The Last Of The Legends

Thomas Hearns, unlike three former illustrious peers, is still a champion
June 16, 1991

All but one of boxing's legends of the 1980s are, for all intents and purposes, now finished. Marvin Hagler, the 37-year-old former middleweight champion, is making movies in Italy, wisely keeping the Atlantic Ocean between himself and the temptation of a comeback. Sugar Ray Leonard, a six-time champ in five different weight classes, hung around until he was 34; then, in February, a youngster named Terry Norris convinced him it was time to do other things. Former lightweight and welterweight champion Roberto Duran, fat and 40, is still fighting, but he is just hanging on. Earlier this year he lost dismally to somebody named Pat Lawlor. Everyone says that Duran should quit, that he is embarrassing himself.

Only a few weeks ago the same thing was being said about the fourth legend, 32-year-old Thomas Hearns. "No, thank you," said Hearns a few days before his June 3 fight with unbeaten WBA light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "Tommy Hearns's career will be up when God sends a message: 'Yo, Tommy, it's time to let somebody else have it now.' "

Having said that, Hearns, a 2-to-1 underdog, gave Hill a taste of what boxing was like in another era, when legends fought legends and everything else was a club fight. Hearns won his sixth championship—and his second as a light heavyweight—by defeating Hill in a unanimous 12-round decision. Somewhere Leonard, Hagler and Duran must have felt a sense of pride mixed with one of loss.

In beating the 27-year-old Hill, Hearns turned back the clock to 1981, to the night he lost his WBA welterweight title to Leonard, then the WBC champion, on a 14th-round technical knockout in the same Caesars Palace ring. "God, Tommy was awesome that night," said Angelo Dundee, Leonard's old trainer, the day after Hearns's victory over Hill. "He destroyed Hill with that same hard jab. He tore Ray up with that spear. I was scared to death of it. Thank god he stopped using it against Ray halfway through the fight."

Hill wasn't as fortunate. Hearns was still throwing the jab at the end of the 12th round, and Hill's ruined face was still at the end of it. That was vintage Hearns. The left hook, which hammered Hill's stubborn chin repeatedly, was the surprise.

Over the years, as Hearns moved up from welterweight to win titles in the super welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, his power diminished. Indeed, he hasn't knocked out a world-class opponent since 1987. Still, his right hand remains a feared weapon. Forty of his 50 victories—he has one draw and three losses—have come by knockout, nearly all with the paralyzing right.

"Tommy never had a hook to the head," says Alex Sherer, the bright young trainer who reconstructed Hearns's fading career, "and he was never a counterpuncher. That's all we added. Otherwise, we just took him back to the basics that made him a great fighter."

Sherer, 33, was working for the state of California as a public information officer in 1979 when he met Emanuel Steward, Hearns's trainer at the time. A self-described boxing junkie who had fought as an amateur, Sherer was also coaching a Police Athletic League boxing team in Sacramento. He and Steward kept in touch, and, in '83, Steward, who ran the Kronk Gym in Detroit, offered Sherer a job as an assistant trainer at the gym, where Sherer would work with, among others, Hearns. "Even my mother asked, 'Why are you doing this?' " says Sherer, who has a degree in communications and mass media from Wright State University in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

Sherer remained with Kronk Gym until 1989, when he and Steward had a falling out. Sherer moved to the Washington, D.C., area and applied to law school. While waiting to hear whether he would be admitted, he spent much of his time at the Library of Congress reading about boxing, especially about the life of Ezzard Charles, a boyhood hero.

Last September, Hearns and Steward had a disagreement and split after nearly two decades together. The day Hearns announced that he was taking control of his own career, Sherer happened to pass an appliance store on his way to the Library of Congress. He looked in the window and saw Hearns's image on a TV screen. Rushing inside, Sherer turned up the sound in time to hear Hearns say that he was leaving Steward. That night Sherer telephoned Hearns to wish him good luck. Ten days later Hearns hired Sherer as his trainer.

Law school went out the window. "I love boxing," says Sherer. "I love the smell of it. I study three or four films of old fights every day. I read its history. It's something I was born to do."

Sherer had tapes of all of Hearns's bouts going back to a 1975 amateur competition. "I didn't change him," says Sherer. "We just went back to square one. We worked on the fundamentals, and we concentrated on his left hand. Some days that's all we did—work on the left hand. I never pushed Tommy. You don't run a 32-year-old horse the way you run a 24-year-old horse."

