Hawk: Tommy Hearns! I'll be ready for you by the year 2000.
Hearns: Try 3000, Hawk.
—FROM "A MAN CALLED HAWK"
The hit man and the actor are reading their lines in a second-story warehouse-turned-sound-stage above Riverside Cleaners in Northwest Washington, D.C. Thomas Hearns's attention is riveted on Avery Brooks, the tenured Rutgers professor who portrays the inscrutable hired gun, Hawk, an imposing man of few words and direct action, in the television series A Man Called Hawk. Hearns, for better or worse, has been playing a similar role for years. He never needed makeup before. Hearns is 30 now, and the super middleweight champion of the World Boxing Organization, whatever that is. He has won five titles in five weight classes over the past decade, and on June 12 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he will face Sugar Ray Leonard once again. At stake is Leonard's WBC super middleweight title, but this fight is mostly for the bankroll—a guaranteed $13 million for Leonard, $11 million for Hearns—and for old times' sake. The fight is why Hearns is on prime time. Leonard has allowed it.
"The Hit Man is here!" Brooks boomed when Hearns arrived on the set. Hearns is about to play himself for a few minutes in a gym scene, snapping off a couple of crisp lines while doing some mock sparring with Milton McCrory, his former stablemate at Detroit's Kronk Gym. The show's director, Harry Falk, experiments with different camera angles as a grip sprays Hearns's face with water for proper effect. Hearns and McCrory begin to spar effortlessly and harmlessly. Now everyone's attention is riveted on them. Falk steps forward to talk to one of the background performers and instinctively recoils from Hearns's right hand, even though he is safely outside the ring.
This bit of TV fantasy is happening on Leonard's home turf—Washington. The evening before, Hearns and his small entourage had gone to see the Detroit Pistons punish the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre in suburban Landover, Md. Before they could reach their seats, the catcalls rang out: "Ray's gonna whip you, Tommy!" "Ray's gonna knock you out, Tommy!"
June 4, 1989
"It got a little scary there for a minute," says one of Hearns's roadies. Hearns corrects him: "No it didn't."
It won't get scary until that Monday night in June when Hearns meets Leonard in a rematch of their great fight of Sept. 16, 1981. Leonard rallied and scored a TKO in the 14th round. For now, Hearns gambols in Leonard's territory without a care in the world. After taping Hawk, he will even risk his lucrative payday with Leonard by playing basketball in a U.S. Youth Games benefit, along with the likes of Julius Erving and Earl Monroe. Meanwhile, Leonard, 33, whose super middleweight title is also his fifth crown, is setting up camp in Palm Beach, Fla., to train for a fight he is widely expected to win.
"Ray knows," Hearns says. Knows what? That Hearns is shot? Washed up? That time has clocked him out even though he's 2½ years younger than Leonard? That he is a puncher with a porcelain chin who sometimes gets off a good right before it breaks? That he is a has-been on bad legs who was knocked flat by a glorified club fighter named Iran Barkley last June 6? "Ray knows better," says Hearns.
It's not what anyone else thinks: not Hawk, not manager Emanuel Steward, not Hearns's mother, Lois, not even his 106-year-old grandfather, Henry Tallie. It's what Leonard thinks that matters.
"He's tough and has resiliency and heart," Leonard said before he left for Palm Beach. "There won't be any feeling out. I know what he can do." Leonard brushed off Hearns's loss to Barkley and a lackluster decision over James Kinchen in November. "Look, that means nothing," he said testily. "This man is going to train for me. This man wants me. Bad."
Leonard knows that Hearns, though he has been stopped three times—by Sugar Ray in '81, Marvelous Marvin Hagler in '85 and Barkley, his only defeats against 46 wins—is as dangerous for the first three rounds as just about any fighter ever. The boxing intelligentsia says that Leonard is this, Michael Nunn is that, Roberto Duran can do this, Julio Cesar Chàvez might do that. But this fact remains: Along with Mike Tyson, Hearns is one of the best action fighters around and has been for the better part of the past 10 years. When Hearns fights, somebody gets knocked out, and it's usually the other guy (38 times in Hearns's career). He isn't as complete a boxer as Leonard, but then, who is? Leonard is a master. "Well," Hearns says with a cold smile, "my plans are to show just how washed up I am."
