The Defining Moment of Thomas Hearns’ Career

15.09.04 - By the Rev. Marc Axelrod: It is pretty well accepted in Boxing circles that Thomas Hearns was a great fighter. Like his counterpart Sugar Ray Leonard, he won multiple world titles in multiple weight divisions all the way up to cruiserweight. And if Heanrs caught you flush with his long right cross, forget about it. You were in for a long winter nap. I submit the knockouts of Roberto Duran and James Shuler as evidence.

But unlike the aforementioned Leonard, Hearns had the misfortune of coming up 0-2-1 against the best fighters he ever faced (Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard). He fought his heart out in all three matches, and he probably deserved the decision in the draw he had with the Sugarman. But the record still stands at 0-2-1.

So how do we evaluate The Hitman’s career? What was his defining moment as a fighter? Was it his two round demolition of WBA Welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas? Was it his masterful display of boxing tactics in the Wilfred Benitez fight? Or perhaps it was his second round destruction of Roberto Duran. Or maybe we can look to his wars with James ‘The Heat’ Kinchen or Juan Roldan and say, “Now that encapsulates the Hitman! That’s Thomas Hearns!” We may even be able to fast forward to 1991 and say, “The win over WBA Light Heavyweight champion Virgil Hill is the defining moment of the Hitman’s career! What a tremendous achievement it was for a former 147 pound fighter to come all the way up to 175 pounds and conquer the best fighter in that division! He’s the man!”

I suggest that Hearns is one of those rare talents that cannot be summarized by one performance. All of the previously mentioned moments are career highlights against accomplished opposition. Taken together as a body of work, they establish the foundation for calling Hearns a great fighter.

Now I know there are those who would say, “Wait a second, pastor! What about the fact that The Hitman was defeated by the best opposition he ever faced? What about his two losses to Iran Barkley, a fighter who wasn’t even supposed to be able to carry his jockstrap? What about his near losses to journeyman contenders like Roldan and Kinchen?”

I said Hearns was a great fighter, and his greatness is established by his longevity and by his resume. But I never suggested that he was perfect. On any given night, anyone can be dethroned. Anyone can be beaten. Hearns was on his way to a victory over Barkley in their first match until he ate one of the most devastating right hands anyone has ever had to eat in the middleweight division. I give Hearns all the credit in the world for even getting up from that devastating shot that Barkley landed.

I also feel that the second Hearns-Barkley match could have gone either way. It is true that Iran floored Thomas with a short left hook in the fourth round. But after round six, I thought that Hearns took over the fight. He lost a narrow decision (and his WBA Light heavyweight title) that night.

I suppose you could also level the same criticisms at Hearns that have been assigned to Sugar Ray Leonard. Why didn’t Hearns fight the likes of Julian Jackson, James Toney, Mike McCallum, Michael Nunn and Herol Graham? The answer may be that Hearns was already ringworn by the end of 1989 due to his wars with Hagler, Leonard, Kinchen, Roldan, and Barkley I. He may thought to himself, “I have already won more belts than these fighters will ever see in their lifetimes. Why do I need to go back to square one and fight these young lions only to win back the same belts that I have already won?”

Like most fighters, Thomas Hearns had some flaws. He was quite capable of doing the St. Vitus dance when he got clocked on the chin. He sometimes chose to brawl with fighters when it may have been better to box. It can also be argued that he went on a little too long, and that his losses to Hagler, Leonard and Barkley diminish what could have been referred to as a sterling career.

But even if these things be admitted (as well they should), the record of his accomplishments cannot be denied. I conclude that the defining moment of Thomas Hearns’ career was the career itself. Twenty three years of greatness. Twenty three years of fighting the best men of his era. Twenty three years of heart, courage, guts, and fortitude. Let the record stand.

Article posted on 15.09.2004

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