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45 Greatest Fighters of the Last 45 Years – 9: Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns

thomas hearns greatest fighter

As a child, not unlike many young boxing fans back then in the late 1970s, my first boxing idol was Muhammad Ali. But, the first fighter I idolized from the very beginning of his career was the “Motor City Cobra” Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, my ninth greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

In Hearns’ amateur career, he only scored 11 knockouts in over 160 fights as a tall and lanky lightweight. It wasn’t until local Detroit and Kronk gym trainer Emmanuel Steward modified Hearns’ style right before his pro debut that the vaunted “Hitman” power began to surface. Beginning with his pro debut in November of 1977, Hearns went on to knock out his first 17 opponents. The majority of these fights were held in Hearns’ hometown of Detroit. Detroit boxing fans came out in droves to support their local hero. At the time, I followed Hearns’ early career by reading boxing magazines such as The Ring and World Boxing. These magazines built Hearns as an indestructible monster who stood 6’2″ and 147; a giant among Welterweights.

The first time I saw Hearns fight was his first nationally televised fight on January 11, 1979 versus highly rated Canadian welterweight Clyde Gray. I couldn’t believe what I saw on my small, black and white television. Hearns was indeed a lanky giant, but his skills were much more elaborate then the boxing magazines had detailed. His left jab was, in my opinion, as good as Larry Holmes’ legendary left jab. Hearns’ jab was like a battering ram, landing all night on Gray. Gray took a horrific beating, eating jabs and Hearns’ missile of a right cross, finally being finished in the 10th and final round. As the fight ended, my father and I saw what we felt was going to be one of the greatest fighters of all-time.

Hearns’ assault on the 147-pound division continued throughout 1979, almost blinding top welterweight contender Harold Weston in May, causing Weston both a detached retina and premature retirement. It wouldn’t be the last time Hearns’ jab would cause such major consequences for a fighter. Hearns’ sojourn would eventually garner him the number one contender spot for the WBA 147-pound title held by longtime belt holder and devastating puncher Jose “Pipino” Cuevas. Their fight, held on August 2, 1980 in Detroit’s legendary Joe Louis Arena, was built as World War II. It was more akin to the Boston Massacre.

My father was correct in his assessment that the 5’8″ Cuevas was tailor made for Hearns. Hearns’ performance that night was offensively perfect. His jab and legendary right cross landed at will throughout the opening stanza. Hearns’ game plan, as orchestrated by Steward, was to attack Cuevas because Cuevas couldn’t fight backing up. Cuevas, despite his scary power, couldn’t keep Hearns off him. Finally, towards the end of the second round, Hearns landed two consecutive spectacular right crosses that dropped Cuevas face first. Amazingly, Cuevas got up at nine but was out on his feet. His corner ran in and immediately stopped the fight. At the tender age of 21, Hearns was on top of the world. The time was right for him to fight the winner of the upcoming rematch between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Hearns easily defended his WBA welterweight title three times before signing to fight Leonard in what would be simply be called “The Showdown.” The fight would be held outside in the Caesars Palace parking lot in Las Vegas. The reason they held the fight outdoors was because the venue inside was too small to hold such an epic fight between the two best fighters on the planet. On September 16, 1981, Hearns and Leonard put on one of the greatest fights in boxing history.

My father and I watched this fight on closed circuit in a South Bronx theater. My father was inebriated and was boasting that Hearns was going to kill Leonard. The first five rounds saw Hearns dominate Leonard, landing his jab and right cross at will. Leonard couldn’t outbox Hearns, as Hearns was too much for him. As great fighters do, Leonard changed his approach. He began stalking Hearns and attacked Hearns’ body, staggering him several times in rounds six and seven. Then Hearns changed his approach beginning in round eight. He began to move and stay outside, outlanding Leonard with his jab. After 12 rounds, Leonard was way behind on all three scorecards and his left eye was almost completely shut. He needed a miracle.

