The Underrated Legend

By Cain Bradley on May 20, 2016
The Underrated Legend
Hearns destroyed Roberto Duran in 1984 in arguably his most impressive performance.

Can you imagine if Hearns had been around the last 10 years? He would have dominated the welterweight division and moved up through the weights…

It is very hard for a legend to be underrated and underappreciated. One name that meets those standards in boxing is The Hitman. Not Ricky Hatton, but the original Hitman, Thomas Hearns. Tommy, as he was affectionately known, was a superstar and would be in any era. From welterweight to cruiserweight, he would take on any challenge, looking to prove himself constantly against the best. The Ring ranked him in 2002 as 67th on the 80 best fighters of the last 80 years whilst the 100 greatest boxers of all time ranked him 44th. I think both figures are too low and to have Hearns outside of the top 30 is harsh. On my personal list he is ranked 23rd ahead of Floyd Mayweather, Alexis Arguello, Kid Gavilán and Julio Cesar Chavez. How can such a famous boxer who performed in the last 30 years see such a wild variation in the way he is rated? The two major reasons seem to be the losses in his biggest fights as well as many believing his best performances came at a weight which was not one of the traditional eight glamour divisions.

Thomas Hearns facing Sugar Ray Leonard was what Mayweather and Pacquiao could have been if they fought at the perfect moment. Ray had won 30 of 31 defeating Roberto Duran for the WBC title while Tommy was 32-0 and holder of the WBA title. Tommy was 22 and Ray was 25. Two men, arguably even not in their prime, who were the previous two winners of The Ring Fighter of the Year. A classic by any sense of the word, labeled “The Showdown.” As the bout started Hearns was the stalking aggressor while Leonard was trying to land his quick combos from distance. The early rounds saw Leonard struggle with the incredible reach and jab of Tommy. By the fifth the problematic left eye of Leonard was beginning to swell. Leonard, like all the greats, reacted strongly by hurting Hearns with a left hook. The roles had been reversed with Hearns becoming the boxer. Hearns took over and after round 12, Angelo Dundee told Sugar Ray that “You’re blowing it now, son!” Leonard came flying out in the 13th and hurt Hearns with a right before sending him flying through the ropes and then dropping him again at the end of the round. Another overhand rocked Hearns before he was finished on the ropes in the 14th. On the scorecards he held an advantage of 124-122, 125-122 and 125-121 showing Leonard needed the stoppage to win. To outbox Sugar Ray Leonard was pretty much impossible, but Hearns managed it for 13 rounds. Hearns showed his quality against what many consider to be one of the best welterweights of all time. Hearns was practically impossible to box at this weight given his length and power. There are not many welterweights ever who would have been able to handle the mixture of qualities he possessed.

Thomas Hearns was born in 1958 in Tennessee. As a young man, his family would relocate to Detroit where he would become an icon. He would step into the legendary Kronk gym and under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward and would be one of the best American amateurs of the time. Despite his young age, Hearns was an Olympic hopeful for 1976. He would lose the AAU final to Howard Davis who would go on to be the Olympic Champion and winner of the Val Barker Trophy. Hearns would go on in 1977 to win the AAU and Golden Gloves tournament. At 20 he agreed to turn pro alongside coach Emanuel Steward and continue the Kronk legacy into the professional ranks. He had an amateur record of 155-8 and this was before he developed into the puncher he eventually did at the professional level, only having 11 stoppages. He utilized a style that was effective at amateur level, mainly using a pawing jab to get points. His two big losses came against Howard Davis and Aaron Pryor.

Once Tommy turned pro he was accelerated quickly. He had eight bouts in the first four months after his pro debut. All were stoppage wins and all were before the end of the third round. Emanuel Steward has since said that in these early fights he saw it as important to build up Hearns and get some confidence in his power, which he lacked at the amateur level. He stepped up the level of his competition after this bout but the stoppages would continue. Jimmy Rothwell, Pedro Rojas, Bruce Curry and Clyde Gray were all stopped. Former champions Angel Espada and Eddie Gazo were dispatched in four and one rounds respectively. Hearns was 28-0 with 26 stoppages entering a WBA championship bout with Pipino Cuevas. Cuevas was a destructive champion who had defended his title twelve times with eleven stoppage wins and never been knocked down. Hearns ended his four-year reign comprehensively. An early left hook would send Cuevas backwards and would follow up with his big right hand which stunned Cuevas four times in the opening round. The onslaught would continue in the second round as Hearns landed that right hand with frightening consistency. He dropped Cuevas for the first time and having seen enough his team brought the fight to a halt. Hearns was the WBA champion. To round off his year he stopped the unbeaten Luis Primera and was named The Ring Boxer of the Year.

