On the eve of his WBA welterweight championship bout with Thomas Hearns in Phoenix last week, Randy Shields still hadn't figured out what would be the best way to box his opponent. "I'm going to go through all the styles I know," he said. "If one style doesn't work, I'll try another. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else. If that doesn't work, something else. If that doesn't work, then I'm in trouble."
On Saturday afternoon in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Shields trotted out his boxing fashion show for Hearns, with results that visiting connoisseurs, notably WBC welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard, would do well to heed. Every time the challenger showed Hearns a new look from his spring collection, the champ would show his appreciation by trying to redesign Shields' face. Thus, it seems the well-dressed Hearns opponent this year will be wearing plenty of black and blue, highlighted by stunning red welts around the eyes. At least that was what Shields looked like when referee Bob Ferrara stopped the fight after the 12th round and declared Hearns the winner on a technical knockout.
The Shields fight was Hearns' second defense of the title he won last August, and the beginning of a fine-tuning process; Hearns now seems determined to prove he can be as elegant as Sugar Ray both in and out of the ring. In this respect Shields made an ideal opponent because of his intelligence, his defensive skills and the fact that he has never been knocked out. "I want to prove what I can do," Hearns said beforehand, "show that I'm capable of boxing and not just punching."
Shields came into the fight with no such lofty ambitions, being mostly concerned with trying to solve Hearns' six-inch reach advantage. Shields, the No. 5-ranked WBA welterweight on the basis of his 38-6-1 record, is managed by his father, Sonny, a gritty-looking 45-year-old Hollywood stunt coordinator, who until just a year ago was also his son's sparring partner. Randy has done stunt work, too, and on one occasion a few years back father and son got to beat the daylights out of each other for an episode of Rich Man, Poor Man.
Shields had prepared for Hearns by working from 18 to 22 rounds a day in the ring and on the heavy bag, readying himself for what he hoped would be a long grind. If anything about the undefeated Hearns is suspect, it's his ability to go the 15-round championship distance (only six of his 30 pro fights have lasted more than six rounds). Then, two weeks ago, Shields stepped into a pothole while doing roadwork near his home in North Hollywood, and in very unstuntman-like fashion, he came down so hard on his left shoulder that he strained a muscle and tore two bursas in his shoulder and one in his right knee, requiring a three-day layoff from training.
For the Phoenix fight Hearns had tuned up against waves of sparring partners, a regimen favored by his manager, Emanuel Steward. During his 12 days in Arizona, Hearns stayed loose by fishing in a small lake below his third-story window at the Radisson Hotel in Scottsdale. One afternoon he hooked three catfish without missing much of The Brady Bunch on TV.
Hearns knew that Shields would almost certainly have to counterpunch, but the champion took control from the outset and Shields was never able to retaliate effectively. "There's nothing wrong with counterpunching if he can do it," Hearns had said, "but I'm going to do all I can to prevent it by being the more aggressive and the smarter fighter."
Hearns' one worrisome moment came in the first round, when he was cut above his right eye by an accidental butt. This was the first of several butts by both fighters, but after each one, the guilty party would apologize. Hearns is 6'1" and Shields, at 5'11", is two inches taller than anyone the champion had ever fought, which may have accounted for all the head-knocking.
Throughout the first three rounds, Hearns rained blows on Shields, but the challenger was remarkably adept at picking them off, occasionally forcing Hearns into paroxysms of wildness. However, as Shields' left shoulder became increasingly numb—when the action would slow, he would reach behind his head with his right to give it a quick massage—his jab became little more than a slapping annoyance, and Hearns began launching his brutal right hand.
In Round 4, Hearns unloaded a flurry of combinations that dazed Shields. Before the round ended, Hearns looped a right that bounced the challenger off the ropes, and finished with a whistling right hook to the head. Shields had taken Hearns' best shots and was still standing.
As it became increasingly apparent that Shields was content to go the distance, Hearns wisely began to pace himself for the long haul. "I could see Thomas was not going to take him out with one single punch," said Steward. "So after a certain point it was just an educational fight. We were determined to get as much work out of the fight as possible."
That he got. In the ninth round Shields snapped Hearns' head back with a right, but Hearns answered with a combination and then a big right hand to Shields' bleeding left eye. The bout was stopped briefly so that the ringside physician could have a look at the eye. When the fight resumed, Hearns connected with one punishing combination after another, opening another cut over the right eye.
Hearns continued ripping the left side of Shields' face in the 10th and 11th rounds, meeting less and less resistance. In the 12th, Hearns stood flat-footed in front of Shields and hammered him with rights, staggering him and finally driving him into the ropes. The round over, the referee halted the fight at the request of Sonny Shields, who was working his son's corner.
Shields never did find the right style for Hearns, but he was able to force Hearns to think before he thumped. "I tried boxing him, and it worked for a while," said Hearns. "Then I tried to muscle him, and that worked for a little while. Finally I tried to go up and down when his eye started to close, to make him look in two directions. Each style I tried worked for a while, and then he was able to adjust. He made it difficult for me to get to him."
At ringside Leonard was taking it all in. He and Hearns are to meet in the fall and the hype has already begun. Said Shields, who had lost a close 10-round decision to Leonard in 1978, "It's going to be a hell of a fight; they both hit very sharp. And look sharp, too." It's all part of being one of today's with-it welterweights.