LAS VEGAS — On the surface, it looks like a cakewalk for Thomas Hearns, a man struggling to free himself from the ghosts of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler.
After all, he's fighting a guy at the Las Vegas Hilton tonight, Iran Barkley, who learned to fight from his sister. For Hearns, a 4-1 favorite to successfully defend his World Boxing Council middleweight championship, this is supposed to be a routine engagement on his way to unifying the middleweight and light-heavyweight championships.
But there is a certain softness in those 4-1 odds, and the softness, some say, is in Hearns' legs. Barkley's manager, John Reetz, touched on the subject of Hearns' legs recently.
"Hearns is 29, he's a fighter in descent," Reetz said. "His legs are gone. He's got two or three nails in his coffin already and Iran's got the rest of the nails."
Hearns (45-2, 38 knockouts) hasn't fought since last October, when he survived some rocky moments to knock out Juan Roldan in four rounds. Tonight, he meets a guy fresh from an upset destruction in March of Michael Olajide, once thought by some to be the middleweight division's future.
Until then, Barkley (24-4, 15 knockouts) labored in relative obscurity. He blew a chance in a previous middleweight title fight in 1987, losing a decision to World Boxing Assn. champion Sumbu Kalambay. Until then, he'd won 13 in a row, including wins over two of the division's big names, Wilford Scypion and James Kinchen.
That streak doesn't include, of course, a long losing streak in his old Bronx neighborhood, where, he says, he was "a wimp." Big guys picked on him, relieving him of his lunch money and sometimes his tennis shoes, he recalls.
Then Yvonne stepped in. Yvonne, an older sister who years later became a professional boxer herself, began tracking down Barkley's muggers and giving them their what for. Tiring of this, she finally taught Barkley to fight.
Barkley, 28, is a knockout puncher, but one who often takes as much as he gives. Olajide had him on the deck, for example, before Barkley overwhelmed him in the fifth round.
Hearns-Barkley is one of three world title fights tonight. The Las Vegas Hilton sports book is calling the card "Three 'Dog Night," referring to odds, not the quality of combatants. They'll give 25-1 odds with a package wager on all three underdogs.
The other two championship fights:
--Virgil Hill (21-0)-Ramzi Hassan (25-3), for Hill's WBA light-heavyweight title. Hill is a 3-1 favorite.
--Roger Mayweather (31-5)-Harold Brazier (55-7-1), for Mayweather's WBC super-lightweight title. Mayweather is a 2-1 favorite.
But most of the focus tonight will be on Hearns, 29. More specifically, on Hearns' legs. And perhaps his attention span. There have been some distractions in Team Hearns lately.
First, a former girl friend, Kimberly Craig, was murdered in Detroit last month and Craig's and Hearns' daughter, Natasha, 5, was flown immediately to Hearns' Scottsdale, Ariz., training camp.
Second, one must consider Hearns' beloved Detroit Pistons. At times, the Detroit native seems more interested in the Pistons, who take on the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA championship series Tuesday night, than he is in Iran Barkley.
In his suite Friday, he invited only Piston fans to watch Detroit's series-deciding win over Boston. "Anyone cheering for the Celtics will be asked to leave," he said.
Hearns' trainer, Emanuel Steward, flatly predicts a short contest.
"I think Tommy is going to knock out Iran inside of two rounds," Steward said. "Iran will try to come inside on Tommy, but he won't be prepared to get hit with the kind of punches he's going to get hit with."
Hearns says even a career performance by Barkley will fall short.
"Even if he has the fight of his life, it won't be enough to beat me," he said.
Hearns is making $1.5 million tonight, Barkley $350,000.
In the light-heavyweight bout, Hassan, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem but now a San Diego resident, wants to become the first Arab ever to win a world championship.
"I will win for the simple reason that I put my trust in Allah," he said.
Apparently, he forgot to do that in his last fight, in November. He was knocked out at the Forum by Tony Willis.
Hill, who won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, has had a more successful pro career than most of the U.S. gold medalists. He won the WBA light-heavy title last September in Atlantic City when he knocked out Leslie Stewart in four rounds. He's defended it twice, against Rufino Angulo and Jean Marie Emebe.
Hill earns $150,000 tonight, Hassan $25,000.
For Brazier, Mayweather's challenger, it's the end of a long journey. In a boxing era when fighters can get championship fights before their number of bouts reaches double digits, Brazier did it the old-fashioned way.
Brazier, who still works in his father's South Bend, Ind., auto body shop, didn't turn pro until he was 26. Prospects were not good. His amateur record was awful, 19-12.
But Brazier is 55-7-1 as a pro, and his record reads like a page devoted to some turn-of-the-century warrior in the Ring Record Book. He's fought in places like Meridian, Frankfort, Merrillville, Highland, Fort Wayne, Hammond, Birmingham and French Lick.
In 1987, he fought 14 times. He's knocked out 13 of his last 14 opponents. And finally, after 63 fights, he gets his first title shot.
Until tonight, when he'll earn $30,000, his largest purse was $12,500. Mayweather will make $85,000.
TALE OF THE TAPE THOMAS HEARNS vs. IRAN BARKLEY
FOR WBC MIDDLEWEIGHT TITLE
Hearns Barkley Age 29 28 Weight 160 160 Height 6-1 6-1 Reach 78 74 Chest (normal) 40 38 Chest(expanded) 42 40 Biceps 15 1/2 15 Forearm 12 12 Waist 30 31 Thigh 20 22 Calf 13 15 Neck 15 1/2 16 Wrist 8 7 Fist 11 1/2 13 Ankle 8 10
Official weigh-in will be held today.