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The Hit Man, Emanuel & Me

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This month I “celebrated” the 35th anniversary of the epic battle between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, which took place in April 1985. The classic fight was special to me for more than the obvious reasons, and the anniversary flooded me with an abundance of emotions and sentimentality.   

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I found myself floundering and at risk as a teenager. I made my way to the Kronk Gym in Detroit and the late, great Emanuel Steward saw how emotionally wounded I was and took me under his wing in the same way he did for his vast stable of fighters.  

I made it to the semifinals of the Detroit Golden Gloves and later had my clock cleaned by future USBA light heavyweight champion Booker Word. I’m not even sure if he ended matters with a right or a left – or both.

I had always been a good athlete and even played against Magic Johnson in a high school basketball game and Wayne Gretzky at Canadian hockey camp so I was disappointed for not faring better at boxing.

After losing to Word, I remember driving home with a 32 ounce bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor between my legs. Film director Spike Lee later described the beverage as “liquid crack.” I realized my boxing dreams were over and quickly embraced the bottle with the same vigor.

I always marveled at how Hearns, with whom I’d become close at Kronk, made boxing look so easy. I went to all of his fights in and around the Motor City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To say the air was electric does not begin to describe how exciting these live events were.   

When the scowling Hit Man entered the ring in a packed, smoke-filled venue like The Olympia or the Joe Louis Arena (see below, Hearns taking out Pipino Cuevas in 1980)…

 

..the fans knew he was on a mission to record another one of his vaunted knockouts.

I had been to many football games at the University of Michigan, where my father was a professor, and the enthusiasm of 110,000 screaming fans paled in comparison. I viewed those games as predictable soap operas that could not match the excitement of Hearns knocking out an opponent.  

When the Hit Man laced them up, my soul was enriched and my senses were invigorated. Over the years I had become even closer to Emanuel, and the future Hall of Fame trainer of 30 world champions, often told me that Hearns was his “favorite.”

By the time Hearns was readying to fight Hagler, I had developed a passion for photographing fights as well as an insatiable desire for booze. I stopped drinking for the third or fourth time in December 1984 while living in New Orleans. My initial goal was to stay sober for 90 days and, by hook or crook, make it to The Fight, which was scheduled for April 15, 1985, in Las Vegas.

I was still sober but vulnerable when I boarded the Amtrak Sunset Limited in the Big Easy. No sleeper car, no stops, very little food, limited funds. Two and a half days later I was in Sin City, strapped for cash with no hotel reservation or media credential, but thrilled to be there because Emanuel had reassuringly told me not to worry.  

I stayed at a dank, dreary, and decrepit motel off the strip. It was called the Blackjack something or other. The empty in-ground pool was the size of a backyard above-ground and lying at the bottom of it was an empty unbroken bottom of rum. The sight of the bottle taunted me and tested my mettle, a grim reminder of where I had been and hoped to never return.

Three days before the fight I accompanied Hearns on a 6:00 A.M. run around the golf course at the Dunes Hotel. He ran like a deer but I was determined to keep up with him. He later thanked me for joining him. Did he not realize I should have been the one thanking him?  

I got into the fight and witnessed what was arguably the greatest three-round bout in history. Although I was heartbroken over Hearns’s loss, the courage and grit displayed by both boxers positively affected me in immeasurable ways.

The train ride back to New Orleans was long, sad, and heart wrenching.

Afterwards I embarked on a positive path, making a living for three decades as a boxing photographer. I saw the world and loved every minute of it. There have also been travails, but on my worst days I need only to look back to the experience of The Fight for positive reinforcement.  

While home under quarantine, I watched The Fight again and was brought back in time and moved to tears.

The way Emanuel and Hearns embraced me and embraced life set many standards for me. For that alone, I owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

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