A Conversation with Tommy Hearns

By Steven Malik Shelton on December 11, 2014
A Conversation with Tommy Hearns
“You got to learn how to see things and not see them.” (Susan Tusa/Detroit Free Press)

“They sized me up and said that I was too skinny to be a fighter, they said I was too small. But look at me now. It all depends on what God has put in you…”

Tommy Hearns arrives in Kronk’s basement gym. He is dressed in dark clothing, bringing to mind the fabled aging gunslinger of Old West lore.

Hearns walks slowly, his movements are measured and labored; yet he has earned the right because there is no need for legends to hurry through life. After all, their legacy is firmly established, their place in the world secured and their deeds adulated and celebrated.

Hearns disappears in to the locker room and moments later, walks toward me in full boxing attire. He sits next to me on one of the red plastic chairs that run along the walls of the mystical gym. His manner is quiet and unassuming, yet one senses that he is a man who knows what he wants and does not mind paying the price to get it. This attitude has culminated in his winning seven world titles in four weight divisions in a pro boxing career that has spanned an incredible 26 years. And Hearns still clings to the ring, refusing to entirely abdicate his passion for competitive participation in a sport that has earned him such honor and prestige.

Steven Malik Shelton: What are the characteristics that a person needs to be a world champion boxer?

Tommy Hearns: You need determination. You need the will power to push on and carry on when times get rough and tough; you need the will to pull out that extra something that has never been pulled out before

SMS: What initially interested you in the sport of boxing when you were a youngster?

TH: Well, my idol was Muhammad Ali. I always said that I wanted to box like him. I wanted to be like him and pattern myself after him. So when I first went to the gym I told the trainer, ‘I want to learn how to box like Muhammad Ali. I want to get on my toes and learn how to box.’ And they started training me, first at King Solomon’s Baptist Church over on 14th and Ferry Park, and then I started boxing and learned how to stand and learned my footing for my jabs and everything and eventually I learned what I really wanted to do which was get up on my toes and move around. I learned how to jab, I learned how to use my right hand. Then I learned how to move from side to side. And when I learned how to do that, I was into something and eventually it all came together and happened for me. It really happened.

SMS: What do you think makes Kronk Gym a special place?

TH: Because of all the great fighters that we have produced out of this gym. Kronk has produced a lot of great fighters and many of them have gone on to make a lot of money in the ring. People see that and realize its uniqueness and they begin talking about this gym more than any other place.

SMS: What do you say to those who have criticized you over the years?

TH: Well, people are entitled to their opinions and usually they’re going to think what they want. There were people who said that I never should have started boxing; they sized me up and said that I was too skinny to be a fighter, they said I was too small. But look at me now. It all depends on what God has put in you. When God has blessed you with certain skills and talent to do something then you can do it. As long as you remember that God is your leader, then what all the critics in the world say don’t mean much. Don’t never let nobody stop you from doing what you want to do. As long as it’s positive, go on ahead and go for it.

SMS: Your son Ronald is a professional boxer. Do you train him?

TH: I watch over Ronald, I don’t train Ronald.

SMS: What are some of the challenges that young fighters face today that were not present when you began boxing?

TH: There are always distractions but you got to learn how to see things and not see them. You have to make up your mind that you are not going to be a part of things that are not good for you and that are not healthy or helpful. If it’s not going to help you, leave it alone.

SMS: Do you think that it’s easier for a fighter today or harder?

TH: Well, it’s always going to be difficult for a fighter because there’s always a lot of challenges and tribulations and stuff in front of you that you have to deal with. You got to be a man. As long as you be a man and deal with it in a manly way then you won’t really have no problem, but as soon as you back down and don’t deal with it, that’s when it grows. God put you here on this earth to be a man. If he wanted you to be a woman he would have made you a woman. All men are going to have problems; you just have to deal with them.

SMS: What was your toughest fight?

TH: My toughest fight was winning my fifth world title against Juan Roldan. He was a very tough guy and the fight went back and forth. I had Roldan cleanly out on his feet; all of a sudden he hit me with a hook and had me out. And I thank God that I had the ability to box. If I didn’t have my boxing movements, I would have been out of there. I resorted back to my movements, to my boxing which carried me through the fight. I moved, I boxed and I held him. If it wasn’t for that, I would not be a seven-time world champion.

