Thomas Hearns: ‘The Hitman’: A Biography

Thomas Hearns
  • DOB: Oct 18, 1958 – Grand Junction, Memphis, Tennessee
  • Gym: The Kronk’s Gym
  • Location: Detroit, Michigan
  • Trainer: Emanuel ‘Manny’ Steward
  • Boxing Career: Amateur, Professional, Promoter
  • Nickname: ‘Tiger Tommy’, ‘The Motor City Cobra’, ‘The Hitman’ 
  • Height: 6 Foot 1 inches. 185cm
  • Reach: 78 inches
  • Stance: Orthodox
  • Weights fought at: Welterweight, Light Middleweight, Middleweight, Super Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, Cruiserweight

Professional Record: 

  • Total Fights: 67
  • Wins: 61
  • Wins by KO: 48
  • Losses: 5
  • Draws 1 

Notable Fights: “The Showdown” Hearns vs Ray Leonard I, Hearns vs Duran, “The War” Hearns vs Hagler, Hearns vs Leonard II. 

Thomas Hearns: Overview 

Thomas Hearns was an American professional boxer who competed at the very apex of the sport for just short of three decades (1977 to 2006). Largely unknown by his first nickname ‘Tiger Tommy’, Hearns subsequently became the ‘Motor City Cobra’ (his preferred moniker), before most famously assuming his ‘nom de guerre’ of ‘The Hitman’ as he blitzed and blazed his way through the professional ranks and weights.

Indeed Thomas Hearns would knock out his first 17 professional opponents, before carrying his 28–0 record into a first world title match against Mexico’s Pipinos Cuevas in 1980. Hearns ending Cuevas’ 4-year reign and earning the WBA Welterweight title in the process with a TKO win in the second round before carrying a 32-0 record into ‘The Showdown’ with Sugar Ray Leonard (more on which later). 

Thomas Hearns had an unusual build for a boxer of his weight class. Slender and tall to the point of being slight, Thomas Hearns’ oversized arms/shoulders along with an extensive reach more than compensated for this, helping him move up over fifty pounds during his career and become the first boxer in history to win world titles in five different weight divisions: welterweight, light middleweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight.

Thomas Hearns: Early Life & Amateur Record 

The youngest of three children from his mother’s first marriage, Thomas Hearns was born in Grand Junction, Memphis, Tennessee on the 18th Oct 1958. His mother’s second marriage saw ‘Tommy’ gain six additional siblings and Mrs Hearns raise them on her own until at the age Tommy was five, she moved the family to Detroit, Michigan where Hearns’ remarkable career would begin.

Thomas Hearns reportedly holding an amateur record of 155–8, during which he would win the 1977 National Amateur Athletic Union Light Welterweight Championship, and the 1977 National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship.

Thomas Hearns: Boxing Background & Emanuel Steward!

Thomas Hearns began his professional boxing career in 1977 Detroit, Michigan, under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward. What is interesting and not widely known is that Thomas Hearns was not always a ‘Bomber’ and it was Steward who deserves the credit for seeing the potential of that right hand and changing Hearns from a light hitting amateur boxer to one of the most devastating punchers in boxing history.

Thomas Hearns: The Darling of Detroit!

Thomas Hearns understated demeanour, dignity and decorum along with his brutal no nonsense demolition and destruction of opponent’s made him a hero in his home town. His fans loved the fact that Tommy wanted nothing more than to blast his opponents away in the quickest time possible.

Indeed when Tommy Hearns did lose, the City often went to into what can only be described as a state of mourning afterwards. The documentary film ‘The (Four) Kings’ brilliantly illustrating this and what an all-round good guy Tommy Hearns was. Nb this writer was not a fan before watching but came out of it afterwards with a change of heart with him now replacing Ray Leonard as his favourite of the Four!

Thomas Hearns: the Professional and the Legendary era of the ‘Four Kings’

Tommy Hearns career has come to be defined by several iconic fights. Two of which he lost (but should of won) 1 of which he did win in spectacular fashion and 1 of which most people thought he won but he was ‘robbed’ of when the decision was scored a draw. Let’s take a look at them.

Thomas Hearns (Fight 1): ‘The Showdown’ with Sugar Ray Leonard!

Thomas Hearns fought Sugar Ray Leonard on the 16th of September, 1981 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas in a 15 round fight to unify the World Welterweight Championship before a crowd of 23,618. To say it was one of the most eagerly anticipated fights of all time is a gross understatement.

