Las Vegas was warm on this fourth day of summer. The Sports Pavilion at Caesars Palace was packed as fans were excited to see a pair of top 10 Welterweights get down to business.
On June 24, former 1976 Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard (22-0, 13 KOs), who was ranked third in the world, would square off against sixth ranked Tony Chiaverini (30-4, 21 KOs).
The year was 1979.
Chiaverini, 26, was a tough, hard punching southpaw from Kansas City. With granite in his chin and power in both hands he had been stopped only once in his career. Cosell liked Chiaverini’s attacking style. “He’s a man who likes to cut the ring in half, and as I said, work the body over then brings the blows up to the head. And he has knockout power.”
The 23-year-old Leonard, who had zip in his own punches, was more widely viewed as the sleek, slick boxer who could use his faster hands and quicker feet to outhustle and outbox Chiaverini. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, proposed that the only way to fight a southpaw was to be aggressive.
Cosell loved the Leonard style. “Leonard, quick handed, quick footed fighter. Better punching ability than given credit for.”
After quick instructions at mid ring by referee Ferd Hernandez, Round 1 got underway. The backdrop inside the Pavilion set the stage as a large blue and white Caesars sign hung in the backdrop. The red, white, and blue lights above the ring matched the ropes and ring apron.
Calling the fight live for ABC Wide World of Sports was Howard Cosell. The atmosphere inside Caesars was electric, “They have been playing the record, the Kansas City record for the last hour. We’re going to Kansas City.”
Both men wore white trunks, Chiaverini’s trimmed in blue and Leonard’s trimmed in both blue and red. Each fighter wore black gloves and immediately met in the center of the ring to begin the afternoon’s affair.
The early going saw Leonard pumping his left jab into Chiaverini’s face. As Leonard slowly moved backward, Chiaverini inched forward and hooked to the body. The initial action set the stage for boxer versus puncher, Leonard popping and moving, Chiaverini stalking and looking to hammer to the ribcage.
Halfway through Round 2, both fighters opened up and were comfortable slugging. The crowd roared as Cosell got excited. “Now Chiaverini is becoming more aggressive. Chiaverini got in a left lead and he paid for it with those rapid Leonard combinations! Oh! A stunning right! You saw it! To the left jaw of Chiaverini!”
Both fighters slapped gloves as the bell sounded to end the second. The action was intense, however, Leonard seemed to get the better of it in the first six minutes.
Rounds 3 and 4 saw Chiaverini switch back and forth from southpaw to conventional. He continued blasting to the body and began mixing in left hooks upstairs. Leonard was taking the punches well and firing back with sizzling combinations, moving in and out with more and more ease as the seconds ticked by.
Cosell summarized the give and take. “It’s been an action fight, mostly by Sugar Ray Leonard. Chiaverini has had a hard time scoring. On three occasions, he got blows in and the Kansas City coterie went wild!”
Midway through Round 4, Leonard went to the ropes and Chiaverini bombed away to the head and to the body. While Leonard tried to fight his way off the ropes, Chiaverini bullied him in a neutral corner.
Cosell’s voice rose over the increasing wave of sound coming from inside the Caesars Sports Pavilion, “Chiaverini got in a good blow to the midsection. Now he’s telling Chiaverini to come on. Now, Leonard is just cleaning up on Chiaverini!”
The fight moved back to the center of the ring where Leonard began teeing off, swarming Chiaverini with his superior hand speed and hammering him with left jabs and vicious right crosses.
The crowd stood and applauded as Round 4 came to a close.
The bell sounded for Round 5 and, swollen and cut under the right eye, Chiaverini was unable to continue. Cosell wailed, “Chiaverini could not come out for the fifth round! He said he would have him figured out by the third or fourth round. It turned out to be both rounds! This young fighter is on the precipice of professional greatness.”
Leonard found greatness and, just five months later, stopped Wilfred Benitez to win the Welterweight crown. He would go on to win titles in five different weight classes and is ranked among the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.
Chiaverini would also meet Benitez in August of 1980. He was stopped in the eighth round and would later retire from the sport in 1983.