LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Thomas Hearns held his hands out and watched impatiently as a trainer unwrapped the tape. Once free, he scampered into the ring and picked up a microphone.

“Hello, everybody, how y’all doing?” he asked.

The crowd of about 200 workout-watchers inside Caesars Palace gave a typical “all right!” and Hearns began pacing the canvas, back and forth, like a comedian working one of the casino lounge joints.

“Whew,” he said, still breathing hard from his sparring. “Sometimes I wish
. . . someone else could do all this work . . . and I could just come in and fight the fight, you know?”

He chuckled into the microphone at close range and it sounded like a small explosion.

“Who wants to come down into the ring with me?” he asked, suddenly breaking into a smile. ” Any you ladies want to come down?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then both women and men started waving wildly. Hearns wasn’t going to hurt them. He was going to play with them. One of his bodyguards popped a cassette into a blaster and the ring was filled with a funky beat. “Come on, ladies,” Hearns said as people started coming out of the stands.

In the corner, packing up the equipment, was Hearns’ manager, Emanuel Steward. He’s been with Hearns for 15 years, since the days when Hearns had trouble saying hello to people.

“He does this stuff three days before the fight?” someone asked. Steward just shrugged. “It won’t hurt him. He’s done with his workout.” But he did not look the questioner in the eye. How badly does he want it? Boxing is boxing. As a challenger they question

your talent. As a champ, they question your motivation. As a champ-turned-challenger again, they question it all.

Thomas Hearns, who is 27, has been to the top and was punched out and now nobody really knows where he’s at. What does he want? And how badly? He had his eggs scrambled by Marvin Hagler last April and tonight each fights somebody else here for the right to meet again in June, and yet there’s not a soul in town who believes a rematch will turn out any differently. Except for people wearing Kronk Gym jackets. And maybe Hearns himself.

And maybe not. It’s hard to read Hearns anymore. You look at him up there, surrounded by laughing fans in the ring. “Come on, everybody,” he squealed.
“We’re gonna do push-ups together!” Push-ups? Together?

Who is he now? Five years ago, Hearns would have tripped over his own last name. He was deadly shy. The PR flacks posed him with a machine gun and called him the “Motor City Hit Man” and even though he hated it and felt stupid he just stood there.

But time and success have turned him into a public teddy bear. He doesn’t second-guess his tongue anymore. He mugs for cameras. Money has enabled him to dabble in race car driving, to talk about acting lessons, to dress in silk suits.

And to inspire countless questions about why he wants to keep fighting. If Hearns had a hundred bucks for every time someone asked him what the loss to Hagler did to his motivation, he could own Caesars Palace instead of just sleeping there. But what’s the answer?

“He wants the rematch,” Steward said. “He’s still the most exciting fighter

out there.”

But then someone asked what if Hearns should lose tonight to James Shuler
— the middleweight he must defeat to get another crack at Hagler. “Well,” Steward said, “then he should maybe think about retiring.”

Perhaps it’s foolish to look for anger, but where you’d expect to see some, in Hearns’ eyes, you don’t see any. In fact, while Hearns was leading aerobics Friday, it was Hagler who worked out behind closed doors a few miles away. No visitors allowed. And he’s the champion.

For now, Hearns appears to be floating somewhere between boxer and celebrity. He says he learned his lesson from the Hagler fight — “I’m more determined now” — and you can only take a man at his word. Then again, have you ever heard a boxer say he wasn’t ready? Hearns should beat Shuler tonight on skill alone. A Hagler rematch will require his soul.

After his workout Friday, Hearns stopped by the swimming pool to do a network TV spot. They asked him to say his name, read a few lines and make a fist. Hearns put the script down by his knee, smiled, and waited until the director cued him.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m Thomas H —

A sudden breeze blew the script into the air. The director yelled “cut” and Hearns watched his part fly away, not knowing where it would land. Those around him are familiar with the feeling.

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