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 fight.
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.