momentum shifted again in the ninth when Hearns’ defensive jabs began to exhaust Leonard and a series of right hands re-opened a cut under Leonard’s left eye.
By the 13th round, Hearns was dictating the fight to a nearly half-blind Leonard. Suddenly, Hearns fell to the floor, the victim of what Pearl ruled a push by Leonard. Soon after, Hearns went down again after a right hand from Leonard, but Pearl again ruled this meeting with the canvas the result of a shove instead of a knockdown. The next time Hearns went down, it was the result of a flurry of Leonard punches to his head, which sent “The Hitman,” as Hearns was known, through the ropes. Leonard finished off Hearns in the 14th, hitting him in the head at will until Pearl stopped the fight.
The fight grossed $37 million, the most money generated by a sporting event to that time.