The 13th round saw Leonard desperately attack Hearns with feverish combinations, staggering Hearns and Hearns barely survived the round. Finally, in the 14th, Hearns was helpless and completely exhausted when referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight. It was the most magnificent fight in the history of the welterweight division. It was not unlike seeing Michael Jordan and LeBron James in their primes playing each other in a one-on-one game of basketball. Both Leonard and Hearns lost and won in this fight. Hearns, despite losing, showed the world his greatness by showing heart and sublime boxing skills no one knew he had. Leonard, despite losing, would suffer a detach retina in his left eye due to the punishment he took in the fight. Leonard would only fight one more time before announcing his retirement a little over a year later.

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 counterpunchers 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 wasn’t 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 greatest fights in boxing history article, 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. Then, in 1987, Hearns would win two more world titles to become a four division champion. On March 7, 1987, in front of his hometown Detroit fans, Hearns put on one of his most devastating performances in knocking out Dennis Andries in the 10th round to win the WBC light heavyweight title. Then seven months later, Hearns knocked out the tough Argentinian brawler Juan Domingo Roldan in four rounds to win the WBC middleweight crown. Going into 1988, the 29-year-old Hit Man looked to be better than ever.

On June 6, 1988, Hearns defended his WBC 160-title against the rugged South Bronx brawler Iran Barkley. For the first 10 minutes of the fight, Hearns landed at will and was unmercifully beating Barkley. Then, shockingly, Barkley landed a double right cross late in the third round that put Hearns away. My father and I went to Madison Square Garden to see this fight on closed circuit. We were heartbroken when Hearns lost that night. We were in total disbelief walking out of the arena that night.

Five months later Hearns barely eked out a decision against James Kinchen in a war that saw Hearns in trouble several times. Hearns won the bogus WBO super middleweight title and tried to make a claim that he was now the first five division world champion in boxing history. That night, Hearns looked like a shot fighter. In early 1989, Hearns signed to fight Leonard in a rematch that took eight years to make. Hearns would go into the rematch a heavy underdog. What we didn’t know was that Hearns still had a lot left in his tank.

On June 12, 1989, Hearns’ left jab and reach once again gave Leonard hell. He knocked down Leonard twice and Leonard had the Hitman in severe trouble twice. This fight was not the technical masterpiece like their initial encounter as both men were significantly slower. It was however a fight full of drama and Hearns seemed to have done enough to warrant the decision. Shockingly, the fight was scored a draw. In subsequent years, Leonard has admitted that Hearns should’ve won that fight. Hearns, still feeling he had something to prove, moved up to light heavyweight and after a few wins got a shot at the WBA 175-pound champion Virgil Hill.

On June 3, 1991, Hearns, despite being once again a heavy underdog, turned back the clock by outjabbing and outboxing a master technician in Hill. In Hearns’ entire career, no fighter had ever outboxed him. All his losses had been to fighters who had to brawl with him in order to beat Hearns. Against Hill, Hearns’ vaunted left jab was the difference in the fight, as he kept Hill from utilizing his own lethal jab. Hearns won a clear cut decision in winning his second 175-pound title. It would be the last significant win of his career.

On March 20, 1992, Hearns defended his WBA light heavyweight title against Barkley. This was a rematch from their fight four years earlier. Hearns and Barkley engaged in a savage war as Barkley dropped Hearns early and broke his nose. Hearns showed the same amount of heart he displayed in his fights against Kinchen and the Leonard rematch. Barkley won the title via split decision. For all intents and purposes, Hearns career was over. He would fight sporadically over the next 14 years, winning 11 out of 13 fights before finally retiring in 2006 at the age of 47.

Thomas Hearns, in my opinion, was the greatest offensive fighter the sport has ever seen. He mastered every single punch including a battering ram of a left and a right cross that is on the same level as Alexis Arguello, Deontay Wilder and Earnie Shavers. Despite a sometimes shaky chin and stamina, Hearns still went on to retire with a record of 61-5-1 with 48 knockouts. He fought a whose who of legendary fighters and was dominant at both 147 and 154 pounds. He had a style that would give any of the all-time greats from 147-175 pounds hell. All of these attributes is why Thomas Hearns is the ninth greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

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