In September 1981, two rival champions treated us to one of the greatest fights in boxing history and arguably the best welterweight title match we are ever likely to see.

WBC champion Sugar Ray Leonard and WBA title-holder Thomas Hearns served up an all-time classic for welterweight supremacy. When Leonard made the scorecards irrelevant and stopped Hearns in the 14th round, a rematch seemed inevitable after such a titanic struggle. But Hearns was denied an immediate chance of revenge and multiple retirements from his nemesis left him seeking other challenges.

In June 1989, Leonard finally turned his attention to the long-awaited rematch. The WBC and WBO super-middleweight titles were on the line, another unification, but the belts at stake were an irrelevance, especially for Hearns – the fight meant far more to him.

Now Hearns was viewed as being on the slide; a shocking loss to Iran Barkley (LTKO3) and a desperate struggle with James Kinchen (W12) in his previous fight seem to indicate his best years were behind him. Cynics might well say that was what tempted Leonard to face Hearns again.

But veteran broadcaster Al Bernstein wasn’t so quick to write Hearns off just yet.

“I thought the Kinchen fight was a good win for him, even though he was in some trouble during that fight,” the respected Bernstein told Boxing Social. “There were certainly some flaws for Tommy in that fight, but he got through it.”

Leonard had bulked up somewhat for the return with Hearns, with the perception that his opponent was now a shot fighter. He had entered the fight with power very much on his mind.

“I think ultimately Ray thought he could hurt Tommy and that if he landed a worthwhile punch that would be it for Tommy in this fight,” said Bernstein. “I think he felt that when he turned it on, he would be able to hurt Hearns and that was the answer for him, and that was the way he went into that fight.”

After being stopped by Leonard and Marvin Hagler, Hearns badly wanted a signature win on his record. In the two biggest fights of his career, Hearns had ultimately come up short and he must have felt he had to beat Leonard to cement his own legacy.

“I think Hearns wanted to get his revenge against Leonard, and I think in covering the fighters and doing the stories I could really feel it,” continued Bernstein. “I knew Tommy pretty well from covering his fights, and sitting with him it was palpable how much he wanted this fight, how much he wanted to win, and to prove he was not an inferior fighter to Leonard.”

In the days leading up to the fight, Hearns was dealt a devastating blow. His younger brother Henry was charged with murder, a charge for which he would later be convicted.

“That added a new whole new dimension in the lead up to the fight, and it added another layer to what was going on here,” said Bernstein. “But Tommy was able to mentally get through that, which is really astonishing. I remember at the time it was a really daunting thing.”

Leonard didn’t seem his usual self in the build-up to the fight, cutting a distant, subdued figure. After his incredible upset victory over Hagler, and with Hearns seemingly past his peak, something seemed to be lacking in his demeanour.

“Ray Leonard at that stage of his career, before the Hagler fight and after the Kevin Howard fight, he wasn’t sure he would ever fight again. But then when he was able to, he saw that period of his career like a wonderful second opportunity doing these mega-fights,” recalled Bernstein. “The Donny Lalonde fight got a lot of attention and, of course, the Hearns rematch was the natural next fight. He would go on to fight Roberto Duran after that, so he still had his foils from the [early] 80s he could get to. I think at that time he was motivated by the second opportunity to again be in the limelight. He loved the limelight, it was intoxicating for him.”

With victory so important to Hearns, he looked for those small margins which would carry him to victory. Medical opinion was sought to strengthen his legs, an optimal mouthpiece was designed to balance out the effects of a punch. Hearns even drank herbal tea to help with a long-standing sinus problem. Whatever Hearns did in training it seemed to work, as he produced a far better performance than many expected.

“Tommy showed flashes, he performed very steadily in this fight, he was doing a lot of the things Tommy does when he is at 100%. Then he flashed the power to knock Leonard down [round 3], but then the pivotal point in this fight was when Ray hurt him,” said Bernstein. “Everyone in the arena collectively held their breath, will this be like what happened in the first fight, but Tommy got through it. Then he would come back and knock Leonard down later in the fight [round 11] and there would be another point in the fight when Leonard hurt Hearns again in the final round, and yet again Tommy got through it.

“They were seminal moments for Tommy, and you can make an argument that those two moments were the most important in his career, because it allowed him to come through this fight with his legacy intact. Most people, including me, believe that Tommy won the fight so the fact that he was able to get to that point, despite the draw, was extremely vital to him. Getting through those two onslaughts is what made it happen.”

Thomas Hearns proves a point against Sugar Ray Leonard in their 1989 draw.

The scoring, much like Leonard-Hagler, was highly controversial. With the two knockdowns Hearns scored, he seemed the likely winner when the final bell sounded. But Leonard also had big moments in the fight, the 5th and the 12th where he seemed on the brink of stopping Hearns. They were the rounds that saved Leonard, but should he have been credited with a 10-8 {by all three judges in round five and by Dalby Shirley in the 12th round) when he failed to put Hearns on the floor?

“If there isn’t a knockdown, for the most part, I don’t score those rounds 10-8, you can but that is not the norm in my opinion,” said Bernstein. “So, even though he had Hearns hurt in those two rounds, to me they would not have been 10-8 rounds. Getting that knockdown is important, and that is what you are supposed to be rewarded for. The two knockdowns for Hearns were a big edge for me. I thought Hearns won the fight, but it was a pretty close fight.

“The interesting thing for me is the reaction from Tommy afterwards. He was not as outraged as everyone wanted him to be and I think there were several aspects to that. First, he had achieved everything he wanted to achieve to a certain point, he knocked Leonard down twice and he had come through the fire, he thought he had won the fight, ‘they can call it whatever they want but I have done my business here’. I think he also felt he had shown himself to be a very viable fighter and, in the next few years, he would indeed show that by getting the world light-heavyweight back again from Virgil Hill, which was one of his more impressive performances.” 

With the fight being better than a lot of people thought beforehand, and the controversial nature of the scorecards, it seemed inevitable that there would be a third meeting, but it never happened.

“I think Leonard, always being clever, believed Duran was an easier fight. I think Ray was always smart enough to calculate where he should go, and he [thought] to himself is a third fight with Hearns advisable for him at this juncture,” said Bernstein. “I also think Ray was starting to get lost in the fog of his drug use and alcohol problems, and recently he has talked about that, so there wasn’t always a sense of focus.”

Hearns achieved plenty in his career, a five-division world champion who beat a lot of great fighters, but harshly he is still judged by some for the fights he didn’t win.

In the era of the four kings, he perhaps sits behind Leonard, Hagler and Duran in the mythical judging of that quartet of incredible fighters. But as Bernstein suggests, maybe this was the night that gave solace to Hearns. He might not have taken the decision, but Hearns probably got much more from a fight where he proved many things, and most importantly to himself.