Thomas Hearns knows the feeling and so do many others. The big post-fight party is already under way before everyone realizes the big fight went the wrong way.
It’s so very awkward.
Hearns, the Detroit icon, was among six men inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame Sunday at Canastota, N.Y., the tiny upstate village which grew a couple of world champions and houses the building where the sport’s greatest are immortalized. It’s about 20 minutes from Cooperstown, and for fans of baseball and boxing – or just picturesque settings, for that matter – a spring or summer visit, particularly on induction day at either museum, is a glorious experience.
And then, there’s Freddie Roach, who also was inducted into the hall.
Barely 12 hours earlier, Roach was working Manny Pacquiao’s corner for their 27th fight together, and one that forever will gnaw at him, when Timothy Bradley was awarded a decision he earned yet did not deserve. Boxing has twirled upside down since. The fight was relevant for all the right reasons until the decision was announced, when it became relevant for all the wrong ones.
Roach took a private jet cross-country after the fight for his enshrinement at Canastota, a bittersweet weekend if ever one existed.
Hearns was understated at his induction. He was always a relatively humble man, even when cast into a spotlight situation he tolerated but never fully embraced. He discovered himself within that context, though, grew comfortable enough to demonstrate his glibness, his quick-wittedness, his self-effacement. The media liked Tommy because Tommy liked people.
And Detroit, well, Detroit loved Tommy. The stories are legion about fans from the city who watched Hearns grow up in fights at the Olympia, then watched him win his first world title on a one-punch knockout of Pipino Cuevas in 1980 at Joe Louis Arena, then trekked to Las Vegas and lost enormous sums – up to and including home mortgages – when Hearns broke their hearts in knockout losses to Ray Leonard in 1981 and Marvin Hagler in 1985.
Hearns was humble by nature and sometimes humbled by his sport. He won big fights, most notably the astonishingly brutal second-round knockout of Roberto Duran in 1984 at Caesars Palace, and a decision win over Wilfred Benitez in 1982 at the Louisiana Superdome. And in 1991, at age 32 and the veteran of so many ring wars, he summoned his past and upset unbeaten Virgil Hill to win the light heavyweight title for the second time, before losing it in his next fight.
Most of Hearns’ very biggest fights were marked by disappointment, by getting knocked down and knocked out, then getting up again. He was the microcosm of Detroit in that way, and at a time the city didn’t have much else to root for, the 1984 Tigers and the “Hit Man” were the exceptions. The city lived and suffered through the losses to Leonard and Hagler. It stuck with Tommy through it all, because he was a lethal puncher who held his hands at his sides and dared opponents to hit his brittle chin. One thing for sure about a Hearns fight, people went there expecting a knockout.
They just never were quite sure who would catch it.
I was fortunate to cover many Hearns fights, including the day he won the light heavyweight championship from Dennis Andries in Detroit, in 1987, when Aretha Franklin sang the longest version of The Star-Spangled Banner in history and Motown reveled in it all, right up to the moment the British import couldn’t take it any more, in the 10th round, and Hearns wrested his title.
It wasn’t always so glorious.
In 1988, Hearns was cruising through the early minutes of a fight with Iran Barkley, at Las Vegas Hilton. Barkley was outclassed but not outgunned, and when Hearns tried a looping left hook to the ribcage in the third round, Barkley beat him with a left hook to the jaw. That Hearns managed to beat the count was academic. His recovery powers never were great, and the end came seconds later. Asked what he learned, Hearns replied, “Don’t hook with a hooker.”
In 1989, in an outdoor arena behind Caesars Palace, on a Monday night back when big closed-circuit fights commonly were conducted on weeknights, Hearns finally got his long-awaited rematch with Leonard. Two nights before the fight, a woman was killed in Hearns’ home. The gunman was Hearns’ brother, Henry, who was arrested, and later convicted and imprisoned for second-degree murder. The fight went on as scheduled, Hearns controlled the action, twice knocked down Leonard, but got the raw end of a draw. One night later, the Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers for their first NBA title.
Hearns won a pair of comeback fights, in 2005 and 2006, though the main portion of his career ended in 2000, when he lost to Uriah Grant at Joe Louis Arena because he rolled an ankle in the second round and couldn’t continue. It was the last loss on a 61-5-1 record, and the only one in his hometown.
Hearns always appreciated his fan support, genuinely and forthrightly. That didn’t change on the occasion of his hall call.
“To see all you folks here today to witness myself and everybody else make it into the Hall of Fame, this is beautiful,” he said. “I thank you for being here.”
Only one other fighter was inducted, Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, a former 112- and 115-pound champion. The other inductees included ring announcer Michael Buffer, broadcaster Al Bernstein and writer Michael Katz.
Katz, a longtime New York newspaper man who now lives in Las Vegas, and whom I have known for many years, was the only one to make reference to Roach and the unfortunate timing of the veteran trainer’s induction, just hours after the Bradley-Pacquiao result.
“I want to congratulate all of my fellow classmates,” the longtime New York writer said, “even poor Freddie.”
Thomas Hearns can relate.
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