"Tommy doesn't remember who he knocked out. He just remembers who knocked him out," McCrory says in the celebrity trailer after the Hawk taping is completed. "I think we're greater now, me and Ray," Hearns adds. "We have grown, we have matured. We know more about what we're doing in there."
"Man, Tommy hit Barkley and I felt it," says McCrory. "The man needed stitches over both eyes. They said his ribs were cracked."
"Me and Ray, we're going to be greater now," says Hearns.
Only for three rounds. Hearns has nine minutes to live.
John Hearns died young. Thomas Hearns's father was preparing to leave his home in Memphis and journey to Detroit to see his oldest son fight for the WBA welterweight championship in the summer of 1980. But John Hearns never made it. A few days before the fight he suffered a heart attack; he died before reaching the hospital.
The elder Hearns never wanted Thomas to fight. He had begged his ex-wife, Lois, Thomas's mother, not to let their son box. John had left Detroit years before because the city was too tough. Detroit took the life from you. "Don't let him fight," he would say over the long-distance line to Lois back in Detroit. "He's too small. Don't let him go to that gym. Don't let him go."
Lois Hearns listened, but she was too busy trying to survive. She could no more stop Tommy from fighting than she could stop her own father from working the land. Her father, Henry Tallie, is the man whom Hearns most resembles. The same tall frame. The same countenance. The same attitude. "When you see Tommy, you're looking at my father," says Lois. "Around his eyes, the stature of his body."
Henry Tallie cackles in the evening mist of Jackson, Tenn. "Tommy can take care of himself," he says, as one of his other daughters, Annie Mae Reed, opens the ancient family Bible. "Here it is, right here," she says, pointing to a faded inscription. "Born 1st, 16th, 1883. Henry Tallie." Tallie doesn't look his age. "My father is bent over now, but he was a tall man, a proud man," says Reed. "He thought he could do anything that came up. He still thinks that. His health is fine. He's not the sort you are always taking to the doctor. He thinks Tommy can't be beat. And Tommy, well, he looks like Daddy and acts like Daddy, even more than Daddy's own children." The 106-year-old man smiles.
Tallie lived most of his life in Grand Junction, Tenn., 45 miles from Memphis, before he moved to Jackson. He had nine daughters and four sons. His grandson Tommy lived with him on a farm outside of Grand Junction until he was four. Hearns continued to spend vacations with him on the farm for years.
"Tommy always followed his grandfather," says Lois. She is sitting in the living room of the home Hearns bought for her in Southfield, a Detroit suburb. Tommy's children, Ronald, 10, and Natasha, 6, are visiting. Hearns has never married. "My father was hardworking, but he didn't say much, like Tommy doesn't," Lois says. "He still went to the fields when he was 80, and Tommy went with him. They'd work all day, then my father would get on a horse, pull Tommy up and give him the reins. And Tommy thought he was riding that horse all by himself. They'd come home. My father would wipe his brow and say, 'Whew! Tired, girl." Tommy would wipe his brow and say, "Whew! Tired, Mama.' "
When Tommy was four, John Hearns took Lois and their children to Detroit, but he left there after about three years. Lois and the children stayed on in a small apartment on Griggs Street. "It was hard, but for the best, when we separated," Lois says. "I was working at a bank, and I was doing hair at night at home. I would get so tired sometimes. Tommy would come and sit on the couch with me and he'd say, 'Mama, you tired? You want me to rub your head?' And you know, he would. And he wouldn't leave my side until I said I felt better. Later, after Tommy became champion, my male friends would humor him and say, 'I'd like to get to know your mother better.' Tommy would say, 'No!' I lost a couple of male friends that way. My girlfriends would laugh and say, 'We know who you're gonna marry. You're gonna marry Tommy. He won't let you marry anybody else.' "
At his home in Jackson, Henry Tallie's rheumy eyes and weakening ears take note of everything.
"Daddy," says Reed, "the man wants to know if you were a tough man."
"Tended to be," says Tallie. "Tended to clean up anything got in the way."
"Daddy, the man wants to know if you were ever afraid of anything."
