It has been the lot of Thomas Hearns to be regarded solely as a cannon, something to be rolled into a ring to reduce an opponent to rubble. Last Friday night, against Wilfred Benitez in New Orleans' Superdome, Hearns finally showed that he brings more to boxing than a big bang. Fighting with only his left hand from the eighth round on after hurting the right on Benitez' head, Hearns outboxed the master boxer and lifted the Puerto Rican's WBC super welterweight (154-pound) championship on a majority decision. One judge ruled it a draw, the two others had Hearns the winner.
"When I fight, people expect to see a knockout," said Hearns, known as The Hitman, beforehand. "Well, they're only going to see one if Benitez does something stupid. If he tries to draw a shot and counter over it, then he'll be on the canvas. But I expect it will go 15, and I'm going to give him a boxing lesson."
Benitez had won most of his 45 fights, and titles in three different weight divisions, by utilizing his skills as a boxer. "Hit without being hit" is the imperative of the sport, and Benitez had excelled at the latter without having to worry unduly about the former. Until he faced Hearns.
"I've worked hard on some things since I lost to Leonard," said Hearns, whose defeat by Sugar Ray Leonard in September 1981 in their welterweight title unification bout was his only loss in 35 pro fights. "I've worked hard on my jab. On my boxing. Learning how to move my head to get away from shots. How to tie a man up inside. Leonard gave me the inspiration to learn. Whatever Benitez does, I'm ready."
It was also Leonard who handed Benitez his only defeat, Sugar Ray winning the WBC welterweight title from him in November 1979. There are those who say that Benitez lost that fight because he trained only seven days. Benitez has been known to get home when other boxers are getting up to run, and before the Hearns bout he hadn't had a fight since he beat Roberto Duran in January. Benitez' father, Gregorio, who is his trainer and harshest critic, was worried about Hearns. Not Wilfred. "I will win without difficulty. I will kill Hearns," he said. "Yes, I will kill him."
That alarming assertion came as no surprise; with Benitez, confidence verges on arrogance. He won his first title, the WBA junior welterweight, at 17; his second, the WBC welterweight, at 20; and his third, the WBC super welterweight, some 2½ years later. After Hearns, he planned to take on middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. "No problem," he said, taking a line from Napoleon as the first snowflake fell in Russia.
Benitez is a superb counterpuncher, and though he has knocked out 26 opponents, he isn't considered a big hitter. He wears down an opponent with body shots. When at his best defensively, he could lie down on the San Diego Freeway at 5 p.m. and not get run over.
But on entering the ring in New Orleans, Benitez seriously erred. Glowering at Hearns, who was already at a boil because of Benitez' choice of the word "kill," the champion said, "I could beat you and Leonard in the same night."
Replied Hearns coldly, "If you think that, you must be asleep."
For the first three rounds, Benitez didn't have much of a strategy. Mostly he stayed on the ropes, bobbing and weaving, seemingly happy just to make Hearns miss. Patiently the challenger used the early going to establish his jab.
In the fifth, Benitez was caught off-balance with his legs spread too wide. He staggered back and broke his fall by placing both gloves on the floor. As Hearns moved in, Referee Octavio Meyran mystifyingly jumped between the two and gave Benitez a mandatory eight-count. The champion just smiled. If Meyran hadn't intervened, Hearns might have ended the fight right there.
Deciding he wasn't going to sucker Hearns into a mistake while resting against the ropes, Benitez switched tactics in the sixth. But by then Hearns had found his range. He began stepping in, firing one shot and then stepping back, reducing Benitez' offensive moves to a series of head-first lunges.
"People talk about Benitez being swift, but he's not," Emanuel Steward, his manager-trainer, had told Hearns. "He keeps his feet flat and too far apart. Keep moving; keep him turning."
In the eighth, Hearns hit Benitez high on the head with a right, and he felt something give in his hand. It's his power hand, the one that dropped 32 of his victims. But when he went back to the corner he didn't mention the pain.
"He never told me until after the fight," said Steward later. "He said he knew I was already too nervous and he didn't want to make it worse for me. I couldn't understand it. He was setting Benitez up beautifully for the right hand, and then he never threw it."
In the ninth Hearns slipped and took a mandatory eight. Pulling back from a Benitez right counter, he got his legs tangled and tripped. Then Benitez stepped on his right foot, and he fell.
"I no hit him," Benitez said. "But as he started to fall I think he try to kick me, so I step on his foot."
After that, Hearns, his right hand useless, kept the lunging Benitez off-balance with the jab. He didn't hit Benitez that much, but then, Benitez didn't hit him at all, mostly because he neglected to punch. Defense as practiced by Benitez is a poetic art, but nobody ever knocked down a wall with a poem.
Just before the start of the 15th round, Gregorio sent his son out with these words of advice, "Just take it easy. You got the fight."
Across the way, Steward was urging Hearns to let it all hang out.
"You feel tired?" Steward asked.
"Well, throw the right. I don't know how they got it scored, but the only official I can see is the referee, and that makes me awfully worried."
The 15th round was eventful, with both fighters on the attack. When it was over, Judge Lou Filippo gave it to nobody, 142-142, while the others, Tony Castellano (144-139) and Dick Young (146-136) had Hearns the winner.
Afterward, Gregorio was his usual tactless self. "The judges are a bunch of crooks," he said. "For the last seven or eight rounds the other guy was on a bicycle with his right hand stuck up his behind, and they take the title away from a three-time world champion."
Gregorio also ruled out a rematch. "Who needs it?" he said. "One robbery is enough. One thing Hearns does is run, and if a boxer who runs can beat a triple champion, who needs him? I saw Cassius Clay run, and they give it to him. Maybe everybody just wants to destroy boxing. We fight Marvin Hagler. If not him, then I tell Wilfred to retire."
In the dressing room, Benitez' mother gently wiped the sweat from her son's face. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," she said. Then she kissed him on the cheek. "Un besito para el nene" she said softly. A kiss for a child.
The next morning Steward was asked about Hagler. "Not right now," he said. I think we would like to defend this title first. Then we'll think about Hagler."
It was 10 a.m. and Hearns, who had taken the first flight out, had already arrived home in Detroit to get his right hand X-rayed, although his physician, Dr. Fred Lewerenz, had said he thought the injury was no more than a slight separation between the first knuckle and the thumb, which the X rays confirmed.
Before Hearns left New Orleans he was asked about Hagler. "Who?" he replied. "Oh! Well, if he wants me he knows where he can find me."
Lifting the title earned Hearns another lift.