Recalling The Thomas Hearns-James Kinchen Battle – An Underrated War

By James Slater - 11/04/2023 - Comments

It was the fight that convinced Sugar Ray Leonard, and a whole heap of other people, that Thomas Hearns was ‘shot.’ He was done. Finished as the result of too many wars. Hearns’ punch resistance had deserted him, never to return. But guess what??? These people were dead wrong.

On this day back in 1988, 30 year old Hearns, having been shocked to the core by Iran Barkley in June of the year, this not too long after “The Hitman” had made boxing history by becoming the first man to win world titles in four different weight divisions – faced “The Heat” in the form of James Kinchen. Kinchen, who had also shared a ring with “The Blade” (losing via a split decision that, ironically, set Barkley on a path towards being able to challenge for the WBC middleweight title he would rip from Hearns in a stunning upset), was riding a seven-fight win streak ahead of his shot at Hearns.

The two men met in Vegas, the freshly-minted WBO super-middleweight belt on the line. These two warriors fought as hard as can be for the inaugural strap. And for their fighting future.

Hearns, 45-3, and, again, coming off that devastating KO loss to Barkley, met Kinchen, who was 43-4-2 and who had been stopped just twice, this by Juan Roldan (another common opponent with Hearns) and Larry Musgrove, this via a TD. The 30 year old Kinchen was determined to make his name at big-level by taking out “The Hitman.”

And Kinchen came darn near close.

In the fourth round, after landing some hard overhand rights to the head, Kinchen had Hearns down and on queer street. Mills Lane had all he could handle in getting the two men apart after Hearns – who never once during his legendary career ever came close to ‘swallowing it’ – got up. Hearns, by his own admission, held onto Kinchen, ‘like he was my woman.’ Tommy survived the round. The fight, a great one, a very much underrated one, raged on for all 12 rounds. By the end, both men were marked up, swollen, and on the verge of exhaustion. It was indeed a great intro for the new WBO belt at 168 pounds.

But Hearns won, and deservedly so. Yet the the decision, a majority one, went to Detroit’s finest by the slimmest of scores, at 116-112, 115-112, and 114-114. Kinchen cried robbery. Hearns asked if he could keep the gloves for his collection.

It was a great fight, an at times brutal fight that could have gone either way. But Hearns, in one of his less-celebrated ring triumphs, showed again how great he was. Hearns, in short, had unbelievable heart, desire, toughness. Kinchen, it must be pointed out, had taken, and was later tested for having taken prior to the fight, the painkiller lidocaine. If this had not been the case, and we do not wish to take anything away from Kinchen’s superb effort (and Hearns never did), we will never know if the fight would have been so fiercely competitive.

For the winner, Hearns, the points victory led him to a much-desired – yes, even obsessed over – rematch with Sugar Ray. For the loser, Kinchen, it was a move up to 175 pounds and limited success.

But on this day, 35 long years ago, Hearns and Kinchen gave us a great, great fight. A very much underrated fight.

YouTube video