LAS VEGAS, Sept. 14 – Memory lane meanders down many detours and the best fight I’ve ever covered conjures up witch doctors, massage parlors and Howard Cosell. At my age, the mind wanders, but hopefully I’m young enough to appreciate that there can be no better way to celebrate the 25th anniversary Saturday of Leonard-Hearns than by watching the magnificent card here at the MGM Grand Arena.
Marcos Antonio Barrera, Israel Vazquez, Jhonny Gonzalez and friends may be under the impression they are celebrating Mexican Independence Day, which is fine, but the universality of the game gives the occasion even more to rejoice.
Barrera’s rematch with Rocky Juarez, the two matchups of champions – Vazquez and Gonzales, Jorge Barios and Joan Guzman – are all worthy birthday cakes, though it is unlikely any will hold a candle to Leonard-Hearns.
I remember, just before the start, standing in my seat next to Joe Flaherty, and yelling, “Let’s have a fight,” and thinking I had no idea who was going to win. Yet, when I returned home, a friend thanked me for touting Leonard in my New York Times articles. In those enlightened days, Times reporters were not allowed to make predictions and, frankly, I didn’t have a clue. What I did write, though, was that the fight might resemble a mirage in the desert, Thomas Hearns would be the boxer and Sugar Ray Leonard the slugger. Okay, I got that part right and my friend took that to mean Leonard would win and was able to cash in. But having forecast the role reversals did not mean I thought the slugger would win; and there was ample evidence during that wonderful night that Hearns indeed could have outboxed Leonard to win a decision.
I will not try and outdo Fast Eddie Schuyler’s sweet tribute to the fight as seen elsewhere on thesweetscience.com, but as he wrote, anticipation was as hot as the Vegas desert outdoors at Caesars Palace. There were 23,000 spectators there to see two future hall of famers in their absolute primes, and none would be disappointed. As Cosell would whine, and one of the pleasures of being ringside is not having to hear the announcers, “ebb and flo, ebb and flo.”
First, it was Hearns in charge. Then Leonard, then Hearns again, finally Angelo Dundee in Leonard’s corner issuing the warning after the 12th round, “You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it,” and Leonard’s gutsy reaction in the 13th.
Later, Pat Putnam would tell me that, in working on Leonard’s biography – never printed because the fighter decided to come back and fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler – that the virtually one-eyed slugger was in part tuning Dundee out and looking at his buddy, Janks Morton, in the corner for encouragement. Never mind, let’s not ruin a great story.
Memories. I remember Tony Ayala Jr., then a teenaged wunderkind who had won on the undercard, running up to the ring just before the start of the main event and calling out Leonard. It dawned on me then that you never heard anyone calling out Hearns. No one wanted to fight a 6-foot-1-inch welterweight with the power to destroy Pipino Cuevas and (later) Robert Duran inside two rounds each.
Hell, Leonard didn’t want to fight him again, either, waiting eight years before granting the rematch, and only because it appeared Hearns was shot. And, please, don’t tell me II was better than I – it was more violent, perhaps, and in its way just as exciting, but this was a no-longer-in-prime-time match, like Ali-Frazier III. Leonard and Hearns were diminished fighters by 1989, though the championship cores of their beings would always enable them to write great dramas in the ring.
In their primes, there were actually pockets of booing during the opening five rounds as Hearns outboxed Leonard, keeping his opponent on the outside with his fine jab and the threat of that right hand. Here were two great fighters, exchanging feints, neither one willing to lead, each hoping to induce the other into giving him something to counter. Few boxing fans would cheer Fischer-Spassky chess matches.
I remember Mike Trainer, Leonard’s brilliant lawyer, telling me he didn’t think his guy could get a fair shake with the judges. There was the misconception that Leonard, with his Olympic gold medal and ABC Television (especially Cosell) backing was the Establishment favorite. In fact, Leonard’s independence – using Bob Arum and Don King, not the other way round – had made him a feared outsider in the business.
That may not have been the reason Hearns was well ahead on the official scorecards after 12 rounds (remember, if there were no 15-round fights, Leonard would have lost on points). Leonard’s sixth and seventh rounds, where he had Hearns almost out on his legless feet, were scored 10-9, instead of the 10-8 I made them. That was in part the style of the day; after this great fight, giving a two-point round without a knockout became accepted, yea, mandated in some precincts.
Somehow, the same as Leonard was able to rise to the occasion in the sixth round, getting inside long enough to score a couple of damaging body blows before unloading on top, Hearns managed to regroup and, legless though he may have been, was able to stay away with his jab until he felt he was strong enough to start attacking again.
