All questions about Ray Leonard were answered in the affirmative tonight.
The now-champion of all welterweights entered the ring in Caesers Palace against Thomas Hearns wearing a robe that bore one word: "Deliverance." Deliverance, that is, from doubters, from all those who thought him a smiling, shallow, plastic commodity and not a champion of the terrors of the ring.
In a fashion more brutal, exhausting and testing than any man could wish -- even for an $8-million guarantee -- Leonard knocked down Hearns in the 13th round, then stopped him in the 14th.
At 1:45 of that round, referee Davey Pearl decided that, after two full rounds of almost ceaseless beating at the hands of the Sugar Man, Hearns had had enough for one night and awarded Leonard a technical knockout. It was the first loss for Hearns in 33 fights. Leonard is 31-1.
United Press International reported that Pearl said Hearns had taken 25 consecutive punches to the head without blocking or ducking one. "I'd stop it again one hundred times in the same circumstance," Pearl said.
In one of the best, and cruelest, fights in recent boxing history, Leonard overcame triple hurdles to win in the richest prize fight of them all.
First, he trailed on all three officials' cards entering the 14th round, despite the fact that in all three of the fight's most vicious rounds, the sixth, seventh and 13th, Leonard had blasted Hearns from corner to corner in search of a knockout that seemed imminent.
Much debate, no doubt, will surround the scoring of judges Duane Ford (124-122, Hearns), Chuck Minker (125-121, Hearns) and Lou Tabat (125-122, Hearns). There was no scarcity of veteran ringsiders who had Leonard ahead on points.
Nevertheless, before the 13th round, when Leonard began a swarming attack, Manager Angelo Dundee was screaming in his fighter's ear, "You're blowin' it, kid. You're blowin' it."
Second, Leonard's left eye began swelling in the middle rounds and, from the 10th onward, was so hideously gorged with swelling blood that, Leonard said, "My vision was about a half to a third of normal. I couldn't see his right hand coming anymore."
Finally, in a ring where the temperature from desert heat and klieg lights was over 100 degrees, the easily dehydrated Leonard was so close to collapse that, a minute after the fight's end, he was so wobbly kneed that he almost collapsed and fell as his entourage celebrated around him.
Frequently, in the wake of his knockouts, Leonard is asked what punch did the damage. Usually, Leonard, who now has Hearns' World Boxing Association crown as well as the World Boxing Council title, will say, "I'll have to wait to see the films. It happened too fast."
That was the case tonight. Leonard hit Hearns with everything, then hit him with everything again and again. Never, not even in the final seconds when he was eating leather by the gross, did the implacable, expressionless Hearns' face change.
In the 13th round, Hearns was on the canvas three times. Both Dundee and Leonard thought all three should have been knock downs. Referee Pearl, almost certainly correctly, ruled the first a combination slip and push. The third, when Hearns was left sitting on the lowest rope by a left hook, then shook his head "No" when Leonard begged him to come to midring, was ruled a mandatory eight-count.
Hearns' second trip to the canvas probably should have been ruled a knockdown as well. Leonard, his forehead in Hearns' chest, fired a dozen punches in one unbelieveable, nonstop combination that did not end until Hearns was sitting, dazed, in his own corner. That one Pearl also called a push-slip.
Leonard's damage in the 14th left little doubt. Hearns was blank-eyed, dizzy and defenseless against Leonard's last half-dozen blows.
"In the last two rounds, I brought it up from my guts. I had to do this for Ray Leonard," said Leonard, wearing sunglasses over an eye that will never grace a TV commercial.
Leonard was lucky he made a hero's final stand. If he hadn't knocked out Hearns in the 14th or 15th, he almost certainly would have lost a decision even if he won both rounds.
"I thought it was a close fight, but I was certain Ray was ahead," said trainer Janks Morton. "I don't know what fight the judges were watching . . . Part of the problem is that Ray won rounds big while all the ones Hearns won were small, no-action rounds. But they all count the same because the judges score them 10-9. They won't score a round 10-8 or 10-7, even though they should."
"We'll never win a close decision," said Leonard's lawyer Mike Trainer. "I'm bitterly resigned to that. Tonight was a perfect example. We could have lost a fight we won.
"Boxing is a close-knit fraternity and Ray Leonard, and his way of doing business, aren't part of it . . . A whole lot of people in boxing want Ray out of the sport and off the front page. They want him retired and on the Carson (Tonight) show, so they can do business the old way.
"We'll never get a break, just like Ray lost the first Duran fight. If it's close, we'll lose 'cause everybody is buddy-buddy."
"This surpasses all my professional accomplishments," said Leonard. "I proved that I am the best welterweight in the world . . . I appologize to Tommy Hearns for all the things I said about him not having any brains. He is a great fighter. In my book, we are both still champions."
When Hearns, looking far fresher and healthier than Leonard, arrived at the postfight press conference, Leonard graciously grabbed the hand of his 6-foot-2 1/2 erstwhile opponent and held it aloft. Leonard's wife Jaunita, dressed in white, kissed Hearns on the cheek.
"I'll never say anything against Ray Leonard," said Hearns. "I didn't underestimate the man. I fought my best . . . My body was prepared, but maybe my head wasn't.
"He hurt me, I won't lie. He hurt me in the sixth and at the end. He hit me some great body shots, but it was the left hooks that did the damage.
"He taught me that you can't make mistakes against a great fighter. What mistake? I dropped my right hand after I'd throw it, and he'd tag me with that left hook every time," said Hearns, who, by the eighth round was afraid to fire his best weapon, the straight right, for fear of the instant retaliation.
This battle, with a gross that could go as high as $50 million, had a fascinating progression. For the first five rounds, Hearns was the brash stalker with Leonard the counterpuncher. In the second and third, Leonard did the greater damage, even threw his right hand aloft after the third round. But Hearns was winning the other rounds on points.
Then, in the sixth, Leonard lowered the first of his countless left-hand bombs and had Hearns sagging against the ropes, in serious trouble.
At the end of the round, Leonard, who had been sneered at, and hit after the bell in earlier rounds by Hearns, asked the vaunted Hit Man, "Are you hurt now ?"
"He didn't answer me," said Leonard.
In the seveth, Hearns was in trouble again but escaped. After that round, he changed tactics completely, surviving on the defensive for rounds eight through 10. Ironically, while back-pedaling and jabbing, he won all rounds as his towering defense was impregnible, frustrating Leonard's stalking attempts at a knockdown.
By the 11th and 12th, Hearns was blending his dancing, pedaling defense with more offense, banging at Leonard's horrid eye. "I was definitely going for that eye," said Hearns.
And Leonard's title definitely was slipping. "I had to lay back in some rounds, wait for him to make a mistake, 'cause I knew my eye was swelling more every round," said Leonard. "I was conscious of that eye the whole fight because it was bruised by a sparring partner's elbow in training and it wasn't completely well."
But, after the 12th, the eye was too far gone for Leonard to be cautious any longer. His strength was ebbing, too.
So, in the 13th, he bore inside, slammed that swollen face into Hearns' chest and wouldn't leave until the Hit Man had been hit.
"Was I ever in trouble?" said Leonard. "I knew I was in trouble the minute I signed the contract.
"Hearns dropped some bombs on me, but I psyched him, 'cause I wouldn't go down. I've spoken from the heart about how much I think of Hearns. I hope he'll do the same."
And when he arrived, Hearns did.
"Don't ever underestimate this man," he said, sitting next to Leonard. "We both stood our ground.
"You definitely seen a show tonight."
And they saw Ray Leonard's deliverance from all boxing doubts, now and forever.