Since its establishment in 1984, the super middleweight division has experienced many quality fights and outstanding boxers. However, it is still starving for mainstream attention and has only received it on two occasions. Few will argue the division’s finest hour came in 1994, when Roy Jones took James Toney’s super middleweight IBF title. Still, both have received much more attention garnering belts at higher weights.
The second instance came when three already bona fide stars chose the super middleweight division as its battleground. Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran entered the 1980s as welterweights and boxing’s biggest attractions. Throughout the decade, they would move up in weight class, bringing the excitement with them. By 1989, the three found themselves in the super middleweight ranks. This was the division’s biggest hour.
After defeating Wilfred Benitez for the WBC welterweight title in 1979, Leonard lost it eight months later to Roberto Duran in the “Brawl in Montreal.” Sugar Ray made the mistake of trying to overpower Duran. When the two squared off again in New Orleans in November of 1980, Leonard employed a different strategy. He used his speed and showmanship. This frustrated Duran, who, of course, quit in the 8th round and said “No mas.”
In 1981, Leonard knocked out WBA welterweight champ Thomas Hearns in the 14th round in what was the most successful non-heavyweight fight ever. In 1982, he retired, citing a detached retina suffered in training. He returned to the ring in a 1984 with a lackluster knockout of Kevin Howard. After that fight, Sugar Ray retired again, saying he could not go on humiliating himself.
In 1987, he came back out of retirement to challenge Marvin Hagler for his WBC middleweight title and won a still-contested split decision. A year later, Leonard chose to vacate the title and face Donnie LaLonde for the newly created WBC super middleweight title. Sugar Ray stopped LaLonde in the 9th round and entered 1989 with a chance to make some serious money in big-times rematches. It may not have been the division’s greatest hour, but it was certainly the most ballyhooed.
The first rematch came against Hearns. After his loss to Leonard in 1981, the “Hitman” went on to decision Benitez for the WBC light middleweight belt and defend it three times.
In 1985, Hearns moved up to the middleweight division and was knocked out by Hagler in the most exciting three-round fight in history. He trudged on, knocking Juan Domingo Roldan for the Leonard-vacated WBC middleweight belt in 1987. Hearns lost it in 1988 in a surprising knockout by Iran Barkley. The Hitman then decisioned James Kinchen for the WBO super middleweight title and found himself in a perfect position to settle some unfinished business against Leonard in June of 1989.
Although both fighters were past their prime, the paying public did not seem to mind. Leonard earned at least $14 million. Hearns was guaranteed $12 million.
Those who purchased the pay-per-view fight were not disappointed either. The two battled to an electrifying draw. Both dished and both took. Leonard survived knockdowns in the 3rd and 11th rounds. Hearns withstood tremendous onslaughts in the 5th, 10th, and final round. The judges scored the fight 113-112 for Hearns, 113-112 for Leonard, and a 112-112 draw. After the bout, neither fighter disputed the decision.
One rematch of a classic fight in a year is big enough. Two is virtually unprecedented. But Leonard found himself with an opportunity to face Duran in rubber match in December of 1989.
Although some people will never forgive Duran for quitting against Leonard, he worked very hard throughout the 80s to redeem himself. In 1983, he knocked out Davey Moore for WBA light middleweight title. Later that year, he faced Hagler for the undisputed middleweight title and lost a close decision.
A 2nd round knockout to Hearns in 1984 slowed his career a bit. Duran did not receive another title shot until February of 1989, when he decisioned Barkley for the WBC middleweight belt in The Ring magazine’s “Fight of the Year.” The stage was for him to seek full redemption against Leonard.
It was not to be. If Leonard/Duran III had been as exciting as Leonard/Hearns II, then a heartfelt argument could be made that 1989 was greater than the Jones/Toney era.
Instead, the third fight seemed to pick up where the second one left off. Sugar Ray stuck, moved, taunted, and tormented throughout the entire fight. The 38-year-old Duran simply could not keep up. When the bell sounded, two of the three judges thought Leonard won at least ten rounds. The fight was so one-sided that the Los Angeles Times’ recap of the fight was titled, “Now, Paying Public Should Say ‘No Mas.’”
After the bout, Leonard took 1990 off and vacated his title. Since then the super middleweight division has seen great fighters much closer to their prime. Yet, no one has brought it the attention the way Leonard, Duran, and Hearns did in 1989.