August 2, 1980: Hearns vs Cuevas

They called it “World War II,” an odd if not slightly offensive billing, but the logic was undeniable. In 1980, no division in boxing mattered more or inspired greater excitement than the welterweights. It was as if so much talent had assembled itself in the 147 pound weight class that it reached critical mass and exploded in a series of terrific match-ups. Carlos Palomino, Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Pipino Cuevas, Sugar Ray Leonard, Randy Shields, Thomas Hearns — the depth of the division embarrassed most others. Less than two months before, Leonard and Duran had fought in Montreal, galvanizing the attention of the sports world like no fight had in years. That was “World War I”; the promoters of Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns vs Jose “Pipino” Cuevas were hoping for a similar box-office bonanza.

447px-Cuevas-Hearns poster

And Hearns vs Cuevas was a big fight, no question, shown on closed-circuit telecast throughout North America, even though the combatants were not as well known to mainstream sports fans as Duran and Leonard. But within boxing circles, the reputations of these two power punchers loomed just as large. For true fans of the fight game, this match-up was hotly anticipated as they knew it was a tilt destined to not go the distance.

Hearns — young, undefeated, a hero to the people of Detroit, Michigan — had been a highly successful amateur boxer, but unlike Leonard, had failed to make the Olympic team. But many in boxing now viewed him as an even more impressive talent than Sugar Ray. He had chewed up the division, knocking out one contender after another, surprising anyone who had seen him compete as an amateur.

In the past, Hearns had been a careful boxer, using his long arms and nimble feet to stick and move. It was trainer Emanuel Steward of the Kronk Gym who changed Hearns’ style, showing him how to use his freakish 6’1″ height and 78″ reach, comparable to that of a heavyweight, to generate incredible power, especially with the right hand. Steward taught Hearns about a little thing called leverage and once Tommy got the hang of it, his opponents ran for cover and the fans in Detroit started calling him “The Hitman.”

Cuevas KO
Champion Cuevas scores another KO.

Mexico’s Pipino Cuevas had been WBA welterweight champion for four years, and the mere mention of his name inspired a furrowing of brows. He was not just respected, but legitimately feared. Fighting professionally since he was only fourteen, he had never been knocked down, and had defended his title eleven times, ten by knockout. His punching power was legendary. His left hook didn’t just hurt his opponents or knock them out; it sent them to the hospital. Angel Espada: broken jaw; Billy Backus: fractured orbital bone; Harold Weston: broken jaw and broken ribs. Simply put, Cuevas was one of the most dangerous welterweights who had ever lived.

Now Leonard had lost to Duran, and fans were wondering if another young American talent was about to lose to another fearsome, hard-punching Latino champion. The fight was held in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit in front of a fervent crowd, everyone there to see one of their own make it. No one left disappointed.


At the opening bell, two gunslingers, men accustomed to dominating opponents with sheer firepower, faced off. They sized each other up for some seconds, Hearns snapping out his sharp left jab, before closing the distance and simultaneously exchanging left hands. Both landed but it was Tommy’s hook which sent Cuevas stumbling across the ring. Hearns didn’t need an invitation; the Motor City Cobra immediately moved in and struck with his awesome right hand. And then struck again. And again. Before the first round was over the previously steel-chinned Cuevas had been staggered four more times by Hearns’ thunderous right.

Hearns vs Cuevas

In the second, the challenger picked up where he had left off. His six and eight inch advantages in height and reach, plus his obvious edge in hand speed, made it impossible for Cuevas to get in range and bring his left hook into play. Hearns punched freely, in total command. Finally a devastating right landed perfectly on Pipino’s jaw and turned his legs to spaghetti; the Mexican’s whole body weaved and buckled like a palm tree in a hurricane as he struggled to stay erect. Hearns watched for a moment and then struck home another right and Pipino hit the canvas face first.

The champion's trainer stops the fight.
The champion’s trainer stops the fight.

Amazingly, Cuevas beat the count, but his manager had seen enough and stepped through the ropes. Thomas Hearns was the new WBA champion, and the countdown to the inevitable showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard had begun.         — Robert Portis 

Painting by Damien Burton.

Become a patron at Patreon!

6 thoughts on “August 2, 1980: Hearns vs Cuevas

  • August 2, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    My uncle watched it closed circuit in Indiana and said Hearns fans were yelling “pipiiiiinnnooooo” at the Mexican fans after Hearns Ko’d Cuevas. Awesome piece as always.

    • March 10, 2024 at 10:59 pm

      Saw this fight in person with my Dad when I was 9 years old. Still remember it. Hearns with his one-punch knockouts was exciting and unique for a welterweight or middleweight. As a Detroiter we were, and still are proud of Tommy. Unfortunately, Sugar Ray waited 9 years to finally give him a rematch and Hagler backed out of their rematch to fight Sugar Ray. Hearns nonetheless was a great fighter. What’s lost is that he was younger than Sugar Ray and Hagler and just learning. He got better as time went on, and learned from his losses. I was actually most impressed with defeating the then undefeated Virgil Hill. Hearns was a great boxer and knockout artist.

      Glad you wrote this!

  • September 20, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Nicely written !! You know, this was the fight that hooked me on the sweet science, and never was it more evident than watching this ice cool mechanic from Detroit, step up and dismantle the fearsome Cuevas, like a bomb disposal expert cooly defusing a lethal device, right in front of him.
    I was staying in the US at the time, and watched this on network TV in DC- I never realized is was a close circuit affair, so I must have watched it delayed..well I never knew that.

  • October 26, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    This fight was before my time, but my dad was a big boxing fan. And being from Detroit and being latino this match up had him split in two. Recently I found a promo poster of the fight in some of his old things. Still in pretty good shape and had me looking up the fight. Thanks for the great article!

  • February 9, 2020 at 6:33 am

    We lived outside Youngstown, Ohio at that time and I was 15 and I had just suffered a horrible injury and could have died. My dad wanted to do something for me so he decided to take me to see this fight on his way to a business meeting, I think in Merrillville, Indiana. We got tickets high up in the arena, actually the last row. I was a huge boxing fan and the crowd was electric and anticipation was thick waiting for that Hearns vs Cuevas fight. Never forget seeing Hearns right hand knock down Pipino. The crowd went wild. Also, the undercard had some good fighters including a fading Earnie Shavers who was from a city close to where I lived. Tex Cobb stopped him. Hilmer Kenty and Sammy Serrano were also on that card.

  • December 11, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    My uncle was so disappointed after this fight! He never trusted boxing ever again. He had heard many times fights were being fixed. He never watched another boxing match again. He said he’d rather listen to some good music.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *