Book Review: "Hit Man – The Thomas Hearns Story"

 Hagler and Hearns battle it out
Hagler and Hearns battle it out
By Matthew Hurley: One of the most egregious mistakes a writer can make in a biography of a famous person occurs in the editing process. Once the work is completed you have to go back and triple check your facts and, please oh please, spelling. It’s easy to let things slide in the first couple of drafts because you want to get the words and your passion for your subject down on paper. You can whittle away once you have put the skin on the skeleton. Or, better yet, hire a proper editor.

The editing process is paramount with a sports biography because chances are fans of your subject know more about him/her than you do – right down to their favorite food and what color socks they wear. Simple mistakes drive fans right to the message boards to file their complaints. When it comes to stats and facts sports fans are an unforgiving lot.

"Hit Man – The Thomas Hearns Story" by Brian and Damian Hughes suffers from a lack of proper editing. However, the authors’ obvious affection for their subject rings true, so there is some to like about this breezy book.

Still, the first mistake occurs in the opening so a reader knowledgeable about Thomas Hearns, and pop culture for that matter, may cringe.

In 1980 Hearns faced off against Pipino Cuevas for the WBA welterweight championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

“From what seemed a distance, the thudding bass of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ began to rise up, shaking the foundations and reigniting the carnival atmosphere that had infected the night air. Standing in the dark entrance to this gladiatorial bearpit, Thomas made his decision.”

Such a dramatic opening is ruined by the fact that ‘Eye of the Tiger’, the recurring theme song for the movie Rocky 3, wasn’t even released until 1982.

And why, in nearly every sports book, must we be subjected to hyperbole that is easily proved false by existing video?

Hearns’ battle for the middleweight championship against Marvelous Marvin Hagler on Monday night, April 15, 1985 is rightfully hailed as one of the great bouts of the last thirty years. Unfortunately many writers have attributed dialogue or catch phrases to the champion Hagler inside the ring.

“I ain’t missing him, am I?” Hagler was alleged to have said after referee Richard Steele brought him over to the ring doctor to look at the blood seeping out of the cut on his forehead. This little phrase suddenly became a jumping off point for countless writers to help describe his toughness and resolve and turned Marvin into a near mythic figure.

But as George Kimball said in his book Four Kings, “Tapes of the doctor’s visit to the corner suggest that if Hagler actually did utter that now classic line, he must have been an even better ventriloquist than he was a boxer.”

I’ve watched the tape nearly a hundred times over the ensuing years and all I hear is the ring doctor say, “It’s not bothering his sight, let him go.”

In “Hit Man” the authors actually have Hagler threatening Hearns during Steele’s preflight instructions!

“You better hope I don’t bleed,” their version of Hagler says to Tommy as they glare at each other. “It only makes me meaner.”

Whether they are trying to create a sense of foreboding or confusing the timing of that utterance is beside the point. It never happened, so why include it? (Hagler offered to HBO’s Larry Merchant after the fight when asked about the cut, “It only makes me meaner. They better hope I never bleed.”)

Less annoying but still unfathomable mistakes abound. Hearns did not enter the ring for his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard in a gold, Kronk Gym robe. In point of fact, for one of the only times in his professional career he wore a white terrycloth robe over his gold Kronk trunks.

And as far as I know there was no “EWBC” belt on the line when Tommy and Ray fought for the first time. Spelling notwithstanding that one made me laugh because there probably is an EWBC belt floating around these days and I’m sure WBC president Jose Sulaiman is collecting a sanctioning fee.

Perhaps such mistakes seem nitpicky to point out, but boxing fans are sticklers when it comes to detail. And when a fighter as popular and important in the history of the sport such as Thomas Hearns is concerned you better get it right or the Hit Man brigade will thumb their nose at you.

Still, there is some good stuff here, particularly the chapter involving the first Hearns – Leonard fight in September of 1981. Pre-fight machinations like the Leonard camp sending spies to watch Hearns spar are well known but the authors create a genuinely fascinating recount of the whole buildup. Subsequent fights don’t garner as much detail. And the quotes from Emanuel Steward help flesh out his relationship with his star pupil. (The book is not footnoted and does not include a bibliography, but many quotes are given proper attribution.)

There is no on-the-record interview with Hearns, but Tommy has always proved to be an elusive subject. He is often seen ringside these days at big fights but his own insecurities about his nasally, slow speech pattern – going all the way back to his heyday in the 80s when publicist Jackie Kallen was brought in to help Kronk fighters deal with the media – has kept him guarded.

I can remember back in 1989, when I covered the Hearns – Leonard 2 press conference at Faneuil Hall in Boston for my college news writing class, a frustrated Thomas Hearns trying to read promotional copy for a local sports DJ named Tank for the radio station WZLX. I was sitting next to Hearns and he simply couldn’t deliver the lines the way Tank had instructed him. Tommy, ever polite, kept trying until Tank pulled the copy from him and as he walked over to the more polished Sugar Ray Leonard on the other side of the room said, for many of us to hear, “Punch drunk fighter.”

Hearns heard that derogatory remark and later, when both fighters stepped up to the podium to address the media and fans and take questions, a couple of Leonard camp plants began mocking his speech while Leonard laughed appreciatively.

I always felt that it was those slights he had to deal with when he was coupled with the smooth, articulate Leonard that caused him to become wary of the press and unsure of just how he should be marketed as a sports figure. He never seemed completely at ease to me.
Brian and Damian Hughes allude to those insecurities but they don’t dig too deep. Although there is an interesting and rather moving quote attributed to Tommy where he speaks of two of his idols, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

“People only remember Elvis Presley for two things: being a great music maker and then looking like a fat junkie. It’s similar to when people see Muhammad Ali. They remember him two ways. Some look at the soul of boxing, still the most recognizable athlete on the planet. Others only see a helpless invalid.”

Almost as an aside he then says, “I understand the dangers of hanging around boxing for too long.” There’s a real sadness in that and it gives you a quick, prescient glance into Tommy’s predicament. He too has feet of clay.

As a boxing coach Brian Hughes readily admits how his visits with Emanuel Steward influenced him. And seeing a young, maturing Hearns in the bowels of the oppressive Kronk Gym probably made him pine for a fighter as gifted as Tommy to train on his own.

His description of watching Hearns spar for the first time in the book’s introduction pretty much encapsulates its affectionate tone.

“I watched with total absorption as they boxed four rounds of extraordinary ferocity and skill. It was better than any fight I had ever seen.”

In the end Hit Man – The Thomas Hearns Story is a flawed book, not required reading, but it does work well as a companion piece to Kimball’s Four Kings and, to a lesser extent, Steve Marantz’s Sorcery At Caesars that covers the Hagler – Leonard fight. For those who know little about the career of Thomas Hearns, mistakes aside, it’s a pretty good place to start.
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