Emanuel Steward: “Whenever you think of Tommy Hearns, you think of Ray Leonard”
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani - On September 16, 1981, WBC welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard squared off against WBA champion Tommy Hearns in what would become one of the greatest fights in boxing history. The back and forth action-packed encounter was awarded ‘Fight of the Year’ honors by Ring Magazine, and for good reason. This was a match that had built up for years in the imagination of fight fans and when demand peaked and the two finally squared off it was an encounter that had exceeded all expectations. The nature of the fight, which had more twists and turns than a Hollywood thriller, was almost surreal.
Article posted on 13.07.2010
Tommy Hearns jumped out to an early lead by controlling the action and stalking Leonard. In round six, Leonard landed a great left hook that immediately shifted the momentum of the contest. Hearns was nearly out on his feet but he managed to persevere and regained his footing. By round nine, Hearns had changed strategies and began boxing Ray with great success. In a bizarre turn of events, Hearns had become the boxer and Leonard the stalker. After twelve full rounds, Hearns had regained control of the contest and appeared to be on his way to victory. That is when Leonard’s head trainer Angelo Dundee gave his now famous words of encouragement, “You’re blowing it now, son. You’re blowing it.” Halfway through the thirteenth round Leonard’s accumulation of punches caught up with Tommy and he was hurt by a good right hand. In the fourteenth, Ray smelled blood and went in for the kill prompting referee Davey Pearl to call a halt to the contest..
I was recently afforded the opportunity to discuss this fight with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. In addition to developing and training Tommy Hearns, Emanuel was also good friends with Ray Leonard which provides him with a rather unique perspective as pertaining to this famous rivalry. Steward shared his personal experience and insight surrounding this event and the warriors who made it happen. Here is what he had to say:
On training Tommy Hearns as an amateur boxer:
Well, Tommy first came to the gym when he was about ten years old I guess and he was just one, at that time, of many little junior boxers I had. I had a boxer named Bernard Mays who like in ’72-’73 was the talk of the town. As a result Tommy’s mother, like all of the mothers, brought all of the kids who were ten, eleven, twelve or thirteen to my gym because it was known that I was a guy who spent a lot of time with little junior boxers.
He was just an ordinary kid for the most part. Of the top junior boxers we had, he might have placed about number five or six or maybe less at the time. But the thing that made him unusual is he would come every day whether he had a good workout or not. Oftentimes he wouldn’t do that well, and he would catch a bus, a long bus, sometimes two buses, from the opposite side of the town with his little brother, John. All of a sudden you began to notice when he went to the tournaments he would lose, but he would lose in the semi-finals or the finals. I found out that one of the reasons was he was growing. When a guy is growing like he was each year, he may move up one new weight division but he’ll pick up maybe another inch or two in height. Therefore, he still doesn’t really get the real strength because the strength is like donated or sacrificed for the growth.
He lost in the finals to Aaron Pryor in 1976 in Miami which was a very proud loaded tournament. Michael Dokes I think was there and Ray Leonard and a lot of talented fighters—probably most of the guys who made the Olympic teams in ’76. He lost in the finals to Aaron Pryor who was a little stronger and a little more experienced. Right after that in the Miami paper Angelo Dundee, when they asked him out of all the fighters he saw which one impressed him the most in the tournament, he said, ‘The young skinny kid from Detroit’. He said that’s the one that impressed me the most and I had to go with him, even though he lost. In fact, Angelo and I were just talking about that when we were down in Tampa together when I was training Miguel. He came to the gym and we were speaking about that.
Anyway, he then lost in the National AAU to Howard Davis and then in ’77 it seemed like everything came together. It was the first time that he didn’t get any taller, he moved up to 139 and in the semi-finals of the National Golden Gloves he defeated, stopped in fact, the guy who he had lost to two years earlier named Ronnie Shields who was the defending champion. So he stopped Ronnie Shields in Hawaii and then he went on to win the National Golden Gloves. A few months later he won the National AAU Championship. He was seventeen.
On Tommy Hearns’ professional debut:
Who was the first guy to meet him in the ring and congratulate him after he wins the National AAU, and I happen to have the picture here today still, but Sugar Ray Leonard. Then he turned professional. That was in May that he won the National AAU in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was eighteen on October 18, 1977 so he turned professional the day after Thanksgiving, which I think was November 25. Ray Leonard came in to help build up the hype. You know he was very popular, and I really appreciated that because he left his family and spent Thanksgiving here in Detroit.