The massage parlor. It was the Oriental Health Spa and Massage Parlor in Detroit where Hearns, who weighed in officially that morning at 145½ pounds for his challenge of Pipino Cuevas, had to be taken to steam off some weight (a story denied to this day by Emanuel Steward). One of his buddies, Hollywood, who was later to be photographed holding a horizontal Hearns in his arms after the knockout by Hagler, told me it was all his fault Tommy had woken up overweight.
“He was hungry and I gave him some fruit and he didn’t dry out because of me, it’s all my fault,” he told me after the weigh-in. “Then they kept him in the steam too long. If he doesn’t knock out Cuevas in the first couple of rounds, he’s gonna be in big trouble and all because of me giving him fruit.”
What kind of fruit, the New York Times wanted to know.
Hearns battered Cuevas, but the Mexican icon just kept advancing stoically until I thought Tommy was in big trouble, that he couldn’t put away Pipino and pretty soon the tide would turn. Just as I expressed my thoughts to a ringside neighbor, Cuevas went down.
Memories. Angelo Dundee had the foresight for Leonard not to fight Hearns earlier in their careers. He knew that this fight would build and build. Hearns, who was more like the original Sugar Ray than Leonard in terms of build and power, crossed the threshold with his second-round knockout of Cuevas. Leonard soon would avenge his only loss, to Robert Duran. Each would hold a claim to the welterweight title – those were the good old days before the IBF was formed.
It was decided to help the buildup by staging a massive card in Houston featuring both guys in separate matches. Bob Arum was hired to be the promoter. The card was looking like a financial disaster. “Tune-up” fights tend to be that way. Leonard was matched with an undefeated 154-pound champion, Ayub Kalule, Hearns with a tough fringe contender, Pablo Baez.
Kalule was from Uganda, though he lived in campaigned in Denmark so Arum’s longtime publicist, Irving Rudd – once described as a “Jewish leprechaun” by Red Smith – did what he always did to help promote a fight with an African. He brought in a witch doctor.
Kalule, naturally, was insulted. Copenhagen, after all, was a lot more sophisticated than the Third World climes from which Rudd hailed, the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. I also suspect he had read a lot more books than had Rudd. He was not the only one insulted, though. On the day at the Houston hotel where Rudd was going to embarrass the junior middleweight champion by introducing the “witch doctor” (if memory serves correctly, I think he ran a gas station), a bunch of writers – including Pat Putnam, Bob Waters, Schuyler and myself – decided it would be a good time to search out Baez, who told his compelling story of having lived in a Los Angeles bus terminal on his way to a title shot.
We got back to the main hotel to find the place abuzz. It was my first contact with Rock Newman, then a Washington radio host with a conscience. Newman, dressed in an all-white outfit, protested the inherent racism of bringing in a witch doctor. They were all outside, by the hotel’s swimming pool, when suddenly a flock of crows swooped down and began attacking Newman, chasing him into the pool.
Arum was crowing, too, that the witch doctor had magical charms. It turns out, we were informed by hotel personnel, that any jogger in Houston knew never to wear white for fear that the birds would attack.
Kalule put up a difficult fight before Leonard took him out in the ninth. Hearns went right through Baez and Arum was left on the outside, looking in to see if he could ruin the main event in Vegas.
Not even his magic touch and all the voodoo in the world could prevent Leonard-Hearns from writing a shimmering page in boxing history.
BY THE WAY: Oscar (Bait and Switch) de la Hoya, who was originally supposed to be fighting himself Saturday, which is how Golden Boy got the HBO pay-per-view date (hey, this card was worth it), is now talking about closing out his career against Felix Trinidad Jr. and not Floyd Mayweather Jr. It likely is a ploy to make Mayweather accept his terms for a possible May fight, but in any case, I just thought it would be sacrilege to mention Trinidad-de la Hoya in the same column as Leonard-Hearns.
De la Hoya and Trinidad were very good in their days. Neither would have lasted very long against Hearns, and he was the “loser” that night 25 years ago.
PENTHOUSE: Larry Holmes, for knocking out Gerry Cooney 24 years ago and preventing Dennis Rappaport from getting his greasy hands on the heavyweight division. The Menace, who just took his “Cinderella Man,” Oleg Maskaev, to a title, is already defacing it by matching him with some 34-year-old Ugandan based in Japan, Peter Okhello. Calling all sushi-eating witch doctors to Moscow? Look, I appreciate Rappaport getting in some extra cash for his guy before he has to face Samuel Peter, but this is a bad joke.
OUTHOUSE: The publicity machine at Golden Boy, which doesn’t tell reporters even when and where the press conference for this weekend’s show will take place. Calling Irving Rudd, but without the witch doctors.