Boxing: Hearns' aura puts Hamed in the shade

Legendary `Hit Man' is a multi-millionaire, but he still feels motivated for a fight. By Glyn Leach
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The Independent Online
THOMAS "HIT Man" Hearns is the Ben Hur of Saturday night's promotion at the MEN Arena in Manchester. This veteran hero of conflicts past has little more to offer on the battlefield. But like the deceased figurehead in the Hollywood epic, strapped into the saddle to lead his army one more time, it is hoped that the mere presence of this diminished icon will rally the troops - in this case, pull in those fans who needed a bit more than the World Boxing Organisation featherweight title fight between Naseem Hamed and Paul Ingle.

In Britain for a fight for the first time since 1976 when he beat George Gilbody as an amateur, Hearns was his usual, dignified self in Manchester yesterday. Immaculately clad and impressively diplomatic, the multi-millionaire from Detroit said of the weekend's headline attraction: "Hamed's very good - he's flashy, but gets the job done. I don't look at it like I'm on his undercard, but being on the bill with such an upcoming fighter is a plus."

Hearns is what Hamed would like to be - a bona fide boxing legend. He epitomises an era when great champions actually fought each other. Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler, the best versus the best. The stars of the pre-subscription-television era are still household names, far better known than most current boxers.

Hearns' wins are memorable in his rise from welterweight (10st 7lb) to cruiserweight (13st 8lb), gathering world titles in each division on the way. But no fighter has ever looked as good in losing. His defeat by Leonard in their 1981 fight came after a tremendously skilled struggle and Hearns' war with Hagler in 1985 is acknowledged as the greatest three- round fight ever. Even after the draw with Leonard in their 1989 rematch, Hearns was the winner with the crowd.

He claims to have mellowed with age, but Hearns still has a fierce competitor's pride. At a recent function in America, he became agitated by the presence of Leonard and demanded an admission that Hearns had actually won their drawn second fight, in which he had floored Leonard twice. Leonard smiled sweetly and complied without actually complying, no doubt further endearing himself to his Eighties rival.

It seems incredible to think that Hearns is still only 41. Hagler and Leonard have retired, the former 13 years ago, while Duran, almost 50, recently reduced journalists to laughter as he attempted, in vain, to lose over 10lb at a weigh-in.

Hearns' famous gunslinger aura remains intact. On the surface he could still be the tall, goatee-bearded destroyer from Kronk Gym, who turned Detroit's Cobo Hall into a hell's kitchen for opponents. But that was a long time ago and Hearns is showing wear and tear.

By ignoring the history of 63 fights (58 wins, four losses, one draw), one might believe claims that it is, indeed, only damage to Hearns' nose that causes his unclear speech. He did, after all, require a separate British Boxing Board of Control medical to clear - and if only it were that simple - this much-abused piece of apparatus last week.

But the BBBC was able to satisfy itself that Hearns' neurological state was sound enough, and in less than a week. Three years ago the New York State Athletic Commission's protracted reluctance to licence him cost the Hit Man his World Boxing Union cruiserweight title and the champion's status, IBO or otherwise, that he had travelled over 3,000 miles, for a relatively derisory $250,000 (pounds 160,000), to reclaim.

"Boxing's my life, the only thing I really enjoy doing," he said. "Nothing else motivates like getting up in the morning and working out."

Hearns' stated aim of a fight against the outstanding light-heavyweight champion, Roy Jones Jnr, before retiring at the end of the year is simply unrealistic. Even this Saturday's opponent, Nate Miller, might be beyond Hearns' capabilities.

It should be acknowledged that Hearns has not lost in seven years, but his activity level has been low - a recent, blow-out win ended a two-year lay-off - and his level of opposition has been undemanding.

Hearns is still a "shoot or be shot" fighter. But while that provides must-see entertainment at top level, watching a modern legend repeat the process at a standard demeaning to him is not so attractive. People will watch none the less, through morbid curiosity rather than anything else.