Tommy fought the next day, scored a knockout in the second round, and Ray was right there congratulating him. Afterwards we had a little after party at a friend of mine’s house. We went to a Denny’s restaurant and he and Tommy were laughing and joking. Tommy was eighteen and I think Ray was about twenty-one or twenty, and Tommy just turned eighteen. Never in my wildest dreams did I have any idea that these two would be fighting in a few years against each other in one of the most famous series in boxing.
Sparring sessions between Hearns and Ray Leonard:
Shortly after Tommy turned professional, Ray was fighting a guy named Floyd Mayweather Senior. So Dave Jacobs, who was Ray Leonard’s amateur trainer, had gotten very close to me as a friend. He said, “Hey Steward, can Tommy come over and box with Ray?” to help him, because they got a similar style. I said, “Okay”. So I let Tommy go by himself over to Maryland to box with Ray Leonard and he stayed at Dave Jacobs’ house. Dave called me up after they had boxed the first day. He said Tommy and Ray boxed in front of a jam packed crowd of people at the gym because Tommy was the National AAU Champion and Golden Gloves Champion. So naturally, all of those guys in Washington came to see the workout. He said, “It surprised me, but believe it or not Tommy outboxed Ray”. He said, “I was shocked because nobody’s ever outboxed Ray, but he actually outboxed Ray”. I think they boxed again and after that Tommy came home in a few days but he never said anything about the workouts.
On fans creating the hype for a mega fight between Hearns and Leonard:
I would go to Ray Leonard’s fights because Ray was always very close with me and he would invite me to come to his fights. After his fights I began hearing that the crowd was always saying, “You look good Sugar Ray, wait until The Hitman’s going to get you, blah, blah, blah” and the same thing with Tommy. Every time Tommy started winning, you could hear the same thing in the crowd and I realized that this fight was starting to build up between these two. I was going to see both fighters. Naturally with Tommy I’m there for all the fights, but also I would go to attend Ray’s fights. Then after one of his fights I went to Maryland and me, him and his then wife, Juanita, and Janks Morton sat in the living room watching the fight, and critiquing all of his fights and mistakes and so and so.
Pretty soon, here in Detroit even though Tommy is a big Detroit favorite, there were a lot of fans Ray Leonard made when he trained here in ’76 to make the Olympic Team, and because he won the Eastern Regional Olympic Trials here. So when they fought, a lot of fans were even heckling Tommy. So it was a fight you could see was building. You didn’t have to create it—it created its own self.
It got to be inevitable that the fight was going to be made. Once, when Tommy was fighting a guy named Pedro Rojas, Angelo Dundee came in to supposedly check out Tommy. Tommy knocks the guy out in the first or second round. Angelo said, “Well I guess came to see nothing, but I don’t think they should fight now because it will be a bigger fight later on”.
Tommy Hearns defeated Pipino Cuevas for the WBA welterweight championship:
It was on a Saturday afternoon, and I’ll never forget. It was really a big, big personal victory for me because when Tommy turned pro right after his eighteenth birthday I had my little scrapbook. I thought I was going to get a TV deal or something because he was the hottest amateur fighter in 1977. He was Amateur Fighter of the Year. In ’76 he was just a little too young, he lost to Howard and to Pryor but he won everything in ’77, the AAU, the Golden Gloves. I think he was undefeated in about three international contests. So I went to New York with my little scrapbook to meet Howard Cosell, and I went to CBS but everybody laughed at me. So I came in and just scraped up my own money and tried promoting all of my own fights here.
Then to see this dream come true, with him fighting for the title right here in Detroit and to come out and win the title. The Mayor, Muhammad Ali, everybody was there. And to win it the way he did, because a lot of people said I was crazy rushing him into this. When he won the title, in the afternoon early in the day we were at the hotel room and we were watching the TV on CBS and we saw Aaron Pryor win his championship in Cincinnati and then we had our fight coming up. Tommy said, “Well Aaron won his so I got to win mine”.
