Moments after winning a lopsided 12-round decision over Michael Olajide last Saturday night at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Tommy Hearns eased himself into a seat in his sweltering dressing room and buried his face in a towel. The room, packed with friends, family and hangers-on, resounded with shouts of "Way to go, Champ." Hearns, exhausted, responded with a dark grin. The champ was not satisfied. Though he had easily retained his WBO super middleweight belt against the woefully outgunned Olajide—and earned $1.6 million—Hearns had failed to produce the spectacular performance he had hoped for.
"This fight was not the real Thomas Hearns," he said after slowly making his way up two flights of stairs to a press conference. "The next one will be better."
The question for Hearns, though, is how many more next ones can there be?
Now 31, Hearns has been fighting professionally for 13 years. He won his first world title a decade ago—as a welterweight—and has added four since. He brought a record of 46-3-1 into last Saturday's match. Thirty-eight of those wins were knockouts. Yet for all his success, Hearns is shadowed by images of failure: cradled in a handler's arms after a brutal three-round knockout by Marvin Hagler in 1985; suddenly down and out in the third round after an Iran Barkley right hand in '88; and, of course, draped over the ropes in the 13th round of his '81 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard, which ended in a KO one round later.
May 6, 1990
That loss to Leonard hurt the most, and for years it gnawed at Hearns. Then, last June in Las Vegas, Hearns gained a measure of redemption, battering Leonard and dropping him twice on the way to a controversial draw in a bout that many thought Hearns had won. After such a supreme effort, it seemed likely that Hearns would retire. He didn't.
"We talked about it before the Leonard fight," says Emanuel Steward, Hearns's longtime trainer and manager and head of Detroit's Kronk Gym. "But never after."
Hearns spent several months after the Leonard fight relaxing, decorating his houses in Detroit and Las Vegas and playing pickup basketball. But by February he was back in the Kronk.
"I want to be the star," said Hearns repeatedly in the days before the Olajide fight, perhaps trying to convince himself as much as anyone that he didn't need Ray Leonard, that boxing didn't need Ray Leonard. "Not just a star, but the brightest star in boxing."
Three years ago it seemed that Olajide would be the sport's next star, a 23-year-old New York media darling with a 23-0 record who moonlighted as a model. But a loss by decision to Frank Tate and a fifth-round knockout by Barkley interrupted his ascent.
After those setbacks Olajide split with his father, Michael Sr., who had been his trainer for nine years. The fighter blamed his father for working him too hard and matching him too hastily against difficult opponents. The two still are not on speaking terms. For the past year Olajide has been working with veteran trainer Angelo Dundee.
"I'm so enjuiced about this kid," said Dundee before the fight. "Hearns talks about being the star, but my guy fits the bill."
Indeed, Olajide, 27-2 going into this fight and a gentle, thoughtful young man—he had just finished writing a young-adult novel entitled Ice Quest before starting training—understood that the Hearns match offered him an opportunity to resurrect his career, a prize worth far more than his $250,000 purse.
"It's no overstatement to say this is my most important fight," he said before the bout. "Hearns has been one of the dominant fighters of the '80s. Beating him would mean instant recognition."
Dundee and cotrainer Hector Roca drilled Olajide on how to face the champion. They expected Hearns to come out shooting. "You don't let him set," said Dundee as he supervised Olajide's training. "That's when he's dangerous. You gotta keep moving."
From the opening bell Olajide did just that, circling constantly, refusing to lead and drawing boos from the sellout crowd of 5,420 at the Taj Mahal's Mark Grossinger Etess Arena. Hearns stalked him throughout but devoted nearly as much time to clowning and mugging as he did to punching.
"He was too loose," said Steward later. "Too relaxed."
The only threat to Hearns during those early rounds came in the fourth, when Olajide landed a counter left hook square on Hearns's protective cup. ("You could hear that one all over the place," said a Hearns cornerman, Walter Smith.) The low blow cost Hearns some breath and Olajide a point, but did little to alter the pattern of the fight.
Finally, early in the ninth Olajide got careless and Hearns got set. The champion landed a straight right to the jaw, and Olajide went down on his right side. More dazed than hurt, Olajide rose as referee Tony Orlando reached the count of eight, and immediately retreated to the ropes.
For the next 30 seconds Olajide bobbed and weaved as Hearns fired away furiously with lefts and rights. But few of the punches landed cleanly, and with a minute remaining it was clear that Hearns had spent himself. By the end of the round, Olajide was firing back and the champion was wobbly. An overeager Hearns had allowed the knockout to slip away.
Though he was clearly drained, Hearns finished the fight on his toes, fending off Olajide, who belatedly, desperately, pressed the attack. The announcement of the result was a mere formality. Judge Samuel Conde had it 120-107; Cesar Ramos, 119-110; and Vinnie Rainone, 119-107.
At the press conference Hearns spoke gamely of moving up in weight, first to light heavy, eventually to cruiserweight and even heavyweight. But a moment later his true hopes were revealed. "Early in the fight I looked out in the audience and I saw someone. And my eyes lit up," he said, pausing for just a second. The someone he had seen was Ray Leonard, sitting at ringside.
"Please, Ray, just one more time," said Hearns. "Just one more time, Ray. Please."
Though indeed a star, Hearns is still eclipsed.