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Mythical Matchup: Sugar Ray Leonard VS Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor

By Dave Siderski

Our next mythical matchup is one of the great “what ifs” of the 1980’s. Talks of a Leonard-Pryor showdown began as early as 1981. Leonard was already a star, while Pryor was just beginning to gain recognition after winning the WBA Jr. Welterweight title the previous year. Unfortunately, the fight never materialized. Sugar Ray faced Thomas Hearns and then retired in 1982 after undergoing surgery for a detached retina. The possibility of a Leonard-Pryor matchup emerged again early in 1984 when Sugar Ray announced a comeback. However, dissatisfied with his performance against Kevin Howard, Leonard retired again. By the time Sugar Ray came back again, in 1987, he was fighting Marvelous Marvin Hagler at Middleweight while Pryor was a shell of his former self.

How could this matchup have happened? Let’s change the historical timeline as follows:

Sugar Ray Leonard announces his comeback at a charity event in Baltimore on November 9th, 1982. Pryor is in attendance at the event along with Hagler. He looks straight at both men and says: “Fellas, be careful what you wish for. I’m back!” A few days later Aaron Pryor defeats Alexis Arguello in spectacular fashion by a 14th round TKO. Leonard and Pryor then sign to face on April 15th, 1983 with Sugar Ray’s undisputed Welterweight Championship on the line. Leonard is guaranteed $8 million, compared to $4.5 million for Pryor.

So finally, after over 30 years of waiting, we get ready for this classic showdown. Who takes it? Sugar Ray or “The Hawk”. Now we’ll find out.

Let’s Settle this in the Ring

The night of April 15th has arrived and an energetic crowd of 20,000 fans are gathered at the Madison Square Garden to watch this highly anticipated showdown. If this fight had taken place in 1981, Sugar Ray Leonard would have been the overwhelming favorite. However, with Pryor now on fire in the aftermath of his brilliant victory over Arguello and the questions surrounding Leonard’s eye injury, Sugar Ray comes in as only a 9-5 favorite according to the Las Vegas odds makers. These two men truly do not like each other and had to be physically separately on multiple occasions during the promotional build up to the fight.

The Hawk enters the ring at 11:03 pm Eastern Standard Time to a loud ovation. Pryor is wearing black trunks with gold trim and weighed in for this one at 145 lbs. The crowd begins to boo as Leonard makes him wait in the ring for several minutes. Finally, Sugar Ray begins his way to the ring at 11:12 pm. The crowd’s response is initially tepid but a load roar finally ensues when he steps through the ring ropes. Leonard weighed in at the Welterweight limit of 147 and is wearing white trunks with red trim. Frank Sinatra sings the national anthem and referee Tony Perez issues the final instructions. The crowd is breathless with anticipation as the bell rings for Round One.

Leonard is strangely tentative early, perhaps self-conscious of his left eye. Pryor forces him to the ropes midway through the first and opens up with a heavy volume of punches. Sugar Ray slips the “Hawk’s” most telling blows but Pryor gains the support of both the judges and the crowd with his relentless aggression. This pattern continues in round two. Leonard moves effectively over the first 30 seconds of the round. But inexplicably, he spends most of the remainder of the round on the ropes while Pryor attacks him from all angles. Pryor points at Sugar Ray and laughs as he returns to the corner. Leonard has a worried looked on his face as he returns to the corner.

Angelo Dundee administers a verbal thrashing to Leonard in the corner: “What the hell is going on! You’re not doing shit out there! I want you to use your jab and start boxing.” In spite of Dundee’s encouragement, Leonard flounders and “The Hawk” continues to soar at the start of the third. Angelo shakes his head in disbelief as Sugar Ray looks utterly listless and outmatched. Pryor rocks Leonard with a right hand with one minute remaining in the round. Sugar Ray holds briefly but look on his face has clearly shifted from confusion to anger. With his back to the ropes, a determined Leonard fires back with sizzling combinations. A hard left hook from Sugar Ray sends sweat flying from Pryor’s head. The fighters exchange furiously over the next 30 seconds. Finally, a straight right by Leonard stops Pryor in his tracks. Leonard cracks a smile as the round comes to a close.

Pryor continues to press in round four. However, Leonard is now supremely confident as the fighters exchange in ring center. Sugar Ray backs up to the ropes and motions to Pryor to come after him. Pryor obliges but walks into a sneaky left hook that sends him to the canvas. Pryor is up at the count of 6, smiling and shaking his head that he’s not hurt. However, his legs tell a different story. Leonard opens up with vicious combinations, at one point landing an overhand right that nearly tears Pryor’s head off. Sugar Ray follows up with a left uppercut which nearly sends Pryor to the canvas again. The Hawk manages to survive but is on wobbly legs as he returns to the corner.

Leonard raises his arms in victory as the fighters come out for the 5th. He’s now in complete command picking Pryor apart on the outside with accurate combinations. Midway through the round, the fighters trade on the inside again. Leonard lands a tremendous right that rocks Pryor. He follows up with a five punch combination capped off by a left hook that floors Pryor again. Leonard batters Pryor along the ropes and lands a chopping right that drops Pryor for the third time in the fight. The Hawk is out on his feet but gamely tries to fire back. Finally, Leonard traps a defenseless Pryor in the neutral corner, landing 15 unanswered punches capped off by a crushing overhand right. Pryor goes down again, this time for good. Referee Davey Pearl doesn’t even bother to count.

Sugar Ray is exuberant in the post-fight interview: “Yes, I was nervous about the fight tonight but after a few rounds I felt completely comfortable. Pryor is a tough guy with a lot of heart but he was too small for me. Once I caught him with one of my big shots, I knew it was just a matter of time. If I’d been at my best, he would have gone down a lot sooner. Now that Pryor is out of the way, I’m setting my sights on Marvelous Marvin. Marvin watch out!  I’m coming for you next!” An angry and dejected Pryor refuses to answer any questions: “You all saw what happened out there tonight. I’ve got nothing to say except that “The Hawk” will be back.”

Leonard Wins TKO 5