Feature | Apr 15 2016

Thomas Hearns reflects on his incredible fight with Marvin Hagler

"I was so tired after the first round it didn't take much to knock me down after that," Thomas Hearns tells James Slater
thomas hearns
thomas hearns  |  Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

ORIGINALLY dubbed, quite simply, “The Fight,” the world middleweight title showdown between defending and undisputed champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and former WBA welterweight champion and reigning WBC light-middleweight boss Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns was later given the tagline of “The War” by promoter Bob Arum. What unfolded that magical night inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was very definitely a fight and a war.

Today, when looking back, Hearns, who always made it a priority to leave the paying fans feeling happy with the fight they had witnessed, is glad he was half of what is often called the greatest fight of all time:

“I’m definitely very proud to have been a part of that fight, for the part I played in it,” the 57-year-old says when speaking from his home.

“I have a lot of great memories [from that fight]. I worked hard for that fight. I’m happy that a lot of people have a lot of respect for the fight. People say they’re the three greatest rounds in boxing. Let me just say, they’re the greatest three rounds that I ever put out (laughs)”

Hearns stunned Hagler with his vaunted right hand, temporarily forcing Marvin’s legs to dip, the champion having to hold until his head cleared. But with the power shot, Hearns had all but seen his most effective weapon taken out of the fight. His right hand was broken and this severely handicapped his chances of winning. Today, “The Hitman” feels the KO victory would have been his had his hand not buckled under the combined force of his own withering power and the granite in Hagler’s skull.

“Oh yes, most definitely. I knew I had to get it,” Hearns says of the stoppage win he is sure he’d have got had his hand not failed him.

“But I was so exhausted after hitting him all those times and throwing so many punches in the first couple of rounds – I hit him so hard in the first round. After that, I was so tired, it didn’t really take all that much [from Hagler] to put me down.”

Hearns, whose legs began to appear rubbery in the second-round, wasn’t the only man in the ring who was feeling the pace. Referee Richard Steele recalls, all these years later, how “spent” he was at the conclusion of this short yet incredible fight.

“I was shocked at the ferocity of that fight and the pace they set,” the retired ref said in February of this year.

“I always made sure I stayed in shape, I did my running and everything, but after the second round, I was exhausted. I remember thinking to myself, ‘there’s no way these guys can keep up this pace.’ I was spent myself. It was just three rounds of toe-to-toe action.”

After the incomparable opening session, the fight raged on for a further five minutes, with the two men unleashing yet more vicious punches on one another in mesmerising fashion, before an exhausted Hearns finally fell. There was much drama crammed into the three unforgettable rounds. Somewhere during the furnace-like action of that opening round, Hagler had suffered a cut on his forehead. It wasn’t until the third and final round of the fight that the blood began pouring to the extent that referee Richard Steele felt the need to inspect the damage. It was at this point in the fight that Hagler worried how “they would try to take the fight from me.” Hagler never trusted the officials, robbed as he was sure he had been in previous bouts. A timeout was called by Steele as the ringside doctor checked Hagler over. It was here that Marvin is supposed to have uttered a few memorable words that have been quoted many times over the years.

Today, though, Steele says Hagler did not, in response to being asked if he could see okay, say, ‘I ain’t missing him, am I!’

“No, he never said that,” Steele reveals today. “He said to me there was no way he was going to lose the fight on a cut. I told him, ‘hey, I have to get a medical opinion.’ I took him to the doctor and he let him fight on and Hagler came on to knock Hearns out.”

A dead tired Hearns was badly staggered by a lunging Hagler right to the head, the blow sending him reeling to the ropes. The rampaging champion had not been fooled by Tommy’s attempts at feigning not being hurt. Hagler instead poured it on and found the finish he was looking for in that sizzling third round, his follow up work sending Hearns crashing to the mat. It was over and no-one who saw the fight would ever forget it.

It wasn’t until years later when Hearns’ legendary coach Emanuel Steward, having refused to try and tarnish Hagler’s victory in any way, spoke out about the broken hand his fighter had suffered as well as the tale of when a Hearns hanger-on made the mistake of giving the Kronk star a leg massage in the dressing room before the fight. This, Steward said, badly weakened Tommy’s legs (causing them to begin disobeying him in the second-round). Today, Hearns is reluctant to blame the leg issue for his loss.

“(pause) Well, things like that can happen in boxing,” Tommy says of the massage error.

“But Emanuel was still in my corner and we still believed we’d win the fight. But I knew I needed to do it quick. I knew I couldn’t go the distance; there was no way I could go 12-rounds. I couldn’t box that many rounds, I was so tired. So I went for the knockout.”

Hearns has nothing but respect for Hagler today, and vice versa. In fact, Tommy says there was no real bad blood in the lead up to the brutal eight minutes they were to share in the ring.

“No, there was no real disdain at all. We talked quite a bit [in the run up to the fight] and we had a lot of respect for each other. It was just a fight to see who the better man was, it was real simple: someone had to lose. I just didn’t want that [a loss] on my record (laughs)”

Hearns, however, did want a second go at Hagler, and he is still asking Hagler to fight him again all these years later. Hearns, as his fans know, found it very hard to walk away from the sport Hagler quit in disgust after his 1987 decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard. The multi-weight king – who last fought in 2006, picking up a win over club fighter Shannon Landberg – still harbours ideas of lacing them up one last time.

“I always wanted a rematch and let me tell you, even now I tell Marvin, ‘Let’s do it one more time!’ I’d want it to be over just five-rounds though – neither of us could go 12 right now (laughs). But the whole world would go crazy, and for just a five-round fight. They would pay enormous money to see that. It would  get the whole world crazy and it would be massive.”

Of course the fight has absolutely no chance of happening now, yet a rematch would have proved intriguing back in 1986 or ’87. Tommy says he would have pretty much fought Hagler the same way if there had been a part-two.

“I’d have used my boxing skills more [in a rematch] but I’d have still tried to get him outta there. That was my instinct back then, my mindset, to get the KO. I’d still have tried to lay him out.”

Hagler goes as far as to call the win over Hearns the highlight of his career. Speaking at a dinner show a few months back, Hagler shared the following words with the gathering.

“That particular fight was the very highlight of my career,” 61-year-old Hagler says of his triumph over Hearns when looking back on his great accomplishments.

“The Tommy Hearns fight, it was just so much excitement and to this day I give Tommy a lot of credit. He came to take my title. I get chills every time I see our fight. I get chills just talking about it. That third-round, [at the time] I didn’t even think about it [the torrid pace]. You train so hard, that when you go into a fight you should be able to go in there almost blindfolded. My combinations were coming out without me even thinking and the fight just became a war. Tommy caught me with some punches, but as I’d told him I would, I came after him just like [1980s arcade game] Pac-Man!”

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