Thomas Hearns blocked out all the noise and glitter around the crap tables at the Las Vegas Hilton last Thursday night. Hearns had his eye on something. He made his bet, flexed the fingers of his right hand and curled them into—the Thing. "Talk to me, baby," he cooed. He was addressing his fist. Out came the dice, and the point was made. Hearns scooped up his winnings and retired to suite 1470.
Two hours earlier, in the Hilton's parking lot, Hearns's right had spoken for itself. It had battered the face of Argentina's 30-year-old Juan Domingo Roldan and earned Hearns a place in boxing history: It was his fourth world title in four weight classes. By knocking out Roldan in the fourth round, Hearns claimed the WBC middleweight belt, which had been vacated when Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought Sugar Ray Leonard. Hearns had already worn the WBA welterweight, WBC super welterweight and WBC light heavyweight belts around his slender waist.
Hearns and his right hand had been looking past Roldan, hoping to dispose of that seasoned slugger so as to talk deal with Hagler or Sugar Ray. The right hand put Roldan down twice in the first round, and a left hook did it again in the second. But Roldan came back to set the pace in the third round with looping rights and slicing lefts. Haymakers landed everywhere.
Early in the fourth, Roldan caught Hearns on the chin with a hard left hook in Roldan's corner. Hearns's head snapped back, and his legs wiggled like rubber bands. He struggled to clear his head as Roldan, knowing his opponent was in trouble, wrenched his arms free of a clinch and prepared another assault.
November 9, 1987
In the biggest fights of his career, once Hearns was hurt, he was done. It happened in 1981, when he lost to Leonard. It happened in 1985, when he lost to Hagler. But it would not happen now. His world reeling, Hearns pushed Roldan back, and as Roldan stepped to the side Hearns lashed out with the right. The punch caught Roldan flush on the jaw, freezing him on his heels.
Hearns circled away, with Roldan following, but more slowly now. The two exchanged blows in a brief, heated flurry in a neutral corner, but the Thing had left Roldan totally disoriented. He had stayed on Hearns like a mustard plaster for 3½ rounds. Now he stood a bit away. Hearns shot the right again on a level line with the point of Roldan's chin. It landed with a sharp report. Then came the mere formality of referee Mills Lane counting to 10 over Roldan as he lay first on his stomach and face, then on his back. "I was conscious that I was down, but there was nothing I could do," Roldan said later via an interpreter. "It made no sense to get up."
Those two right hands by Hearns in the fourth accomplished several things: They took the fight out of a man who has been known as the Hammer; they gave Hearns time to find his legs; and they got the public's attention. "My only hope of fighting Ray or Marvin again—which I want and they don't—is if the public demands it," said Hearns afterward.
Those punches also proved what Dr. Fred Lewerenz had said of Hearns's right. Hearns had broken the long bones running to the ring finger and the little finger of that hand in the first round of the Hagler bout. The Thing had often become unhinged in other areas—from the wrist to the knuckle—before. "But it's perfectly sound now," Lewerenz had said. Hearns had landed two hard skull shots in the first round, sending Roldan to the canvas each time. But how many bone-jarring punches could the right take? Ask Roldan.
The unusual Thursday night card at the Hilton was designed as a showcase for Hearns and IBF light heavyweight champion Bobby Czyz, who was expected to have it easy in a preliminary bout. Czyz was 32-1 entering the ring, but he saw his record, his face and a possible big-money fight with Hearns smeared by Prince Charles Williams, a journeyman from Philadelphia. Williams, who had a 21-4-2 record, shook off a second-round knockdown and a standing eight count in the third to pitch a shutout at Czyz's right eye, prompting Czyz to call it quits after the ninth.
Czyz, the pride of Wanaque, N.J., had overcome a broken right hand, mononucleosis and a split with his manager, and came into the ring the 2-to-1 favorite, sequins glittering. He immediately took charge. "Bobby is just too strong for him," Czyz's trainer, Tommy Parks, had said, and Czyz did appear ready to make short work of Williams. At the end of the second round, Czyz shot forward and caught Williams with a straight right to the chin. Williams wobbled but survived until the bell.
