A true boxing legend celebrates his birthday today as The Detroit Hitman, Thomas Hearns turns 59. So much Hearns gave, and still gives, to the sport that made him famous and that he himself lit up in one huge way in the 1980s and ’90s. An all-time great, Hearns competed in at least a dozen fights that are considered classics.
But to Hearns himself, the fight, the world title victory that means the most to him is his 1980 fight with Mexico’s Pipino Cuevas. It was in this fight that Hearns was first coronated.
By early 1980, Hearns was world-ranked and very well known amongst the boxing fraternity. Having worked his way up the ladder – compiling a 28-0(26) record along the way – Tommy was now ready for the 147 pound world title. His chance came when 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 – The Joe Louis Arena in Detroit – and for this fight he had the entire city in his corner. Tommy winning the world title would mean so much to the residents of “The Motor 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 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 while learning 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 head, 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. As we know, Tommy went on to win recognized world titles in four other weight classes – jr. middle, middle, super middle and finally light heavy.
To this day, however, that devastatingly efficient display of raw punching power he put on against Cuevas ranks as one of his most memorable fights. August 2, 1980, the day “The Hitman” became the welterweight king, at age 21. To think, it was over 37 years ago when Hearns first became a world champion.
Happy birthday, champ!