To the cynical, Joe Louis Arena is aptly named.
Name a hockey arena after a boxer? Well, you’ve heard the old joke.
“I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out.”
It’s thought of with a smirk to the old-timer—that the Red Wings play in a building with a prizefighter as its namesake.
Appropriate, also, for a city that has stood from its seats for Howie Young, Dennis Polonich, Dan Maloney, Bobby Probert, Joey Kocur and Darren McCarty. Fighters, all of them, and some of the best who ever laced on gloves—and skates.
And, Joe Louis, of course. Sans the skates.
But on August 2, 1980, they actually held a boxing match in the arena named for a boxer. That was the night that Tommy Hearns got ‘em off their feet.
Detroit roared that evening.
There wasn’t much to cheer about in Detroit sports from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, save the Tigers’ 1984 World Championship. It was mostly a dead decade. Playoffs were either not qualified for or experienced very briefly.
Starting in 1975, the Lions were perpetually .500 or worse. The Tigers were beginning a painful rebuilding project. The Red Wings were awful. The Pistons weren’t much better.
Then along came Tommy Hearns, and finally, there was something to cheer about.
Nothing like a guy with a lethal right hand to bring the city together.
On Sunday, they’re putting Tommy into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. It’s about damn time.
Hearns was a Tennessee kid, born in 1958, the youngest of three children, the product of his mom’s first marriage. Then, she remarried and it was like the Brady Bunch—six more children joined the first three as a result.
Tommy was five when Mrs. Hearns left Grand Junction, TN, and migrated north to Detroit. Note there’s no mention here of Tommy’s biological dad.
Growing up in Detroit as an adolescent, Tommy started using his fists—but in the boxing ring. Fortunately, that ring was run by Emanuel Steward of Kronk Gym.
If I had a dime for every time boxing manager/trainer Steward has been referred to by his fighters as a father figure, I could buy Joe Louis Arena and put some money down on Comerica Park.
But it’s true. Emanuel Steward doesn’t just train boxers. He raises them, in some instances. He’s referred to as a father figure in the literal sense; it’s not really a metaphor.
I’ve been to the Steward home, and when I was there, it was the usual: young boxers coming in and out, house guests as well as trainees. Steward has opened his home to more pugilists than a juvenile detention facility.
Tommy Hearns became ensnared, as a teen, by Kronk and its prospects of fame and fortune as a professional fighter. And guess how Tommy describes Steward?
“Emanuel—he’s been like a father to me,” Tommy told Mike Brudenell of the Free Press this week. “Emanuel to me is the next best thing to a daddy. He taught me everything I know about boxing and living right.”
Correction: Emanuel wasn’t the next best thing to Tommy’s daddy—he was, in many respects, Tommy’s daddy.
Mrs. Hearns was a remarkable mom, but it’s too often when kids from the inner city who don’t have that father figure, go sideways.
Hearns might have been one of them, if it wasn’t for Steward and Kronk.
“The Kronk has been my life for over 40 years,” Tommy told Brudenell. “I have to say, if I wouldn’t have got involved with the Kronk, I don’t know what I would have done.”
It’s nice not to wonder that, and instead talk about what Tommy did do.
Hearns rose through the ranks as a teen fighting in Kronk’s basement gym with its air as stale as a week-old cigar.
Hearns kept sparring in that gym, slicing his lightning-quick arms through that thick, stale air, eventually capturing the the National Amateur Athletic Union Light Welterweight Championship in 1977. That same year, Tommy also won the National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship.
All this while Detroit’s pro sports teams tripped over themselves, trying to be the worst of the four.
Joe Louis Arena opened in December 1979. A college basketball game featuring the University of Detroit was the initial event. The Red Wings christened it for hockey on December 27. They lost.
A tad over seven months later, on 8/2/80 inside “the Joe,” Tommy Hearns, with Steward providing support in his corner, took on Pipino Cuevas for the WBA World Welterweight belt.
Cuevas was only 22 years old, but he was already the 10-time defending champion in that weight class for the WBA. Cuevas won the belt as an 18-year-old in 1976 and then started making a habit of demolishing any and all challengers. Most of the bouts were so short, you could have bought an ice cream cone and still had some left over when Cuevas’s opponent was being counted out.
Until the night of August 2, 1980.
Hearns, fighting in his adopted hometown, with a full house shrieking their lungs out in JLA, had five inches of height on Cuevas (6’1” to 5’8”). And the extended reach of Hearns’ famously long arms proved fatal to the champ.
Hearns laid a right hand on Cuevas’s jaw that turned the champ’s legs to cooked spaghetti. Cuevas looked like one of those Weeble toys. As soon as the crowd saw what was happening, the roar was deafening.
Then, Tommy finished him off, dropping Cuevas to the canvas with a series of punches. It was only the second round.
Detroit finally had a champion!
Not since 1968’s Tigers, some 12 years prior, had the city been able to boast a hometown champion.
Tommy Hearns gave them one, destroying the 10-time defending welterweight champion Cuevas.
That was the beginning, really, of Hearns’s hold on Detroiters, a fanbase that had finally been energized by the Motor City Cobra.
Hearns gave the good folks of Detroit—and by Detroit I mean the city proper and the surrounding suburbs—something to crow about and to stick their chest out about.
I mean, he was the Motor City Cobra.
Later, Hearns would be known as The Hit Man, as he captivated the boxing world on the national stage as well.
Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.
He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.
But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.
Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.
For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.