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Maurice Hooker, Resurrecting the Image of a Young Tommy Hearns, KOs Saucedo

As much as I value and admire the technical mastery of pugilism, the most compelling fighters in the history of boxing tend to be fighters with dynamic punching power who also have defensive weaknesses that expose them to potential harm. This combination lies at the heart of the basic credo of the born fighter: kill or be killed. It is also why Detroit's Thomas Hearns remains my all-time greating fighter, as the Hitman possessed both the reach and fearsome punching power of a great heavyweight, and defensive lapses and weaknesses that made him the loser of some of the most compelling fights in boxing history, particularly his first rumble with Sugar Ray Leonard and his legendary showdown with Marvin Hagler. Early in his career, Hearns combined the wingspan and reach of a heavyweight into a welterweight package, but also left himself open to harm by pulling out of exchanges with his hands down, and by a tendency to pose after landing big shots, a kind of rhythmic hiccup that cost him dearly in a few fights, perhaps most memorably his first encounter with Iran Barkley in 1988. Last night, in a midnight showdown with Alex Saucedo in Oklahoma City, Maurice Hooker, a Dallas-born brawler with virtually the same combination of assets and weaknesses as Hearns, delivered a Fight of the Year candidate by pulling himself off the canvas in the second round to knock Saucedo out in the seventh in front of the latter's hometown fans. Hooker, a 29-year-old fighter with an unblemished 25-0 ledger (including 17 knockouts) is not in the same class as Hearns. He doesn't have the same legendary punching power as the Hitman, nor the same boxing skills. But he is compelling for all the same reasons (most notably the combination of a heavyweight's reach contained in the body of a junior welterweight), and has a chance to make a real mark on the boxing landscape as a US-born action fighter with a flair for dramatic conclusions.



Going into the final round, I had Hooker ahead by a narrow 57-56 margin, but the two rounds he lost to Saucedo were in some ways his most impressive showings of the night. After a close first round established that Hooker had the advantage from long range but could be hurt with counters and along the ropes, Saucedo landed a chopping overhand right that put Hooker on his backside in the second. With the OKC crowd urging their man on, Hooker had to fight to survive for the next minute of the round, but then he claimed the final 30 seconds by pushing Saucedo back, battering him across the ring with several punishing blows. Because of the knockdown I gave Saucedo the round 10-8, but Hooker's late flurry showed that he wasn't going to give up his belt easily, and that he was game for a brawl. The next major turning point in the fight came in the fifth, which Hooker lost due to Saucedo maneuvering him against the ropes and pinning him there for half the round. But what impressed me about Hooker here is that he showed an ability to minimize the damage by pressing on Saucedo and blocking many of his blows. After Saucedo tired himself out, Hooker again forced the issue in the final seconds of the round, landing three or four effective punches before the bell. It wasn't enough to win Hooker the round, but once again it showed that Hooker could withstand punishment from Saucedo and return fire. From there, Hooker took control of the fight, winning the sixth round and ending it in the seventh by using jabs and overhand rights with the kind of punishing leverage that recalled a prime Hearns. After the fight, Saucedo (who deserves credit for coming to win and taking it to Hooker) noted that cuts above his eyes reduced his visibility, and thus his ability to protect himself, in those later rounds. But, of course, those cuts came from Hooker's arsenal of punches, another indication of the damage that Hooker is capable of doing. Boxing is a sport that loves its lists. But beside the divisional and pound for pound rankings, we need a list of the best active "kill or be killed" fighters in the sport. These are action fighters willing to risk devastating defeat in pursuit of spectacular knockouts. Based on his showing so far, Hooker should be near the top of that ranking, and for that reason, deserves wider exposure in 2019 and beyond. To that final plea, I hope that the bout's ratings (it was a Top Rank card featured on ESPN) delivered, as the Hooker-Saucedo war was one of the best of 2018, and more importantly from the perspective of boxing's appeal in the US, was waged between two American fighters operating out of adjacent cities. In that respect, it recalled for me the classic era of American boxing in the middle of the twentieth century, when such bouts were routinely featured on television and drew widespread interest to the sport. Anything that can bring more of that kind of fighting to American audiences needs to be celebrated.

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