We knocked out Pipino Cuevas. I never expected anything like that. To knock a man like that out in two rounds who had never even been off his feet. The whole city went crazy. They watched his whole growth from starting off as an amateur and they had followed all the way through when we were drawing big crowds here. The whole city just went crazy. In the middle of the afternoon people were just running around in the street and celebrating. I just couldn’t believe that my little small skinny kid that I had been with was the champion of the world. It was a great feeling for me because I believed in him and nobody else at the time believed in him. It all happened so quickly.
Negotiations for the fight between Hearns and Leonard:
I guess Ray was boxing a guy named Larry Bonds in Syracuse. It must have been around ’81. I spoke to Mike Trainer and told him I think it’s about time we’re going to have to make that fight. The public has demanded it. Mike agreed so instead of going to the hotel where the host hotel where all of the press was hanging out because word was out that I was coming in to make the fight with Mike Trainer, we just meet at the airport in Syracuse in a little coffee shop. There was a guy who was just getting into professional boxing who wanted to learn how boxing negotiations went. He was a friend of mine who I had met through his amateur fighter Alex Ramos. His name was Shelly Finkel.
So I told Shelly, “We’re going to be meeting Mike Trainer. Since you want to see how big deals are made, why don’t you meet me.” I invited him to come and a guy came along with him. It was another young guy who was just starting to work with a thing called HBO which happened to be Ross Greenberg. I never knew that until about a year ago when Ross told me he was the other guy. Mike Trainer, myself, Janks Morton and there was a young lawyer named Greg Reed who was writing a book about the business of boxing so I just grabbed him when I was leaving and said he could go with me. The entire negotiation I don’t think went over thirty minutes. I was back on the same plane that I flew in on when I came back to Detroit. That was at that time the biggest I guess negotiations. At that time it broke all the records. It was interesting that we could make the fight so easily because the public had made the fight, and we put all egos aside. The financial part was made very easy and quick and we didn’t have to go dealing with networks or promoters or anything because Tommy was free and Ray was free. That was on a Saturday. On Tuesday I got the actual contract exactly as we had agreed verbally from Mike Trainer. I met with my lawyer, John Noonan, who looked at it and that’s how we made the fight.
The publicity tour leading up to the big fight between Hearns and Leonard:
Then we started the publicity tour. I don’t think I remember anyone having a publicity tour before that, going to the different cities and threatening each other and all of that stuff here, but I knew all that time it was going to be a very , very, very tough fight because in that gym everybody loved Ray Leonard. Even though Tommy was our fighter, Ray Leonard trained there in ’76 for the Olympics I think for maybe a month. Everybody had so much love for Ray there. To some degree it was getting to be like bragging rights, local bragging rights between the Maryland and DC guys and the Detroit guys so a lot of emotions started building up as the fight was being made and I knew going into the fight that it was going to be a tough, tough fight though.
On training Tommy and the days leading up to the fight:
Tommy was sparring with the best sparring partners, Caveman Lee, Dujuan Johnson, Milton McCrory, Marlon Starling. In fact, he broke Marlon Starling’s jaw when Marlon came in to spar with him. Marlon was giving him some good boxing, too. They were really going at it hot and heavy and the next day he came into my room after training and told me that his jaw was hurt.
Going into the fight, the tension and the nervousness all started building up and then there got to be really a lot of anger by the time the fight really had taken place. Tommy was training and it was the only time in his whole career that he and I had arguments and a lot of friction. The fight was just so big at that time and everyone was naturally trying to get close to him and telling me he should be running the camp like Ali really ran his camp. Angelo wasn’t really the boss, and he should be doing this. Then we had the night before the fight, instead of me staying with him, he went out there having a big party, a celebrity party, a pre-fight party with everybody. I learned so much from that that after that I can have a suite in my contract and he had a suite, but I stayed in the same room with Tommy. We stayed right there in the same place. I learned you have to be close with your fighter and know what he’s doing all the time.
He went into this diet stuff making sure he was going to make the weight eating a lot of tuna fish, cottage cheese and stuff. He wanted to make sure he was in good shape. We went running in the morning at 7:30, and then in the evening I had a look at him and there he was with all the guys doing a second run. His weight was down, and we had announced we were going to quit sparring at a certain time. I think about four days before the fight or a week before or whatever, and Tommy insisted on sparring seven rounds just a few days before the fight with Caveman Lee and Dujuan Johnson. It was just he wanted to make sure he was in shape, leaving no stones unturned as we say.
