‘Moment of truth’ awaits as boxing finally returns to the spotlight

Leonard - Hearns, 1981.
Leonard - Hearns, 1981.
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Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao is the super fight that has got the world talking about boxing again.

The two best pound-for-pound boxers for a generation finally going toe-to-toe in a fight that is set to generate tens of millions of dollars for each man.

Money aside, it is the fight boxing wanted and badly needed.

The sport has slipped from the schedules in recent years with a succession of meaningless fights and champions who hold onto belts, suffocating divisions and dodging opponents.

For six years, Mayweather and Pacquiao have ducked and weaved, finding different pursuits to get behind other than squaring off against one another.

That they finally meet will not only enhance their bank accounts immeasurably but will also seal their legacy.

LEGEND: Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured when opening the POW Gym in Sheffield recently.

LEGEND: Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured when opening the POW Gym in Sheffield recently.

For great fighters cannot, and should not, be considered great if they do not routinely go up against the best opponents.

The current trend in the sport is nothing like the great heavyweight eras of the 1960s and 70s when Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton regularly traded blows with world titles on the line.

Or for that matter, the iconic middleweight era of the 1980s, when the four finest boxers that division has arguably ever produced repeatedly went head-to-head.

Sugar Ray Leonard, ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and Roberto ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran fought each other nine times throughout the decade.

Each won at least one contest, and Leonard fought in six of those epic duels; fighting Duran three times, Hearns in two brutal contests and Hagler once in a controversial fight which, for the era, was as long in the making as Mayweather-Pacquiao.

When it finally arrived after years of back and forth between the two camps, Leonard beat Hagler at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, on April 6, 1987, on a split decision.

It was a ruling that Hagler to this day contests and one that hastened his retirement from the sport.

As is boxing’s eternal inner conflict, the verdict of the judges is never a definitive result and one that can be argued upon for years to come, as it has in the case of that much-talked about contest.

The parallels between the build-up to Leonard-Hagler and Mayweather-Pacquiao now are obvious, and for Leonard, almost inescapable.

Whether through his own reflections, as part of his duties as a pundit for American network NBC, or when visiting Sheffield to host a sportsman’s dinner and open a new club, it is a question that is never far from people’s lips.

Fortunately, Leonard is only too happy to oblige.

“It’s those fights, those moments in boxing history that really shape a legacy and what makes boxing what it is,” said Leonard last week, on a visit to the Steel City to open the new Pow Fitness Gym near Bramall Lane.

“Those fights had an excitement and the mystique to them.

“The fight with Hagler was a defining moment in my life.

“Tommy Hearns was a big, big fight; so were those with Roberto Duran.

“I don’t miss getting hit by those guys, but when people ask me what I do miss it’s that camaraderie, that moment of truth against the best in the world.

“People ask me whether I would have liked to have fought these guys (Mayweather and Pacquiao), but I’ve had my day in the sun, an incredible career, no complaints, you can’t have it all.”

Incredible it certainly was.

From his days in the amateur ranks, he was destined for a glorious career in the spotlight.

An Olympic title at the Montreal Games of 1976 confirmed his status as a boxer of true potential and in the 80s he enjoyed one of the great professional careers the sport has known, bowing out after his final victory over Duran in 1989.

Two short-lived comebacks ended in defeat in ’91 and ’97 but his legacy is untarnished.

Those ‘moments of truth’ as he so eloquently puts it, defined his career, and are what have been missing in boxing for too long.

Leonard benefitted from the equal earnestness of the other three to fight one another.

The first Hearns-Leonard fight in 1981 was set over a cup of coffee in an airport lounge, the fine print of which was thrashed out inside 30 minutes.

Six years in the making, the challenge now for Mayweather and Pacquiao is to live up to the billing, the phenomenal purse and the task of getting boxing back into the mainstream sporting conscience.

This is their ‘moment of truth’.

“Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather is going to be an incredible fight,” said Leonard, who when he assumes his new role for NBC hopes to play his part in putting boxing back into the living rooms of the American people.

“People are saying it’s going to be five years too late but my fight against Marvin Hagler was probably 10 years too late but it happened and was still a great fight.

“So this fight between Pacquiao and Mayweather is going to be an intriguing one.

“Globally, its the biggest fight, whether or not it lives up to expectation we’ll have to see.”

So who does the great Leonard think will win?

“You’d have to favour Mayweather, he’s not lost but that May 2 depends on who wants it the most and brings their A game. It’s about attitude.

“This fight is about more than money; it’s about bragging rights, it’s about history, it’s about legacy, and who walks into the ring focused and ready will win the fight.

“This is for history, this is for the legacy of each individual.

“I expect both guys to come out and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a couple of knock-downs. this fight is so significant to each of those guys.

“My gut feeling leans a little towards Mayweather. Then I go back to Pacquiao. He wants to show he’s the Pacquiao of old.”

Leonard will watch the May 2 showdown from ringside, after completing another trip to the United Kingdom, where he is a frequent visitor.

An association with a revered middleweight from Sheffield, Ryan Rhodes, brings him to South Yorkshire nearly every year.

“I like showing my support to young future boxers, hall of famers, embracing my peers,” said Leonard.

“I come here once a year, twice sometimes. My experience has always been incredible. I love coming here and meeting my fans.”