By Matthew Hurley: There is a moment in every great athlete’s career that can be pointed to and qualified as the apex of his collective achievement. Disagreement amongst fans as to just what that particular moment was is usually born out of an almost fanatical love for the athlete in question. Debate in the world of sports has always been passionate, over-the-top and endless.
On a hot summer night in 1984 WBC super welterweight champion Thomas Hearns squared off against Roberto Duran in what should have been a unification matchup. Duran had been stripped of his WBA crown, which he had taken from Davey Moore in an inspired performance on his thirty-second birthday at Madison Square Garden, for deciding to face Hearns instead of number one challenger Mike McCallum.
But money talks and McCallum, not yet the celebrated fighter he would become, was not in that rarefied league that Hearns and Duran belonged to. A contract with McCallum would have been missing many zeros in the dollar amount. In other words, high risk, low reward.
So, something of a dream bout ensued. Only it ended in nightmarish fashion for Duran, who was coming off a competitive fifteen round decision loss to middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Hearns was still in the process of rebuilding his career and his image after a heartbreaking fourteenth round TKO loss to Sugar Ray Leonard three years earlier in their classic welterweight unification showdown. So disillusioned was Hearns that after moving up to the one hundred fifty-four pound weight class, he dropped his infamous “Hitman” moniker in favor of his first sobriquet, “The Motor City Cobra”.
In fact, it was a much different Thomas Hearns who emerged from that defeat than fans were used to. Suddenly the fearsome bomber reverted to the classical boxer of his amateur days. Back then, in the early to mid-1970s, you could count Tommy’s knockout wins on one hand. But the technique, ring savvy and, in particular, the brilliant, lancing jab, would serve Hearns well years later in the professional ranks when his opponent would not fall.
In his super welterweight title bout against master boxer Wilfred Benitez in December of 1982 Hearns stopped looking for the knockout early after breaking his brittle right hand. Instead, he engaged in a tactical, yet entertaining chess match, using that whip-like jab and smooth footwork to come away with a majority decision victory. His second belt in as many divisions.
Unfortunately, the excitement and menacing aura that surrounded Hearns pre-Leonard dissipated and thoughts of him eventually fighting Hagler weren’t taken too seriously – particularly after Hearns had pulled out of a title try against the middleweight champ in 1982 after suffering an injury in training to that fragile right hand.
Aware of all this, and eager to become boxing’s number one star after Sugar Ray Leonard’s retirement, Tommy not only reverted back to the “Hitman” nickname but openly predicted he would knockout Duran in two rounds. A prediction interpreted by most as nothing more than pre-fight hype.
The fight itself started tentatively until Hearns began backing the heavily bearded Duran up against the ropes. Tommy mixed his shots up and down, often pulling Roberto’s attention away from the right hand by jabbing to the belly. The ploy worked near the end of the first round when Hearns jabbed downstairs and then came over the top with a right cross, sending the iron chinned Duran to the canvas. Roberto got to his feet, looking more confused than hurt, and then desperately tried to keep a maniacal “Hitman” off him for the remaining seconds of the stanza.
His red gloved fists a blur, Hearns sent Duran to the canvas yet again with a left hook to the rib cage that practically lifted the Panamanian off the floor. At the bell Hearns, perhaps a bit shocked himself, extended his left hand to Duran and the two touched gloves before Roberto stumbled off to the wrong corner.
At the bell for the second round Duran landed a right to the body that knocked Hearns a little off balance and then connected with a quick, flush right hand to the jaw that only made Hearns smile.
The white, oversized gum shield that Hearns wore, along with his Jeri curled hair gave him a creepy, menacing appearance. As he glided across the ring on his spindly legs, his lips pulled back in a mixture of glee and malevolence, he looked nothing short of a black vampire in gold trunks stalking his prey.
The final sequence that ended the fight remains one of the most startling knockouts in boxing history.
Again, backing Duran up against the ropes, the “Hitman” jabbed softly twice to the belly and then, with Duran’s head straight up, he came over the top with a crushing right hand to the jaw that sent Roberto crashing down face-first with a sickening thud.
There would be no count. Duran’s corner men rushed into the ring, pulling the semi-conscious fighter to his feet and then dumping him onto his stool.
In a career filled with so many exciting moments, it remains Tommy’s signature victory. A highlight reel knockout that still provides chills.
Hearns would then go on to knock out top contender Fred Hutchings in front of an appreciative hometown Detroit audience before finally colliding with Marvin Hagler for the middleweight crown. That night, April 15th 1985, both men attacked one another with a ferocity not seen in the middleweight division since the days of Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano.