Tommy Hearns weighing in at 145 pounds for the fight:
Ray was a little bit more relaxed in training. He was more experienced at pacing himself. I remember him saying when he took a few days off he would go swimming and relax, but he had been in bigger fights—the fight with Duran, which was a big huge fight already. So he had a little more experience in big fights and didn’t have all the anxiety. When we weighed in, Tommy was 145. I said, “Oh my God”, and I couldn’t check his weight the day before that because he just said he didn’t want to be bothered with checking his weight. That’s when I’ve learned, you can’t be away from your fighter. You have to stay right there all the time with him. Nobody knows what’s going into his mind as well as what he’s eating.
When he was 145 Ray and everyone looked like they were shocked because they figured he would have a problem making the weigh because if you ever remember that fight, Tommy was a skinny welterweight. In a lot of the other fights he was a big welterweight but that fight, that little fine line that you’re body can maybe make it to 147-146, but when you started getting to 145, and I think we had to weigh in the day of the fight, too. It’s just sometimes your body gets to that certain point and you can’t go beyond that because you start crossing the lines, like crossing state lines from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Maybe you just went across the road a little bit or maybe ten feet, but it’s a whole new set of rules, the body changes and everything when you get too light.
Sugar Ray Leonard versus Tommy Hearns, September 16, 1981:
From that, we came in the fight doing good and I saw him get hurt in the about the sixth round or something. They were having an exchange and I noticed he got caught with a short left hook and I never saw him hurt in his career. I saw that every time he would throw a right hand, it would be like there was some kind of way Ray was catching him with the hook. So we changed plans. After he had gotten hurt I said, “Look, we’re going to have to change strategies”. Because of his amateur background where he was a great boxer we resorted to change strategies. I said, “Let’s go back to the amateurs, we’re going to have to go back and start boxing” and he never really could throw his right hand good because for whatever reason, Ray would kind of catch him with a hook when he threw the right hand.
Ray had problems with Tommy, because Tommy could box well and he had a little move where just when Ray would be getting set to try to finish him, Tommy would throw a right hand and move off to the right at the same time almost turning it into like a right jab. That little one step move kept Ray from getting his rhythm together. But when I’ve watched that fight, I’ve only watched it three times because it’s painful for me, it was really a phenomenal display of beautiful boxing techniques on two great, gifted, coordinated athletes and they got a chance to give a demonstration on everything in boxing—the movement, the head, the body, the jabs, the in and out, combinations, ring intelligence.
As the fight went on, I was really worrying a lot because I know Ray Leonard. In addition to being an extremely talented fighter, and I worked his corner in a few international matches when I was on the US National Coaching Staff, so I said, “Oh my God”. Going down the stretch I knew it was going to be rough because Ray Leonard has always been a tremendous finisher. Even in the first fight with Duran, I thought he won that fight. All of the problems he had early in that fight, but he finished up the last three rounds blazing away and as an amateur that was one of his strong points so I knew we were going to have some problems going down the stretch.
I think about the twelfth or thirteenth round Tommy had like come back on the scorecards and was, I think, winning. The crowd was all into him and at one point he even waved to the crowd when he came back. Everybody was so excited about the fact that he came back in the fight, but I was nervous. I was not feeling good because I was still concerned about the weight, which I knew was definitely way too light, and also knowing that Ray Leonard was going to be coming. I just knew Ray. I knew it was going to be a strong, strong finish by Ray, and I didn’t know if we were going to be able to hold up. So I was never that confident.
Then it seemed like it was the twelfth round. I was talking to him and his head like just dropped for a minute like when a car just runs out of gas and I realized he didn’t have enough carbohydrates or calories to burn up and it was going to be rough. Ray came out there and did what he was supposed to do which was always his tradition. Ray’s a very physically strong guy. He looks small and all of that, but he’s one of those I call gifted guys like a little gymnastics type of guy. Those guys are so well coordinated and have tremendous strength, and in most of his fights you never saw him get too muscular. He was always physically strong. In some of his fights in the amateurs when I was coaching him, he actually went out and resorted in the last parts of the fight to physically what just we call “dogging the guy” because he could do that. Even though he looked like a baby face, he was an extremely physically strong little tough guy when he wanted to be.
