Thirty Years Ago This Year He Made His Debut - Remembering Tommy Hearns' First Ascension To The Top

hearns08.01.07 - By James Slater: As hard as it may be to realise, “The Motor City Cobra” himself, the great Detroit “Hitman,” Thomas Hearns first punched for pay thirty years ago this year. Indeed, a generation has passed since Tommy’s professional ring debut. In this article I recount his initial rise towards fighting for his first title, and the ruthlessly shown skill that was witnessed when he got there. His Hall of Fame worthiness has been proven many times over since his claiming of world title number one (the first of five at different weights - six if you count the WBU’s belt at cruiserweight) but to many people, including Thomas himself, his annexing of that first one remains the most special. Without a doubt, there will never be another Thomas Hearns.

The future boxing legend turned professional on the 25th of November 1977, with a quick second round KO over Jerome Hill. Afterwards he swiftly became known as one of the most devastating punching welterweights in ring history. Quite amazingly, he had only scored a paltry twelve knockouts in his 147 amateur wins. His newfound punching ability would soon become respected and feared by all the 147 pound boxers in the world, however. This ability to punch with such force may have been nurtured by Tommy’s training with Emanuel Steward or possibly it was just a growing maturity and strengthened physique, whatever, he was soon destroying opponents in frighteningly quick time!

It wasn’t until his eighteenth pro bout, in March of ‘79, that somebody was able to take “The Hitman” the distance - Alfonso Hayman, losing a unanimous decision over ten rounds, holds this distinction. By this time Hearns had scored an impressive 13 KOs in less than three rounds. He really was wiping out all that stood before him. Most of these early fights had taken place in Detroit where, legendarily, Tommy trained at the now famous Kronk gym. Along with good fighters such as Hilmer Kenty, Milton McCrory and others, Hearns was to make the gym’s name synonymous with boxing. Emanuel says today that he knew very quickly Hearns was the real thing regarding dedication. Rain or shine he was there, willing to train hard, determined to
one day be a world champion just like his idol, Muhammad Ali.

In May of 1979, Hearns fought in Las Vegas for the first time. He won a six round TKO over the respected Harold Weston. Unfortunately for Weston his career was finished after his encounter with “The Hitman”, due to eye damage and he never fought again. Hearns’ calibre of competition was now steadily improving and after good wins over the likes of Bruce Curry - KO 3, Mike Colbert - won points 10, and Jim Richards - KO 3, he was ready to fight for his first title. Matched against former WBA welterweight champion, Puerto Rico’s Angel Espada, in February 1980 at the historical Joe Louis arena in Detroit, Tommy won the vacant USBA welterweight title with a fourth round TKO. He would soon get the chance to win the real thing and see his
childhood ambition realised.

Two more wins followed, both first round knockouts, and then he was ready. He had compiled an unbeaten and very impressive record of twenty eight fights, with all but two of these victories coming by KO. Now world ranked and very well known he challenged the holder of the WBA welterweight championship, the vastly experienced Pipino Cuevas. Once again Hearns was to fight in the arena dedicated to the memory of the great Joe Louis, and this time he had all of Detroit in his corner. Winning the world title would mean so much to the city. On August 2nd 1980, “The Hitman” wasn’t intent on letting anyone down.

Cuevas had been in his share of tough fights and like most Mexican warriors he’d turned pro very young. Pipino was still a teenager when he’d actually lost his pro debut, back in 1971. He was to lose another five fights, all six of his defeats coming on points, before going on to win the vacant world title with a second round KO over the aforementioned Angel Espada in July 1976. He knocked Espada down three times in the second and was by now himself respected as a rock hard puncher. He had rebounded well from his early setbacks and went on to successfully defend his belt ten times. They certainly breed them tough in Mexico and the fact that five of Cuevas’ six losses occurred in Mexico City, against tough local opposition, bears this out. Pipino had been thrown in at the deep end but now was reaping the rewards from having not been babied as he’d learnt his trade.

His ten defences came against good men such as Harold Weston, Pete Ranzany, Randy Shields (who would soon face Tommy), Angel Espada in a rematch, and Harold Volbrecht. All but one of these defences had been KO wins, Shields having lasted the distance and Cuevas had fought at an extremely active pace since winning his title. Going into his fight with Tommy he was confident of victory. Until he got into the ring.

Most observers felt Cuevas had shown fear when he sized Hearns up. He had never seen this type of opponent before. He was face to face with a praying mantis. Tommy had freakish height for a welterweight - at 6’ 1” and with a reach of 78” - his measurements were comparable to a heavyweight’s! He had made these attributes work for him without a hitch and, whilst some may have wondered how his lanky frame would react when and if he was nailed with a hard shot on the chin, for the time being it was Hearns who was administering the KO inducing blows. With these advantages in height and reach over all other welterweights would anyone be able to get past his hurtful right hand and dominating jab to put Tommy’s chin to the test? Not so far, and as he stood in his corner listening to the introductions preceding the fight with Cuevas, a fighter whose chin had withstood all that had been thrown at it, Tommy wasn’t the one who appeared intimidated.

The fear that Cuevas seemed to show was not without reason. Hearns’ jab and reach dominated the opening three minutes as he was so determined to capture his first world title. His dream was fulfilled with a devastating display of punching power in the second. Cuevas’ chin may have passed all its previous tests but it was no match for Tommy’s lethal fists. His right hand crashed into Pipino’s jaw and, in a slightly delayed manner, Cuevas’ body lurched, inviting Hearns to smash home another big right. And it was all over. Thomas Hearns was the new welterweight champion of the world.

One of the most ruthless and efficient KOs in recent memory had been witnessed that August night in Detroit and as a result, the world was now at Thomas Hearns’ feet. It simply couldn’t have gone any better. Even Muhammad Ali had been at ringside! And Thomas Hearns, in the coming years, would go some way towards emulating the superb pugilistic achievements even “The Greatest” had made his own. The City of Detroit was never made happier.

Article posted on 09.01.2007

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