Thomas Hearns hurried home to Detroit early this morning, carrying with him a a crown neither he nor the man he took it from really convets.
Hearns' 15-round majority decision over Wilfred Benitez at the Superdome Friday night gave him the World Boxing Council's super welterweight (154-pound) title. The former welterweight champion said he was "happy because I accomplished another goal that I set," but even moments after fighting, both he and Benitez were pondering bigger things.
Hearns will probably defend his new title two or three times, said his trainer, Emanuel Steward, with the first defense likely to come as early as February. But by late next summer the Hearns camp is hoping to challenge middleweight champion Marvin Hagler for the 160-pound crown. That's where the big money is now.
And Benitez, according to manager Jimmy Jacobs, will move immediately to middleweight with the hope of an eventual title shot at Hagler. Jacobs doesn't expect Benitez to fight again at 154 pounds.
Steward said today he and Hearns don't even know who the appropriate challengers for the super welterweight title will be, as the weight class has been largely ignored with Benitez inactive over the last 10 1/2 months.
As far as Hearns is concerned, defending his new crown is just something to keep him occupied while he waits for Hagler to fulfill an obligation for mandatory title defenses against top-rated middleweights Tony Sibson and Frank (the Animal) Fletcher.
None of which is to imply that Benitez and Hearns battled less than gamely Friday night. It was a match close enough that one judge had it even at the end, and Steward admitted he was worried which way the decision would go until the moment the announcement was made. The two remaining judges had Hearns well ahead on points, giving him the victory.
The new champion sent Benitez to the canvas in the fifth round with a sharp right to the chin and connected again at the end of the sixth with another strong right that had Benitez reeling on the ropes at the bell.
But Benitez rallied after that. He gave up his tactic of counterpunching, bobbing and weaving and fighting defensively and began attacking aggressively. For the next four or five rounds Benitez scored well as he lunged at the taller, rangier Hearns and landed long rights. Hearns hurt his right hand in the eighth and from that point on began boxing, using his fast left jab to hold off Benitez.
In the end that was the deciding factor, according to Steward and most others at ringside. Hearns, with a reputation as a slugger, boxed and moved well in the late going and, despite suffering a fluky knockdown from a long left jab in the ninth, he won the bout on his jabbing.
There were some disappointed fans among the 12,500 or so in the huge arena, but if they were let down it was at least in part because they had witnessed a heroic war in the featured preliminary, in which Wilfredo Gomez retained his super bantamweight title with a 14th-round technical knockout of Lupe Pintor.
Gomez-Pintor was a memorable fight. The champion pummeled Pintor with everything he had throughout the fight but appeared to be doing little damage. Meantime Pintor, the bantamweight champion who was moving up in weight, bruised Gomez with well-timed combinations until both the champion's eyes were puffy and swollen.
Finally in the 14th, Gomez' nonstop punching paid off. Pintor went to the canvas from a combination, then went down again moments after he regained his feet and referee Arthur Mercante stopped the bout.
Gomez said after the fight that he was worried the facial pounding would jeopardize his career, but today he said his eyes were all right.
Benitez accepted the decision against him with equanimity, but later he and his father complained that they felt he had won. Few others argued with the decision. In going 15 rounds for the first time in his career, Hearns was moving and jabbing well right to the end, while Benitez' lunging attempts to break through Hearns' eight-inch reach advantage resulted mostly in single blows.
"The way he was lunging, he couldn't follow up," said Steward. "It was one punch at a time."