It was one of the few times the two best boxers on the planet met in their prime. Hearns came into the bout with a fearsome reputation and a ‘unhuman’ record: 32–0 with 30 knockouts! With that in mind, it was no surprise the fight was labelled ‘the puncher vs the boxer’.

The fight followed a predicted pattern, Thomas Hearns stalked Leonard for a knockout blow with his long reach and sharp jab whilst Leonard used his trademark fast feet and fast hands to ‘stick and move’. By round 5, Hearns’ tactics were effective and he had built up a considerable lead on the scorecards.

Leonard would rally and ‘pummel’ Hearns in rounds six and seven, but Hearns would regroup, also ‘stick and move’ and start to pile up points again, winning rounds 9 through 12. Angelo Dundee (Ray Leonards trainer) was so concerned between rounds twelve and thirteen he famously yelled at Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it”!

Sadly for Hearns fans it was here that if Tommy Hearns had bit more boxing savvy and could curb his natural instinct and self-belief (that he could and would knock out his opponent) he could have easily have won this fight by just keeping a distance with his jab and ‘boxing’ the last two rounds out. Particularly as Leonard already had a badly swollen eye.

Leonard, however renowned as a brilliant boxer capable of launching flurries of brutal combination punches started to do just that and rallied to Dundee’s call. In round 13 with Tommy still refusing to just ‘manage’ the fight out, Leonard put Hearns through the ropes and though it was not declared a knockdown, Leonard did officially ‘drop’ him when he got up.

Round 14 saw Leonard similarly pin the ‘Hitman’ against the ropes, whereby, he unleashed another furious combination of punches which prompted referee, Davey Pearl, to stop the contest and award Sugar Ray the Unified World Welterweight Championship. 

*Note, Thomas Hearns, was actually leading on the judge’s scorecards at the time 124–122, 125–122, and 125–121 – big margins.

Though the fight was named “Fight of the Year” by ‘The Ring’ and no-one could deny the brilliance of Ray Leonard’s comeback it was a fight Hearns should have won, his first loss, and probably more worryingly illustrated a trait Thomas Hearns had that would come back to haunt him. 

Aftermath: and Hearns vs Duran (Fight 2)

Following the loss Hearns would move on by moving up, competing and winning the WBC Super Welterweight (154 lb) title from boxing legend and three-time world champion Wilfred Benítez (44–1–1) in New Orleans in December 1982. Defending it against European Champion Luigi Minchillo, before his utter destruction of Roberto ‘the hands of stone’ Durán by KO in round 2 on the 15th of June 1984 at Ceasars Palace, Las Vegas.

Note No.1 contender Fred Hutchings (29–1) (KO 3) and No.1 contender Mark Medal (26–2) (TKO 8) were also despatched afterwards during Hearns reign at this weight. The 2nd round destruction of Roberto Durán, in which he became the first boxer to KO Durán, however is majorly seen as the pinnacle achievement of his career and earned him his second Ring Magazine “Fighter of the Year” award in 1984.

To be honest there’s not too much to say about this fight other than it was just Tommy Hearns back to his brutal best. ‘Dropping’ Duran twice in the first round alone, so badly that a dazed and confused Duran even went to a neutral corner at the bell!

Before again walloping Duran so viciously in round 2 that Duran literally went face down ‘like a toilet seat’ and thereby achieved what no-one else had managed to: Knocking out the ‘Hands of Stone’.

Just take a look.

*Nb there is bonus footage after the fight of Hearns’ most devastating KO’s as well as one ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson commenting upon the punching power Hearns possessed.

Thomas Hearns vs ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler (Fight 3)

While remaining super-welterweight champion, Thomas Hearns once again decided to continue with his belief he could knock out anyone. Venturing into the middleweight division to challenge undisputed middleweight champion and ‘Human Tank’ Marvin Hagler in a fight on the 15th April 1985, initially billed as “The Fight” and later known as “The War”, this was a bout that has been labelled ‘the three greatest rounds in boxing history’.

Just take a look at Round 1!

Thomas Hearns broke his right hand in that first round forcing him to box throughout Round 2, largely reliant on his jab as he just couldn’t throw his right with the same power. Nevertheless, Hearns still managed to further open a deep cut on Hagler’s forehead that would later cause the ring doctor to consider a stoppage.

