Article by John Papanek. Originally ran in Sports Illustrated July 28, 1980.
DETROIT FANS CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF UNBEATEN WELTERWEIGHT THOMAS HEARNS, BUT HIS 28 FOES BEG TO DIFFER. NEXT WEEK WBA CHAMP JOSE (PIPINO) CUEVAS HOOKS UP WITH THE COBRA.
You can get to Berrien Springs, Mich. by heading 200 miles west on I-94 from Detroit, or by driving along the southern shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago, or via the airports at Benton Harbor to the north or South Bend, Ind. to the south.
Any route you choose ultimately takes you through the lush green farmland known in those parts as Michiana—through groves of giant oak and elm, past rushing streams and placid lakes, by filling stations, general stores and post offices, big old barns, white clapboard homes and little red schoolhouses.
At Berrien Springs’ lone stoplight you turn east off Highway 31 and make a right at the Jack Frost Drive-in, and two miles ahead, where the road ends, a pair of iron gates mark the entrance to an 89-acre spread backed up against the St. Joseph River. Incongruously, Al Capone once hung out in this Edward Hopper setting, and a sign now identifies the place as Muhammad Ali Farms. The Champ himself trained there before whupping Ken Norton in 1976.
The current tenant is alternately called the Detroit Hitman or the Motor City Cobra, although his mother and everyone else who knew him when know him only as Thomas Hearns.
Hearns is a 21-year-old welterweight, undefeated in 28 professional bouts, 26 of which ended in knockouts in an average span of 3.3 rounds.
More than that, though, he is a native of and a special treasure to the city of Detroit, as the Cadillac once was, as the UAW once was, as the Tigers and Lions and Red Wings once were. Hence Hearns’ nicknames. Hence the crowds that have grown steadily larger for his regular bouts in ancient Olympia Stadium. Hence the excitement that is building in the Motor City for Hearns’ Aug. 2 WBA title challenge against 22-year-old Jose (Pipino) Cuevas in the centerpiece of Detroit’s magnificent Renaissance Center, 22,000-seat Joe Louis Arena. And, should he beat Cuevas, it would be Detroit’s great pleasure come, say, early 1981 to see Hearns dispatch, for his 30th career victim, the Great Roberto Duran or the Great Sugar Ray Leonard, whichever of them happens to the reigning WBC welterweight champion.
At 11:30 of a July morning in the main house at the Berrien Springs camp, Hearns is sprawled in front of a thoroughly scrambled television picture listening to the sound of a game show and drinking Hawaiian Punch. His face—young and smooth with large, round eyes—is blank. His spiky hair is brushed straight upward. Long, bony arms and legs stick out of a T shirt and shorts. He is nudged from a daze. His boyish voice is languid and quiet.
“Just taking a break,” he says, embarrassed to be caught resting. “Did my running early. Going to work right now. You like horses? Motorbikes? Fishing? We be doin’ all of that today. Let’s go.”
With that he is up and out, grabbing some fruit from the kitchen, stuffing a nectarine into a pocket. Suddenly there’s no incongruity to Hearns’ being on the farm. At 6’1″, 150 pounds, all arms and legs and face and hair, he’s surely more Huck than Hitman.
Living outside of the city for the first time in his life, if only for a month, and training for the biggest fight of his life, Hearns is having a ball. It is Tommy’s Holiday Camp, endless fun punctuated by hard work and attended by loyal friends. Now he’s trying to get one of the camp’s minibikes running. He lifts it and turns it upside down to see why it refuses to start.
Hearns puts down the bike. “I need to strip it,” he says, then picks it up and carries it a quarter mile to the caretaker’s house to borrow some tools. While the caretaker’s wife hunts up the tools Hearns had ordered, he introduces himself to her little girl Heidi, talks to her sweetly and helps her with her rope-jumping. “I think I could have been any kind of athlete I wanted to be,” he says as he starts taking the bike apart. “Baseball, basketball…but when I was young the majority of my friends were into boxing. Like one day I needed someone to play with and I realized they were all boxing. There weren’t really a lot of activities around where I grew up on the east side of Detroit, so I figured I’d go into boxing instead of just staying around the house sleeping all the time. I was 10 years old.”
