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It has been the lot of Thomas Hearns to be regarded solely as a cannon, something to be rolled into a ring to reduce an opponent to rubble. Last Friday night, against Wilfred Benitez in New Orleans' Superdome, Hearns finally showed that he brings more to boxing than a big bang. Fighting with only his left hand from the eighth round on after hurting the right on Benitez' head, Hearns outboxed the master boxer and lifted the Puerto Rican's WBC super welterweight (154-pound) championship on a majority decision. One judge ruled it a draw, the two others had Hearns the winner.
"When I fight, people expect to see a knockout," said Hearns, known as The Hitman, beforehand. "Well, they're only going to see one if Benitez does something stupid. If he tries to draw a shot and counter over it, then he'll be on the canvas. But I expect it will go 15, and I'm going to give him a boxing lesson."
Benitez had won most of his 45 fights, and titles in three different weight divisions, by utilizing his skills as a boxer. "Hit without being hit" is the imperative of the sport, and Benitez had excelled at the latter without having to worry unduly about the former. Until he faced Hearns.
"I've worked hard on some things since I lost to Leonard," said Hearns, whose defeat by Sugar Ray Leonard in September 1981 in their welterweight title unification bout was his only loss in 35 pro fights. "I've worked hard on my jab. On my boxing. Learning how to move my head to get away from shots. How to tie a man up inside. Leonard gave me the inspiration to learn. Whatever Benitez does, I'm ready."
It was also Leonard who handed Benitez his only defeat, Sugar Ray winning the WBC welterweight title from him in November 1979. There are those who say that Benitez lost that fight because he trained only seven days. Benitez has been known to get home when other boxers are getting up to run, and before the Hearns bout he hadn't had a fight since he beat Roberto Duran in January. Benitez' father, Gregorio, who is his trainer and harshest critic, was worried about Hearns. Not Wilfred. "I will win without difficulty. I will kill Hearns," he said. "Yes, I will kill him."
That alarming assertion came as no surprise; with Benitez, confidence verges on arrogance. He won his first title, the WBA junior welterweight, at 17; his second, the WBC welterweight, at 20; and his third, the WBC super welterweight, some 2� years later. After Hearns, he planned to take on middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. "No problem," he said, taking a line from Napoleon as the first snowflake fell in Russia.
Benitez is a superb counterpuncher, and though he has knocked out 26 opponents, he isn't considered a big hitter. He wears down an opponent with body shots. When at his best defensively, he could lie down on the San Diego Freeway at 5 p.m. and not get run over.
But on entering the ring in New Orleans, Benitez seriously erred. Glowering at Hearns, who was already at a boil because of Benitez' choice of the word "kill," the champion said, "I could beat you and Leonard in the same night."
Replied Hearns coldly, "If you think that, you must be asleep."
For the first three rounds, Benitez didn't have much of a strategy. Mostly he stayed on the ropes, bobbing and weaving, seemingly happy just to make Hearns miss. Patiently the challenger used the early going to establish his jab.