Lee Groves

10: Greatest super middleweight title fights

3. June 12, 1989 – Thomas Hearns D 12 Ray Leonard, Caesars Place, Las Vegas

Hearns’ uneven performance against Kinchen had a silver lining for “The Hit Man” – it finally persuaded Leonard that this was the right time to make the rematch of their classic see-saw slugfest of eight years earlier. Going in Leonard might have believed he was indulging in highly compensated cherry-picking but what he got instead was the super middleweight version of Ali-Frazier III.

The build-up was almost as theatrical as the fight itself. The promoters equated Leonard-Hearns II as the equivalent of a world war and the Hearns camp, noticing Leonard’s sculpted physique, leveled accusations of steroid use. They went as far as to declare that juice-tainted NFL lineman Tony Mandarich was already lined up as Leonard’s next opponent.

Just like the first fight, the rematch started tentatively. Hearns stalked behind hard jabs while the mobile Leonard struggled to position himself within scoring range. With a little more than a minute left in the third the pair exchanged rights, with Hearns’ landing first and harder. Leonard tried to hide the damage by smirking as he backed away but his cover was blown when Hearns’ follow-up right curled around the back of his neck and drove him to his hands and knees.

By the fifth most observers believed Leonard had dug himself a deep mathematical hole and he responded as only a great champion could. Just like round six of fight one, Leonard hurt Hearns with a swooping left hand and belabored him with machine-gun like flurries that would have polished off most fighters. But Hearns, drawing upon a reservoir of determination built by eight years of nightmares, stood up to the punishment and even mounted his own rally that ended with a hefty right at round’s end.

Hearns responded to the crisis like he had in fight one – by returning to basics. He snapped jabs, hooked off them and used his legs to keep Leonard at a safer distance. Then, when he was ready to rejoin the fray, he did so with his typical flair.

Hearns surged in the seventh with a tidal wave of blistering blows, yet Leonard drew into his own wellspring of courage to regain the momentum. After Leonard’s rally waned, Hearns smiled at Leonard as if to say “things are different now, aren’t they? There’s no way I’m going to fold so easily.”

Though Leonard did well in the eighth and ninth, Hearns appeared to be within reach of exacting his cherished revenge entering the final six minutes. Forty-nine seconds into the round Hearns blasted three concussive rights that drove Leonard to the floor for the second time. As Leonard regained his feet he wore a demoralized expression, but at the same time he still believed he had what it took to pull himself out of the fire.

With the words “you’ve got to knock him out to win” reverberating in his ears, Leonard very nearly pulled it off in the final round. After surviving an all-out assault in the first half of the round, Leonard summoned a last-ditch effort that had Hearns on the brink of competitive extinction. The legs and the will that failed Hearns against Leonard, Hagler and Barkley held firm this time and at the end he metaphorically stood taller than his freakishly fantastic 6-1 frame.

As great as the fight was, that was how infuriating the judges’ verdict proved to be. Jerry Roth had WBO titlist Hearns ahead 113-112 while Tom Kaczmarek had WBC king Leonard up by the same margin. But it was Dalby Shirley’s 112-112 card that had the final say, and both men kept their respective belts. The uproar was palpable, and even Leonard admitted years later that Hearns indeed deserved the victory.

In the end, Hearns not only overcame his personal demons but he also persuaded his nemesis to admit that “The War” had been won, not drawn.

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