Tommy, when I saw him get hurt, and everyone was talking about it was one punch—it really was no one punch, it was just Ray came on and was just too strong for him. When the fight was stopped, I never complained. A lot of people said oh you should have complained, he was ahead on points. I knew it was over. Tommy barely could walk back to the corner. He couldn’t have made it any further. It was really strange. I was looking at his face, not one scratch on his face. Ray’s eye was still swollen up really bad from those punches he had taken, mainly those right hands, and jabs I guess. Tommy didn’t have a mark on him still but he was totally drained. He was finished. He didn’t have the strength to hold up and Ray came on strong, and Ray could do that for almost twenty rounds if he had to. That’s one of his greatest assets. In addition to all the super talents that he had as a boxer, it was still that tremendous physical strength that he could call on and the stamina going down the stretch.
The Rematch and the Aftermath:
It’s strange that we’re speaking about this, because just last Wednesday when we were being honored, Ray , Freddie Roach and I, at an affair in Beverly Hills. He was in the ring and he acknowledged with the microphone that his two roughest fights he had were with Tommy Hearns. He said, “I won the first won, and I definitely lost the second fight. Regardless of what the judges said, I lost the second fight”. That’s the only time I’ve ever known of a fighter that has publically acknowledged that he lost a fight, so I have a lot of respect for him for that. But it was the type of a fight that if one guy had a good round you know the other boxer’s going to be coming at you the next round. Ray had the same attitude. He was telling me, “If I had a good round with Tommy Hearns, I knew Tommy was going to come stronger the next round”.
That’s what made both fights really. We all talk about the first one, but the second was really a doozy. When the bell rang, Ray was blazing away and he had Tommy hurt in the twelfth round. They would always make great fights because of the styles. Ray was saying that “In both fights if you added all the rounds together, Tommy always outboxed me still—he always won more rounds”, but Ray’s great stamina and determination is what brought him through the first fight, and really even though almost everybody, and I feel Tommy won the second fight, but still, when the bell rang Ray was very strong again in that twelfth round.
With those guys, because of their make-up, as soon as one guy had a good spot the other guy’s coming back. That’s what made those special. They were coming back and forth in the same round. In the first fight, Ray is having a tough fight, then he gets Tommy hurt and for two rounds he beats the hell out of Tommy from pillar to post. Then Tommy comes back in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. He takes over again and then Ray comes storming back again and stops him. In the second fight you could see the same thing. Even the rounds where Ray went down, he wound up blazing away in those same rounds.
So it’s just two guys that had the determination that they refused to lose and whenever they could feel defeat trying to slide in they would just freak out and go crazy. That’s what made the Ali and Joe Frazier fights. Great fights are made by the mindsets of the boxers. Not so much the skill level, the skill level can be phenomenal with a lot of guys but they just don’t have that mindset and determination to win and even if they think there’s any doubt that they may have possibly lost a round they would just panic and anxiety would set in.
The Possibility of a Third Fight:
I was always interested in that fight, but I don’t think Ray wanted it at the time. I don’t recall exactly what happened, but I definitely wanted to see that fight like a lot of people. Even if we lost, still, I feel sometimes there are certain fights that the public really deserves.
On how future historians will view Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns:
I think their careers will definitely be intertwined. You know I was telling Tommy, I said, “You know, in your case you had a great career—all of the knockouts of Cuevas, and Duran, James Shuler, Roland—but still your most notable fights, your signature fights are going to be the Leonard fight and Hagler”. I said one thing you have to do, since we couldn’t get the Hagler rematch, was “beat Ray Leonard”. So when the second fight came even though it was officially called a draw, that is what redeemed Tommy Hearns’ career and credibility with nearly everybody and the general public I would say.