While training, Hearns had two light heavyweight tune-ups. He stopped Kemper Morton in two rounds and Ken Atkin in three. "Just tough club fighters," says Sherer. "The same kind of guys Hill was defending his title against. I had to laugh. They were comparing Hill to Hearns. That's like comparing Darryl Strawberry to Hank Aaron."

Sherer's fight plan was brilliant: Counter a counterpuncher. Show Hill the expected right hand, then hit him with the new-look hook. Outjab the jabber. Frustrate the boxer and make him fight. Hearns's execution was also brilliant. One judge had him winning by four points; the other two had him winning by two.

As Hill's challenger, Hearns was paid $4.5 million. Hill, who had fought almost exclusively in his home state of North Dakota, made $1.5 million—about $1.2 million more than he had earned for any of his 10 previous title defenses. Once upon a time that kind of money was just another payday for the four legends. Hagler, Leonard, Duran and Hearns fought among themselves nine times for a total of $145 million. "In his six fights [against the others], Leonard alone made $70 million," says Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney. "If you add in everybody who made money—the vendors, the promoters, the cable people—those nine fights generated $500 million."

In four of the bouts—a loss and a draw against Leonard, a loss to Hagler and a win over Duran—Hearns earned $23 million. In five fights Duran made $21 million. Hagler, in three fights, took home $31 million.

At his training camp near L.A., Hearns watched the first three rounds of Leonard's loss to Norris. Then he switched channels. A friend wanted to watch Knots Landing. "Can you believe that?" says Hearns now. "Ray is fighting, and I'm watching a damn soap opera. I'm not knocking Ray. Seeing that happening to him, I didn't want to watch."

Someone reminds him that he's the last of the legends. Hearns shrugs. "I didn't get in this just to outlast them all," he says. "I don't think about it. I only want to think about the future." He pauses, smiles and says, "Cruiserweight. That would make me a champion in six divisions. That's what I want to think about."

His thoughts have turned to Bobby Czyz, the WBA 190-pound champion, a brawler with limited skills but fierce determination. If the two meet, Czyz's snarling style will make Hearns do what Hill failed to make him do: use his suspect legs. Hill never pressed Hearns. Czyz would mug him, hit him with elbows and forearms, step on his feet, shove and wrestle, butt and lace. It would be an ugly fight.

"I should have been meaner," said Hill after the fight, his face scraped and swollen by Hearns's fists. Hill's only transgressions had been a few low blows. Fighting mostly with one arm, his left, he had let Hearns set the pace, four beats slower than a fat man's jog. The mistake was fatal for Hill, who sustained his first defeat since the 1984 Olympic middleweight finals, in which he lost a 3-2 decision to Shin Joon Sup of South Korea.

"You forgot to bring your right arm to the fight," someone said.

Hill sighed. "I hyperextended the elbow in training," he said. "I'm not making excuses—Tommy fought a great fight—but every time I threw a right hand, the arm would go numb for 30 seconds."

Hill had also broken his nose in training. Hearns rebroke it in the second round. "Now you're making me feel bad," Hearns told Hill after he learned of the busted beak.

Before the bout Czyz was foremost in Hill's thoughts. Hill had hoped that a victory over Hearns would catapult him to superstar status. "I need a dramatic victory," said Hill.

He still needs one. "How about a rematch?" he asked Hearns.

"You got it," said Hearns the fighter.

There was a brief pause. "Hold it," said Hearns the manager. "We've got to talk price. You've got a rematch if the money is right. We'll talk about it."

Then Hearns the fighter reclaimed the conversation. "But I don't want to talk about it now," he said. "When the last bell rang, all I could think was, It's June, the start of summer, and all I want to do is put on my shorts and get into a boat. I don't even want to think about fighting. I'm taking the summer off."

Hill smiled ruefully and said, "I guess if you're going on vacation, then so am I. I don't want any damn tune-ups—none of that. I want a chance to get my title back."

"Have a nice summer," said Hearns.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOWhile adding a few new tricks to throw at Hill, Hearns retained his classic jab. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERBy keeping Hill at a distance, Hearns slowed the action, which fit the strategy of... PHOTOJOHN IACONO...Sherer (left), who did not want Hearns's aging legs to be tested. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERHearns's reputation was secure on the streets of Detroit long before he won his sixth belt.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)