By 1985, Tommy Hearns had beaten two of the great names of the welterweight division in Wilfred Benitez and Roberto Duran. With Ray Leonard in retirement, and no immediate prospect of avenging his sole loss, Hearns had to look elsewhere for further glory. That road led north, and right through one of the greatest middleweight champions of all-time: “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
Hagler vs. Hearns
They met in April 1985 at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. Hagler had reigned as Undisputed World Middleweight Champion for almost 5 years, having won 10 title defenses, 9 by knockout. Dubbed “The War,” it lived up to its billing and proved to be one of the most exciting boxing matches in history. Hager, who normally was a slow-starter and took his time in the opening rounds, came straight out and attacked Hearns, bulling him onto the ropes. Hearns responded with a hard right hand that shook Hagler to the ankles, but broke Hearns hand in the process. Hagler tied Hearns up, cleared his head, and soon the two were trading power shots. With his right hand hurting, Hearns tried to keep his distance and box, but Hagler came on and made a slugfest out of it. The bell rang, and the greatest round in the history of boxing came to a close.
In Round 2, Hearns had more success in trying to box Hagler, forcing that master of the pugilistic arts to switch hit from southpaw to orthodox and back to southpaw, looking for a way around Hearns’s jab. Hagler found his mark, countered that jab with a smashing right, and knocked Hearns down and out. Hearns was beaten – by knockout – for the second time.
Hunting for a World Titles
Hearns returned to the ring almost a year later, fighting 3 times in 1986 at 154 and 160lbs, looking for a worthwhile fight. He got it only by moving up and tackling Dennis Andries in March 1987, the WBC Light Heavyweight Champion. He knocked the Briton down 3 times en route to a 10th Round TKO. Then in October, he jumped back down to middleweight, fought Juan Rodan for the WBC Middleweight Title, vacated after Ray Leonard outpointed Hagler and then moved up in weight. Rodan was utterly destroyed in 4 Rounds, and with the victory Hearns became the first man to win world titles in 4 different weight divisions (147, 154, 160, and 175lbs).
1988 brought Hearns run of glory to an end, however. In June of that year, he defended his 160lbs title at the Las Vegas Hilton against a 24-4 journeyman puncher named Iran Barkley. Little did Hearns realize that this man would prove to be one of the most over-achieving sluggers of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cut and behind on points, Barkely would land a succession of rights that put Hearns down, and then out in the 3rd Round.
Bouncing back from the loss to Barkley 5 months later, he fought journeyman James Kinchen for the newly minted WBO 168lbs Title, and despite being knocked down in the 4th, went on to win a Majority Decision.
Rematch with Leonard
Being stopped by Barkley and knocked down by Kinchen made people start to wonder if perhaps the 30 year old Hearns was losing his stuff. He silenced all such speculation in his next bout: a June 1989 rematch with “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Hearns was the Super MIddweight Champion of the lightly regarded WBO; Leonard the Super Middleweight king of the WBC. The belts did not matter, though, so prominent were these two men and so anticipated was their return bout.
It was Hearns who scored the more telling blows this time. Where Leonard shook Hearns twice, the Hitman put Leonard on the canvas twice. Despite clearly winning the fight (even Leonard admitted as much in the years that followed), Hearns was jobbed and had to settle for a Draw.
Still the WBO 168lbs Champion, Hearns defended his title against 27-3, highly regarded Michael Olajide (Olajide had previously lost only to Barkley and Frank Tate, both world champions). Hearns won a lopsided points victory, scoring a knockdown in the 9th.
In June 1991, Hill moved on to his next major challenge. He returned to Light Heavyweight and challenged Virgil Hill for the WBA Championship. Hill had been in the same great 1984 Olympic Team that included Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whittaker, and won a Silver at the Games. He was 30-0, wielded a masterful jab, and had defended his title 10 times in almost 4 years. For once, Hearns was a serious underdog going into the fight. In the best performance of his later career, an almost 33 year old Hearns out-jabbed the jabber, scoring points with solid 1-2s and upsetting a dominant champion in his prime in a clean points win.
After this triumph, Hearns defended his newly won title in a rematch against Iran Barkley, and lost it in a close Split Decision. It was 1992, and it seemed like Tommy Hearns might finally be done.
Hearns went on to fight infrequently throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, sometimes seeming more like he got in the ring for fun than because he was pursuing another shot at a world title. All that changed in April 1999, when a 40 year old Hearns fought as a cruiserweight (190lbs) against former champion Nate Miller over a fringe belt, winning a lopsided decision. A year later, he met another former cruiserweight champ, Uriah Grant, but twisted his ankle in the 2nd and thereby suffered a stoppage.
Thomas Hearns is not formally retired. He fought in 2005 and 2006, and has not announced any intention to hang up the gloves, although it looks like he has returned to his ’90s pattern of prizefighting for personal enjoyment and not in pursuit of titles or purses.
The legacy of Tommy “Hitman” Hearns is nothing short of incredible. At the time, he was the first man to ever win world championships in 4 different divisions; considering that the WBO later became accepted as a major world title, it can be argued that he was the first man to win world championships in five weight classes (147, 154, 160, 168, and 175lbs). As a welterweight and super welterweight, he was arguably the most terrifying puncher those divisions had ever seen and perhaps will ever see.
Sources: YouTube; ESPN Classic Sports; The Ring; boxreco.com; Sports Illustrated