FIRST, a little myth busting. It was once said that the only thing worse for your health than challenging Thomas Hearns to a fight was calling him “Tommy.” But the man who also went by the “Hitman” and “Motor City Cobra” monikers admits that such rumors were just that.
“My name is Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and some people just shortened it to Tommy, but I didn’t have a problem with it,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s still my name. As long as you called me.”
Oh, they called him, all right. And whenever presented with a fight, Hearns answered, to the tune of 61 wins, just five losses, and one draw. Along the way, he earned world titles in six weight classes from welterweight to light heavyweight during a pro career that began in 1977 and ended in 2006, making it no surprise that the calls the 60-year-old gets these days are for various boxing halls of fame.
“Mainly, I guess it’s because I didn’t have boring fights,” said Hearns when asked about his appeal. “When I came to perform, I did just that. I came to put on a show and leave the people an everlasting thought in their mind about what I did in the fight.”
Many fighters may say that, but in hindsight, it wasn’t always the case. Yet mention Hearns’ name to any fight fan, and the immediate images are his two classics with Sugar Ray Leonard, his blistering knockouts of Roberto Duran and Pipino Cuevas, or his 1985 war with Marvin Hagler, a bout widely considered to be the greatest three-round fight in boxing history.
Take away what happened in those fights, and the names alone inspire awe. Add in the likes of Iran Barkley, Wilfred Benitez, Virgil Hill, Bruce Curry, Dennis Andries and Juan Roldan, and if all Hearns did was show up, that would be enough for a call from the hall. But he didn’t just show up; he showed up to fight against the best, and the world loved him for it. It’s why we still talk about him in reverent tones more than four decades after his pro debut. How many of today’s boxers will receive the same treatment?
“People are not interested in thrilling the audience,” Hearns said of today’s fight scene. “The audience deserves the thrills because they’re the people who come and pay that money for a ringside ticket or even to just be in the building. So you’ve got to give people what they want to see so they can keep coming. If you don’t do that, then the people will say, ‘Well, I’ll spend my money on something else. I went to that fight a while ago and he didn’t show us nothing.’”
Hearns never had to worry about drawing a crowd. A stellar amateur who fought the likes of Aaron Pryor, Howard Davis Jr, Bobby Joe Young and Ronnie Shields, Hearns turned pro under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward in the legendary Kronk Gym. And while he could box behind a whipping jab as he used his 78” wingspan, Hearns instead embraced the art of the fight in a gym where you either fought or got run out into the streets of Detroit.
“You better know it,” he laughs. “Down in Kronk, we’d say if you don’t come to perform, if you don’t feel like fighting, don’t go to Kronk. You come to Kronk and you’re not ready, you get your hat brought to you.”
Hearns brought that attitude with him into rings throughout the “Motor City,” and though his lanky frame didn’t exactly mark him as an intimidating force, once his right hand crashed into an opponent’s jaw, it was all he needed to build a reputation as one of the most feared punchers in the game. Add in a style that saw him walk down opponents with his left hand by his side and his right hand cocked and ready to fire, and Hearns wasn’t just good, he may have been the coolest fighter in an era filled with them.
“It wasn’t so much that I was cool, it was just that I was trying to create a memory for the people to have so that they would always remember that when Thomas Hearns came out there, be on alert because the first few rounds, he’s gonna give you a show and try to get the job done,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to go the distance all the time. I wanted to go out there and get the job done. And if you didn’t want to be in there, guess what, you go home early.”
Most did go home early. Hearns ended 20 of his first 28 wins within three rounds, and when he faced long-reigning WBA welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas in 1980, he sent the gritty Mexican to defeat in less than two rounds. The win began laying the foundation for a SuperFight with Sugar Ray Leonard, and the two would meet for the first time in September 1981.
What followed that night in Las Vegas was an epic back-and-forth battle that saw Hearns move from bull to matador after getting rocked early by Leonard, and before Sugar Ray roared back to score a 14th round TKO victory, Hearns led on all three scorecards.
The rivalry wouldn’t get a second chapter until 1989, and in their rematch, Hearns dropped Leonard twice and apparently evened the score with his foe before the judges returned a controversial draw verdict. Later, Leonard would admit in these pages that Hearns deserved the nod, and while “The Hitman” appreciates the gesture, he would have preferred that the judges felt the same way.
“That’s when it makes a difference, when it shows up on the record,” Hearns said. “And that was good of him to say that to the world, but I want to see it on the record. [Laughs] I’m very happy and thankful he said I did win the fight, but to the world, it doesn’t mean anything. The judges had the final say.”
Leonard’s words do mean a lot, though. So do his actions, as do those of another rival, Roberto Duran, who Hearns knocked out in two rounds in 1984. It may have been Hearns’ defining victory and Duran’s most devastating loss, yet today, a glimpse at social media will see Duran wearing a Thomas Hearns t-shirt, and Leonard doing the same. It’s something fight fans may have never expected to see back when the Four Kings (Hearns, Duran, Leonard, Marvin Hagler) dominated the boxing world in the 80s.
“You’ve got to understand one thing,” Hearns said. “With both of those guys, we put on a fight and we made each other a lot of money.”
Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s 1985 win over Hearns still produces chills among anyone who watches it, simply for the 15 rounds of ferocity that fit into seven minutes and 52 seconds.
“The toughest fight he had in his life was with me,” Hearns said.
Hearns chuckles, knowing better than most how the boxing world turns. But while networks and promoters these days bow to the altar of the unbeaten record, as time goes on, it’s evident that true fans of the sport care more about who a fighter fought and how they fought, rather than the numbers in the win and loss columns.
“I was trying to make a statement and let them know that I’m not a scaredy-cat,” Hearns said of his fighting philosophy. “If you put me in there, you put me in for a reason and I’m there to get the job done. And whoever’s in there and trying to stop me, he’s got another thing coming because I don’t quit that easy. I don’t give up and I won’t go away. I’ll put a show on. That was my thing.”
Years after his last trip into the ring, a tenth-round TKO of Shannon Landberg in 2006, Hearns admits that he doesn’t go back too often to look at those shows he gave us, but he understands why his fans do, and that may be the thing he’s most proud of.
“Most of the time, when you put on a great performance and give the people what they want to see, they will go back and view them over and over again because there’s excitement, and when there’s excitement, that gets the blood flowing fast, and when your blood’s flowing fast, you’re ready to see some more stuff.”
Few got the blood flowing like Tommy, I mean Thomas, Hearns.
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