LAS VEGAS — Bulls-eye.

Right in the face. A glove in the kisser. A mash job. Less than two minutes and the guy is out cold and Thomas Hearns, who had more rain water on him than sweat, that’s how easy this thing was, blew a kiss to the crowd and told the world in no uncertain terms that he is not done hitting.

Not by a longshot.

Knockout. Hell, knockout is too light a word for what this was, this fight against — who? — James Shuler, this warm-up for better things to come. Hearns came out jabbing, throwing body-shots and — boom! — 73 seconds and he landed an overhand right that sent Shuler halfway back to Philadelphia.

That’s the way it went here Monday night and if you blinked you missed it. You missed Hearns, after nearly a year of inactivity, returning to the scene of his loss to Marvelous Marvin Hagler and saying he wants him one more time. You missed Shuler lying on the canvass, his trainers rubbing his head, while the crowd rubbed theirs in disbelief. “It wasn’t supposed to be this easy,” they said.

Come on. In this town everybody thinks they know something, everybody’s got some kind of tip, and around the crap tables and in the buffet lines in between lighting up cigars, the people who talk big this week were saying
“Tommy Hearns ain’t the same since Hagler knocked the hell out of him.”

Well, what do they know? “Nobody knows but me,” Hearns had said in response. And he was right.

Bulls-eye. Right in the face. Hearns still has it “I’m different now than when I fought Hagler,” said a jubilant Hearns after the fight, a relieved smile on his face.

“I just hope and pray now that everything goes all right with the Hagler fight cause I just want a rematch. Never a day or a minute goes by that I don’t think about it. That’s why training the last seven weeks has been difficult to take Hagler off my mind and out James Shuler in it.”

Well, everything did go all right with the Hagler fight. John Mugabi was flat on the canvas in the 11th round.

And Hearns put enough of Shuler in his mind. Specifically, Shuler’s face, and the area between his nose and his chin.

Bulls-eye. A hundred points.

“We may have had a few doubts about myself,” Hearns said, smiling, “but not anymore.”

That’s more than people would have said before this bout. Everybody figured that losing to Hagler would take the sting out of Hearns. And after all, he had not only lost. He lost badly. Got his brains rearranged. And when that happens, the first question they start asking is, “Does he still have it?”

But Hearns made his reputation as “The Hit Man” for precisely the thunderous right hands that floored Shuler. He still has it. Has enough of it anyhow, to knock out a light opponent like Shuler and get people talking again.

And how. Shuler crumbled like a guy at the blackjack table who loses 10 grand when the dealer draws 21.

Bulls-eye. Out for the count. He’s back in the saddle The toughest part of getting back on the horse is often putting your foot in the stirrup. Give a guy 11 months off and you never know what’s going to happen, especially when he’s got time on his hands and money to spend and plenty of opportunity to wonder why he should even bother getting back into a boxing ring.

Those were the conditions Hearns found himself under after the brutal loss to Marvelous Marvin Hagler last April. And until Monday, nobody knew what he would conclude.

Now they know.

But OK. What carried Hearns through this fight may have been less his own motivation than the difference of talent between him and the man he faced. Put

a stiff in the ring and Muhammad Ali can look sharp, too. James Shuler was pretty anonymous coming in, and he exits about the same way.

Shuler was fodder here for Hearns’ cannon as Hearns returned to the boxing forefront. In Philadelphia, his home town, Shuler is a fighter with promise. But here, Monday night, he was a hamburger given a very slim chance to become a steak.

Hearns mashed him, trashed him and turned him into a patty. Then he toweled off and took a seat outside the same ring he had just made his own to watch Hagler try to fight his way to their rendezvous. And to remind him — maybe with a fist, maybe with a quick glance — of the punch that made Thomas Hearns famous. And now has Hagler’s name on it.

Bulls-eye. Bring him on.

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