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28 MAY 2018


Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns: When Losing Begets Greatness

Hagler vs Hearns  (the war)
Hagler vs Hearns (the war)

By Dave McKee: Thomas Hearns is not remembered as a loser. He is remembered as a former protégé of the great Emanuel Steward and six-division world champion. The only stumbling blocks to his first championship, the WBA welterweight title, were two fights in which he condescended to go the distance rather than knock out his opponents. His three round war with Marvin Hagler is remembered as ‘the greatest three rounds in boxing history’.

Defeat set Hearns on his path to eventual greatness. And in loss he elevated the stature of two all-time great boxers. The magnitude of Hearns’ character resourcefulness as a boxer was made evident in these losses, and what was revealed leaves no room for shame. In losing Thomas Hearns rose above all but a few of his peers.

Having found his way as a teenager to Detroit’s Kronk gym, laboratory of genius boxing trainer Emanuel Steward, the tall, skinny Hearns found himself on the anvil. Steward’s gym forged champions, and this involved a lot of heat and a great deal of pounding.

Hearns’ first loss of deep significance came in a sparring match with Bernard ‘Superbad’ Mays. At the time Hearns was confident, flush with amateur success. He would eventually amass an amateur record of 155-8 and win the 1977 National Amateur Athletic Union Light Welterweight Championship and National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship.

This day he was literally broken and remade.

Mays crushed Hearns’ nose. Some young men would have quit the ring. Hearns’ reacted with disgust and determination. He returned to the gym a different fighter, and the change was evident to everyone present. To this day the effects of that punch show like a badge on Hearns’ face.
From this setback in training Hearns found the strength to carry him through thirty-two professional fights. In 1981, coming into his thirty-third contest and fourth defense of his WBA welterweight title, Hearns seemed unstoppable. He had earned the nickname ‘Hitman’ by amassing a knockout percentage of 94%.

The opponent in this contest was a serious contender. Sugar Ray Leonard was an Olympic gold medal winner and the WBC welterweight champion.
Hearns and Leonard clashed in a bout for the ages. Before the opening bell tolled everyone knew what to expect: Hearns would jab and move and attempt to crush Leonard with his unbelievably powerful right hand while Leonard boxed and danced and boxed some more.

This is just how the fight began. In round two Leonard was hurt, but recovered. He caught Hearns in the sixth period, and, for the first time in his professional career, Hearns was stunned. Then, as the fight unfolded, roles reversed. Hearns was forced to box to survive and Leonard took the role of pressure fighter. For two rounds Hearns held on, then began to box and accumulate points, winning rounds. Finally, Leonard knocked Hearns out in the 14th round.

Ring Magazine named this contest the 1981 Fight of the Year. Sugar Ray Leonard was on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but a significant piece of his legend was written that night. Hearns lost a fight for the first time as a professional, but he showed courage, skill and heart. He had lost his belt, but he displayed championship quality.

From this loss Hearns moved forward, adding pounds to his tall, thin frame. He won eight fights and collected the WBC junior middleweight title. He then challenged Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight titles. This fight produced as much hype as the bout with Leonard, and Hagler advertised his intentions on a cap inscribed with three letters: WAR.

War was right. From the opening bell Hagler swarmed Hearns, dropping bombs. Hearns fired his missile-like right hand and connected. When this happened his opponents generally surrendered, but he was not facing an ordinary opponent. Hagler remained standing and Hearns’ hand broke on impact.

They both continued to punch with abandon. Hearns fought bravely through the pain from his maimed hand and opened a cut in Hagler’s forehead. By the third round the cut was bleeding badly enough that referee Richard Steele considered stopping the fight. Responding to his own injury as bravely as had Hearns, Hagler increased his attack, countering a Hearns’ jab and knocking him out.

Marvin Hagler is considered one of the greatest middleweights to have strapped on gloves. The three rounds he fought with Hearns are said by many to be the greatest three rounds in boxing history, and the first round was named by Ring Magazine the greatest single round in boxing history.
Once again Hearns lost. For a second time his loss elevated an already accomplished champion to the rarest of heights, and again Hearns found no reason for shame in his loss. He lost a war, but he stood on Olympian heights to wage it.

When Hearns’ nose was broken in the Kronk gym sparring session, he was propelled to higher achievement. When faced with adversity against Sugar Ray Leonard he altered his fight plan altogether, forcing Leonard to rise with him to a challenge neither had expected. And finally, against Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Hearns’ heart and determination brought both fighters to the brink – and to greatness.

August 23, 2011

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