Randy Shields and Pablo Baez were both stopped by the champion before he lost the belt in an epic with Sugar Ray Leonard. Following this he would move up in weight to light middleweight. A couple of tune-up bouts would get him a shot at Wilfred Benitez. Benitez had only lost to Sugar Ray Leonard and had just defeated Roberto Duran. Against one of the most infuriating, brilliant boxers of his time, Hearns used his accuracy to find a home for his stinging jab. Hearns took command with this jab with Benitez struggling to navigate the long reach. A right hand would drop Benitez in the fifth before he returned the favor in the ninth despite seemingly no punch landing. Hearns would dominate the fight and a majority decision was harsh on the Detroit man. He injured his powerful right hand in the bout and showed his incredible boxing ability by comfortably defeating Benitez who had outclassed Duran. That man would soon find himself sharing a ring with Hearns after rebounding by defeating Pipino Cuevas and Davey Moore. Hearns would turn in arguably his most impressive performance, destroying the tough Panamanian. He stalked him early and after pinning him to the ropes, he dropped him with the famous right hand. He was dropped again in the first round before being saved by the bell. The finish was particularly savage as Hearns uncorked a final big right hand where saw Duran to go down, face first. No one had ever seen Duran destroyed like that and it left fans clamoring for the bout with Hagler. It also led to him winning The Ring Fighter of the Year for the second time. Some state that Duran was intimidated by Hearns before the fight and that he respected him immensely.

It was 1985 when Hearns stepped up to fight the undisputed middleweight champion Marvin Hagler; they were the two previous winners of The Ring Fighter of the Year award. Hearns was the dominant light middleweight at the time with Hagler having defended his middleweight title 10 times. Hagler was capable of boxing in many styles and believing he could not outbox the wily Hearns he decided he had to make it a war relying on his granite chin and immense power. Hagler was a noted slow starter but came flying across the ring to attack Hearns. Hagler pushed him back to the ropes but Hearns would unleash one of his sledgehammer right hands onto Hagler’s chin, stunning him. The two would continue to exchange punches throughout the rest of the round hurting his right hand. As he headed back to the corner, Sugar Ray Leonard remarked that Hearns’ legs were like rubber. Hearns has since described the round as taking it all out of him and The Ring gave it round of the year. The second round continued in the same vein, albeit at a slight slower pace. The third would see the cuts really being to open for Hagler and Richard Steele got them checked out. This prompted Hagler to grit his teeth and start an intense attack. It was the overhand rights that proved too much for Tommy and he was stopped in the third round of one of the greatest fights of all time. Once again, it says a lot to how good Thomas Hearns was that Hagler decided to go with this strategy. Once again, Hearns nearly overcame his legendary rival with the fight not far away from being stopped on cuts. Hearns was told to stick and move in between rounds but got drawn away from his fight. Did Hagler have a harder challenge, Leonard maybe?

After the Hagler fight it was 11 months before Tommy was back in the ring. He showed no signs of ring rust, stopping the unbeaten James Shuler in one round. After a few more fights he would decided to move up 15 pounds and take on Dennis Andries for the light heavyweight title. He outclasses Andries for much of the fight and a big right hand would put an end to the fight in the tenth. He would immediately step back down to middleweight to take on Juan Roldan. He stopped the fierce Argentinean in four rounds. His next fight would see him lose a bout to Iran Barkley in what would be The Ring’s Upset of the Year. Hearns looked comfortable in the fight and was surely on his way to winning before Barkley caught and stopped him in round three. He rebounded into a world title defeating James Kinchen for the super middleweight title. Following this was the Sugar Ray Leonard rematch he had clamored for. He dropped Sugar Ray twice in the third and 11th round. Despite almost everyone believing Tommy had won the fight, it was scored a draw. Sugar Ray later stated he believed he had stolen one from Hearns. Hearns had one great performance left as he defeated the unbeaten Virgil Hill for the WBA light heavyweight title. He went back to his amateur roots and convincingly outboxed Hill. Once again it was old foe Iran Barkley who took the belt off him, this time edging a split decision.

Stylistically there was an interesting change from his amateur career to the professional ranks. As a professional, Hearns was a brutal puncher. He had speed and a phenomenal accuracy which made him hard for opponents to keep off. He used a drowning style which saw him stalk opponents missing punches using his long range and landing big shots. To avoid shots he tended to just use a slight lean back of his head and his length meant this tended to get out of the way of shots. Most of his best work was all set up with a tricky left hand which used a clever flicker jab and a strong hook to set up the big right hand. The downside of Hearns was his lack of a chin, with Angelo Dundee stating that if you gave him the balance of Leonard, he would be the best of that time. Perhaps the things that made Hearns so great were the physical tools he was born with. He stood at a mammoth 6’1” with a 78” inch reach. For a boxer who started at welterweight that was phenomenal. Michael Spinks, the heavyweight champion in 1985, was only marginally taller and had a reach disadvantage when compared to Hearns.

