By Tim Smith
There's just something about a boxing rematch. When fighters are facing off for the first time, all the excitement is speculative. But with a rematch -- you know you're getting the goods. Louis-Schmeling, Dempsey-Tunney, Ali-Frazier, Leonard-Duran, Tyson-Holyfield. In each of those battles the first fight screamed for a second.
For the boxers involved something compelled them to meet their opponent a second time. Whether it was pride, the need for justice, or just the strong desire to prove themselves the superior athlete, they found their own motivation.
That motivation could strike the moment the judges' scorecards are read after the first fight. It could happen the first day a boxer returns to the gym to start training.
And it can happen on the night of the rematch itself, as it did for Sugar Ray Leonard before his second fight against Roberto Duran on November 25, 1980. Leonard's namesake, Ray Charles, was in the ring that night, singing "America the Beautiful.''
"After singing the song he walked over to me, gave me a big hug and said, 'Kick his ass,'" Leonard recalls. "Man, I could have beaten Mike Tyson that night.''
Leonard toyed with Duran, prompting the Panamanian to throw up his "Hands of Stone'' in frustration and utter the famous words "No Mas'' before quitting and walking dejectedly toward his corner in the eighth round.
When Timothy Bradley defeated Manny Pacquiao in a controversial 12-round split decision almost everyone watching the fight that night thought Pacquiao had won. Even Bradley, as he was being wheeled into the post-fight press conference with a strained tendon in one foot and a badly sprained ankle, said he would have to go home and watch the video to confirm his victory.
Pacquiao accepted the defeat, secure in the knowledge that he actually beat Bradley. Content with a moral victory, he sought opponents elsewhere. But for Bradley, the backlash for the two judges' cards (the other had it for Pacquiao) was so strong he thought about quitting boxing all together. A rematch was the only way to make things right.
And now he's getting it, as the two are set to face off once again at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in a 12-round welterweight championship bout this Saturday, broadcast on HBO Pay-Per-View.
Leonard can relate to what Bradley must be feeling. He had high profile rematches against Duran and Thomas "Hitman'' Hearns. Each rematch presented him with a time to reflect on his commitment to the sport and an opportunity to refine his skills. He recalls that his first fight against Duran, which he lost on a close 15-round unanimous decision, was a physically brutal affair.
"I seriously considered retirement. That fight took so much out of me,'' Leonard says. "I've never been brutalized that way. I had contusions, bumps, and bruises everywhere. If it takes this much to be a great champion, you really question that. It was also was a time when the real fighter in you surfaces.''
Leonard knew he was a much better fighter than he showed in the first Duran fight. So he came into the rematch five months later determined to prove it.
"Every fight I've had from day one I learned something from,'' Leonard says. "I knew if I boxed Duran I stood a greater chance of being victorious. Every day I was sparring I became more and more confident that I'd win the fight.''
When the time came, Leonard boxed circles around Duran. Once he was able to do that, he began to toy with him, to humiliate him, to embarrass the man who had beaten him.
"I was sticking my chin out. I don't advise that. But it was working. The more I did it, the most outraged he got. He was fed up with those antics. It really blew his mind,'' Leonard says.
Against Hearns, there was an eight year gap between Leonard's first fight and the rematch. When they finally did meet again in the ring, neither man was quite the fighter they were in 1981. The first fight ended with Leonard knocking out Hearns in the 14th round. Leonard knew that KO would still be rattling around in the back of his opponent's head during the rematch.
The consensus at that point was that Hearns was a shot fighter and Leonard would knock him out in the rematch. Leonard ignored that thinking. He trained hard because he thought Hearns would be motivated to make sure the KO didn't happen. When Leonard heard that Hearns' brother had been killed before the fight, he was sympathetic.
"At the weigh-in I said, 'Tommy I'm really sorry about your brother,'" Leonard recalls. "Right then I lost that thing, that desire you need going into a fight, because I felt sorry for him. That S.O.B. didn't feel sorry for me.''
They fought to a draw, though Leonard said Hearns deserved the decision.
"When the fight was called a draw there was no outrageous comments coming from his corner, because they thought that Tommy was going to get knocked out again,'' Leonard says. "They accepted that.''
Years later, Shane Mosley, a three-division world champion, would assert himself as the king of the rematch in the early to mid-2000s. He had rematches against Oscar De La Hoya, Vernon Forrest, Fernando Vargas and Winky Wright. That's eight fights against some of the toughest welterweights and junior middleweights in boxing. Mosley learned a thing or two about how to approach a rematch after all that experience.
"The mentality is that you believe you're going to win the fight because you're the better fighter,'' Mosley says. "The first time you didn't fight the way you were supposed to and something prevented you from fighting the way you should. Sometimes the fights are so close or you lose on little technicalities and you believe that if you correct those things you'll win this time.''
Mosley's approach delivered mixed results. He defeated De La Hoya and Vargas the first and second times. But he also lost to Forrest and Wright both times.
"Each fight with the exception of Oscar De La Hoya I did better the next time,'' Mosley says. "With Vargas it was pretty easy. I knew I had more speed than Vargas. So I knocked him out twice.''
Mosley believes Pacquiao should have won the first match against Bradley. But he thinks that gives Bradley the most motivation going into this match.
"I think Bradley has something to prove because everybody was saying he lost,'' Mosley says. "Pacquiao's not the fighter that he fought the first time. Bradley is going to give you everything. He has great will power. It might be different because Pac might not be the same. He's going to be passive.''
However Bradley's desire to prove something could backfire.
"That might work against him because it could leave him open to catch something,'' Mosley says.
Whether Pacquiao avenges his defeat or Bradley reasserts his claim to victory, if the fight is exciting enough it will open the door to one of the few things more thrilling in boxing than a well-earned rematch: a legendary trilogy.