SMS: So your toughest contest was not the Marvin Hagler fight?

TH: The Marvin Hagler fight wasn’t my toughest fight. It was a tough fight because it was three durable rounds…just two guys who were determined not to quit, and that’s what made the fight look difficult; but it wasn’t as hard as the fight with Roldan when I won my fifth world title.

SMS: What are some of the activities that you are involved with apart from boxing?

TH: I want to be, more than anything else, I want to be a leader. Not just for my people but for all people from all walks of life. God made me a people’s champion; he didn’t make me a certain race champion. And I’m going to take what God gave me and use it to the best of my ability and try to educate other people and show them that they can do the same. If you just take control of your life and don’t let other people run your life. You got to run your own life. This is your life. God gave you this life and you need to live it as you choose without going out there and doing anything wrong. Anybody can do something wrong, but how many of us can do the right thing and look good in the public eye? I don’t ever want to be caught out there not looking right, because I know that there are a lot of people watching me. And there are some people that watch you that don’t want to see you do good, they want to see you do bad. I want all my children to be respectable. I want them to always be involved in something good and right. You know, trying to help somebody. I want to start working more with youth to try and teach them what’s right and what’s wrong. They already know what’s right and what’s wrong but I’m trying to teach them even more positive things to help them get over and be successful and to give them opportunities so that they can help themselves.

Steven Malik Shelton is a writer and human rights advocate. He can be reached at: malikshelton19@aol.com.

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"Martillo" Roldán vs. Tommy Hearns: 29-10-1987

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  1. raxman 08:43pm, 12/13/2014

    bikermike - I think I’d heard MS say that hearns was so pumped up for that fight he was doing extra training on his own - running I assumed - anyway he certainly says on the legendary nights ep that Hearns came into that fight overtrained and paid for it with stamina issues.

  2. bikermike 04:28pm, 12/13/2014

    I hope the best for Tommy. He needs to find an ‘after ring’ career.  Whispers have become rumbles that his finances are not that good

  3. bikermike 04:24pm, 12/13/2014

    I have been scratching my head about this one for a long time.
    Why would Steward bring Hearns in at 145 ....for the Welter Weight unification Title bout with leonard….‘specially with Hearns being about three stories tall anyway !!

  4. bikermike 04:19pm, 12/13/2014

    Irish Frankie…..You brought back memories with your post, about how Hearns threw a perfect punch..and landed it upon Duran !  Poor Roberto was talking to himself for a cupla days after that one

  5. bikermike 04:05pm, 12/13/2014

    one thing about Hearns, ...he hit so hard he suffered chronic hand damage…He had to eat…so he fought with sore hand ...cupla three times.  Some viewed this as caution…......Now ..when his hands were good…he would…and could really punch.

  6. Eric 07:48pm, 12/11/2014

    Punchers come in all shapes and sizes. From spindly & downright bony fighters like Arguello, Jimmy Wilde, or Mark Breland, to fat, roly-poly types like Galento & Butterbean, to muscular types like Tyson or Mike Weaver.

  7. peter 06:45pm, 12/11/2014

    As an amateur, Hearns could punch. It’s just that he didn’t want to. He wanted to be cautious, not wanting to engage, because he knew he could win simply by landing his jab and moving away.  Michael Spinks had the same mind-set as an amateur—jab, move, and don’t get hit. But Hearns,  fighting pro, was a different story. Manny knew Hearns’s cautious approach needed change. Steward saw Hearns’s long, lean physique—much like Bob Foster’s—and knew it was s a natural puncher’s body—if taught properly.

