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"To me, boxing was like one of those pictures in an old LIFE magazine," she says. "I mean, they never showed fighters looking nice, you know what I mean? They'd show pictures of them all bloody, ugh, with their eyes beat half shut. And when my baby came to me and said he wanted to be a boxer, well...my heart fell to my knees."
Lois Hearns is a bona tide suburbanite now, wearing a long red hostess gown, with her hair styled attractively in bangs and a modish sweep of sideburn. She lives in a new ranch-style house in northwest Detroit, in a neighborhood of well-kept homes that's solidly middle-class. Tommy bought the place for her and his eight brothers and sisters two years ago. The furnishings are all new and expensive: a color television set and a bookcase full of silver boxing trophies and an ornate, gold-finished coffee table and white sectional couches covered with clear plastic slipcovers. A Bouvier des Flandres watchdog and two pit bulldogs patrol the fenced-in backyard. A new cream-and-blue Cadillac sedan sits at the curb. Lois Hearns doesn't know how to drive, so Tommy has hired a man to drive her. Gold chains reflect a soft light at her throat.
"Mr. Hearns and I separated when Tommy was very young," she says. "He went off and I had to raise nine children all alone. This was over on Helen Street on the East Side; it was pretty bad over there. A lot of it is burned out now. I worked as both a clerk in a store and as a beautician, and it was hard. I'd come home and I'd sit down and say, 'Lord, I'm so tired,' and little Tommy would come up to me and hug me and kiss me and say. 'I'm sorry, Mama.' He said some day he'd buy me all the things I never had—a house of my own and nice clothes. 'I'm going to fill your lap up with money,' he told me." She pauses and raises one hand to her throat; it is a familiar, age-old mother's gesture. "If only it wasn't boxing. Oh, I know he's in control, but I get so scared. I just don't like the idea of him getting hit."
Still, Lois Hearns now has, in effect, the promised lapful of money. She holds out her left arm. "See? He bought me this gold watch for Christmas. It cost $2,700. He just hits the ceiling if he ever sees me wearing anything less than the very best." But then she grows pensive again, and speaks softly. "Let me see if I can put this right. I don't want you to get the wrong idea. It's hard to make anybody but a mother understand, but while I don't want him to grow old—I don't want him to be an old man—I'll sure be glad when he can retire."
Across town, an hour or so later, Tommy reflects on his childhood. He's wheeling toward the gym in his new black Corvette. He drives much too fast and not too well, with the cool disdain of a 22-year-old who figures he's unbreakable.
"Mom told me no, I couldn't be a fighter," he says. "But I was the oldest boy—I got two sisters older than me—and I would holler and carry on something awful. And when that didn't work, I'd just stand around looking all sad-eyed until I got my way. But the thing is, man, what my mama didn't realize, what nobody felt but me, was that I always knew I would make it to the top. I knew it. It came to me in a dream while I was sitting on a playground swing."
Talking about lighting warms Hearns, and suddenly he hovers on the very edge of being animated—holding back only because he's wary of saying the wrong thing, and of sounding gauche or uneducated. Hearns dropped out of school a long time ago; it's hard to say at which grade because it just sort of happened. "But I learned to fight," he says. "I worked and studied it. If I got beat up or did something sloppy in the gym, I'd go home and work on it until I got it right. Man, it was hard work. It's got to become—um, something you do without thinking about it—instinct. And now people...someone said the other day, isn't it romantic." He shakes his head at what he feels is the wrongness of the word and then goes on to explain the rightness of his romance with the sport. "I love it," he says. "Man, I love to get in there and perform. I love the one-on-one feeling. You know, trying different shots on people.
"You know what it is? Man, it's like life is one big chance. You know what I'm talking about? Look. You could get mugged, you could get cut or robbed today. So if you're going to do anything in life, you got to take the chance, man. You got to lake it, and if you're fighting, you got to put some hurl on him. I look forward to the, you know, to the combat. It's the chance."
"What it is," says Steward, "is something inside that kid that's always been there. I saw it when he was little, fighting for the King Solomon Baptist Church boxing team. Skinny little kid, like I said, with his butt hanging out. But he was so competitive. I didn't particularly want to handle him—but yet I couldn't turn away from him. It was like he had an eternal flame, or whatever you call it. I mean, listen: he's fighting out of the toughest gym in the country. You'll see it; it's like no other place in the world. Those guys at Kronk, they're not fighting just to get better, man. They're fighting for their very lives, and they've got to get better or they get out."
Steward is 36, a handsome, earnest man with a horizontal frown right at his browline, as if the doctor had given him a karate chop to the forehead at birth. More likely, it came from his days as a bantamweight—he was the national Golden Gloves champ in 1963. He's perfectly honest about his fight club; he merely nods in agreement as Prentiss Byrd, his No. 1 lieutenant, says, "Listen, around Kronk is where they take nickels off dead men's eyes. Emanuel says they're fighting for their lives. Well, sometimes you may have to fight for your life just getting from the parking lot to the front door."