Whenever you think of Tommy Hearns, you think of Ray Leonard. It’s funny, you could have fifty or sixty fights but it’s always in a boxer’s career, it’s one or two fights that really will be the only thing that will be remembered when time goes on. It’s unfortunate, but that is the reality. It’s like one of the things that happened with Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor. Alexis was a great fighter, but whenever you mention his name you think of Aaron Pryor. I mean it’s like he had none of those other great fights that he had in all of those divisions. Ray will have the luxury of being remembered for the Hagler and the Hearns fight, but I think more so it will be for the Hearns fight because it was such great drama and it was a phenomenal fight that went back and forth. Whenever one guy had a great round the other guy was going to come back the next round. If you think of Tommy Hearns, you’ll think of Ray Leonard. Hagler and Hearns, because of the wilder excitement of that fight, but all around, when you just think of Hagler you don’t necessarily think of Hearns that much all the time, but those two, Tommy and Ray, will forever be linked together just like Ali and Frazier.
Similarities between Hearns-Leonard and Pacquiao-Mayweather:
Well with time, things have become a lot more complicated now. I mean the things today with blood testing, and so many charges of this or that, and Pacquiao suing Mayweather for slander. It’s just a different time, but I think the fight should be made and will be made. But it was a lot easier then because at the time when we made our fight, we didn’t have to speak to anyone about it. Trainer and I met. I was the one that spoke for Tommy, I was his manager and Mike was the guy representing Ray Leonard and we sat down, made a deal, and agreed to it. Fighting was just simpler. Everything now is just so much more complicated.
Then we got to check when one promoter may not get along with the other promoter and because of that, that’s a major problem. Then when the fight’s made, one promoter has to make sure how much he makes compared to the other promoter, and there is fighting over the foreign TV rights, and then sometimes one guy may be with Showtime and another guy’s with HBO, which we had that problem which made it difficult for Lennox and Mike that time. But times have changed and everyone is fighting to try and get some edge but at that time it was much simpler.
What made Tommy and Ray such a great fight was it was two guys who gave a great display of everything. I mean Tommy being out on his feet in the sixth round, and battling his way back for the next six rounds to try and regain control, Ray coming storming back all out again. Even during the rounds themselves, at one point one guy would have a good spot and then the other guy would come back right away. It was just a really great fight and you don’t see that today. The fighters today, everybody’s fighting except for a few guys, a lot of them are fighting safety first fights. They land, they fight intelligently, they don’t want to take risks. It’s just a little bit of a different type of fight. Aside for Manny Pacquiao, and that’s what makes him such a popular fighter I think.
Everything is more complicated now, and at that time you had two guys who were both balanced boxers, punchers, technicians, great amateur backgrounds, and all of the elements of a great fight. Then you had the element of Ray being so closely identified with people here in Detroit from where he stayed and trained at the Kronk Gym in ’76 and then Tommy spent a lot of time back and forth in Maryland so Tommy even had a lot of friends from Ray’s hometown. It was just one of those really great situations and you just don’t get that anymore. You had even the two cities. In the amateurs, it would always be Kronk fighters in the finals would always have their hardest fights with the guys from the DC area. So it was just like a carryover from the amateurs where it was Kronk against the DC guys for a lot of finals and the National Championships.
But you don’t have that today. None of these guys are really like that. Pacquiao’s got his Filipino thing and that’s about it. It’s a fight that I think is going to be made because the public is going to make it happen.
On how he believes Hearns and Leonard would fare in today’s welterweight division:
Beyond any doubt I think they would dominate. I think Tommy and Ray are superior fighters than the fighters today in the welterweight division.
I was just glad to be a part of it for those two fights. They were two of the best fights I saw where it was a great display of all around talent—superb boxing skills, punching skills, determination, guys both coming back after they would be hurt and knocked down. Even in the third or fourth round when Ray was knocked down by Tommy, if you look at it at the end of that round he actually came back and won that last part of that round even. So it was just that type of a fight where you were on pins and needles if you were working in the corner because even though you may have a good round or a good spot you know that automatically triggers the other guy to come back again.
As time has moved on, it’s hard for me to realize that next year will be thirty years since the first fight. To see these guys when they are together, when I saw Ray which was last week, he still looks like he could make 147 and Tommy weighs about 175 which is lighter than when he fought his cruiserweight fights. They’re good friends. One of the greatest things is when they have events and they have both of them there together. People love it. In Mayweather’s last fight with Mosley they brought both of them out and they were extremely popular with all of the press and the media. You couldn’t get Ali and Joe Frazier to do that too much, because the hostility was still there between those guys, but Tommy and Ray have a lot of respect for each other.
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