All but one of boxing's legends of the 1980s are, for all intents and purposes, now finished. Marvin Hagler, the 37-year-old former middleweight champion, is making movies in Italy, wisely keeping the Atlantic Ocean between himself and the temptation of a comeback. Sugar Ray Leonard, a six-time champ in five different weight classes, hung around until he was 34; then, in February, a youngster named Terry Norris convinced him it was time to do other things. Former lightweight and welterweight champion Roberto Duran, fat and 40, is still fighting, but he is just hanging on. Earlier this year he lost dismally to somebody named Pat Lawlor. Everyone says that Duran should quit, that he is embarrassing himself.
Only a few weeks ago the same thing was being said about the fourth legend, 32-year-old Thomas Hearns. "No, thank you," said Hearns a few days before his June 3 fight with unbeaten WBA light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "Tommy Hearns's career will be up when God sends a message: 'Yo, Tommy, it's time to let somebody else have it now.' "
Having said that, Hearns, a 2-to-1 underdog, gave Hill a taste of what boxing was like in another era, when legends fought legends and everything else was a club fight. Hearns won his sixth championship—and his second as a light heavyweight—by defeating Hill in a unanimous 12-round decision. Somewhere Leonard, Hagler and Duran must have felt a sense of pride mixed with one of loss.
In beating the 27-year-old Hill, Hearns turned back the clock to 1981, to the night he lost his WBA welterweight title to Leonard, then the WBC champion, on a 14th-round technical knockout in the same Caesars Palace ring. "God, Tommy was awesome that night," said Angelo Dundee, Leonard's old trainer, the day after Hearns's victory over Hill. "He destroyed Hill with that same hard jab. He tore Ray up with that spear. I was scared to death of it. Thank god he stopped using it against Ray halfway through the fight."
Hill wasn't as fortunate. Hearns was still throwing the jab at the end of the 12th round, and Hill's ruined face was still at the end of it. That was vintage Hearns. The left hook, which hammered Hill's stubborn chin repeatedly, was the surprise.
Over the years, as Hearns moved up from welterweight to win titles in the super welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, his power diminished. Indeed, he hasn't knocked out a world-class opponent since 1987. Still, his right hand remains a feared weapon. Forty of his 50 victories—he has one draw and three losses—have come by knockout, nearly all with the paralyzing right.
"Tommy never had a hook to the head," says Alex Sherer, the bright young trainer who reconstructed Hearns's fading career, "and he was never a counterpuncher. That's all we added. Otherwise, we just took him back to the basics that made him a great fighter."
Sherer, 33, was working for the state of California as a public information officer in 1979 when he met Emanuel Steward, Hearns's trainer at the time. A self-described boxing junkie who had fought as an amateur, Sherer was also coaching a Police Athletic League boxing team in Sacramento. He and Steward kept in touch, and, in '83, Steward, who ran the Kronk Gym in Detroit, offered Sherer a job as an assistant trainer at the gym, where Sherer would work with, among others, Hearns. "Even my mother asked, 'Why are you doing this?' " says Sherer, who has a degree in communications and mass media from Wright State University in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Sherer remained with Kronk Gym until 1989, when he and Steward had a falling out. Sherer moved to the Washington, D.C., area and applied to law school. While waiting to hear whether he would be admitted, he spent much of his time at the Library of Congress reading about boxing, especially about the life of Ezzard Charles, a boyhood hero.
Last September, Hearns and Steward had a disagreement and split after nearly two decades together. The day Hearns announced that he was taking control of his own career, Sherer happened to pass an appliance store on his way to the Library of Congress. He looked in the window and saw Hearns's image on a TV screen. Rushing inside, Sherer turned up the sound in time to hear Hearns say that he was leaving Steward. That night Sherer telephoned Hearns to wish him good luck. Ten days later Hearns hired Sherer as his trainer.