THEIR BOXING STORY JUST LIKE A LOVE STORY

After all these years, we now know that “Love Story” got it wrong. It’s boxing that means you never have to say you’re sorry.

How else do we explain Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns, entering the ring tonight with Emanuel Steward in his corner? Oh sure, folks around here know their history. Steward, the brilliant trainer, discovered Tommy, the future champion, as a shy, skinny 13-year-old hanging around the Kronk gym in Detroit. He taught him how to move, how to swing, how to duck and how to wallop. For Tommy’s high school prom, Emanuel lent him his gold Cadillac, so he could impress a date.

In truth, Emanuel taught Tommy everything, from how to write his first check to how to earn one with seven zeroes. They rode the same magic carpet for two decades — Hearns doing the punching, Steward doing the training and managing. They captured world titles, raked in tens of millions of dollars, and gave boxing some of its gutsiest performances, in slugfests against Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler.

None of which seemed to matter in the fall of 1990, when Steward got a call, during dinner, from a Free Press writer.

“Tommy’s in New York,” the writer said. “He says he’s leaving you to work with other people.”

And sure enough, it was true. Without so much as a phone call to the man he once called “my father,” Hearns had hooked up with a convicted embezzler named Harold Smith and was telling the world that “I know the business. I can do it myself.

“I hope (Steward) and I can go our separate ways without any misunderstanding.”

Then Emanuel ripped Tommy

Now, at the time Steward was beside himself. Stunned. Brokenhearted. And vengeful. Never mind what he says today. Never mind that when Tommy is asked about the split, he now says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Trust me. Tommy was into himself back then — and Emanuel was peeved. I know, because I interviewed both at the time.

So I went back and got the notes from 1990. Here are some of the things that were said:

Emanuel, in newspapers: “This is typical of Tommy’s mentality…. It’s good riddance….

“I guess I can say now that Tommy was never what I’d call a talented fighter. Four or five times I thought he was finished….”

On radio: “He didn’t even call me…. The only thing I saw was what everyone saw on the news…. It was very unprofessional and discourteous.”

As for Tommy? He kept saying, “I can do it myself. I’m tired of living behind a manager.”

There was no denying, they were history. Split. Done with each other. Yet here there are tonight, bringing boxing back to Joe Louis Arena, Tommy taking on a journeyman fighter named Swampman, Tommy and Emanuel laughing, doing interviews, playing the we-are-family angle for all it’s worth.

When I called Steward to ask about this, he was non-plussed. The way he sees it, squabbles and breakups are as much a part of boxing as they are of teenage dating. Of course, the fact that Hearns and Steward had been together for so long was the very thing that made their breakup news. It was like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward getting divorced.

“Everyone gets to a point where he says he should be his own boss,” Steward said. “It was like a son breaking away from his father.

“I admit, if you had asked me when we split up if we’d work together again, I would have said no. But I was very emotional at the time. Other people around me said, ‘He’ll be back.’ “

Obviously boxing veterans.

Then Tommy headed home

The slow drift homeward began a few years after their split. Emanuel had become a hugely successful gun for hire, signing with big-name fighters looking for new direction. He eventually would go on to work and win with Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oliver McCall and Oscar De La Hoya.

Tommy, meanwhile, lost a close fight to Iran Barkley, and underwent surgery on his right hand. Many thought his career was over.

One day, in 1993, at Steward’s private gym in Detroit, Tommy showed up with his young son. The men looked at each other. The conversation was awkward.

“Hey,” the boxer said to his mentor.

“How ya doin’?” Steward said.

Tommy asked whether he could borrow the keys, so he could do some private workouts. Steward said all right. As the days passed, Steward began to come around and tape Tommy’s hands. He planned on merely taping them, because that is what a trainer does, but when you’ve been with a fighter for that long, well, pretty soon, the taping turns to a handshake, the handshake turns to a reunion, the reunion erases the bitterness. They were together again.

“Did Tommy ever say, ‘I’m sorry’?”

“Well,” Steward said, “we went on a TV show, and he said to the host, ‘I told him I loved him and I was sorry.’ “

“Yes, but did he ever say it to you? Did he ever say those two words: ‘I’m sorry’?”

Steward paused. “No. But he didn’t have to.”

It’s a remarkable union, these two men. Hearns, 40, has won more championship belts than you can count. And no trainer has ever worked and won with more big-name fighters than the 54-year-old Steward.

Yet the relationship that always will define them is the one that they have with each other. And it has this three-year hole in the middle of it, a hole that, like a black eye, looked terrible when it happened and now can’t even be remembered. This is boxing. Who have you punched for me lately? Tonight is living proof that it doesn’t matter what you do in the heat of battle as long as you come back to the right corner, and that corner is home.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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