At three weights, Hearns will go down as one of the most accomplished boxers. At welterweight he was a matchup nightmare and the only man to defeat him was Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard, one of the top three welterweights of all time, needed one of the great finishes of all time to beat Hearns. He outboxed one of the greatest boxers of all time and 10 years later, in what would have been a 12-round fight, he would have got the momentous win. At light middleweight, Hearns is considered to be one of the greatest of all time. He made the weight a bit more comfortably but was still a matchup nightmare. Even at middleweight, Hearns was destructive. The supreme Hagler saw fit to tailor a specifically aggressive game plan in order to counter what he saw Hearns could offer. These two losses are so often counted against him but Hearns showed just how good he was in both fights and compared to how both those fighters are ranked, Hearns is severely underrated. Hearns constantly showed a willingness to box absolutely anybody at any time. He took on numerous champions, often defeating them. Stylistically, Hearns would defeat most boxers from 147-160. Can you imagine if Hearns had been around the last 10 years? He would have dominated the welterweight division and moved up through the weights, having a résumé that probably included fights with Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Saul Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin and Andre Ward. A surefire legend, Hearns is so often overlooked behind his three contemporaries. Often ranked fourth amongst them, he was so close to being the best of the lot.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

1980-8-2 Pipino Cuevas vs Thomas Hearns

Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns — September 16, 1981 [Full Fight]

Thomas Hearns Wilfred Benitez

Thomas Hearns vs Roberto Duran [Full Fight]

Marvin Hagler vs Thomas Hearns, April 15, 1985 [Full Fight]

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  1. Jethro's Flute 03:58pm, 06/05/2016

    Sam is yet another Duran fanboy. The simple fact is that Duran went the distance with Marvin Hagler in his previous fight and Hearns creamed him.

    If Duran can’t get in shape to fight the biggest puncher in the division then more full him.

    Until he stepped in the ring, Duran was reigning light-middleweight champ and was stripped for not fighting Mike McCallum.

    No one ever did this to Duran, before or after their 1984 match.

    Hearns is very underrated. He’s one of those fighters that it only matters when they lose, as opposed to Duran, where his defeats are irrelevant.

  2. Rob 03:48am, 05/23/2016

    Samuel you are hypocritical coward

  3. Eric 06:34am, 05/21/2016

    Benitez is the guy from this era who gets left out in the cold. He was never the same guy after losing to Hearns. He looked terrible in a middleweight fight with Hamsho and would go on to lose to Davey Moore and Matthew Hilton. After his ‘82 bout with Hearns, Benitez had a spotty record, losing nearly as many fights as he won. The Benitez-Leonard fight was highly competitive and Wilfred all but shut out Duran in their title fight. Benitez, like Duran, wasn’t fond of training, he was just a notch below the Big 4.

  4. Cain Bradley 01:31am, 05/21/2016

    Duran lost to worst fighters than Hearns did. And there was 12lbs difference between there natural weight, less than that between Hagler and Hearns.

  5. Robmac 05:36pm, 05/20/2016

    For any 154-160 pound fighter at that time, I think it would be terrifying to look across the ring and see Hearns looking back. If not for his chin he would be unbeatable at those weights.

  6. Gordon Analla 04:45pm, 05/20/2016

    Why on earth would Cuevas fight Hearns in Detroit?  It was no contest!

  7. gordon analla 04:30pm, 05/20/2016

    Why would you ever risk your title, go into Detroit, and fight Hearns?  It was no contest with Cuevas!

  8. Sam Young 03:14pm, 05/20/2016

    Tommy was in his Prime at 26 years old, I think Roberto was 32 years old, and looked totally out of shape like he trained on beer and potato chips. Hearns was totally ripped. Duran in his prime was a great fighter, but he was an undisciplined slob between fights and used to gain 30 to 40 pounds between fights which is retarded. What Tommy did wasn’t that impressive if you think about it, Duran was 5’7” and Tommy Hearns was about 6’ 1” to 6’ 2” that’s like Carlos Zarate being a Champion Bantamweight 118 pounds, fighting Roberto Duran at his best weight 135 pounds, Duran would slaughter him. Big deal, Tommy knocked out an Out of Shape, Past his Prime fighter. At least Roberto didn’t get knocked out by Iran Barkley, like Tommy did.

  9. Cain Bradley 12:21pm, 05/20/2016

    After making that whole argument I think I probably agree that he does come fourth of the four. Although even I am not really sure why? I am a huge Duran fan but compare the resumes and Hearns possibly looks better on pure W/L. And he beat Duran. Duran was a great lightweight, arguably the best which adds to it but the names from that period are not that impressive so it is based on us watching Duran and thinking his style would beat most at that weight. It is very hard to not do the same with Tommy at Middleweight. Similar story when compared to Hagler at middleweight. If Tommy survived the Sugar Ray onslaught or decided to stick and move as encouraged by his corner against Hagler he is top 20 for sure, maybe top 10

    100% he spooked him, there is a story in four kings about Hearns really making Duran jump at a dinner at Duran being very respectful.

  10. Eric 10:37am, 05/20/2016

    In a P4P ranking, I would place Hearns behind Duran, Leonard and Hagler as well. Nothing against Tommy, but that isn’t to say that Hearns would place far behind the other 3 of the Fab 4. Duran probably makes it into the top 5-6 P4P rankings of all-time. However, Hearns was the only fighter who actually intimidated Duran. Look at Roberto’s face right before his fight with Hearns during the pre-fight instructions. Duran was a beaten man before the fight even started. Hearns knockout over Duran was one of the most brutal knockouts I’ve ever seen.

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