- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's a boom time for boxing, with one of the sport's finest years in recent memory barely two-thirds finished and a handful of blockbusters still to come before the calendar flips again.
With Floyd Mayweather Jr. defending his pound-for-pound crown against Mexican darling Canelo Alvarez on Sept. 14, Juan Manuel Marquez taking aim at a fifth title against welterweight belt holder Timothy Bradley Jr. on Oct. 12 and Manny Pacquiao preparing to bring world-class boxing to China against Brandon Rios on Nov. 23, there has never been a better time to celebrate the pomp of the must-see prizefight than right now.
And so, over the next several days, we'll be counting down boxing's top superfights of the ESPN era (since Sept. 7, 1979, for those of you scoring at home), as picked by our panel of boxing experts. Of course, we know there can be, ahem, disagreement on such a subjective topic, so we'd like to know what you think about our choices, get your picks and hear any other comments you might have related to our project. Just tweet using the hashtag #ESPNsuperfights, and we might feature your comment below.
Throughout the 1980s, they were boxing's version of the four horsemen: Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.
They were the faces of boxing throughout most of the decade and wound up squaring off in a series of nine high-profile fights against one another. But as many times as they fought and as much excitement and money as they generated, it was the first hugely anticipated showdown between Leonard and Hearns, for the undisputed welterweight championship of the world, that might stand above them all as one of the biggest fights of the 20th century.
Leonard was America's darling, the charismatic and exciting 1976 Olympic gold medalist and an emerging pitchman with a million-dollar smile. Not only was he boxing's biggest star, but he was a dazzling technician with speed and power who had regained his welterweight world title in a rematch with Duran in November 1980. Hearns, "The Hitman" and the beloved pride of Detroit, was long and lanky, with a more laid-back demeanor than Leonard but with power that could blast a hole through a wall, particularly from his destructive right hand.
They were all-time great fighters in their primes, both possessing world titles and willing to answer the public's demand for them to test themselves against each other. Leonard has called it the most important fight in his career, which was filled with significant ones. Leonard-Hearns I was not only a summit meeting for supremacy at 147 pounds, but also was what amounted to the coronation of the central figure of boxing.
They took center stage on Sept. 16, 1981 at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in what was, at the time, the biggest money fight in boxing history, and they proceeded to put on a memorable fight worthy of the massive hype.
There was ebb and flow throughout the fight as both men had their moments. Hearns, stalking Leonard and looking to land his right hand, dominated early and stung Leonard with that fearsome weapon in the second round. By the fifth, Hearns had swelled Leonard's left eye and was in control thanks to his long power jab.
But Leonard, 25 at the time and as poised as could be, rallied. He beat up on the 22-year-old Hearns over the final minute of the sixth round and had him in trouble for the first time in the fight -- really for the first time in Hearns' career. Leonard continued to pour it on in the seventh before Hearns, who had moments earlier appeared out of it, somehow rallied.
It was a huge comeback, considering that Emanuel Steward, Hearns' Hall of Fame trainer, said later that he had considered stopping the fight after the end of the sixth.
Hearns turned into the boxer in the eighth round. He was moving and jabbing as he tried to collect himself, and it worked. He wound up winning the ninth through 12th rounds on all three judges' scorecards against a tiring Leonard.
Angelo Dundee, Leonard's revered Hall of Fame trainer, knew his man was in trouble. Dundee had just the right way of lifting his fighter and admonished Leonard in the corner after the 12th round.
"Ya got nine minutes," Dundee said calmly but sternly. "You're blowin' it now, son. You're blowin' it."
Leonard, whose damaged eye was nearly closed, took Dundee's words to heart and charged out of the corner for the 13th round to drop Hearns through the ropes with a flurry of shots. He dropped the fading Hearns for the second time just before the round ended.
Still, Hearns was ahead on all three scorecards -- 125-122, 125-121, 124-122 -- at the start of the 14th. If he could stay on his feet, he would win.
But Leonard could sense the end. When he staggered Hearns with a right hand that sent him into the ropes, Leonard raised his arms in victory and then began hammering Hearns with both hands. Finally, referee Davey Pearl stepped in at 1 minute, 45 seconds to end a historic confrontation that, indeed, also served as Leonard's coronation.
— Jeffery Lakes (@JefferyLakes) August 30, 2013
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