September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

He is known as the Detroit Hit Man and the Motor City Cobra—monikers that only hint at his awesome punching power. He won the World Boxing Association welterweight (147-lb.) boxing title last year by demolishing the formidable Pipino Cuevas in just two rounds. As a pro he has won all 32 of his fights—30 by knockout—never been decked himself and been forced past five rounds only eight times. But Thomas Hearns, 22, does not reign alone. The competing World Boxing Council champ is Sugar Ray Leonard, 25. On September 16 in Las Vegas they will square off at Caesars Palace to determine who will be undisputed king of the ring.

For now, predictably, the rivals are punching harder with their mouths than their mitts. It’s all part of the prefight rope-a-dope that will help hype the estimated $40 million gate and cable spinoffs into the biggest boxing moneymaker ever. Leonard will numb his post-fight pain with a minimum of $8 million, Hearns with at least $5 million.

“I hate Leonard’s big mouth,” says Hearns, who derisively tossed a rubber chicken at Leonard after his rematch TKO win over Roberto Duran. Hearns feels he has been unfairly ignored because “I’m just not a media darling like him. I’m going to give him something he will never forget. He’s gonna have nightmares about it.” Says Leonard, lately polishing his image as 7-Up’s TV pitchman, “He’s got great speed, height, reach and power—but no brains.” More to the point, perhaps, is the assessment of one man who has fought them both, California welterweight Randy Shields. Hearns, says Shields, “could win in the early rounds by a knockout. If it goes into the later rounds, Leonard could win on a knockout or decision, but he’ll be intimidated by Hearns’ reputation and eight-inch reach advantage.”

Hearns’ early years hardly provided him the edge. Born in Grand Junction, Tenn., the youngest of three children, Tommy was only 6 when his parents separated and his mother, Lois, moved them to Detroit, home of ring greats Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Her second marriage produced six children before it ended. Tommy went from slap-boxing on the streets of Detroit’s tough East Side to gloves at the Kronk Recreation Center. His trainer and manager, Emanuel Steward recalls, “I didn’t think the skinny kid was any good. But something in his eyes and his fierce determination later changed my mind.”

Hearns quit school to pursue boxing, but a busted nose kept him from competing for a spot on the 1976 Olympic team—while Leonard punched his way to gold and glory in Montreal. “I was frustrated and depressed,” Hearns now remembers. “But Emanuel and my mother convinced me I could still be champion.” After winning a phenomenal 155 of 163 amateur fights, Hearns finally turned pro in 1977—and promptly was invited to spar with Sugar Ray. “He was good,” Leonard says diplomatically of their informal match-up. “I enjoyed working with him then.”

Whatever the outcome of their title bout, Tommy, claims Steward, is not about to repeat the errors of some ex-champs. He boasts that conservative high-interest securities investments will “take care of Tommy the rest of his life.” Hearns has bought his mother and his six half siblings a new house, and moved himself into a swanky ranch house in suburban Southfield, Mich. His pastimes include a collection of Elvis Presley film cassettes and a $20,000 electronic-game room. “Hitman” does retain two full-time bodyguards, and, aside from his deadly fists, packs a Magnum service revolver as a Detroit auxiliary cop. He rides in a squad car as often as his training regimen permits. On any given off-duty night he can be found checking out the city’s dance or roller disco nightspots in one of his six cars (including black and white Stingrays), usually with a different woman on each bicep. But not during training. “No sex,” he says. “That isn’t putting money in my pocket.” Jokes Steward, something of a father figure as well as trainer, “He will never be broke.” “If any woman gets his money it will be his mother,” a friend agrees.

Until last week Hearns was running five miles a day on grassy ski slopes, eating anything he wanted and pulping sparring partners at his Michigan training camp. At 6’½”, Hearns has his killer ring instincts geared to eventually winning titles in two heavier weight classes—middleweight and light heavyweight. But in Vegas this week the sweetest dream involves Sugar Ray. “He’s a kind person and a good fighter,” allows Hearns. “But he’s in my way. He is someone I have to eliminate.”

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