I don't remember the circumstances of the welterweight unification belt in September of 1981, only that the two biggest names in boxing, Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard and challenger Thomas "Hitman" Hearns (also known as the Motor City Cobra) were going to fight to unify the WBC and WBA titles. It was the biggest fight in a while, and, well, in 1981, wherever the heck it was, there was absolutely no way to monitor the progress of the right unless you were there or perhaps bought a ticket for "closed circuit" television in an arena.
There was no internet.
No way of finding out how the right was going.
But I was curious. Curious because I was a Leonard fan, and curious because I did not want to wait until the following morning. I wanted to figure out a way to get information in real time, but the case was hopeless.
Until I remembered that the campus radio station, for which I did an occasional sports report and broadcast games, had a UPI ticker tape machine in the basement. Those don't exist today, but then they (and AP ticker tapes) were the main source of news for many a news rooms (along with feeds from the ABC national network that we were able to copy on 8-track tapes). The ticker tape machine was this big thing, about four feet high, basically a typewriter on legs that was wired into a phone line that provided the feed. I hope that perhaps UPI had the right to provide round-by-round updates, so on that night -- and I don't remember what night it was, but it was probably a Saturday, when most of my friends were drinking beer and doing what college seniors do.
No one was in the station -- situated in a damp basement in an old dormitory -- except for the disc jockey, with whom I had a casual acquaintance and to whom I waved. And then I made my way to the back, where the news room, such as it was, was situated (in truth, it was a sparsely furnished, dimly lit place) and stood near the ticker tape. And I was in luck! UPI was covering the fight, and a reporter at ringside was providing the feed.
There were limitations, of course, such as feeds from various baseball games around the country and the occasional news story, that came on the wire in between rounds. But the progress of the right was compelling, and every five minutes or so about fifty words came through describing what happened and giving the reporter's view of how the round went. I was pulling for Leonard, and it was just exciting, the sporting equivalent of a candidate's waiting for election returns in a close race.
What I proceeded to witness via ticker tape was one of the greatest fights of all time. At the twelfth round, five bells sounded -- UPI's means of getting the news room's attention that something significant happened. The five bells this time meant that Hearns was hitting Leonard hard and that Leonard was in trouble -- perhaps a turning point in a fight where Hearns was leading on points (I honestly thought that five bells were reserved for things like the end of World War II or the election of a president). My shoulders shrank -- the likable, invincible Sugar Ray was about to lose. Hearns was an excellent fighter, so that ending was plausible.
But about as quickly as those five bells sounded, five more bells sounded. And that, I figured, was it. But those five bells sounded perhaps four minutes later, and a remarkable change of events took place. Leonard woke up and started taking it to Hearns -- and ended the fight with a flurry of punches that caused the referee to stop it. TKO, Sugar Ray Leonard.
I had so much fun that I tore off most of the ticker tape and decided to save it. That ticker tape printout survived seven moves and 33 years, when I found it this weekend, still in pretty good shape. The reason I started looking for it was that my son was invited to a sports memorabilia event where Sugar Ray was scheduled to be in attendance. So, I put it in a plastic folder and gave it to him, hoping, perhaps, that he could get Sugar Ray to autograph it.
And he did better than that, because Thomas Hearns was at this particular show, too. So right where the last five bells went off, there are two signatures -- one of Sugar Ray, the other of the Motor City Cobra. Thirty-three years later, capping a fond memory of a great fight and perhaps a clever solution as to how to get a virtual ringside seat.
That got me to thinking of boxing, which was probably better in smoke-filled arenas and in black and white, and perhaps slow motion. Perhaps that's why boxing isn't popular today -- there's too much access, too much internet and texting and tweeting, and none of the mysticism and romance that existed when entertainment choices were fewer and the world seemed to move more slowly. Boxing was made for the ticker-tape, men watching it in suits, stogies in hand, newspaper reporters with hats with their press passes tucked into the band.
And I have my souvenir for that era, before boxing lost its mojo, before Sugar Ray and the Hitman got old, before Marvelous Marvin lost his magic and Duran said "no mas."
Answering the bell. Saved by the bell. And the outcome, announced with five bells. I never saw that fight, but UPI made it feel like I was there.
Thanks, Sugar Ray and Hitman, for a great era and a great memory.