  8. raxman 06:24pm, 12/11/2014

    eric - but how do you explain hearns then? as an amateur he couldn’t knock the skin off a custard. his technique was adapted for him to be able to bang, not just improve a bit. I don’t disagree that some fighters just naturally know how to hit hard - but I think that is much more about the technique of power punching coming to them naturally rather than some mystical quality only a few possess. It makes sense to me that its a technique issue albeit one that is just not easy to decipher and even less easy to master.
    and although all fighters have been taught to throw a punch plenty have learnt to do so with poor technique; be it arm throwing the left hook or screwing the trajectory on an uppercut (see Tyson fury punch himself between the eyes)
    so its not surprising, that even top level fighters with top level coaches can’t pick necessarily master power, because we see techniques flaws in loads of world class fighters many who continue to win despite these flaws (carl froch for example has terrible balance issues just to name one flaw but he makes up for that by having his heart and his chin and his endurance as his strengths). even the master combo puncher JMM has the bad habit when he throws a left hand (often the uppercut) where he turns his shoulders, so that his weight distributes evenly over his heels - he then becomes susceptible to the counter left hand and has been dropped loads of times because of it - the second pac fight I think, the katsidis fight definitely and also vs Floyd.
    perfect technique is rare in the sport of pro boxing and absolutely no guarantee of success (as many amateur champs have found out) just like holes in technique do not guarantee failure - I digressed there a bit, but my point is that I believe there is proof in tommy hearns that power is a technique issue, not a gift from the gods

  9. Eric 05:37pm, 12/11/2014

    raxman… Respectively disagree. I’m sure all top notch pro boxers/fighters have been taught how to throw a proper punch, but not all fighters are devastating punchers. Maybe certain exercises or better technique can improve punching power to a degree but mostly it seems that punchers are born. When Charlie Goldman started making minor adjustments in the way Rocky threw those bombs, some think that it might have even taken something away from the power of Marciano’s punches. Some claim that Marciano was an even more devastating puncher when he was crude, green, and just starting out.

  10. raxman 04:45pm, 12/11/2014

    Eric - I would’ve thought Hearns low ko % in the amateur compared to the legend banger he became in the pro’s proves the opposite, that punchers can in fact learn.
    I believe Hearns power in fact came from learning punchers technique. the transferal of weight through the twisting of core and hips combines with loose arms that create a “whip with a bowling ball tip” type of situation.
    anyone interested in punching should read the articles re ballistic punching - mostly they come from Russian exponents of systema - and their philosophy moves away from using transferal of weight and instead just slinging the above mentioned whip arm. they argue that the average arm weighs about 15pound and if used properly can be the equivalent of hitting with a 15pound club. I’m not sure I entirely believe in not using all the body in the punch but I must say, having moved around with some systema guys that I’ve never been hit as hard. anyway the concept of the loose arm with only the fist clenched is something that harks back to old school boxing theory.

  11. Eric 04:28pm, 12/11/2014

    The thing with Hearns is that he was a feared puncher even when he moved up in weight. Hearns retained respectable power even in the cruiserweight divison. Other than Mark Breland, I have never seen a welterweight with skinnier legs than Tommy Hearns. Proof positive that punchers are born and not made. Have heard all kinds of theories on “punching power,” how it generates from the ground up, the core, the hips, the snap, etc., bullsheet. Remember an article on Hearns’s stablemate, Mickey Goodwin, Goodwin was a short, chunky, albeit devastating puncher in the 160lb division. The article stated that seeing Hearns & Goodwin standing next to each other was like looking in one of those carnival mirrors that either make you look tall & skinny or short and fat.

  12. raxman 04:07pm, 12/11/2014

    hearns corrects the author, he won titles in 5 divisions not 4. in order, he won 147, 154, 175, 160 and then was the inaugural wbo 168 titlist. as for the amateur record - I’d always believed hearns had 7stoppages as an amateur. now I see its disputed as 11 or 12.
    one of the all time great between rounds instructions was from MS in the first leonard fight where he tells Hearns to go back to the old amateur days. it almost won him the fight - its that sort of thing that makes that fight such a great one- not only is it a fight between 2 or the all time greatest 147 pounders but they each have to pull right into their bags of tricks

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 03:26pm, 12/11/2014

    Tommy was more like 6’2” or greater and had an 80” plus reach during a time when 7’ plus basketball players would be listed as 6’11” to avoid the stigma of being freakishly tall. He hit like a Heavyweight….a hard hitting Heavyweight and he never landed a more flush shot right on the button than when he crushed Duran.

  14. Eric 01:51pm, 12/11/2014

    I’ve heard Hearns scored very few knockouts as an amateur also. According to this article, Hearns stated he wanted to box like Ali, and of course pros don’t wear headgear or box 3 rounds. Didn’t Aaron Pryor beat Hearrns in the amateurs? How fighters like Leonard & Hearns managed to avoid Pryor is a mystery. Of course, Leonard had retired in ‘82 the first time, and that was when Pryor was really making a name for himself. Pryor vs. Benitez, Hearns, Leonard, or Duran in the early ‘80’s would have been a good one. Pryor vs Mancini? Puuuuleeeeezzze.

