Thomas Hearns and the measuring stick of greatness
January 17 marked the 74th birthday of the man known as the Greatest Of All Time, Muhammad Ali. It is easy to measure Ali’s greatness for all of his amazing accomplishments inside the ring but the nearly impossible odds he had to overcome outside the ring added to his immeasurable level of greatness.
In boxing, greatness can be defined in many different ways. When I measure the mark of true “greatness” in the Sweet Science or the “hurt business,” I, like most, will look at a fighter’s strengths, weaknesses, whom they didn’t fight, whom they did fight and, of course, how they did versus those fighters. There are also intangibles I like to take into consideration – in some ways, over all the above – more than their skill, like will, character and the ability to overcome adversity.
Boxing metaphors for life are endless, like the one about how we all get knocked down but we get back up. They make it sound so easy and, in some cases, it can be. There is nothing easy, however, about coming back from getting knocked out and that is why the topic is too scary for most whom counsel to discuss. It is in the darkness after one awakens from being knocked out that an even darker reality can set in, when one is faced with long odds for a comeback. It is so difficult that many would rather avoid ever facing such a thing again, even if the rewards are great.
Thomas “Hitman” Hearns was considered a great fighter. His path to greatness as a professional was no walk in the park. Along the journey, he suffered five devastating defeats and one controversial draw en route to winning 61 bouts (48 by knockout) and five world championships in as many divisions in a career that saw his induction in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in which his legend shall live forever with the greatest in the sport’s history.
I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time around Hearns over the years and I learned several things from him as both a fighter and as a man. I will forever remember the time when the Hitman spent an hour in the sweltering heat of the Kronk Gym teaching me how to get the most torque from a left hook to the chin (“Palm down and come down right on the point of the chin”) and then explaining how to throw it to the body (“Palm up and shoot it in there like pitching a shovel”). Thomas Hearns, the man, however, taught me that the true measure of greatness was how to not only get up when you get knocked down, but how one could come back from the brink of utter destruction, climb back to the mountaintop and, if necessary, repeat the process several times along the way and never giving up.
Several times in his historic career, Hearns crushed opponents with his devastating power but he himself had to face and overcome adversities that would have crushed mere mortals. After suffering his first career defeat to Sugar Ray Leonard in Sept. of 1981 (a night so sensitive, Hearns’ late trainer, Emanuel Steward, preferred to avoid the topic of conversation at all costs), Hearns had to not only deal with being stopped in the biggest fight of his career to date but had to hear how Detroiters had mortgaged their houses on him to beat Sugar Ray. It might be hard for most to understand the effects of such a loss but think of how many people today talk about being depressed from everyday life…Now imagine a place 100 times darker than that, a place so dark where your manhood and pride can be stripped away and all the millions of dollars in the world cannot bring them back. Having to face and overcome these things is something to which the record books will never be able to give proper credit. This helped define Hearns’ greatness.
Rather than throw a pity party like so many and ask “Why me?”, Hearns returned to the ring and started climbing that mountain again because he knew he would return to the top. The reality is, if more people were capable of doing in life today what Hearns did, many of the big pharmaceutical companies would be out of business because prescriptions for opiates would be replaced by a prescription for good, old-fashioned Motor City-style back-breaking hard work. Hearns regrouped and moved up to 154 pounds, where he won many more bouts and the WBC world championship, using both masterful boxing displays like those he displayed versus Wilfred Benitez and Luigi Minchillo and devastating knockouts like the second round variety he scored over Roberto Duran.
But in true contrast of what helped define Hearns’ greatness, after reaching the mountaintop once again, he would find himself deep down in the valley, having to make that difficult climb back to the top once more. After he and undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler gave fans one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport in April of 1985, Hearns came up short and, once again, had to carry the heavy load of letting his fans and his beloved Motor City down. Even with a broken right hand, Hearns put on one greatest displays of speed, power, heart and courage fans have ever been privileged to witness and never made an excuse for the loss. At the post-fight press conference, even in defeat, Hearns was all class: “What can I say? It happens to the best of us. It hurts. But the man showed his greatness tonight.” Those too are the attributes of greatness.
After the broken bones healed in his right hand, after 11 months, Hearns wasted no time getting back in the ring in the same venue in Las Vegas where he lost to Hagler (who was fighting John Mugabi in the card’s main event that evening). Unlike Sugar Ray Leonard, who had continued to avoid Hearns like the plague, Hagler appeared interested in giving Hearns a rematch. To his credit, Tommy ducked no man and was hungry for the opportunity.
On that cold and rainy March 1986 night, Hearns’ opponent would be no “tune-up” or “soft touch.” It was James Shuler, who sported a professional record of 22-0 (It should be noted he was 168-7 with 106 KOs as an amateur.) and was trained by the legendary Eddie Futch. Shuler was cautious of the Hearns right hand that had destroyed Duran and so many others, so Hearns started ripping several left hooks to the body (the same way he taught me years later – palm up!) and then with a lightning-fast right hand to the chin, Shuler was down and counted out in one round.
For Hearns, there would be a couple more decades filled with their share of highs and lows that would further define his greatness in the ring. Sadly for Shuler, it was his last fight as he was killed in a motorcycle crash a week later. While condolences came in from all over the world for the Shuler family, Hearns called and offered to place his newly-won NABF middleweight belt in Shuler’s casket as a “gesture of admiration and sympathy.”
“Hearns, he earned that belt,” Shuler’s brother was quoted as saying. “That belt belongs to him. I’m sure James would want him to keep that belt and defend it well.” Defend the belt he did once more but, more so than that, Thomas Hearns taught us all that greatness is not just measured in the victories you earn in the ring; it is how you respond to the victories and losses – both in and out of the ring – that truly defines your greatness.
Thank you, Tommy, for always being a friend to me over the years.