LAS VEGAS — A few days before the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight, in 1981, Leonard had a problem -- a major problem.
About 10 days before the fight, he was elbowed accidentally in his left eye during a sparring session. The eye was discolored and swollen so badly Leonard's lawyer and adviser, Michael Trainer, wanted to call off the bout. Leonard overruled him.
"I was in perfect form, and you can't just throw that out the window and start over again," said Leonard. "I had been training so long, I was in the right frame of mind and great physical condition. I was where I am right now."
One reason Leonard is so confident of knocking out Hearns here Monday night is that he is in such good condition for his age. The only question about his training is that he reached peak form two weeks ago and has been "maintaining" his edge ever since.
If Leonard has his way, Hearns will be facing a force more like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who stopped the "Hit Man" in a brutal three rounds in 1985, than the Leonard of 1981 who fought with an eye problem from the early rounds. Leonard wants Hearns to slug it out this time because Leonard says "my punches are a lot more devastating."
Leonard was not nearly as confident eight years ago. After getting the elbow in the eye, he took two days off. But after that the eye swelled each time he sparred. It was iced down after every workout.
Leonard traces the beginning of his eye trouble to a 1979 fight with Marcos Geraldo. "Marcos Geraldo was the only time he had a serious eye problem and had to go to an eye doctor after a fight," said Trainer.
But no serious damage was detected then, according to Trainer. Leonard fought nine more times before Hearns and once afterward before a detached retina was discovered in May 1982. "The day before he was operated on he passed all the eye tests because of where the tear was, which was probably the most difficult place to detect," Trainer said.
In November 1984, Leonard announced the first of three retirements in his professional career. (Intending to get a college education, he also retired after winning his Olympic gold medal).
Leonard was medically cleared to fight again in 1984, but after having to get off the canvas to stop Kevin Howard, he retired again. When he came back to fight Hagler in 1987, Leonard was questioned repeatedly about possible risks. Now, after victories over Hagler, and Donny Lalonde last November, Trainer calls the eye a "non-issue."
But in the Hearns fight, the eye began swelling in the early rounds and was almost closed by the time Leonard, trailing on all three judges' scorecards, caught up to Hearns and stopped him in the 14th round. Leonard's face looked grotesque. At ringside, Trainer said he watched the swelling increase with a mixture of anger and worry. "But as it turned out," he said, "Ray was right. It was his night."