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Challengers to Line Up and Wait for Sugar Ray

June 18, 1989|JOE GERGEN | Newsday

Among the spectators seated at ringside for Monday night's rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns was Chuck Daly. The man was enjoying a night off from his job as coach of the Detroit Pistons. His team was in Los Angeles, awaiting the fourth game of their National Basketball Association championship series against the Lakers.

Clearly, Daly felt confident in the Pistons' 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series if he chose to watch the World Boxing Council super-middleweight title bout instead of basketball tapes. But the man suggested he was merely on a scouting mission. "I'm looking," he said, "for a knockout punch."

Although both Hearns and Leonard still were looking for the elusive weapon at the conclusion of their 12-round bout, apparently Daly found what he came for. The Pistons terminated their series in the minimum four games the following night, annexing their first championship since they represented Fort Wayne, Ind., in the old National Basketball League four decades ago.

But Daly had such heavyweight bangers as Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn while the Lakers, much like Leonard, competed without their usual touch of Magic.

Daly was not overlooked in the introduction of celebrities attending the fight in the outdoor stadium behind Caesars Palace. Indeed, his name was second on the list. The predominantly pro-Lakers (or anti-Bad Boys) crowd dutifully booed. But the reaction was mild in comparison to that accorded another prominent person seemingly out of his element.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, in town for the Southern Baptist convention, was roundly jeered for his appearance in the VIP section. Only the previous day, Falwell had announced he was disbanding the Moral Majority, a religious-oriented political action group he had founded. Boxing, however, tends to attract the amoral minority, especially when held in such lavish settings.

Only a few years back, a full house at Caesars welcomed with applause a man in a wheelchair identified by the public address announcer as "The Honorable Larry Flynt."

The precise source of his honor wasn't explained. But fight fans can be tough on outsiders who anger them. Thousands in the Atlantic City Convention Center booed Robin Givens before the start of the heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson, her husband at the time, and Michael Spinks. They were at least as unforgiving of George Steinbrenner, who was not present to hear his name verbally trashed.

What lent a melancholy aspect to the whole affair was the presence of so many boxers who shaped the sport in the 1980s. The decade was running down and so were Leonard, Hearns and Roberto Duran, the Panamanian warhorse who has a score to settle with Leonard, preferably in the context of a million-dollar extravaganza.

"The old triangle," noted Marvelous Marvin Hagler, leaving himself out of the picture.

But Hagler was very much on display, just as promoter Bob Arum intended when he tapped the former middleweight champion and Duran as broadcast analysts. Leonard, of course, was the key if the seniors were to continue their lucrative round-robin series. "I want to fight Leonard, nobody else," Duran said in advance of the fight.

Willie Sutton had a similar regard for banks. In the current state of boxing, Leonard is the key to the treasury. At least, he was. Hagler said his head tells him not to return to the ring but admitted his body is in shape and his heart still wants to fight. He said he was happy with his career, yet sad about the way it ended.

In the wake of the draw and Leonard's hesitation in deciding his future, however, new plans were being hastily drawn. Hearns wants to continue boxing, against the advice of manager Emanuel Steward.

Arum determined a fight between Hearns and undefeated middleweight sensation Michael Nunn would be a natural. "Of course, Bob Arum would say that," Hearns responded. "He's a promoter."

Hearns said a second fight with Hagler would be "meaningful" to him, but it might be something less to Hagler and to the public. Meanwhile, Duran wanted no part of Nunn, either. "Let (Iran) Barkley fight Nunn," he said, gesturing in the direction of the man he beat in 12 furious rounds to win the WBC middleweight title and regain his credibility.

At the morning-after news conference, a man mentioned that Nunn claimed he could have knocked out both Leonard and Hearns on the basis of the previous night's exercise. "He's right," Leonard said cryptically, dismissing the subject.

Perhaps Nunn was correct in his assumption. But the next move remains up to Leonard, despite the most disappointing performance of his career. A potentially lucrative third match against Hearns is the first option for Arum, thanks to a decision that failed to satisfy even Dalby Shirley, the judge who scored the fight exactly even.

Leonard has been in a similar position before. He has made Hearns wait on two previous occasions. He made Hagler wait. And now an entire troupe of gladiators, all stars of the '80s, awaits Sugar Ray's pleasure. Don't think for a moment he's not enjoying the situation even as he contemplates his own decline.

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