Rafael Mendoza, the Mexican boxing promoter and author who had played Boswell to WBA welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas, was discussing a nagging dread last Saturday afternoon in a Detroit hotel room. In a few hours Cuevas would cross the street to the Joe Louis Arena and put his chin on the line against the thunderbolts thrown by undefeated Thomas Hearns. Mendoza said his feeling of anxiety stemmed not so much from the fists of Cuevas' unbeaten challenger; he accorded them a healthy respect. What he really feared, Mendoza said, was Cuevas' temper and the trouble it could bring in a bout with a devastating fighter like Hearns.
Outside, the city was riding out the final lashings of a midday thunderstorm, which added further gloom to Mendoza's dark imaginings. He said, "Cuevas has a very big problem. When you hit him, he loses his head and he goes straight at you. He does two bad things: he loses his cool, and then he tries to knock you out. This makes him an easy target. Unless Cuevas can find a way to control himself, at least for the first three rounds, he will find himself in a very dangerous situation."
No one with good sense makes an easy target of himself against Hearns. In winning 28 fights he had scored 26 knockouts, 20 of them before the fourth round. Three of his last five KOs had come against former world champions, although admittedly all three were well past their prime. After losing to Hearns, each retired.
"Thomas doesn't do it with one big punch," explained Emanuel Steward, the young boxing genius who has turned Detroit into a staging area for future world champions. Besides Hearns, Steward also guides Hilmer Kenty, the WBA lightweight champion, and says he won't be surprised if he has four or five world champs within the next two years. "Knockouts don't always come from one punch. They come from a steady flow of punches. There may be a million guys, including Cuevas, who can punch harder than Thomas if you're just using a meter to rate the punch. But Thomas throws a lot and is very accurate."
August 10, 1980
It was the prospect of this barrage that had the Mexicans worried. They had no real reason to suspect Cuevas' chin, but then they had never exposed him to anyone with the power of a Hearns. With his wide-open, wade-in style, Cuevas had been kept away from the division's big hitters.
"Do not worry," scoffed Cuevas before this, his 12th title defense. "I have never been off my feet." He had just become a father for the first time, and for that reason he wanted to win this fight more than any before. With a flickering grin, which failed to uncover the diamond embedded in an upper front tooth, he spoke of a fight he had against Angel Espada in 1977. "Espada hit me so hard I thought he had broken my jaw," Cuevas said. Cuevas stayed on his feet and in the 12th round knocked out Espada. The jaw wasn't broken, but it was so badly bruised that for three weeks he had his meals through a straw. "No one can ever knock me down," he said, dismissing the subject.
Meanwhile, Steward was objecting to the appointment of Stanley Christodoulou, a fine referee from South Africa, but one with whom Hearns' manager once had a run-in at an amateur tournament in Yugoslavia. "He can protest all he wants," said Alberto Aleman of Panama, chairman of the WBA's officials' committee. "The president will name the officials and it doesn't matter what anyone says." Steward should have saved his breath; officiating never was a factor Saturday.
Hearns is tall (6'2½") and will soon outgrow the welterweight division. In fact, the morning of the fight, a few hours before the noon weigh-in, he found he had outgrown the 147-pound limit by two pounds. He was hurried off to a suburban health club, where an hour in the sauna got him down to 147.
"But I'm afraid he may have stayed in the sauna too long," said Quentin Hines, Hearns' closest friend. "He looks weak. Usually before a fight he's jumping all over the place. But he's just sitting calm and quiet. It's my fault. Last night while he was drying out, I gave him two plums to eat."
As it turned out, Cuevas was the one who should have been worried. The last thing he had done before going to the arena was visit his mother's room, where she had blessed him and said, "Get it over with as soon as possible."
In the dressing room, Manager Lupe Sanchez and Mendoza both impressed upon Cuevas the importance of controlling his terrible temper. "For three rounds all I want you to do is feint and move," Sanchez told him. "If he gets too close, grab him and hold; you're stronger. Stay cool."
Hearns came out smoking. It has become the definitive American way—the well-trained-kids-up-from-the-amateurs style. Pour it on from the opening bell. In the last few months it had won world titles for Kenty and junior featherweight Leo Randolph. Earlier in the day, in Cincinnati, it had won the world junior welterweight championship for Aaron Pryor. Now it was the turn of the 21-year-old from Detroit.
And it was a very different Hearns. The overanxiousness that had hindered him at times was gone. This was a mature Hearns with complete control of beautiful feints and flawless combinations. He set up Cuevas, who is 5½" shorter, with the hook, and then crashed over with the right. Twice in the first round he landed damaging punches, a hook and an overhand right.
And not once in the round did Cuevas lose his temper. "He hurt me twice," Cuevas told Sanchez in the corner, "but now I know I can take his punches. Soon I will do something."
"Not yet," Sanchez warned.
Hearns began the second round with a stinging combination, then fired two jabs and a right that slid off Cuevas' head. Next a hook hurt Cuevas. Stung, he jumped in and began firing with both hands. Then his temper really snapped. Later he would say it wasn't because he was being hit hard, but because he was missing.
"He couldn't even hit Hearns in the elbow, on the arms," Mendoza said. "If he had, he would have felt comfortable."
His coal-black eyes burning fiercely, Cuevas began to throw a savage hook, but his left foot slid away on him and Hearns smashed an overhand right to Cuevas' head. As Cuevas began to fall, Hearns hit him twice more.
Cuevas made it to his feet at the count of six. As he continued the count to eight, Christodoulou studied him. "His legs were shaking, but his neck was strong and firm," Christodoulou said later. "I was ready to let it go on, but one more good punch and I'd have stopped it."
But Sanchez had seen enough. Leaping into the ring, he stopped the fight. "The life of one fighter is not worth 100 championships," he said later.
It was over at 2:39 of the second round. Thomas Hearns, the skinny kid who took up boxing because he was bored, had become the ninth U.S. citizen currently holding a world title. He had earned $500,000 to Cuevas' $1.5 million, but the real big-money fights are in Hearns' future—against the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Wilfred Benitez or WBC welterweight champion Roberto Duran. "I think Thomas will fight again in October or November," Steward said. "But I don't know yet about an opponent."
At the postfight press conference Cuevas looked Hearns in the eye. "You are a very good fighter and I have no excuses," he said in a strong voice. "I had 12 title defenses. I hope you will be as good a champion as I was."
"Thank you," said Hearns.