He started fighting at the King Solomon Recreation Center, but when his coach quit, he moved to the Kronk Rec Center on the corner of McGraw and Junction on the west side to work under Emanuel Steward, the man who trains Hearns to this day.
“When Thomas first came to me [at age 14], he was so skinny and he really wasn’t any good at all,” says Steward. “I didn’t want to give him too much of my time. But he wanted to learn so badly, and he worked harder than anyone.”
Having reduced the bike to a pile of components, Hearns says, “I was able to travel all over the world as a teen-ager. Poland, Indonesia—everywhere. In 163 fights I had only eight losses. Travel gets to me now. I just want to stay around Detroit. People there give me great support. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I could perform. I grew up with eight brothers and sisters, but still I was lonely a lot. Now people just want to shake my hand, hold me—I have people around all the time who just want to talk to me. Now I never be lonely.”
Two of Hearns’ entourage, Prentiss Byrd, whom Hearns calls “my P.R. man,” and Hearns’ best friend, Elijah Hannah, wander by as he monkeys with the bike.
“Cuevas won’t make five,” says Byrd.
“Don’t think so,” says Hearns, pulling off a tire.
“He’s going to press and press, until you hit him three or four times,” says Byrd. “Then you’re going to press. No one’s ever seen Cuevas back up before. You’re going to back him up.”
“Right now, the city just happens to have a lot of losers,” says Hearns. “Can’t win ’em all. You have your good days and your bad days.”
“You win ’em all,” says Hannah.
“I just happened to have a few good days,” says Hearns.
“Twenty-six of them,” says Hannah.
“Twenty-eight of them,” says Hearns. “Twenty-six were exceptional.”
Hearns is constantly being compared with Sugar Ray Leonard, which perhaps would be grating to another young man in Hearns’ position. After all, unlike Leonard, Hearns wasn’t fortunate enough to have the Olympics as a launching pad to a pro career. Instead of having the luxury of turning down fights or deals he might have felt were beneath him, Hearns has had to scrounge for opponents, mainly because few fighters relish the prospect of getting in with him.
Four years ago at the age of 17, Hearns went to the finals of the 132-pound division of the National AAU tournament and lost a close decision to Howard Davis. Against his doctor’s wishes, Hearns fought with a broken nose and had great difficulty breathing. He passed up the Olympic Trials a month later, and Davis went on to win the gold medal in Montreal, becoming a national hero along with Leonard and the rest and commanding big money. Hearns, meanwhile, won everything as an amateur the following year—AAU, Golden Gloves—and in November of 1977 he turned pro.
Hearns started out against locals like Jerome Hill (KO 2) and Willie Wren (KO 3), while being turned down by established welters like Randy Shields, Pete Ranzany, Davey (Boy) Green and Johnny Turner. Each of them fought—and lost to—Leonard. Hearns had two early fights at the Olympia—Jimmy Rothwell (KO 1) and Raul Aguirre (KO 3). The Rothwell bout drew 3,200, Aguirre 3,500. Then on Aug. 3 he fought Eddie Marcelle, ranked eighth in the world at the time, and Hearns dropped him in the second round. “That one drew 5,700,” says Byrd, “and that’s when we got started.”
The crowds grew, and the Hitman legend was born. Hearns’ bout with Clyde Gray in January 1979 (KO 10) drew more than 12,000. “Ever since then the guy has owned Detroit,” says Byrd. Of Hearns’ first 17 fights, all were won by knockout, and only three went longer than four rounds.
Hearns has a punishing left jab, which is all the more effective because of his height advantage—he’s usually at least three inches taller than his opponent. “Usually I can stand almost straight up with my head bent down just a little,” says Hearns, “and my left arm is in perfect position for a perfect jab. A lot of times, if I stay in front of a guy and keep using my jab, I never get hit. At all. Now, when I see a point where I can get my right hand on the guy, usually I’m going to get him out. My best punch is my right. But I can hurt you with either hand.”
As Hearns systematically defeated opponent after opponent, the boxing world, even Leonard, had to take notice. He showed up at the Hearns-Jose Figueroa bout in Los Angeles last September, a third-round knockout victory for Hearns. When Leonard was invited to visit Hearns’ dressing room after the fight, he refused and said to one of Hearns’ handlers, “You guys ought to keep that animal caged up.”
Hearns is uncomfortable being called things like an animal and the Hitman. “A hitman is a person who goes out to kill people for money,” he says. “Sure, I’m getting paid for what I do, but I don’t try to kill nobody.” Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who knows a city treasure when he sees one and knows the kind of image Detroit does not need, doesn’t like the nickname Hitman either. He has used his influence to have Hearns called the Motor City Cobra whenever he fights in Detroit.
The Cobra, the Hitman, whatever he’s called the night of Aug. 2, will have to be at his best against Cuevas.
The champ will be a far tougher opponent for Hearns than either Harold Weston (KO 6) or Bruce Curry (KO 3), who are two of the best he has faced. Cuevas is a ferocious puncher himself, a butcher-shop owner from Mexico City with a 27-6 record and 24 knockouts, including 10 against the 11 opponents who have challenged him for the title he won from Angel Espada on July 17, 1976. At 5’9″, Cuevas is a typical welterweight in height; Hearns will have four inches on him. But Cuevas’ manager, Lupe Sanchez, says that Cuevas is the best puncher pound for pound since Sugar Ray Robinson.
Hearns says, “I have no fear. I never have. Against Cuevas I will move from side to side early, check him out, keep him off me with my jab. I intend to land the first punch. He’s going to come to me. That’s good. That makes it easier for me to come to him. I don’t do any playing in the ring. If I see an opening to get my right hand on him, then I think I’ll knock him out.”
Hearns talks confidently about Leonard and Duran, in a subdued voice, as if he’s letting you in on a secret.
“I feel that if you’re afraid to box someone, then you shouldn’t be in the fight game,” he says. “There are other sports where you don’t have contact. I think Sugar Ray needs one of those. He needs to get into tennis, or golf. Or Frisbee. Frisbee would be nice for Sugar Ray. Because he has no heart for boxing. I think now that he has his money he’s going to get out, ’cause if he stays in any longer he could get hurt. If he stays in, there might be a possibility that he’s going to run into me. And I’m not going to be as easy on him as Duran was.
“Duran? I think Duran’s thing is he tries to be a bully. He shows me nothing. I think nothing of Duran. He’s too small, and he’s too old for a guy like me. I’m 21 years old and Duran is 29. I love boxing guys that old. I love it. Look, youth is what’s happening today. Older women like younger men, right? And older men like younger women. I’m young. I know when I’m with somebody old, they can’t last as long as I can, O.K.? It goes for fighters. I don’t think Duran would be able to last with me.”
Steward’s timetable has Hearns in perfect position to fulfill a dream that no one in the Hearns camp can keep from revealing. It goes like this: after Hearns beats Cuevas for the WBA title and Duran and Leonard have a rematch for the WBC title, Hearns will fight and beat the survivor. Then he will retire from the welterweight division undefeated, put a few more pounds on that 6’1″ frame and waltz through the junior middleweights, the middleweights and finally the light-heavies. “He can do it,” says Steward. “Thomas can do that. He can win world championships in four divisions, something that no one in the sport has ever done.”
Meanwhile, the Motor City Cobra—”I can deal with Motor City Cobra,” says Hearns—rides his fortunes with boyish joy. Even now, a few weeks before the Cuevas fight, having done his running, sparring and bag work, Hearns has the energy to race the minibike, catch half a dozen trout, clean out a table of poker players and ride a horse. As the sun begins to set, he dashes into the camp kitchen where Sam Fenton, the resident chef from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, is ready to heap a mountain of food onto Hearns’ plate.
“What is this?” says Hearns, making a face.
“Chicken Montserratian,” says Fenton, as Hearns, still standing, tears into the food.
“Looks like chop suey to me,” Hearns mumbles, his mouth full.
“Thomas,” says Byrd sternly. “Go unsaddle that horse. He’ll catch cold, man.”
“I’m going back to ride him some more,” Hearns says, his mouth stuffed, one foot already out the door. He ducks back in. “Sam, cook up those fish for me when I get back, O.K.? Chinese food always makes me hungry.”
“Thomas, you’re always hungry,” the chef says in his Caribbean accent. “The more you get, the more you want, and never, never, never do you get fat.”
“I know, Sam. It’s because I’m hungry. I’m the hungriest.”
In seconds, he is riding off—yes, into the sunset.
Special Thanks to Vintage Boxing Archives