Once again it seems sad that a ‘smarter’ Tommy Hearns could not capitalise on this by just staying away long enough in Round 3 in which the Ring Dr was called as by then Hagler’s cut was teaming with blood and the fight was on the verge of being stopped. Hearns even seemed to go on the offence initially afterwards (such was his all-out KO ethos) in an attempt to end the fight, where I feel a ‘cooler head’ should have once again seen him win a fight he ultimately lost.

The comeback and some other notable fights.

Tommy Hearns would once again swiftly return to winning ways in dispatching the undefeated rising star James ‘Black Gold’ Shuler with a devastating first-round knockout in March 1986 to earn the NABF middleweight title. It was his gesture afterwards – one week later when Shuler was killed in a motorcycle accident however that marked out Tommy, the man.

Thomas Hearns presenting the NABF championship belt to Shuler’s family at his funeral, saying ‘he deserved to keep the belt as he had held it longer’. Tommy furthermore winning bouts vs Marc Medal and Doug Dewitt before achieving his next major milestone by knocking Dennis Andries down six times on route to a 10th round stoppage for the WBC light heavyweight title in March 1987. A four-round destruction of Juan Roldán (63–2) later the same year saw Hearns claim the vacant WBC middleweight title making Hearns a four-weight world champion.

A huge upset would follow however when Hearns lost his WBC middleweight title to the talented Iran Barkley via a third-round TKO in June 1988. A bout Ring Magazine named 1988 Upset of the Year. But with his ‘never say die’ approach in November that same year, Hearns returned to win another world title, defeating James Kinchen via a majority decision to win the inaugural WBO super-middleweight title. Hearns, thereby becoming the first boxer to win a world title in five different weight divisions.

Thomas Hearns vs Sugar Ray Leonard II (Fight 4)

Thomas ‘the hitman’ Hearns would be made to wait until 1989 for the rematch he really wanted – with Sugar Ray Leonard. This time for Leonard’s WBC super-middleweight title and Hearns’s WBO title. As far as this fight goes and this writer’s opinion (who was previously a big Leonard fan) this was one of the most biased decisions ever in boxing. With media darling and all American favourite Ray Leonard awarded a draw despite the Hitman flooring him in both the 3rd and 11th rounds. Hearns could not really have done more to have earned the decision and public opinion was and is, that he was ‘robbed’ of victory.

There is a highlight reel available of the fight here 

Something that does not fully convey Thomas Hearns dominance. Though you can clearly hear the commentator state at the end of the 11th round “Tommy Hearns is just one round away”. How he does not get the decision if you seek out and view the whole fight is just a tragedy. Something the commentators and the crowd can be heard to agree with. This time Tommy did everything right even during a late 12th round Ray Leonard onslaught.  

Life after Ray Leonard II and personal life

Thereafter Tommy Hearns continued to fight and contrary to a lot of fighters did not go badly downhill amassing quite a record which can be seen here. Final further stand out performances were winning a sixth title, the WBA light heavyweight championship from the undefeated Virgil Hill in 1991, in Hills’ eleventh defence of the title. Before losing it in a split decision in March 1992 to old foe Iran Barkely. Tommy still however refused to quit and won 11 of his next 12 fights before retiring in 2006. 

On retirement Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns became a part of his family’s successful fight promotional business ‘Hearns Entertainment’ which has promoted many cards including the Mike Tyson – Andrew Golota bout in 2000. As of writing Tommy Hearns is still alive and well in Detroit, Michigan.

Thomas Hearns Living Legend

The list of successes, accolades and achievements Tommy Hearns earned in his career is impressive to say the least. A lot have already been mentioned. So I’ll just summarise some of thee (and other) most important ones below and you can check his record for anything else! 

  • The first boxer in history to win world titles at five different weights.
  • ‘The Ring’ magazine Fighter of the Year in 1980 and 1984. 
  • The Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) Fighter of the Year in 1980 and 1984
  • ‘Box Rec’ rec has him as ‘pound for pound’ the 78th greatest boxer of all time.
  • ‘The Ring’ has him as number 18 on its list of the 100 greatest punches of all time. 

Pound for pound one of the hardest and most brutal punches of all time Thomas ‘the hitman’ Hearns was inducted into the International Boxing Home of Fame on the 10th June 2012.