“You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it.”
Angelo Dundee – the man who trained Muhammad Ali to glory – bellowed the words at Sugar Ray Leonard in their corner as the sweat poured before round 13 on a sizzling night under the Las Vegas stars.
Across the ring sat Thomas Hearns and the spindly 6ft 1in frame he had somehow boiled down to 145lbs for a fight marketed as ‘The Showdown’.
“It was the perfect soundbite,” Leonard tells the new BBC Sounds Greatest Fights podcast as he watches the bout back with Mike Costello and Steve Bunce. “It was what Angelo said, the way he said it and the tone. It clicked.”
Those words were not all that clicked on that night in 1981. The styles of both men merged beautifully in a fight that ebbed and flowed, one where the hard-punching Hearns took control, lost it, regained it and relinquished it once more.
The 23,618 present at an outdoor arena erected on tennis courts owned by Caesars Palace Hotel saw speed married with gutsy resilience in the kind of finely delivered boxing ballet that not even a sapping 33C desert heat could suppress. There was fatigue but heart in abundance.
Hearns brought the WBA world title and the power that had earned 32 wins from 32 fights. Leonard brought the WBC title and the boxing mastery that had won Olympic gold five years earlier. One man would become undisputed welterweight champion of the world, both would share a fight that would go some way in shaping their respective legacies.
“Boxers in my gym and Steve’s gym wanted to be like Sugar Ray Leonard,” recalls Costello. “When I started coaching a few years later I can’t tell you how many youngsters I had to stop trying to be like him. They couldn’t all be like him.”
As he watches the rounds back, a bright-eyed Leonard can account for almost every punch thrown 39 years ago and specifically recalls the message he gave his rival after round one.
“I touched him on the head and I told him ‘I got you, sucker'”, says Leonard, who was 25 on fight night, three years older than Hearns.
“His jab was something I couldn’t counter. It took me a while to get used to it. It was so potent, powerful, fast and just amazing. A fast jab is one thing but a fast and hard one, wow.”
Hearns had spent the two previous nights cutting weight in a sauna. His ability to make 147lbs made him “a freak” according to Leonard but it provided a platform for him to move up and become the first boxer in history to hold world titles in five weight divisions.
Weight drained or not, he assumed early control as actor Jack Nichloson sat ringside along with Muhammad Ali and newly crowned Wimbledon champion John McEnroe.
An estimated 300 million people would watch globally on pay-per-view or delayed broadcast. Shortly before both men stepped into the ring, a helicopter circled above, prompting promoters to ensure it moved on, such were their fears it was in place to illegally film from on high.
At the bell to end round four the two champions kept fighting, briefly, before squaring up. Hearns was comfortably ahead on the cards but a relentless pace had been set. The pair showed trust in their chins as they walked through shots and belief in their skill-set as they ran the potentially lethal gauntlet of trying to beat one another to the punch.
The ferocious, fearless action took its first major turn in the sixth when Leonard pinged home a left hook and a shot to the body that would later be picked out as the key punch of the night.
“He was in great shape but that shot hurt him,” recalls Leonard. By the end of the seventh Hearns’ legs had turned to “peanut butter” according to to a ringside commentator.
“I thought I had him but I can relive this fight and feel it. I was so tired and so punched out,” says Leonard.
They were grafting in brutal heat. A day earlier, organisers had swapped bulbs in the canopy over the ring out of fear the power of the ones in place may serve to all but cook the fighters.
Hearns was warned by his corner he would be pulled out without improvement. The man billed as the hard puncher in the contest was suddenly hitting and moving while Leonard became the one stalking.
Few fights serve up such seamless role reversals. Hearns jabbed his way from the quicksand that looked set to swallow him up to a solid foundation. Moments before the 13th round, trainer Dundee duly informed Leonard he was “blowing it”.
“I knew when he said it,” says Leonard. “He wasn’t loud and it resonated with me so I knew what I had to do.”
Hearns merely needed to see out nine more minutes to become undisputed champion but had never fought beyond 12 rounds. What followed, Costello says, is “one of the most momentous rounds in the history of boxing”.
Leonard – his left eye swollen as damage from a sparring accident two weeks earlier reappeared – threw a left-right combination and followed it with a blur of blows.
Hearns fell through the ropes and was ruthlessly told to “get up,” by referee Davey Pearly, who judged it was not a legitimate knockdown but a push.
Leonard was punching and reaching for victory, Hearns punching and grasping for survival. A second fall into the ropes this time saw Hearns receive a count. For the first time in his career he was in the lonely place fighters fear.
“I’m saying to myself ‘this is it, this is the time, now or never’,” says Leonard.
A right hand thrown from the hip flashed across the face of Hearns in the penultimate round. He swayed violently to his left but somehow refused to touch down, only to be stopped on his feet while under attack.
Leonard had moved from “blowing it” to owning the Las Vegas night, Hearns would state they had simply “made magic” and the New York Times wrote the fight “will be remembered as long as people talk about boxing”.
Leonard boxed just twice more in almost six years as injury prompted a period of retirement where he says he was “lost” and turned to drugs and alcohol.
He would come back, win world titles and box Hearns again – this time to a draw in 1989 – but their first battle under those substitute lights holds a special place in the hearts of fans.
“All these years on it’s hard to imagine a fight with such quality in the same ring,” adds Costello.
Leonard concludes: “We were in our prime, young and strong. It was an incredible moment, one of the best of my boxing career.
“Tommy is my friend now. We brought the best out of each other.”