The day went winningly from the start. Over breakfast at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas last Sunday, Thomas Hearns bet $15 on a keno card and won $1,900. Later in the day, in a boxing ring upstairs, the 20-year-old Detroit welterweight defeated Harold Weston on a sixth-round TKO to earn $26,000. The occasion also marked his first national television appearance, which should have made his day just about perfect.
But it wasn't. The victory was not as convincing as Hearns, or boxing fans, might have liked. Weston had surrendered in his corner before the start of Round 7, complaining that he had been thumbed earlier in the fight and couldn't see. Hearns readily allowed that he had been working on Weston's left eye. "He couldn't see out of it," Hearns said. "I had closed it with my jab. I was working on the eye from the start."
The problem was that Weston was talking about his right eye, not the badly puffed left one. Indeed, after Hearns had taken the first four rounds on all the cards, Weston had rallied to win the fifth and sixth, despite what he said was steadily failing vision. "He thumbed me in the right eye in the fourth," Weston said. "I started to go blind slowly."
In his corner, Weston told co-manager Howie Albert that he could no longer see his opponent. And Albert had held up one hand in front of Weston's face.
May 27, 1979
"How many?" he said.
"How many what?"
"Howie," Weston said, "I can't even see your hand."
And that had done it. For Hearns, it was his 19th straight victory as a new pro and the 18th time an opponent had failed to last the distance. Not bad for a tall, stringy youngster who looks more like a basketball forward than a boxer.
Hearns is 6'2" and growing. His size wouldn't be unusual, except that welterweights are usually built along far less lofty lines. He operates from his great height like an eagle, his eyes fierce and fixed, swooping down with sudden savagery. He is as thin and as quick as a lightning bolt.
Hearns came along without the drum-roll of an Olympic gold medal. He's been a pro for just 18 months. No one wrapped him in a blanket of television protection, guaranteeing opponents who couldn't win a four-round preliminary in Schenectady. He slipped in among the 147-pounders without notice and hammered the first 17 of them until they fell at his feet, each a knockout victim. The 18th, one Alfonso Hayman, remained upright. He came with survival in mind and stayed the 10 rounds, losing on a decision last April.
At last the world began to take notice of the quiet 20-year-old from Detroit. The WBA and the WBC both listed him as the No. 4 contender. The other contenders put him at the top of the list of people they'd rather not fight. The networks, for so long preoccupied with either the heavyweights or the heroes made in Montreal, scrambled to be the first to discover him.
"We're close, but we're not yet there," said Emanuel Steward, Hearns' 34-year-old trainer-manager. "We've beaten some good people, but they all have had names like Rojas or Barro or Murillo. Nobody in the U.S. knows those names. We need a win over a top contender, one with a name people will recognize."
Hearns tells Steward, a Golden Gloves champion of the '60s, just to give him the time and the place for the next fight. The opponent doesn't matter. He's been fighting half his life, and he hasn't yet met anyone he feared—or wasn't convinced he could whip.
Hearns began boxing in 1969 at the age of 10. A gifted athlete, he chose boxing over basketball. One of eight children raised by their mother, Lois, Hearns grew up on Detroit's hard East Side. "I wasn't a street fighter," he says. "I don't like trouble. But somebody was always challenging me or trying to get me to join a gang. After I became a boxer, they left me alone."
When Hearns was 14 he joined the Kronk Boxing Team, which Steward has coached since 1969. "He wasn't much," Steward says. "He lost three of his first four amateur fights. Really, he was one of our worst fighters. But he wanted to be a fighter. The other guys would mess around, skip training, but not Thomas. He was totally dedicated, and he always had a big heart."
Under Steward's skillful teaching, Hearns trained diligently and soon the awkward boy became a superior boxer. After losing those three fights, he won 154 of the next 159, and in 1977 won national championships in both the AAU and the Golden Gloves. Oddly, only 12 of his victories were by knockouts.
"As an amateur he was just a super boxer," Steward says. "He'd jab, jab, throw the right hand and dance out of trouble. He never could throw a left hook. Now I get calls from guys he fought in the amateurs. They all ask the same thing: What happened to this kid?"
For one thing, the kid began to fill out, adding power to the jab. Now he is beginning to master the hook. And the right hand, once thrown to collect points, is more like a bludgeon these days.
Outside the ring Hearns is as dedicated as ever. He neither drinks nor smokes and each night spends a few moments in prayer before retiring. "He has a dozen fiancèes," says his mother, "but he always comes home. He's a good boy."
Hearns had earned a little more than $100,000 before he met Weston, but he permitted himself only one extravagance: he leases a canary-yellow-and-turquoise Cadillac Fleetwood. Recently he bought a house in Detroit for his family. He has banked the rest of his money. "He's quiet and downright stingy," says Steward. "He saves it all."
As talkative as Hearns is silent, Steward spared no words in attempting to persuade the 27-year-old Weston to fight Hearns. A few concessions didn't hurt. For one, Steward agreed to both a 150-pound weight limit instead of the normal 147 pounds of the welterweight division and to the fighters weighing in the day before the fight. Both were to Weston's advantage; he has a problem making weight. Steward also agreed to take the lesser share of the purse. Weston's portion was $50,000. Still, Steward came away happy. In Weston he had found the perfect opponent.
A high-ranking contender with a 26-8-5 record, two months ago Weston lost a 15-round decision to WBC welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez, whom he had fought to a 10-round draw in 1977. Last year, after an impressive start against WBA champion Pipino Cuevas, Weston was forced to quit in his corner after the ninth round. At the time it was thought he had a broken jaw.
A fellow wondered if Hearns' extraordinary height was giving Weston any worrisome thoughts.
"Heck, everybody I fight eats off the top of my head," he retorted. "When I hit him in the body he won't be that tall for long."
In the body?
"Where else can I hit him?" asked the 5'7" Weston.
As it turned out, Weston could, indeed, hit Hearns in the body—and occasionally upside the head—but not with great effect. For the most part, Hearns held him off with long, snapping jabs. And in Rounds 5 and 6, Hearns slowed on Steward's instruction. "He was feeling the heat and the altitude," the trainer said, affirming the obvious.
As for the condition of Weston's right eye, thumbed or not, it probably wouldn't have made much difference. The left one would have been closed in another round or so, anyway. The outcome of the fight wasn't in doubt. Steward was pleased. "Thomas Hearns no longer has anything to prove," he said. "From now on, it's a whole new ball game."
Perhaps it is. But the fans would have liked to see a few more convincing innings.