He came out unsteadily to start the third, and Czyz launched another right that knocked him back onto the ropes. Without them, he surely would have been down, a fact noticed by referee Carlos Padilla, who deemed the incident a knockdown and administered the standing eight-count. Czyz's corner protested, but Padilla had done the right thing. The eight-second pause helped bring Williams back to his senses. From then on, he fought as if he hadn't been touched.
In the early rounds, Williams connected with Czyz's right eye and by the third the brow began to swell hideously, all the way around to his ear. Czyz could not see Williams's left get started after the sixth round, and Williams took full advantage. Finally, Czyz's handlers appealed to Padilla to stop their man's suffering.
"The ref asked, 'Are you seeing double?' " said a battered Czyz after the fight. "I said no. He said Can you see?' I said sure I can—with my left eye. The other one's closed. Williams proved he was the better man, but there were mitigating circumstances."
A rematch between the two might be to Czyz's advantage. Hearns's manager, Emanuel Steward, had made it known that Hearns might consider fighting Czyz in a light heavyweight championship bout—but only if Hagler and Leonard remain idle. The logic: Why would Hearns risk an eight-figure payday to play matador to the bullish Czyz in a heavier weight class?
Czyz took the loss well. Not like some people we know. "Nine out of 10, if Hearns wins, Marvin will come around to fighting him. Nine out of 10," promoter Bob Arum said before the fight. The morning after, Arum was no less convinced. "Within the next couple of weeks, one or the other, Hagler or Leonard, will commit to an April date. We'll honor the first applicant."
Spectators at ringside, both Hagler and Leonard insisted they were simply bystanders at the proceedings. "I have no interest in [fighting] Tommy Hearns," Leonard said. If Hearns is waiting for public opinion—read: estimated gross $25 million plus—to force either retiree back into the ring, he might be in for a long, though comfortable, wait. Hearns got $1.1 million, plus 40% of the pay-per-view and closed-circuit gross for Roldan.
"If Roldan had won, Hagler and Leonard would be fighting each other for the chance to fight him. But the big cat is in the house now," said Steward the morning after the bout. "They know the physical risk. They'll go and talk to their lawyers, talk to their wives.... And one will choose to fight."
Hearns's is a strange case. The Roldan fight made him 45-2. But he remains largely a local phenomenon, and his fiefdom is Detroit. Leonard and Hagler have vastly more wattage as national figures. Ironically, both had their national reputations cemented when they knocked out Hearns.
Nevertheless, Hearns has been the aggressor in nearly all his matches. Dull isn't even in town when Hearns fights. Roldan, who was knocked out by Hagler in 1984, was asked who hit harder, Marvelous Marvin or Hearns. He needed no intepreter to say, "Tommy Hearns."
One prefight story was the hoary tale about how Roldan had wrestled a bear when he was a young man. Great p.r. Less well-known is the fact that a few years ago, Hearns, who just had to see if he was quicker than a cat, tried to sneak his right hand past his pet cougar. He discovered he was not. Hearns ended up having to choke the animal with his left hand to get the Thing out of its mouth. He bled profusely. Still, his mother, Lois, had to persuade Tommy to give the cat away. He had wanted to keep it. Does he ponder ring retirement? In a pig's eye.
"I still have the love for boxing," said Hearns after the fight. "I enjoy it. I won't retire until I try for revenge against both Ray and Marvin. I deserve a rematch with either one."
Hearns did no raucous celebrating after his big knockout win. He was in his pajamas well before midnight. Downstairs, Leonard remained visible and talkative.
"I'm convinced Leonard will fight again," said Arum. But all Leonard has to gain from a fight with Hearns is money. Hagler is much more likely. The attraction Hagler sees in Hearns is the WBC middleweight title and a chance to tempt Leonard into the ring again.
It's Hagler's decision to make, then Leonard's. But life is sweet in retirement, and microphones don't hit back. Fold in, mix well, put the entire middleweight concoction on low and let it bake. It should be ready to savor by April '88.