Weigh-In from London: The Hitman’s Glory Days

By Michael Klimes on October 4, 2012
Weigh-In from London: The Hitman’s Glory Days
The Hitman produced a maelstrom of punches which overwhelmed Duran’s resilience.

When Thomas Hearns sniffed blood and decided to knock another man out, he made Mike Tyson look like a pacifist…

“The Motor City Cobra”

Detroit is a city of culture. John Lee Hooker, Motown Records, Eminem and the town’s own brands of blues, techo, jazz, hip-hop and rock have all taken their place in America’s musical history. It also was home of the legendary Kronk Gym. That gym was the home of Thomas Hearns.

Hearns was and remains unique. In the context of the 1980s, where the welterweight division returned to a quality of boxers not seen since the 1940s and the middleweights rekindled Carlos Monzon’s ice cold brutality from the 1970s. Against this backdrop, Hearns did his work with eyes that smouldered like slow burning coals.

Even at a casual glance his body language and physique had a violent quality. Like George Foreman, Hearns did not have to talk to intimidate his adversaries; the mere sight of him was enough to inspire fear due to his freakish body dimensions.

At 6-foot-1-inch looked down on his opponents while they had to look up to him. If that was not enough of a psychological blow, the difference between arm reach had to be noted as well. Hearns’s 78-inch span was mightily impressive.

Coupled to this was exceptional hand speed and precision punching which, in its leverage, balance and arrangement would make Albert Einstein proud. Nijinsky, if resurrected, would marvel at Hearns’s elegant movement and terrific coordination.

For a boxer of such epic proportions, there was a perfect synergy between his brain and body.  On top of all these qualities were tremendous firepower and the instinct to use that power to concussive effect. When Hearns sniffed blood and decided to knock another man out, he made Mike Tyson look like a pacifist. 

The footage of Roberto Duran’s crumpled remains on the canvas is the most devastating and unexpected finish of one Hall of Fame fighter by another one. Tyson, for all of his dramatic endings, never produced a knockout like that against an opponent of Duran’s stature and machismo.

Fortunately, no great fighter is infallible. It is that vulnerability and chance of defeat mixed with risk-laden ambitions and athleticism which makes a boxer the compelling character he is.

Hearns’s two problems were his questionable chin and stamina when he entered into the championship rounds. These were probably rooted in his early career due to inexperience. These flaws were ruthlessly exposed by Sugar Ray Leonard in their classic 1980 clash, where he built an early lead through his harpoon jab and juggernaut right hand.     

Yet Leonard, bloodied and bruised, lost his respect of Hearns’s power, marched forward, kneecapped his legs with exquisite body punching and sealed his place in history as the superior welterweight through a dramatic stoppage. Still, Hearns’s loss made him determined to come back stronger and erase that memory. He became the finest junior middleweight ever.

Hearns lost his gangly appearance and developed a formidable musculature: lithe yet defined. His considerable intellect and boxing gifts were then joined by an assertive confidence and maturity rooted in experience.

Hearns’s presence injected credibility into a division which some critics saw as a shady backwater compared to the “harder” challenges and more lucrative rewards located at welterweight and middleweight.

His work at 154 pounds, which gave us three mesmerising performances to remember him by, also remains one of the best arguments for the existence of the division.

How to Outbox of Boxing Genius

When Hearns fought and outpointed Wilfredo Benitez in 1982 for WBC 154-pound title, he executed a very astute and technical strategy of disciplined aggression, heavy punching and lateral movement.

Benitez was in his prime or close to it. He was already a world champion at three different weights, a veteran of 44 bouts with one loss and one draw. He can be mentioned as one of the greatest counterpunchers/defensive fighters since 1970 along with Nicolino Locche, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Pernell Whitaker and James Toney.

If there was an adjective for Benitez it would be feline, as he seemed to have nine lives as he could slip a nine-punch combination with his back against the ropes from fighters like Ray Leonard or Hearns.

Leonard himself remarked that Benitez was difficult to hit and frustrating to fight. If a puncher of Leonard’s caliber said that, you know it was true. That did not stop Hearns from producing a dazzling boxing clinic. He used his piston-like jab to establish a perimeter Benitez could not penetrate and reinforced it with his right hand.

