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Boxing Seems to Thrive These Days on Not-So Instant Replays

June 11, 1989|HAL BOCK | Associated Press

Boxing's Senior Tour of golden oldies continues Monday night when Sugar Ray Leonard fights Thomas Hearns--again. The winner earns an almost certain date with Roberto Duran--again. Are these guys getting better with age, or do the fans really just like to see a good fight--again?

"It's the best game in town," veteran trainer Angelo Dundee said. "That's why it sells out."

Dundee was in Leonard's corner Sept. 16, 1981, when Sugar Ray, squinting through a badly swollen left eye, stopped Hearns in the 14th round. "A great fight," the trainer said. "Just great."

And now, for the not-so instant replay. Can they do it again after waiting this long for the encore? Dundee thinks so.

"Think about it," he said. "Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, eight years later. It creates excitement. This is gonna be good because of the styles and the individuals involved. Thomas Hearns is on a vendetta, and, well, you know, Ray is Ray."

But Angelo, Leonard is 33 now. Hearns is 30, pushing 31. The Seniors Tour works in golf. But boxing? C'mon, Angelo.

"The first time was a great fight. It'll be the same thing eight years later," Dundee said. "We'll find out how much they have left."

How much, or how little?

"People want to know that," Dundee said. "That makes it intriguing. I'll tell you this. Sugar Ray has a shot at being knocked out if he's the Ray who fought (Donny) Lalonde. People say Tommy Hearns' legs are gone, but he never had good legs, even as an amateur. They're both eight years older. That's the intangible. The interest is there. The public won't be disappointed. I like this rematch."

Intrigue. Intangibles. Those are the keys to the Seniors Tour in boxing and rematches like Leonard-Hearns II. There is less a sense of boxing excellence than a question of which fighter is more used up.

Both boxers are guaranteed a fat payday--Leonard gets $13 million and Hearns $11 million--and the winner gets the opportunity for another big money rematch, this one against Duran, who has the revenge motive working for him against both fighters.

Duran beat Leonard for the welterweight title June 20, 1980, then returned the crown to Sugar Ray five months later in the famous "No Mas" bout. Four years after that, he was knocked out by Hearns in two rounds in what seemed certain to be the final fight for the man they once called Hands of Stone.

But, like Leonard, Duran kept coming back for more and when he outpointed Iran Barkley for the WBC middleweight title in February, it put him in position for a promoter's dream, a grudge rematch with Monday night's winner.

The cash register jingles at the prospect and promoters understand that sound. Bob Arum, who is talking about an $80 million gross Monday night, is happy to have seniors. One report had Arum even discussing a comeback for Marvelous Marvin Hagler, idle since losing to Leonard in April, 1987.

The fact that Duran will celebrate his 38th birthday four days after the Leonard-Hearns match seems of little consequence in this rush of boxing nostalgia. After all, ex-heavyweight champion George Foreman is 40-plus and came back after a 10-year sabbatical. His announced target is to meet Mike Tyson, who is young enough to be his son, for the crown.

Is all this good for the game? Dundee thinks so, if they are the right rematches.

"We had Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier three times and the third one was the best one," he said. "You know what? Some day, we might have a Hearns-Leonard III."

Bob Goodman, vice president and matchmaker for Madison Square Garden Boxing, also endorses the Seniors Tour.

"I think a lot depends on how they've taken care of themselves, how many tough fights or bad beatings they've had," said Goodman, who frequently uses 42-year-old Saoul Mamby for his shows. "Mamby amazes the doctors. They say his brain and heart are like those of a 20-year-old.

"A lot of those guys haven't had bad beatings. With Leonard, I think that's the case. He hasn't abused himself and he's always maintained his condition. He's picked his spots pretty well. Hearns has maybe deteriorated a little bit, but he's been more active than Ray.

"Those guys and Duran, they're the superstars of boxing and they've gotten back to world championship condition. They're instant box office and anything that fills arenas with fans for boxing, that can't be bad as long as it's competitive. I think Leonard-Hearns will be competitive."

Boxing history is filled with pairings that captured the imagination of the public and were brought back, again and again. Among them were the three Ali-Frazier fights; Joe Louis against Billy Conn, Jersey Joe Walcott and Max Schmeling twice each; and Gene Tunney against Jack Dempsey twice.

Perhaps the most frequently made rematch was Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard's sweet predecessor, against Jake LaMotta. They fought six times, most of them brutal, bloody wars. Robinson won five of the fights and LaMotta joked about their rivalry, saying, "I fought Sugar so many times, it's a wonder I didn't catch diabetes."

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