  15. peter 12:52pm, 12/11/2014

    I heard from a reliable source out in Ohio that Hearns—who was a lethal puncher as a pro—but as an amateur with over 125 wins, was a jabber and mover who scored only 1 or 2 knockouts.

  16. Eric 11:41am, 12/11/2014

    Those munchkins were “The Lollipop Guild?” Hell, all this time I thought they were saying, “The Lollipop Kids.”

  17. Eric 11:31am, 12/11/2014

    Irish…Those flying monkeys scared the hell out of me when I was a little kid. Never read any of the Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum but that guy must have had a helluva imagination. Still love to hear Judy Garland sing, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” NO ONE COMES CLOSE to competing with Judy on that tune. I still watch that film every time it runs on the idiot box, and it usually runs around Christmas time for some strange reason. My favorite scene is the munchkins known as the “Lollipop Kids.” Hell, the whole munchkin scene was great for that matter. Do you think someone like George Soreazz could be like The Wizard. Nothing but a powerless, aging, ordinary man, who everyone thinks is far more powerful than he really is? To get to Floyd, Manny needs to follow the yellow brick road. Go ahead, Manny, follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road…..

  18. Pete The Sneak 11:12am, 12/11/2014

    “I believe Archie Moore even stated the Yvonne Durelle hit him as hard or harder than Marciano.”...LOL…Priceless, man…Peace.

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:04am, 12/11/2014

    Eric & Pete& Robert-Can’t get in on Khan in Oz….so here goes….Terry the Cairn Terrier who “portrayed” Toto was the best actor in that film paws down!.....her scene with the well oiled and newly freed Tin Man (Jack Haley) was pure gold and Oscar worthy! I assert that she “knew” what she was doing (acting) somewhat like a race horse that “knows’ that he/she is supposed to finish ahead of the other horses. Which reminds me…..look for Khan to get buzzed at least once in the fight on Saturday with the obligatory excuses to follow…..his excuse/rationalization that if other fighters walked into big shots like he did they’d get knocked down too was a doozy!

  20. Eric 10:51am, 12/11/2014

    Pete… Another one is who is the hardest puncher a fighter ever faced or what fighter hit them the hardest. Bob Foster stated that Roger Rouse hit him harder than anyone he ever faced, and that includes Frazier. Maybe that is why Shavers is often seen as a harder puncher than Big George. Of course I think Shavers and George only have two common opponents in Lyle & Young, but Lyle credits Shavers as the hardest puncher he ever fought. My brother asked former title challenger, Ron Stander, who hit harder between Shavers and Frazier, and Stander said Shavers hit a great deal harder. Maybe why Shavers is often listed as a harder puncher than George considering Earnie was beaten by a lot more fighters. I believe Archie Moore even stated the Yvonne Durelle hit him as hard or harder than Marciano.

  21. Pete The Sneak 10:37am, 12/11/2014

    Eric/Irish, you guys are right…That’s a loaded question for most fighters and the answer will almost always be against a guy they beat…Time for the interviewers to start re-phrasing these type questions (“of all your losses, which was the toughest?”)...Though the response may very well be “They were all tough.” you may get a ‘however’ or ‘but’ that can show a little more insight as to what they really felt was their toughest… If you ever listened to Manny Stewart, he always said that for Hearns, the First Leonard fight was both the toughest and the more devestating for Hearns to lose. In particular because he was ahead in that fight and basically had Leonard fighting with one eye…But hey, they’re fighters, and bringing up losses I guess can derail an interview opportunity…Peace.

  22. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:03am, 12/11/2014

    Eric-It’s a way of saying that was the real me in the Roldan fight….so all you people out there, don’t you dare believe your lying eyes and what you think you saw in the Hagler fight, when you mistakenly thought that I got my ass handed to me

  23. Eric 08:29am, 12/11/2014

    You would think that Hearns would list Leonard I or Hagler as his toughest fights, or even the Barkley fights. Like most fighters, Hearns, cites a fight he won as his toughest fight.

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