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Back on Top Despite Some Great Falls

He only lost two fights in his entire pro career.

Now, if you’re only going to lose two pro fights in your career, it’s advisable to lose them early and obscurely so that time can silt them over and they can be explained away smoothly later in the unlikely event that anyone brings them up in the first place.

Dempsey lost on a one-round KO to somebody named Fireman Jim Flynn in his earliest ring outings and he was outpointed, more or less regularly, by a fat little party named Willie Meehan. But they persisted in the public mind mainly as trivia questions after Dempsey’s later successes.

Did you know that Jack Johnson got knocked out by John (Klondike) Haynes in the second year of his career? Also by Joe Choynski? And that he never could beat, in three tries, someone named Hank Griffin, whoever he was?

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But the only two fights Thomas Hearns ever lost were the two most important fights of his career. He didn’t drop them in some tank town early on when no one was looking. He lost them in the white light of TV, when the whole world was looking on and every schoolboy who was watching will long remember the outcome.

In Dempsey’s case, rumors spread in later years that the mysterious KO by Flynn, which occurred in the boondocks of Murray, Utah, in the dark ages--1917--was a business arrangement, not a fight.

In any event, two years later, when Dempsey became the Manassa Mauler and was knocking out Jess Willard for the title, who remembered Jim Flynn?

Who even knows that Johnson lost way back when? Johnson’s losses might have been commercial enterprises, for all anyone knows. Jack fought for money, not history.

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But Thomas Hearns lost his only bouts in the glare of the biggest hypes of the decade. No excuses were possible.

He lost to Sugar Ray Leonard as he was riding a crest of 32 straight victories, which included, count ‘em, 30 knockouts. He was answering to the name Hit Man and was widely accepted as the most devastating puncher in the division, maybe in its history.

And then Sugar Ray Leonard punched harder.

It’s kind of hard to go on in the pugilism business when you know there’s someone out there who can beat you. It has ruined some fighters.

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When Leonard put a stop to the legend of Marvin Hagler, after a lifetime of Marvelous Marvin beating up a whole bunch of Caveman Lees and Mustafa Hamshos, Hagler went into a funk from which he hasn’t emerged yet.

And who doesn’t remember Floyd Patterson trying to sneak out of state in a false beard and dark glasses after his humiliating defeat by Sonny Liston?

But Hit Man Hearns was able to pick up the pieces, deal with his defeat. Within months, he was back in the ring, patching together his self esteem. He dealt a stinging defeat to the formidable Wilfred Benitez, winning something known as the World Boxing Council super-welterweight championship in the process, and then he was able to knock the redoubtable Roberto Duran, no less, flat on his face in two rounds to win the world junior middleweight championship.

Then, they matched him with Marvin Hagler, and once again, the drums rolled, the copy poured out, the event sold out and the whole world was watching again when Hearns lost the second fight of his life.

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This time, you would think, he would go down with the ship. His public image was such that he came into focus aground in center ring, his eyes glassy, his look stricken, his legs refusing to respond to his commands to get up.

The would-be Don Rickleses in the audience sent up the cruel jokes: “Hey, Thomas! I didn’t recognize you standing up. Make yourself at home. Go lie down in a corner.”

Thomas was like a horse thatloses only two races in its career, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.

When you consider that Native Dancer only lost 1 race in his life--the Derby--and yet almost never gets mentioned in the company of best horses ever, while horses like Secretariat, who lost 5 races, and Citation, who lost 13, do, you have a measure of how important it is to win the big ones.

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Man o’ War, like Dempsey, only lost early in his career in what was largely regarded as a fluke in an overlooked 6-furlong, $700 overnight at Saratoga.

Still, it was only two fights Thomas lost. He obliterated everything else they put before him. Once the Leonard and Hagler debacles were put behind him, he resumed. He was easily able to retain his super-welterweight title, and when he found himself fighting for the junior middleweight title, he won that, too.

Thomas is a survivor. The unsinkable Thomas Hearns. Get next to him in a lifeboat. He is the only man in history to have held four boxing titles--welterweight, super-welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight. Leonard is gone. Hagler has disappeared.

Thomas is fighting a tough street fighter out of the South Bronx named Iran Barkley in Las Vegas June 6. Thomas is once again the middleweight champion. From what he sees, there’s not much out there to give him an argument.

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Why is he still there? Why isn’t he in retirement and seeing a shrink to exorcise the big disappointments of his career? Why didn’t he leave town in false whiskers and go hide in a tree?

“Because I knew I had talent,” he says. “I knew I was one of the greatest fighters in the game. I want to go down as one of the greatest fighters, maybe even the greatest and not just the guy Leonard beat or Hagler beat.

“Sure, I felt some depression after losing those fights but I came to my senses and said to myself that I’m destined to do more than that. Will I fight those guys (Hagler and Leonard) again? Hard to say. But I’m going to cut out my spot in history. Go out, when I do, as champ.”

The old adage, “They never come back,” has been taking a terrible beating lately. Thomas may knock it out altogether. Along with Iran Barkley and whoever else they serve up.

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