In a long and heavily distinguished career that was filled with so many great wins, living legend Thomas Hearns picked up the final truly great victory of his ring career on this day back in 1991. Hearns, aged 32 and seen by almost everyone (including his trainer/father figure, Emanuel Steward) as being far enough past his best that he should be retired, ignored the negativity and signed to fight long-reigning WBA light-heavyweight champ Virgil Hill.
Hearns had already won world titles at welterweight, super-welterweight, middleweight, super-middleweight, and light-heavyweight. Yet still “The Hitman,” the first man in boxing history to win world titles at four different weights, wanted more. Hearns might have beaten up a fierce but raw Dennis Andries to win the WBC 175 pound title back in 1987, but against the unbeaten Hill, Hearns was facing a primed, and peaking boxer/puncher who had plenty of people suggesting “Quicksilver” was one of the best boxers in the world pound-for-pound.
Hearns, who had been badly KO’d by Iran Barkley three years earlier, and who had not looked good at all in defeating Michael Olajide the previous April, was close to 3/1 underdog in the Hill fight. But Hearns, a smooth and silky boxer as much as he could be a savage puncher, had a big surprise in store.
Steward had declined to work with his most famous fighter, concerned as he was over how shaky Tommy’s legs had looked recently, perhaps in the Olajide fight especially, and Kronk assistant Alex Sherer served as Hearns’ chief trainer and cornerman. Hill, trained by a young Freddie Roach and making the 11th defence of his title, was five years the younger man at 27. Hill was perfect at 30-0, Hearns was 49-3-1.
Despite his spotless record and lengthy reign, Hill had plenty of critics on his back due to his less than stellar quality of opposition. Hill’s biggest wins were his title-winning victory over Leslie Stewart and his points win over Bobby Czyz. The Hearns fight – billed as “For Respect” – would be Hill’s very first super-fight.
Showing Hearns plenty of respect, perhaps too much, Hill was cautious early, allowing Hearns, with his superb and very long left jab, to pile up points. Hearns kept Hill honest with his feared right hand, and the former multi-weight ruler whipped in a good number of left hooks. It was, though, a counter-punching approach from Hearns – and it worked perfectly. Later in the fight, Hearns broke Hill’s nose, closing strongly in the final rounds. Hill wore that look a fighter who knows he has been beaten has on his face.
It was close, 115-113 twice and a perhaps more accurate 116-112, all for Hearns, but “The Hitman” was king of the world all over again. Afterward, there was talk of Hearns going up to cruiserweight to try and win a sixth world title in as many weights. Hill called for a return go at Hearns. Neither happened.
Hill did come back, regaining the WBA belt in September of 1992, later becoming the lineal champ at the weight and then managing to win the WBA belt up at cruiserweight twice. Hearns was able to win a minor belt as a cruiserweight, but his last great fight had been fought.
It came at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas 29 years ago today.