EDMONTON - Of the so-called four kings who combined to rescue boxing by hoisting it on their slender shoulders in the late 1970s and early '80s, it was the tall, gangly slugger from Detroit who never really got his due.
Thomas (Hitman) Hearns wasn't surly like Roberto Duran nor nearly as menacing as Marvin Hagler.
And he never exhibited the preening petulance and pretension of Sugar Ray Leonard.
No, all Hearns did was show up and fight his heart out. He didn't always win (61-5-1, 48 KOs), but every time he climbed through the ropes, you knew you would get his best - and it was always compelling.
With a 78-inch wingspan attached to a 6-foot-1 frame, Hearns was blessed with blinding hand speed and a murderous right hand that seemed to explode on impact.
As versatile as he was physically intimidating, beginning with the WBA welterweight crown in 1980, Hearns became the first fighter in history to win world titles in five weight classes, subsequently adding the WBC super welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight belts, as well as the WBA light heavyweight strap.
Unfortunately, Hearns is too often remembered for his five losses - to Uriah Grant, Iran Barkley (twice), Leonard and Hagler - rather than for his astonishing 13-5-1 record against world champions and Hall of Famers, including KOs of Duran, Pipino Cuevas and Wilfred Benitez.
The Hitman's KO loss to Hagler on April 15, 1985 (which featured Grande Prairie's Willie de Wit on the undercard) remains arguably the greatest three rounds of non-stop action in ring history.
Career accomplishments aside, what's happened to the 53-year-old Hearns since his last fight (KO of Shannon Landberg in 2006) only made it easier for me to cast my ballot this week for his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame's class of 2012.
Eighteen months ago, in a scene sadly reflective of the crumbling metropolis he still calls home, Hearns hosted what the Detroit Free Press dubbed "the battle of his life" - an auction of his most cherished boxing and personal possessions to help pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes to the U.S. government.
"I'm very sad today, but I'm going to fulfil my obligations to the IRS," he told the newspaper. "Some of my robes were from my fights with Leonard and Duran and Hagler. I have to do what I can. They (the IRS) have been very good to me. This will turn out all right. When you owe, you must pay."
The auction - which included gloves, trophies, championship belts, household furnishings and vehicles - put a big dent in his debt. And it gave Hearns, who earned an estimated $40 million en route to being named by The Ring as the greatest junior middleweight in boxing history, a new lease on life.
"I made a lot of money, but as a man who had a large family, people looked at me as their saviour," he said.
"I tried to help them by giving. It didn't stop. I'm the big brother - I give and give. But I learned my lesson. Of course, when it's time for people to give back to you, they're long gone."
But the rocky road never diminished the Hitman's appreciation for the fans he thrilled for 29 years.
"Detroit truly loves Tommy Hearns," he said. "Many of my fans reached out, trying to do what they can. I've turned some help down. I learned from a young age that you've got to go out and earn what you want yourself."
He always did. And when Tommy Hearns takes his rightful place among boxing's immortals next June in Canastota, N.Y., his magnificent career will have come full circle.
QUICK JABS: The other first-time nominees on this year's Hall of Fame ballot were former IBF flyweight champ Mark Johnson (44-5, 28 KOs) and Dariusz Michalczewski, who made 23 defences of his WBO light heavyweight title between 1994-2003. In addition to Hearns, I cast my ballot for Johnson, who was history's first African-American world flyweight and super flyweight champ, and repeat nominee Donald Curry, who owned the WBA, WBC and IBF welterweight crowns from 1983-86 É The Alberta boxing community is mourning the passing of longtime Calgary trainer, manager and promoter Ken Billinghurst, who died Oct. 17 at age 75. Billinghurst worked with dozens of provincial and national champions in both the amateur and pro ranks and was an honoured member of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame.