Happy Birthday Hit Man - The Measuring Stick of Greatness
Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns - the man, the fighter.
This Wednesday, October 18th we celebrate the 65th birthday of the great, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.
In boxing, greatness can be defined in many 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, who they fought, who they didn't 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 givers of advice 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 “Hit Man” Hearns is considered a great fighter. His path to greatness as a professional was no walk in the park. Along the journey, he had to suffer 5 devastating defeats and 1 controversial draw in order to win 61 bouts, score 48 sensational knockouts, win six World Championships in five weight classes in a career that ended as he was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame where his legend shall live forever with the greatest in the sports history.
I have been 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 "Hit Man" 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.") It was Thomas Hearns the man however that taught me 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 and climb back to the top mountain and if necessary; repeat the process several times along the journey if that is what it took and never giving up along the way.
Several times in his historic career the "Hit Man" crushed opponents with his devastating power, but Hearns himself had to face and overcome adversities that would have crushed mere mortals! After suffering his first career defeat to "Sugar" Ray Leonard (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 knocked out in the biggest fight of his career to date in 1981, but he had to hear the stories of 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 every-day life... Now imagine a place 100x darker than that! A place so dark where your manhood and pride can be stripped and all the millions of dollars in the world cannot bring it back. Having to face and overcome these things is something the record books will never be able to give proper credit to; this is what 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 "why" he would make it to the top again. The reality is, if more people were capable of doing what Hearns did in life today, many of the big pharmaceutical companies would be out of business because prescriptions for opioids would be replaced by a prescription for good old fashion Motor City back breaking hard work. Hearns re-grouped and moved up to 154 pounds where he won many more bouts and the WBC world championship using both masterful boxing displays like the ones he displayed versus Wilfred Benitez & Luiggi Minchillo and with devastating KO's like the one he scored over Roberto Duran.
But true to what helped define Hearns' greatness, after reaching the mountain top once again, he would find himself back down in the valley and starting that difficult climb back to the top once again. After him and Marvelous Marvin Hagler gave fans one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport, Hearns came up short and once again had to carry the heavy load of letting his fans and the Motor City down. Even with a broken right hand, Hearns put on one of the greatest displays of speed, power, heart and courage fans have ever been privileged to witness. Despite fighting with a broken right hand, he 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 barely letting the broken bones mend in his right hand after 11 months, Hearns wasted no time getting back in the ring as the co-main event, that took part at the same venue in Las Vegas where he lost to Hagler (who was fighting John Mugabi in the main event that evening). Unlike Leonard who had continued to avoid Hearns like the plague, Hagler appeared interested in giving Hearns a rematch and to his credit, Tommy ducked no man and was hungry for the rematch.
His opponent that cold and rainy night 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 KO's as an amateur) and was trained by the legendary Eddie Futch. Shuler was cautious of the Hearns right hand that had KO'd 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 was counted out.
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 after the fight. While condolences came in from all over the world to the Shuler family, it was Thomas Hearns, the great man, who called and offered to place his newly won NABF Middleweight belt in Shuler's casket as a "gesture of admiration and sympathy" to the Shuler family.
"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, but more so than that, Thomas Hearns taught us all that greatness is not just measured in the victories you win 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.
*Thomas, thank you for being a mentor, a friend and always being there when I have called you throughout the years. Enjoy this special day my friend. Happy birthday Hit Man!