The saying goes, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Surely, the same can be said for boxing. And yet, sometimes, a fighter with a dazzling record of wins is admired and revered most for how brilliantly and gallantly he fought in a bout that he ultimately lost. This is the story of Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
Born in Tennessee, Tommy Hearns has lived in Detroit since he was five years old and has become become a true sports world fixture in that city. Toughing it out on those streets, he might have come to a bad end. But he credits legendary trainer, Emmanuel Steward, with rescuing him and molding him into a man and a warrior. Of the world champions Steward trained at his landmark Kronk Gym, Hearns was the first.
Making his professional debut at age 19, Hearns won his first 32 fights with an impressive 84% knockout rate. He went on to become the first fighter in history to win the belt in four weight classes. Then, he did it again, becoming the first to win in five. In his greatest triumph, he became the first man ever to knock out Roberto Duran, and he did it in only two rounds!
In 1981, Hearns suffered his first professional defeat at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight billed as “The Showdown”. Ahead on points for 13 rounds, Hearns had Leonard dead to rights and in desperate need of a knockout to win. Leonard’s famous trainer, Angelo Dundee, was heard to tell his fighter “You’re blowing it, son!” in the corner. But, by Round 14, Hearns was punched out and Leonard found the KO he needed. Their rematch would not be until 1989 and it resulted in a highly controversial draw. Gallant Leonard went to his opponent’s corner and stated he felt the draw was a gift and that the fighters were truly 1-1.
In 1985, Hearns faced Marvelous Marvin Hagler for three of the most popular and fondly remembered rounds in boxing. Having risen to middleweight to challenge the champ, Hearns broke his right hand early in the fight and, aggressive as he was, could not match Hagler’s onslaught. Suffering a Round 3 knockout, Hearns hoped for a rematch but it never materialized.
After making $40 million in the ring, Hearns was forced to auction all his possessions to pay a back tax debt. Taking full responsibility for the payments, Hearns blamed no one, and went graciously to work. Out of the ring, as well as in it, this champion fought with honor, grace, and dignity, even in the fights that he lost.