THE LEGENDS make our history and create lasting memories in fights that stun us all.
That is when they are at their peak, defying all the rules to become our idols before the end and all the possible disasters. Their final fights can be momentous, but they can also, I guess, be odd affairs; fights where the greats just fade with each passing round until the final bell sounds. It can be a relief when they vanish under a quiet canopy of muted applause. They leave no impression on nights like that and thankfully no blood on the canvas.
In Manchester, one April night in 1999, Tommy Hearns came to town for the last tour. If you could blink for 36 minutes, you would have missed it. I wish I had.
The main event was Naseem Hamed against Paul Ingle, a fight packed with intrigue and quite a bit of hate. It must be said that a lot of the hate was on the so-called safe side of the ropes. Hamed was flying at that time, that night and in that ring – the world was his.
Anyway, it was poor Tommy that stole my heart that night. The great Hitman, the original, the man from the four kings. The man that knocked out Roberto Duran, had the fabled war with Sugar Ray Leonard and then was in the greatest fight ever against Marvin Hagler. The Hitman was fighting for a title. He was the curtain-closer in Manchester; the cleaners could be heard talking as he fought. Some of the press in the empty seats at ringside were shushing the people talking. It was an insult, a disgrace. It was the end.
In the ring, Hearns and Nate Miller went through the motions. It was not good; it never is watching a couple of pals moving about. The IBO’s vacant cruiserweight belt was on the line. There had been another vacant IBO title fight earlier in the evening when Junior Jones stopped Richard Evatt. It was a strange bill; Evatt was leading when he was stopped in the 11th.
Barry Hearn had battled the Board to get Tommy, who was having his 64th fight, a licence to be in a British ring. The Board was unhappy with the way he sounded, but Hearn argued it was his damaged nose. And it was and he got the licence and he won the title, and the polite applause was possibly the quietest he ever experienced. The lights came on and the de-rigging started long before Hearns was guided out of the ring. It was a homage gone wrong for the diehards in the empty seats and it looked like his battle-hardened robe had lost its impressive bulk as he left the ring. Sweet Tommy shrunk a bit that night. The Miller fight is not part of Tommy’s after-dinner act.
There were no highlights in the last fight Tommy Hearns had in Britain, which was also the last title fight that he won; a year later he was stopped by Uriah Grant. He had two more registered fights, the last in 2006, and that was it. I had seen the end of Sugar Ray Leonard at the Garden against Terry Norris and narrowly missed the end of Roberto Duran in the same venue. His fight with William Joppy collapsed when two people were diagnosed with Hepatitis and one was pregnant. A few months later, Joppy savaged Duran. That would have been an ugly triple to have on my conscience.
In the hour before Hearns walked through the echo to the ring, Hamed had stopped Ingle. However, the raw statistics will never tell the full story of this remarkable fight. It is still hard to process some of the details even now, especially the ugly, ugly stuff in the months, weeks and days before the bell. There are no happy and healthy splits in boxing.
Where to start? Well, Hamed dropped and stopped and hurt Ingle in round 11 to retain his WBO title. Ingle was over in the first, the sixth and the 11th; he was brave and courageous. Hamed was truly vicious in that ring. Ingle had been unbeaten in 21, Hamed in 31; Ingle won the IBF featherweight title in his next fight. It was a special fight for the 19,000 in the venue.
Hamed had left Brendan Ingle in the months before the fight and that had turned truly spiteful. They each said some harsh, harsh things and since that time, there have been some retractions. Not a lot, but some. At Brendan’s funeral, there was a space for Hamed. He never came and that is a great pity. Their early years were just about the finest time to be in the boxing game. It was a privilege being near them as they set the agenda. In the Ingle fight, Hamed won quick for the 29th time in 32 fights and it was his 12th defence.
Hamed had also left Frank Warren and was, with Hearn, the co-promoter of the fight. Hamed had employed both Oscar Suarez and Manny Steward to train him. On the night, Suárez was first up in the corner, but Manny soon took over. There was very little dignity in that small corner of British boxing on the night. “Manny is a mercenary,” Brendan had said. “He’s a great trainer, but these days he’s more of a mercenary.” The nudging, pushing and shoving on Hamed’s steps that night was a low; after that, Hamed tried to draw up a rota for future fights. It was out of control; at the next fight, against Cesar Soto in Detroit, Hamed arrived at the official weigh-in with his own scales. “These Hameds are crazy,” Bob Arum said.
It was the best and the worst of two great fighters in some ways that night in Manchester. Hamed was never that good again and the Hitman was never allowed to be that bad. I guess there are small mercies.