British boxing fans were so excited. It was going to be great: a sold-out, rocking MEN Arena in the heart of Manchester, packed to the rafters with knowledgeable boxing fans who knew the price of admission they had paid would allow them to be in the presence of genuine boxing royalty. Oh, and “Prince” Naseem Hamed would also be in action.
But the king many of these fans were so thrilled to be seeing, for the first time at pro level in the UK, was the one and only Thomas Hearns – one of “The Four Kings” who so lit up the sport in the 1980s: Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran (the only other member of this exquisite quartet to still be fighting here in 1999).
Hearns, still looking for super-fights at age 41, after well over 20 years in the game (his latest quest a fight with a peak Roy Jones), fought the accomplished Nate Miller in a cruiserweight affair. Miller, of Philly, was no slouch; and the former IBF champion was still operating at world class level, having lost reasonably close decisions to Farbrice Tiozzo and Orlin Norris in his two previous fights. Having never been stopped, Miller, five years younger than Hearns, was 30-6 and “Mister Miller” had in his time beaten excellent fighters such as Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Norris and Bert Cooper.
In the run-up to the show, Sky Sports in the UK rolled footage of the peak Hearns, memories of which drew in the fans – Hearns-Hagler, Hearns-Leonard, and of course, Hearns’ frightening KO of Duran. Hamed, currently scorching decent fighters at featherweight, might have been the headliner, but Hearns was the genuine, been-there, seen-that, done-it-all superstar. As The Independent put it at the time in their headline: “Hearns’ aura puts Hamed in the shade.”
But how would “The Hitman” look in the fight?
Hearns, as he always prided himself on doing, wanted to give the paying fans a good fight. The veteran of over 60 pro fights (who had beaten George Gilbody in the UK in 1976 in an amateur fight) tried his best but Miller wasn’t in any mood to play ball. It was the dullest fight of Hearns’ otherwise top-notch thriller of an entire career. The fans didn’t want to do it, such was their utmost respect for both Hearns and all he had given to the sport, but they began to boo. And then they booed some more. Hearns was embarrassed for the only time in his career. It was awful.
Hearns won a wide decision, picking up the vacant IBO cruiser strap, but the Detroit legend went home with a bad taste in his mouth. Nothing mattered more to Tommy than giving the fans their money’s worth (Emmanuel Steward said a number of times how his hardest-working fighter repeatedly asked him after the War with Hagler if the fans had got a great one; Hearns more interested in this than the agony of defeat or the sheer pain in his busted right hand) – and he (and Miller) had failed.
It was almost the end and even the most passionate Thomas Hearns fan couldn’t deny as much. Hearns did fight again – three more times in fact. But the city of Manchester witnessed the sad end of the most exciting fighter of an entire decade.
As for Hamed, he had a way tougher time than expected in finally getting to the amazingly tough Paul Ingle, “The Prince” battling fatigue as he stopped Ingle late. By this time, Mr. Hearns had left the building. His head down, for once.