Tommy Hearns – Heart of a Champion

By Conor Ward - Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, April 15th 1985 – a quarter of a century ago now but still an amazing and enduring memory. Undisputed world middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler faced off to defend his title against reigning light middleweight champ Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns. As all boxing enthusiasts know, Hagler won the fight by a third round technical knockout. But that fact tells a mere fraction of the story, for as this extraordinary fight proved, boxing – for all the criticism it receives – can teach us some invaluable lessons.

Promoter Bob Arum christened the fight “The War” in the build-up and sportswriter Jerry Izenberg summed up the anticipation aptly in stating that the fight “could be the purest of big-league boxing matches in a long, long time…no gimmicks…no shameful racism…no untested paper tigers.”

And after all the big fight hype, posturing, invective and conjecture that goes along with events of this magnitude, when the action finally got underway on that special night, it did not disappoint. To say the first round was action-packed would constitute the grossest of understatements, for it was most probably the most violent and compelling opening three minutes in boxing’s recent history..

Both men came out with menace; both dished out and absorbed heavy heavy punishment in those wild early exchanges. Tommy Hearns, whose scarily powerful right hand had obliterated the vast majority of his previous 41 opponents, broke that right hand in delivering one shot to the head of Hagler, such was the sheer brute strength of the champion, a point missed by ringside observers at the time.

Hearns fought on gamely, but struggling with the broken hand and rubbery-legged (probably exacerbated by an ill-advised pre-fight massage) by the third round, he was ultimately overwhelmed by Hagler’s come forward aggression and unyielding lust for battle. With Hearns on the retreat, Hagler caught him cleanly on the chin with a devastating right hand which sent Hearns floundering to the canvas. That was to signal the end of the fight.

The action had lasted less than eight minutes, but every second of it was spellbinding. Despite its brevity, it remains a classic to this day and is found near the top of any respectable list of all-time great matches. Hagler – having so often been ignored for major fights and robbed of decisions in the past – eventually had his glorious night of triumph, his ultimate vindication on the greatest stage and his legacy cemented.

But there was yet a greater lesson to be taken from the fight. The most extraordinary moment, the most defining memory, was the sight of the lion-hearted Hearns rising to his feet to somehow beat the count against all odds with a bare second to spare. Referee Richard Steele, seeing that Hearns was in total disarray and in no fit state to continue, compassionately threw his arm around him and waved the fight off.

Tommy Hearns lost that fight, but Tommy Hearns showed for all the world that he was no loser. He would subsequently go on to prove himself as a true champion, winning more titles at several weights in the years that followed, from light middleweight all the way up to cruiserweight. Whatever about all the world titles he captured and the great performances in his illustrious career, however, it was in defeat that he showed the character, the never-say-die spirit that is the mark of a true champion, a warrior, the kind of hero worth having.

On that night of April 15th 1985, on the receiving end of enormous punishment, lying flat on his back and possessing little awareness of where he was at all, Tommy Hearns mustered the strength from somewhere deep inside to get back to his feet. He refused to lie down, refused to accept defeat. Sometimes that’s all we are doing, trying to hang in there, ride the storm and somehow get back up on our feet.

True character is not revealed when all is running smoothly and everything is on your side. It is revealed when the chips are down, when you’re taking a beating and struggling to keep going. And if you do what Tommy Hearns did that night – get back up when all you have is blind will, when the situation seems desperate and hopeless, when all appears lost, find whatever that fuzzy matter is inside you that just compels you to carry on in your darkest hour – then no matter what comes to pass, whatever misfortune or hardship comes your way, whatever anyone else says or does, you can look yourself in the mirror and you’ll do alright in this precarious and puzzling game called Life.

Contact Conor with comments at

Article posted on 24.06.2010

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