Moments after winning a lopsided 12-round decision over Michael Olajide last Saturday night at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Tommy Hearns eased himself into a seat in his sweltering dressing room and buried his face in a towel. The room, packed with friends, family and hangers-on, resounded with shouts of "Way to go, Champ." Hearns, exhausted, responded with a dark grin. The champ was not satisfied. Though he had easily retained his WBO super middleweight belt against the woefully outgunned Olajide—and earned $1.6 million—Hearns had failed to produce the spectacular performance he had hoped for.
"This fight was not the real Thomas Hearns," he said after slowly making his way up two flights of stairs to a press conference. "The next one will be better."
The question for Hearns, though, is how many more next ones can there be?
Now 31, Hearns has been fighting professionally for 13 years. He won his first world title a decade ago—as a welterweight—and has added four since. He brought a record of 46-3-1 into last Saturday's match. Thirty-eight of those wins were knockouts. Yet for all his success, Hearns is shadowed by images of failure: cradled in a handler's arms after a brutal three-round knockout by Marvin Hagler in 1985; suddenly down and out in the third round after an Iran Barkley right hand in '88; and, of course, draped over the ropes in the 13th round of his '81 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard, which ended in a KO one round later.
That loss to Leonard hurt the most, and for years it gnawed at Hearns. Then, last June in Las Vegas, Hearns gained a measure of redemption, battering Leonard and dropping him twice on the way to a controversial draw in a bout that many thought Hearns had won. After such a supreme effort, it seemed likely that Hearns would retire. He didn't.
"We talked about it before the Leonard fight," says Emanuel Steward, Hearns's longtime trainer and manager and head of Detroit's Kronk Gym. "But never after."
Hearns spent several months after the Leonard fight relaxing, decorating his houses in Detroit and Las Vegas and playing pickup basketball. But by February he was back in the Kronk.
"I want to be the star," said Hearns repeatedly in the days before the Olajide fight, perhaps trying to convince himself as much as anyone that he didn't need Ray Leonard, that boxing didn't need Ray Leonard. "Not just a star, but the brightest star in boxing."
Three years ago it seemed that Olajide would be the sport's next star, a 23-year-old New York media darling with a 23-0 record who moonlighted as a model. But a loss by decision to Frank Tate and a fifth-round knockout by Barkley interrupted his ascent.
After those setbacks Olajide split with his father, Michael Sr., who had been his trainer for nine years. The fighter blamed his father for working him too hard and matching him too hastily against difficult opponents. The two still are not on speaking terms. For the past year Olajide has been working with veteran trainer Angelo Dundee.