You can get to Berrien Springs, Mich. by heading 200 miles west on I-94 from Detroit, or by driving along the southern shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago, or via the airports at Benton Harbor to the north or South Bend, Ind. to the south. Any route you choose ultimately takes you through the lush green farmland known in those parts as Michiana—through groves of giant oak and elm, past rushing streams and placid lakes, by filling stations, general stores and post offices, big old barns, white clapboard homes and little red schoolhouses.
At Berrien Springs' lone stoplight you turn east off Highway 31 and make a right at the Jack Frost Drive-in, and two miles ahead, where the road ends, a pair of iron gates mark the entrance to an 89-acre spread backed up against the St. Joseph River. Incongruously, Al Capone once hung out in this Edward Hopper setting, and a sign now identifies the place as Muhammad Ali Farms. The Champ himself trained there before whupping Ken Norton in 1976. The current tenant is alternately called the Detroit Hitman or the Motor City Cobra, although his mother and everyone else who knew him when know him only as Thomas Hearns.
Hearns is a 21-year-old welterweight, undefeated in 28 professional bouts, 26 of which ended in knockouts in an average span of 3.3 rounds. More than that, though, he is a native of and a special treasure to the city of Detroit, as the Cadillac once was, as the UAW once was, as the Tigers and Lions and Red Wings once were. Hence Hearns' nicknames. Hence the crowds that have grown steadily larger for his regular bouts in ancient Olympia Stadium. Hence the excitement that is building in the Motor City for Hearns' Aug. 2 WBA title challenge against 22-year-old Jose (Pipino) Cuevas in the centerpiece of Detroit's magnificent Renaissance Center, 22,000-seat Joe Louis Arena. And, should he beat Cuevas, it would be Detroit's great pleasure come, say, early 1981 to see Hearns dispatch, for his 30th career victim, the Great Roberto Duran or the Great Sugar Ray Leonard, whichever of them happens to the reigning WBC welterweight champion.
At 11:30 of a July morning in the main house at the Berrien Springs camp, Hearns is sprawled in front of a thoroughly scrambled television picture listening to the sound of a game show and drinking Hawaiian Punch. His face—young and smooth with large, round eyes—is blank. His spiky hair is brushed straight upward. Long, bony arms and legs stick out of a T shirt and shorts. He is nudged from a daze. His boyish voice is languid and quiet.
"Just taking a break," he says, embarrassed to be caught resting. "Did my running early. Going to work right now. You like horses? Motorbikes? Fishing? We be doin' all of that today. Let's go."
With that he is up and out, grabbing some fruit from the kitchen, stuffing a nectarine into a pocket. Suddenly there's no incongruity to Hearns' being on the farm. At 6'1", 150 pounds, all arms and legs and face and hair, he's surely more Huck than Hitman.
Living outside of the city for the first time in his life, if only for a month, and training for the biggest fight of his life, Hearns is having a ball. It is Tommy's Holiday Camp, endless fun punctuated by hard work and attended by loyal friends. Now he's trying to get one of the camp's minibikes running. He lifts it and turns it upside down to see why it refuses to start.
Hearns puts down the bike. "I need to strip it," he says, then picks it up and carries it a quarter mile to the caretaker's house to borrow some tools. While the caretaker's wife hunts up the tools Hearns had ordered, he introduces himself to her little girl Heidi, talks to her sweetly and helps her with her rope-jumping. "I think I could have been any kind of athlete I wanted to be," he says as he starts taking the bike apart. "Baseball, basketball...but when I was young the majority of my friends were into boxing. Like one day I needed someone to play with and I realized they were all boxing. There weren't really a lot of activities around where I grew up on the east side of Detroit, so I figured I'd go into boxing instead of just staying around the house sleeping all the time. I was 10 years old."
He started fighting at the King Solomon Recreation Center, but when his coach quit, he moved to the Kronk Rec Center on the corner of McGraw and Junction on the west side to work under Emanuel Steward, the man who trains Hearns to this day.
"When Thomas first came to me [at age 14], he was so skinny and he really wasn't any good at all," says Steward. "I didn't want to give him too much of my time. But he wanted to learn so badly, and he worked harder than anyone."