This is a significant admission from a 106-year-old son of former slaves who has lived nearly all of his life in the rural South. Hearns used to say, "Fear is something I see in other men," but he was talking only about boxing.
"Daddy, do you think Tommy should retire from boxing?"
"Waal...he's gettin' older. Boxin's hard. But mens used to get killed just for readin', so...."
"Daddy, should Tommy retire?"
"Maybe he oughta."
"Daddy, the man wants to know when you retired."
"I never retired."
"Daddy, the man wants to thank you."
Daughter and father laugh heartily, because they know the earth has already been turned for this year's garden and that the old man is planting white potatoes and greens. He will sniff the air and feel the earth and watch the insects, and if all this tells him to plant something else next season, he will. Some things are not to be retired from.
Hearns appears to be in good shape as he descends into the Kronk Gym, where the temperature is always 100°, and the emperor is always Hearns. He is already truly fit, and the rugged training and the serious sparring haven't even begun.
The younger Kronk fighters watch him with a mixture of envy and awe. They pick up the pace of their own workouts, displaying their techniques. In a sparring session in the ring, somebody gets knocked down. Hearns goes over to the Cybex Fitron bicycle. His legs, suspect in the past few years, have never looked so good, but he has no backside to speak of, and nothing can be done about that. His jaw hasn't changed either. Still, as Albert (Pepper) White walks behind Hearns with the fighter's equipment bag, Prentiss Byrd, a longtime Kronk aide, says, "I've seen a lot of guys carry that bag."
Hearns has outlasted a thousand boxers and hangers-on at Kronk. He has never gone away. "You know what's always been wrong with Tommy is that he loses concentration," suggests White. "It's so easy for him. Man, Kinchen the first two rounds, Barkley the first three rounds. Those guys were getting hit."
"He's still got the quickness of hand," says Walter Smith, an older Kronk trainer. "Tommy's always been a gambling fighter. He trained three, four weeks for those other guys. This time he'll have trained three months. Both of them know—Ray, Tommy. They know they've got to be right."
In fact, the fight has come about at Leonard's whim. Over the years, Hearns's appetite for a rematch has been well documented. "Tommy was wondering why some things weren't happening for him," says Steward. "He had these watches made up with his picture on them, stuff like that, which didn't do all that well. I told him, 'Let's be realistic. None of this stuff will ever happen unless you knock out Ray Leonard.' Then Ray called up. I went to D.C. on January 2. We had dinner at a seafood restaurant. I knew something was on Ray's mind. We shot pool at his house until three o'clock in the morning. Then he said, 'We have to do it, Emanuel.' So he figured he had Tommy at the proper time. And Tommy, when he heard, he was as overjoyed as Tommy Hearns gets. He has no fear. Sometimes I wish he was a little scared."
A fearless fighter is most dangerous to himself "I can admit fear to myself," says Hearns. "Not of a man. Not of boxing. Anything that walks or moves, I don't fear. But I have a great fear of flying. I'm terrified of it. But I know it's something I have to control so other things can happen. Old age? No, I don't fear that. That's what we live for, to get old. I just want to see where boxing takes me. If I win in June, of course I won't retire. If I lose, I don't know. Losing isn't something I dwell on."
After being knocked out by Hagler in the 10th round in 1985, Hearns went to Hagler's dressing room to offer congratulations. As Hagler held ice to the bloody split between his eyes, Hearns suggested they do it again sometime. Hagler said, "They'll have to pay us a lot more money." When Barkley knocked out Hearns last June, it was Barkley who ended up in the hospital. Hearns shrugged and said, "I just got hit." Eight months later, Barkley showed nothing against a shadow of Duran. Hearns had taken it all. How did Ray Leonard get to be Sugar Ray Leonard, anyway? By stopping Hearns in 1981. And, oh yes, after Leonard TKO'd Hearns, it was Leonard who thought he might retire. Leonard is the best boxer alive. Hearns is only a phenomenon. That's what Leonard knows better than anyone.
"Train hard, Ray," advises Hearns. Then he falls silent.
Hawk: Should I fear, Old Man?
Old Man: Fear is what keeps most men safe. You are not most men.