So this is how it ends, as if we didn't already know. With some
kind of disaster, some sort of embarrassment, regret,
disappointment above all. A legacy established over 23 years of
boxing, meant to be honored in one last showcase, is instead
tarnished. Too bad that so many people will now remember Thomas
Hearns, one of the greatest fighters ever, limping back to his
corner after turning his right ankle, unable to come out for
even a third round against Uriah Grant. Uriah Grant! Too bad,
really, that anybody should remember that.
Hearns, 41, won seven titles in six divisions, and even in his
losses to Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler in the
famous welterweight and middleweight roundelays of the early
1980s, he had assumed the greater glory. He was the Hit Man,
fearless and devastating, his hooded eyes promising destruction.
His third-round knockout loss to Hagler in '85 is celebrated as a
bout that ennobled the fighters equally. There may never have
been another eight minutes in boxing to equal their furious war.
Nobody's going to forget all that, or his crushing defeat
of Pipino Cuevas to win his first world title in 1980, or the
demolition of Roberto Duran in '84, or so many others. But just
as the Hagler bout has rankled him and his fans--Hagler, perhaps
wisely, would never agree to a rematch--so will his decision to
defer retirement, when he might easily have gone out in a more
competitive fray eight years ago, when he had his last meaningful
But this is what happens when you're an old fighter, even when
you're matched with another fossil. (Grant is 39, his heyday--such
as it was--long gone, too.) Had Hearns arrived at the Joe Louis
Arena a little earlier last Saturday night, for his farewell
party for Detroit, he might have seen a chilling sight. Muhammad
Ali, showing up to see his daughter Laila fight on the undercard,
shuffled out of a gray Suburban inside the arena and walked
haltingly to ringside, his shaking hands passing out autographed
Muslim prayer cards along the way.
It might end like that, or it might end with a sprained ankle,
and the fighter having to retire in the ring, and the hometown
fans booing until you have to take the mike and tell them you
won't go out this way, that you're "going to show them the real
Thomas Hearns." Then, in the dressing room, admitting that this
might be it after all. "We'll see what my wife says," Hearns
whispered, his foot wrapped in ice. Next to him Renee Hearns sat
with a cold face, holding a weeping eight-year-old Tommy Jr. It
didn't look as though permission would be forthcoming.
If it was a ridiculous end--and all fighters risk that--it began
sweetly enough, with Hearns making the rounds in the week before
the bout, allowing for reminiscence and nostalgia. The prefight
press conference, held in a downtown casino, was a far cry from
the frenzied affairs he had participated in before his fights at
Caesars Palace. A few cameras were there, a few reporters. But he
was animated, glad for the chance to make this goodbye. Someone
said they'd heard Leonard and Hagler might be coming in. "I heard
that, too," Hearns said. Would he be glad to see them? The
bitterness (the draw in his 1989 rematch with Leonard is not
considered boxing's best decision) has long since softened, and
Hearns could only smirk at the idea of a joyful reunion. "It's
always nice to see familiar faces," he said, laughing lightly.
For all the retirement hoopla, Hearns hasn't really been all that
active. Since losing to Iran Barkley in 1992, he's been off
boxing's radar, taking strange little bouts here and there. He
fought past his prime, sure, but was not endangering himself. He
had fought just once a year since 1995, and not against anybody
you've ever heard of.
So he was enjoying the attention again. It wasn't the same, but
he had a white stretch limo at his disposal, some well-wishers, a
little publicity, good feelings all around. It was even nice for
him to be back at the Kronk, the dangerously overheated community
building in what seems to be a bombed-out section of Detroit,
where celebrated trainer Emanuel Steward had assembled an awesome
stable of talent. Entering the gym, its walls covered with press
clippings, caused even Hearns to reflect wistfully. "First walked
in here when I was 15 or 16," he said.
Hearns said he finally decided to retire, officially, early this
year because for once he had an alternative future. "Gonna
promote," he said. Which means he gets to visit the gym but
doesn't have to spar.
He was becoming comfortable thinking about the past, now that he
had a future, and throughout the week indulged the media's
requests for reminiscences. Of course, he's still bugged by that
first Leonard fight in 1981, when he nearly had the original
Golden Boy gone, only to get knocked out in the 14th round, his
first loss. He's a little bit bugged that all he got in the
rematch was a draw. "I thought I won, everybody thought I won,"
he said. Even with the draw he felt he more than erased the shame
of his first defeat.
The Hagler fight was different. Fans still talk about that
spectacularly reckless first round, when either fighter could
have been carried from the ring, and the memories it gave them.
But Hearns remains a little steamed that the memories are at his
expense and, most of all, that Hagler refused a rematch.
Beating Uriah Grant wasn't going to reverse any of those
disappointments, but it did offer Hearns the opportunity of an
elaborate exit. His dressing room before the fight, crowded with
several dozen family members and friends as well as the Kronk
entourage, was hardly electric with prefight excitement. But it
did have the feel of a reunion, with everyone together, enacting
old rituals. After all, he'd done this, more or less, 64 times
In the hour before the fight Hearns posed for hundreds of snaps,
his mother orchestrating many of them. His two oldest sons were
on hand, and there was the usual pep rally, led by brother Billy.
There was also a prayer, held just as the fire marshals were
threatening to clear everybody out.
It was strange, and a little sad, to think that Thomas Hearns
would never again go through these small rites. Steward would
never have that same quiet moment taping his hands that they
first had decades ago, when both were young and poor. They would
never, all together, share in that great hullabaloo as they
walked to the ring, the music wild and the fans leaning over
rails. It was stranger and sadder still, after the fight ended
disastrously, to realize Hearns had done it one fight too many.
Maybe we'll only remember the ones before this.
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA
THREE B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA OLD HOME WEEK In the days leading up to his farewell fight, Hearns returned to the sweltering confines of the Kronk, where he first laced up his boots and hit a bag 25 years ago. He was joined for a game of Me and My Shadow(box) by Laila Ali (below), the daughter of another great one.
THREE B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA NO MORE HITS, MAN After Steward did his final tapingof the hands that had produced 46 KOs (above), the Hit Man barely got going against Grant (left) before being hobbled. Back in the locker room with (below, from left) Renee, Thomas Jr. and his mother, Lois, a glum Hearns called it quits for good.