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Boxing: The importance of being Hearns

BOXING IS too hard, too brutal a business to be romantic, yet provides moments that touch the heart and people who take it on to a higher plane. The appearance of Thomas Hearns in Manchester next week is a complex issue, partly to be welcomed, and inevitably, in view of his 40 years, also to be regretted.

Hearns is one of the few fighters who can live easily with the overused label "great". Naseem Hamed, whose featherweight fight with Scarborough's Paul Ingle is the headline attraction, would have us believe that this, too, is his destiny. Indeed, that he has already achieved such a status. Boxing writers who have worked the circuit during Hamed's seven-year career have heard him say "I'm a great fighter" so often it's become a much-parodied mantra.

He is not a great fighter. Possibly, one day he will deserve the tag, but up to now in spite of moments of brilliance he has been too erratic. His performances in America against Kevin Kelley in December 1997 and Wayne McCullough last October, have fallen some way short of the level required.

After the Kelley fight, in which he was knocked down three times before winning in round four, he was severely criticised by the American press. When Hamed beat McCullough in a dreary 12-rounder the American reaction was once again hostile. At some point Hamed must go back to the land where he has been called the most unpopular import from Britain since tea. For now, he is back where he is most comfortable, defending in England against an English opponent.

It would he a surprise if Ingle troubles him overmuch. Fighting is about levels, and Hamed's skills are substantially higher than Ingle's. He also believes in himself. I am not sure that Ingle does, or at least, not in this fight.

Who knows how the week will develop, but so far the most entertaining moment has been when the challenger put Hamed's considerable material wealth into perspective. "You may have two Ferraris and a Lamborghini," he said, "but I've got two whippets and a ferret."

When Hearns arrives, the promotion will assume another dimension. He is an undemonstrative man, who is sometimes content to take a back seat in company. I remember him in a hotel bar area in Atlantic City a few years ago. He sat quietly with a few friends in the background, while another legendary contemporary, Roberto Duran, posed merrily for photographs, chatting with everybody and anybody. Hearns was not being rude. He's just not that sort of a man.

Hearns and Duran, whom he knocked out in that magnificent, peak performance in the open- air arena at Caesars Palace in 1984, belong to another, greater era, before boxing was marginalised by an overkill of sanctioning bodies and cable television stations. In the 1980s the man in the street knew fighters like Hearns, Duran, Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler - and knew they were special. With time, we have come to see them as greats in a golden era.

It was a time which gave us so many epic encounters: Duran's victory over Leonard in the "Brawl in Montreal"; Leonard's bizarre triumph in the "No Mas" return, Leonard's come-from-behind stoppage of Hearns in 1981; Hearns' face-first flattening of Duran; and the unforgettable three- round classic when Hagler stopped the Hit Man in April 1985.

Hearns was the first man to win titles at five separate weights, from welterweight in 1980, when he blasted out the heavy-punching Mexican Pipino Cuevas, to light-heavyweight in 1991, when he outsmarted the cerebral Virgil Hill.

He has been a professional fighter for 20 years now. Before that, he made his only other British appearance in a USA amateur team at the London Hilton in 1976. Ironically, he was considered lucky to sneak a decision over George Gilbody of St Helens. Gilbody never boxed professionally. "I never stopped dreaming," he said when asked why he had stayed at the top for so long. And that's probably where the romance comes in. Hearns was a dream fighter from a dream era.

The reality next week may be harsh. For all his power, Hearns is now 40 years old. The legs will be slower, the reflexes duller. His opponent, Nate Miller of Philadelphia, will give him trouble, and may even expose him as a man who should no longer be involved in this ruthlessly cruel business.

But until that happens, the appearance of Hearns in a British ring is something to savour, rather than to regret. Boxers of his like happen only rarely, whatever the brash young men who would fill his footsteps may believe to the contrary.

Barry Hearn, page 15