It isn't the long stiff jab that's made Thomas Hearns famous. Nor is it the wreckingball right cross that left opponents crumpled on the canvas. It isn't that he's captured world titles in five weight divisions or his current tally of 59 professional victories. What set Hearns apart from his contemporaries was his aggression. Whether charging his opponent in a multi fisted attack, or carrying his left arm low to invite another exchange, Hearns' aggressiveness in the ring made him a legend and put the Kronk Gym on the boxing map.
The year was 1980. Less than 3 years removed from his amateur career, an undefeated Hearns put his sterling 28-0/26 record on the line against welterweight titlist Pipino Cuevas. Cuevas was a respected champion, but was shown little respect by the hungry "Motor City Cobra". Hearns stalked Cuevas from the opening bell, and hurt the champion with early with his sledgehammer right cross. Cuevas made it out of the first round, but would not last much longer. In the second round, Hearns punished Cuevas at will, until a perfectly timed right hand sent Cuevas face first into the canvas. At the ripe age of 21, Thomas Hearns was world champion. Although Hearns had five additional knockout victories that year, it was the Cuevas demolition that shined brightest as Tommy won Fighter of the Year.
Although Ray Leonard had garnered mainstream recognition with his Olympic Gold Medal, the adoration of many boxing fans was reserved for Tommy Hearns. His fearsome aggression was the perfect counterpart to Leonard's spiffy showmanship, and a showdown between the two was eminent as Hearns continued knocking out every opponent put before him.
When they finally stood across the ring from one another, Hearns dominated. Driving his stick into Leonard's mug, The Hitman wasted no time in marking Leonard's pretty face. As Leonard danced and ran, Hearns pursued, landing punches and winning rounds along the way. Desperate to turn the tide, Leonard began to stand and fight in the later rounds, and again Hearns dominated. Adjusting to Leonard's tactics, it was Hearns' chance to put on a boxing clinic: keeping Ray on the end of his jab and showing some impressive footwork of his own. Ahead on all of the official cards, but weary from the struggle to make weight, Hearns tired in the 13th and was stopped by a Leonard flurry. Although the fight was Tommy's first loss, it was Ray that suffered the most. Leonard had taken the more serious beating, and he retired one fight later.
Retirement wasn't in Hearns' vocabulary, however, and he wasted no time in moving up to a more natural weight, 154, and going back to the task of winning. In 1982, Hearns outpointed, and outclassed, Wilfred Benitez to win another world title. Fighting more confidently than ever, Hearns showed maturity in the ring, boxing when he had to, punching when he had to, but always pressing the issue, always dictating the pace, and always controlling his opponent.
Along with Tommy Hearns' success came recognition, and soon the stories of the Kronk Gym were on the lips of every boxing fan. There were anecdotes of the grueling heat in which the Kronk team worked out in and harrowing stories about legendary gym wars that sorted out the Kronk pecking order. These stories served to bolster the fearsome reputation of boxing's most explosive puncher. But perhaps nothing would cement Hearns' reputation like his victory over Roberto Duran in 1984.
Duran was as rugged a champion as there ever was. Widely recognized as the greatest 135 pounder of all time, Duran was still a force at 154. The "Hands of Stone" had dropped decision losses to Benitez and Hagler, but no one had been able to outgun the Panamanian slugger. Enter Thomas Hearns. Although Hearns could have used his jab and the ring to frustrate and outpoint Duran, such tactics didn't suit the quintessential Kronk fighter. Opting to slug with the slugger, Tommy dropped his atomic right hand onto Duran's chin and knocked him out. Hearns' KO2 of Duran shocked the boxing world. To this very day, through 117 fights, no one has been able to blow through Duran so quickly.
Less than a year later, Thomas Hearns would fight the most exciting round in all of boxing history. The site was Caesar's Palace, and again Hearns had been matched with an opponent whose ring dominance had been long established. Yet again, Hearns favored warfare over boxing. Charging Marvin Hagler at the opening bell, Hearns wobbled the middleweight champion 10 seconds into the round. As the crowd rabidly cheered on, Hearns stood toe to toe with Marvin Hagler for a blazing three minutes. At the end of that round, Hagler had been stunned by Hearns more than once, was bleeding from the forehead and already swelling around his eyes. For his part, Tommy emerged intact, save for a broken right hand, an injury incurred while slamming his fist into Hagler's skull.
