As stated in my earlier bio of Thomas Hearns, he was the first great fighter I followed from the inception of his career. My heart was broken the night he was stopped by Sugar Ray Leonard in the greatest fight in the history of the Welterweight division. But like great fighters do, Hearns rebounded. He moved up to 154-pounds and went on an incredible four year run as the greatest Super Welterweight in that division’s history.
After his heartbreaking loss to Leonard, Hearns won three straight fights at Middleweight before acquiring a shot at WBC Super Welterweight champion Wilfred Benitez. Benitez, who similar to Hearns had suffered his only career loss to Leonard, had looked incredible as champion. He systematically picked Maurice Hope apart before knocking him out with a picture perfect right cross to win the title on May 23, 1981 and was coming off a virtuoso performance against the legendary Roberto Duran. Benitez was one of the greatest counterpuncher and defensive fighters of all-time. He was in his prime at 24, as was Hearns. It was two of the greatest fighters of their era facing each other in an intriguing and anticipated matchup. It was also a fight that my father had major reservations about.
My father was Puerto Rican and very proud of his heritage. His idol was Roberto Clemente, the single greatest baseball player and athlete ever to hail from Puerto Rico. My father loved Benitez, both because of his wizardry inside the ring and his Puerto Rican heritage. He also loved Hearns, as Hearns had an offensive weaponry, in his opinion, only rivaled by the great Sugar Ray Robinson. My father rooted for Benitez, but he knew deep down inside that despite Benitez’s gifts, Hearns’ jab and length were insurmountable to overcome.
My father was correct. Hearns kept Benitez at bay throughout the entire 15 rounds with his jab and length. Benitez had no answer and was soundly defeated by 15 round decision. That December 1982 evening, Hearns once again proved that there was a man alive who could outbox him. Benitez did not have the aggressive style to try and outslug him ala Leonard.
Hearns only fought twice over the next 18 months due to injuries suffered to his right hand. His next major fight occurred on June 15, 1984 against the aforementioned Duran. Both my father and I knew Duran didn’t have a shot in hell at defeating Hearns. Hearns had a seven inch height advantage against Duran and was much stronger at 154, as Duran was best at 135 pounds. In one of the most incredible displays of one sided brutality, Hearns knocked out Duran cold in the second round. It was eerily similar to George Foreman’s second round destruction of Joe Frazier to win the Heavyweight title back in January of 1973. Duran did not land one significant shot the entire two rounds. The win secured Hearns a shot at Marvin Hagler’s World Middleweight title. Unfortunately, as chronicled in my bio of Hagler, it would be another heartbreaking evening for both Hearns and me as his biggest fan.
Hearns would defend the 154 pound title one more time before relinquishing the title in the fall of 1986. The one blemish on his spectacular reign was never fighting fellow 154 pound titleholder Mike McCallum. Hearns and his manager/trainer Emanuel Steward never attempted to make a deal to fight McCallum. Like Hagler, Duran and later Leonard, they looked at a fight with McCallun as too low a reward for such a high risk. McCallum had the style to give Hearns major problems. But despite them not fighting each other, Hearns gets the nod over the “Body Snatcher” because his victories over Benitez and Duran trumps everything McCallum accomplished at 154 pounds. One of the biggest tragedies in boxing history was the fact that a “Hitman”/“Body Snatcher” fight never occurred.