Hearns ensured he was the one who wrong-footed, outworked and beat Benitez to the punch and not the other way around. It was a rare occasion for Benitez as he was forced to take the initiative, punch thin air and be out-thought by a disciplined and elusive Hearns.

They went toe-to-toe when they wished, but Hearns got the better of his opponent. His stamina was constant throughout and he entered the end of the fight the stronger of the two. Hearns also marked Benitez’s face, which reflected the quality of his combinations, and that as slippery as Benitez was he managed to find the correct range and measure Benitez during the fight. 

Hall of Fame Knockout

In 1984, Hearns solidified his credentials when he defended his title in scintillating fashion against Roberto Duran. Duran was on impressive form in the run-up to the fight as he had resurrected his career against Davey Moore in 1983 with his experience exposing the shortcomings of a talented yet inexperienced young champion.

Duran then debuted at middleweight and fought brilliantly against the champion of the world, Marvin Hagler. Duran took Hagler 15 rounds and demonstrated his defensive genius. He relied on his toughness, cunning and sneaky right hands that did not so much hurt Hagler as produce a cloud in his focused mind. Duran was much very much a live force going into his encounter with Hearns.

In what proved to be a one-sided beating, Hearns produced a maelstrom of punches which overwhelmed Duran’s resilience. He simply did not know what hit him and probably still doesn’t. The most significant observation to take away from this bout was that Hearns showed Duran no respect and jumped on him while Hagler was not aggressive enough.

Hagler should have imposed his strength and size, which reminds us that as great as your opponent is, you must show them respect but not too much. It remains Hearns’s definitive knockout. 

The Young Upstart

Another performance that was Hearns’s equivalent of Duran’s destruction of Moore was his defeat of Fred Hutchings. Hutchings was a young, stylish and notable prospect when Hearns stopped him in three bloody rounds in 1984. The referee stopped the courageous Hutchings from taking more of a beating as Hearns was in the form of his life. 

After that fight, Hearns moved up and was soundly defeated by a champion desperate to produce memorable victories against top opposition. The Hitman came up short and from then on was maybe not quite the same fighter. But during his reign at 154 pounds, he was never more exciting or as good at any other weight.

He was untouchable.

Michael Klimes is a journalist and writer based in the United Kingdom. He works for Japan’s leading news agency, JIJI Press, at the London bureau. He writes about a variety of topics. You can visit his website at: www.michaelklimes.com to see his interests. His twitter page is here: http://twitter.com/#!/misaklimes

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Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 1/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 2/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 3/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 4/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 5/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 6/7

Thomas 'The Motor City Cobra' Hearns | Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez 7/7

Thomas Hearns vs Roberto Duran

Thomas Hearns vs Fred Hutchings

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  1. Darrell 08:16pm, 10/05/2012

    Yes, that knockout punch on Duran was simply a decapitation.

    His fight with Hagler & the stare they gave each other while waiting for the bell was purely primal.

  2. Mike Casey 06:52am, 10/04/2012

    On a purely aesthetic point, the top picture here reminds me of how much more dramatic a good quality black & white photograph is than colour.

  3. Pete The Sneak 04:56am, 10/04/2012

    Great Read Mr.Klimes! Thomas Hearns was indeed something to marvel at. That KO of Duran is still fresh in my mind even after all this time. Seeing Roberto fall face first (say that three times) on the canvas after that right hand was bone chilling to say the least. And you’re right, if that would have been any other contender/fighter taking that shot, that in itself would have been something; however seeing that it was the Great ‘Hands Of Stone’ descending like an aged Oak tree in a heavy wind gave more credence to the moment and the lore of that which was the ‘Hit Man.’ Thanks for reminding us. Peace.

  4. Mike Casey 03:09am, 10/04/2012

    Glory days indeed, Michael. Excellent article on a man I can watch over and over. Thomas was a terror at 154 and I like the fact that you give him credit for a first class performance against the devilishly clever Benitez. Hearns was delightfully brilliant and delightfully flawed; a little too fragile against the few men who could stand with him at other weights. But he found his true domain in this division. Your assessment of him is very fair and balanced.

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