Hearns would be taken out on his shield after three brutal rounds, but as in his loss to Sugar Ray Leonard he had once again solidified his fan friendly, warrior personae. As HBO announcer Jim Lampley later commented, “Hearns’ career proved that great fights can establish a fighter’s greatness, whether the record shows he won or lost.”
But it was that night of June 15th 1984 against Duran when Hearns truly began to solidify his greatness. Amazing performances had come before, and there would be more to come, but Tommy’s destruction of Roberto Duran marked his peak, a moment of perfection in a remarkably long and prolific career.
This year, after his final bout against non-descript Shannon Landberg in 2006, Thomas Hearns finally became eligible for induction into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame. Somehow it seems appropriate that he will be the last of the so called Fabulous Four – Hagler, Leonard and Duran rounding out that foursome – to be inducted, for he always seemed to be struggling to get out of the shadow of the other three.
Duran was the all-time great lightweight who, despite losing several bouts in the latter half of his career when he jumped up in weight, remained a beloved, roughish character and fistic icon.
Hagler is universally recognized as one of the greatest middleweights in history and remains a noted inspiration to hard-nosed, blue-collar fighters everywhere. His yearly appearance at the International Boxing Hall Of Fame induction ceremony weekend in June, and his autograph, is perhaps the most coveted of all the fighters who attend.
Leonard, the most popular and, arguably, the best boxer of his era, has been able to maintain his celebrity status in the years after his retirement. Sugar Ray was one of those very few athletes who transcended his sport and whose personae still holds cache in nearly every avenue he treads.
And then there is Thomas Hearns. So often cited for losing the two the biggest fights of his career – his first go round with Leonard and the unforgettable slugfest with Hagler – instead of his sixty-one victories. Tommy has often found his reputation in an odd sort of fistic limbo.
But losses, coupled with exhilarating wins, such as the knockout of Duran, were what made the “Hitman” the most exciting fighter of the 1980s. In his prime, were he part of a pay-per-view event, fans never felt unease in plunking down their hard-earned cash because Thomas always put on a show.
His nemesis, Ray Leonard, who defeated and drew with him, now often opines, “Tommy probably could’ve been even greater than he was, but he had that Kamikaze mentality. He’d rather go to war, even if he didn’t have to.”
Leonard’s longtime trainer Angelo Dundee echoed that very sentiment when he said to the late writer George Kimball, “Give Tommy Ray’s balance and he probably beats them all.”
And yet sometimes it’s the flaws in an individual’s make-up that makes him truly compelling. Hearns, despite all his physical advantages, loved to mix it up and lived to please his fans. In a revealing interview with ABC Sports before he defeated Dennis Andries in 1987 for the WBC light heavyweight title, he talked about his loss to Hagler two years earlier.
“I noticed,” he began slowly, and somewhat sadly, “how people were disappointed in me. But little did they know… I was trying. I was trying to come through for them.”
That sentiment only adds to his greatness because it is so damn unselfish. Of course Tommy wanted to win for himself, and he wanted to make history by strapping on multiple championship belts in multiple divisions, but it all would have been a hollow victory had he done so in boring fashion. The cheers of the crowd were nearly as important to him as winning.
That may also explain his remarkable sportsmanship after he lost because he knew the dramatic nature of those losses provided scintillating entertainment for the fans. Tommy always embraced his conqueror, be it Leonard, Hagler or Iran Barkley, acknowledged their effort and would then smile and wave to the crowd. No excuses, no complaining, just a stoic, dignified man who knew he had given it everything he had. And what more can we ask of an athlete who makes the big bucks?
It’s fighters like Thomas Hearns that boxing fans now often lament when they wonder why the sport has lost some of its luster – at least in regards to the mainstream public.
His thunderous right cross, that jab that he could turn over into a left hook in the blink of an eye, and that “Kamikaze” mentality made any “Hitman” bout a must see event. You always knew something exciting and dramatic was going to happen when he stepped through the ring ropes. You knew it, because he was special, a once in a lifetime fighter.
Yes, he fought on too long and his current situation – having to auction off many of his ring possessions to pay the Tax Man – is all too familiar. But that sad cliché aside, he has finally found himself to be a beloved figure in the boxing world. More so than when he was an active fighter because the rabid boxing fan, whether they were a Leonard, Hagler or Duran devotee to begin with back in those glory days of the 1980s, now recognize just how important Thomas Hearns was in that mix.
He was the one who brought both fire and ice to the ring. He could be wickedly brutal or coldly efficient. He won, he lost and he never failed to entertain. And now, after all these years, he will finally have his name up on the Hall Of Fame wall where he belongs. It took a lot of pain and sacrifice, but Thomas Hearns wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.