It was Leo Randolph’s turn. His compatriots from the 1976 Olympic Games who, like him, had won gold medals and received the plaudits of the American public, had already fought on national television, gotten their share of the spotlight for their professional exploits. Leon Spinks had even defeated Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight championship of the world, while welterweight Sugar Ray Leonard had put together 25 straight wins in less than three years before taking Wilfred Benitez’s world title. Both fighters, along with Michael Spinks and Howard Davis Jr., had fought numerous times on national television, had enjoyed the attention that comes with being an exciting new star of boxing. Now Leo Randolph was getting his chance.
Ricardo Cardona was the WBA super bantamweight champion of the world. He had won the title from Korea’s Soo-Hwan Hong in May of 1978 and defended it four times against Asian fighters whose managers sought to gain a world title at 122 pounds without having to face the division’s true king, the devastating Wilfredo Gomez, who owned the WBC belt. But Cardona turned back those challenges, the Colombian showing he was a fighter to be reckoned with, his height and reach plus decent power making him a tough outing for anyone.
In fact, Randolph was viewed as the underdog going into this match. Compared to Cardona he was relatively inexperienced with a record of 16-1 compared to the champion’s mark of 24-4-3. Cardona had proven he was world-class while Randolph had yet to convince many that he was ready to take the big step up to the elite level. But the native of Tacoma, Washington enjoyed the benefit of a hometown crowd, the match taking place in nearby Seattle, while Cardona was enticed by the big U.S. television money and a chance to raise his profile stateside.
The fight got off to a fast start with neither man holding back, Randolph looking to close the distance and establish his sharp left jab and take away the champion’s reach advantage. His early success prompted him to pick up the pace and be even more aggressive in the rounds that followed, but that almost led to disaster. In round five Cardona stepped in and cracked Randolph with a vicious straight right that sent the challenger to the canvas. For a moment it appeared the hometown crowd might leave disappointed but Leo beat the count and picked up where he had left off, driving forward and letting his hands go, beating the taller man to the punch over and over again.
It was a fierce battle through the middle rounds but by the ninth Randolph appeared to have seized control. He was simply too aggressive and relentless for Cardona. At times the champion did catch Randolph coming in with uppercuts or left hooks, but the Olympian took Cardona’s best punches and just tore back in for more, unloading his own heavy shots with both hands.
In the 13th Randolph hurt the champion with a hard left. Cardona managed to back away and escape the challenger’s follow-up attack but it was clear he was weakening under the constant pressure. And in the 15th and final round Randolph found the energy to win with authority. He drove Cardona to the ropes and unleashed a seemingly endless barrage of power punches, pummeling the champion into helplessness. As the crowd roared the referee broke a clinch and the dazed Cardona didn’t budge from the ropes but stood there, seemingly resigned to taking more punishment, Randolph landing blow after blow. Finally, a helpless Cardona was rescued and Randolph and his fans rejoiced.
“I had never seen him fight before,” said the new champion, “but that’s how it was when I fought in [the amateurs]. It was my plan to bring the fight to him and force him to go on the defensive. After two rounds, I knew it was working. Right now I just want to celebrate and be with my family. You know, world champion — that’s a big thing!”
The victory put Randolph alongside the other ’76 gold medalists who had already achieved success in the pros and overnight it made him a star and a celebrity, but Leo’s time at the top would be brief. Just three months later he would suffer an upset defeat to Argentina’s Sergio Palma who stopped Randolph in five rounds. To the surprise of many, the young Olympian promptly retired and never fought again. The following year Cardona would get a chance to regain his title but he too fell to Palma, the bout stopped in round twelve. — Neil Crane