In the second round, Hearns again gave out as good as he took it, displaying not only his trademark punching power but his often overlooked chin. Hagler's own rage turned to concern as blood stained his face and Hearns pressed the pace. Continuing the charge in the third, Hearns nearly stopped Hagler when the ringside doctor was asked to inspect the flowing gash on Marvin's face. At this point many fighters would take it down a notch and play it safe. But playing it safe wasn't part of the Kronk makeup. Tommy Hearns stood in with Hagler, and was stopped when Hagler surprised him with a quick combo that dropped the Hitman. Although he made it to his feet, Richard Steele would not let the fight continue, and Hearns was handed only the second loss of his career. His fans could care less. Ever the aggressor, Tommy Hearns had thrilled the world with his attack. The loss was a setback for Hearns, but his reputation as a warrior only grew.
As he had after the Leonard defeat, Hearns continued winning, picking up the middleweight title the next year by disposing of Juan Roldan in four rounds. Now a three-division champion, Hearns sought more titles. When the opportunity to add a fourth world title (in the newly constructed super middleweight division) against a comebacking Ray Leonard arose, Hearns jumped at the chance to avenge his first defeat.
Again in front of a capacity crowd at Caesar's Palace, Tommy's eyes were fixed on Ray from the moment both men were through the ropes. As Michael Buffer introduced him, a focused Hearns locked a stare on Leonard and pointed at him across the ring. The smiling Sugar Ray knew then that his night to shine was in jeopardy.
It was another classic. Although both men had their moments, Hearns dominated the evening, sweeping the early rounds, dropping Leonard twice and finishing strong at the final bell. Tommy's victory, however, was short lived. In one of the most flagrant robberies in recent memory, the fight was called a draw. As the crowd booed and hissed the bogus decision, Hearns stood in disbelief. His revenge was left unsatisfied, despite Leonard's later admission that Hearns had deserved the win.
No longer as fast as he once was, the calls began for Hearns to retire. He would have none of it. Retaining a piece of the supermiddleweight title he took from James Kinchin in 1988, Hearns continued to fight into the 90's. Moving up in weight again, now fighting at 175 lbs., Hearns again challenged the top dog in his division, this time in the form of Virgil Hill.
Hill was 30-0 at the time and had held the WBA light-heavyweight title since 1987, when Hearns was a junior middleweight. Hill's jab was one of the best in the game, and for the first time in his career, Hearns found himself a sizable underdog. No matter. Tommy would simply have to outjab the jabber. He did just that. Stinging Hill with a superior stick, Hearns expertly set up his right hand all night long. When the fight was over, Hearns was the victor, posting the biggest upset of the year. Now champion in five weight classes, Hearns had done what even Sugar Ray Robinson had failed to do: win titles spanning 147 to 175 pounds.
With millions in the bank, more title belts than he could carry, and more achievements than any other fighter of his generation, again retirement was suggested at every turn. And again, Hearns would not consider it.
Although Hearns has fought sparingly in the years since his victory over Hill, his career has nonetheless continued uninterrupted. No bogus retirements and no hopeless comebacks. Tommy Hearns remains an active fighter.
And now, in 1999, Hearns has one more challenge: an unprecedented sixth weight class championship. Campaigning now as a 190 lb. cruiserweight, Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns has his eyes fixated on this one final goal. Reunited with Emanuel Steward, after fighting outside the Kronk organization for most of this decade, Hearns is again preparing himself for another stirring victory.
Teaming with Steward, Tommy needed less than 90 seconds to render Jay Snyder unconscious in a Detroit ring last November. Stepping up in competition, Hearns easily outpointed Nate Miller, himself a recent cruiserweight champion, in April of this year. And now, with only one or two more fights before getting the title shot he craves, Hearns is again training in the sweltering Kronk facilities.
Whether or not he can capture a sixth world title at the age of 40 remains to be seen, but if Hearns' illustrious career has taught us anything, it's to never discount the Hitman. His power remains intact, his frame holds 190 lbs. nicely, and he is driven not by financial need but by championship heart.
Tommy promises that 1999 will be his final year, ensuring that his induction to the International Boxing Hall of Fame will take place in the year 2000...a fitting tribute to one of the century's most enduring warriors.