Today marks a special milestone for all serious fight fans, the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest, and most controversial, matches in boxing history. Few fights have been as anticipated or as surprising, and for many the memories are still fresh and vivid, so much so it’s easy to forget that this legendary clash almost never happened.
And yet as early as 1981 Hagler vs Leonard appeared to sports fans as an inevitable match-up. At the end of that year Marvelous Marvin reigned supreme at middleweight with dominant wins over Vito Antuofermo and Mustafa Hamsho, while Leonard had defeated Ayub Kalule to win a junior middleweight belt before vanquishing Thomas Hearns. But in 1982, following a routine title defense against Bruce Finch, Ray suffered a detached retina and despite successful surgery to repair the damage, the injury prompted him to announce his retirement from boxing.
At a special gala ceremony in Baltimore, with Marvelous Marvin Hagler standing nearby, Leonard held everyone in suspense before finally telling the crowd that a battle “with this great champion, would be one of the greatest fights in history. Unfortunately, it’ll never happen.” Hagler and his managers Pat and Goody Petronelli, all of them anticipating that Ray would announce his intention to fight Marvin, were left surprised and disappointed.
“Hagler never forgave me for the Maryland event,” says Ray.
Less than two years later Leonard came back to boxing, telling anyone who would listen that he intended to pick up right where he left off and that he looked forward to an eventual showdown with Hagler. But as he prepared for a comeback bout against journeyman Kevin Howard, it was determined that the retina in his right eye was loose. He had another surgery, which was successful, and he was then cleared to box, but the eye issues had become a preoccupation. Against Howard, Leonard was knocked down for the first time in his career and, despite eventually winning by a ninth round TKO, Ray announced his second retirement immediately after the bout.
But looking back, Leonard believes his retirements were less about eye problems and more about issues outside the ring. “My ophthalmologist told me after the operation that it was a success. But there were millions of fans, plus my family and friends, who said that I could go blind. So while my doctor told me that the chance of re-injuring my eye was remote, I just didn’t want to be like all of the boxers who came back one or two many times, even though eventually I did. I wanted to believe that after I retired, that was it.”
“Against Kevin, mentally, I wasn’t there,” says Ray. “I was an overwhelming favorite and I do better when I am considered an underdog, when the odds are against me. At my best, I would’ve beaten Kevin easily.”
So Leonard stepped away from boxing again while Hagler would go on to battle Thomas Hearns in a mega-fight billed as “The War,” which indeed it was. The first round was remarkable as both combatants fought with unbridled fury, creating a three minute stanza that is regarded by many as one of the very best in boxing history. Hagler stopped “The Motor City Cobra” in round three and he was now on top of the boxing world. Meanwhile, Ray’s difficulties outside of the ring continued.
“I was angry and sad and wanted to maintain the image that I had. It made me a miserable ex-champion. And then I met people who introduced me to cocaine and alcohol. That was a major reason why friends and family members didn’t want me to come back. Plus, they saw Hagler annihilating everyone. But the fact was, nothing could’ve brought me back other than Hagler.”
Leonard remained idle and discontent and continued to abuse drugs and alcohol while Hagler enjoyed a long layoff before defending his title against John “The Beast” Mugabi in March of 1986. In a brutal and thrilling war, Marvin stopped one of his toughest opponents after eleven hard-fought rounds. But as it happened, that contest was the turning point for Leonard as it showed him something he needed to see.
“I saw something that I felt I could take advantage of,” says Ray. “Mugabi was out-maneuvering Hagler, out-boxing him. And suddenly all the beer that I was drinking said that I could beat him. When I called my manager, Mike Trainer, and told him I wanted to fight Hagler he said, ‘Are you drinking?’ I told him I was, but I was also serious. I saw something that I knew, if I was right, I could take advantage of. I just couldn’t get the same excitement for when I fought Howard. This was different. And fear was also a factor in preparing to win against Marvin.”
And so the match billed as “The Super Fight” was signed for April 7, 1987. Hagler opened as a 4-to-1 betting favorite, though it felt as if the odds should have been 40-to-1 based on what most were saying about Ray’s chances. But what many did not appreciate at the time was that Leonard had already gained a psychological edge by forfeiting the larger purse in favor of choosing the gloves he wanted, the number of rounds, and a larger ring. The pre-fight buzz was now underway and the mental games were only heating up.
“When I retired, Hagler felt that he was “the man.” He was doing commercials, endorsements. He told me I missed out on a lot and he really felt that way. But I never said anything condescending about Hagler, just the opposite. I didn’t want to give him any additional motivation to want to beat me up. I even told people that Marvin is a better boxer than people give him credit for. And before the fight, he said, ‘I may outbox Ray.’ Right then, I knew I had him.”
Leonard discusses the challenges of coming back after a long layoff, in this case, three years: “I trained for over a year for that fight. I cut back on drugs and drinking, I was clean. When you are away from boxing, you lose that ability to take a punch. Most fighters won’t admit that. When I first got hit in sparring I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be okay.’ It’s the ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ You have to find it again. Coming back when you are about to face an unorthodox fighter is very difficult.”
But by the time the opening bell sounded, the odds had dropped to 3-to-1. And while Hagler was viewed by virtually everyone as the pound-for-pound best fighter in boxing, Sugar Ray Leonard was the sentimental favorite, the underdog that so many wanted to see win. The bout was viewed by millions around the world on closed-circuit television and by Chevy Chase, Joan Collins, Frank Sinatra and Bo Derek at ringside.
Hagler opened the match by fighting in an orthodox stance, a surprise to many, and Leonard took advantage by piling up points in the first two rounds, landing rights to the body and left hooks to the head. On the advice of his trainer, Goody Petronelli, Hagler switched to southpaw in the third and landed some effective shots to the body and head, as did Leonard in a close round. The fourth was controlled by Sugar Ray, as he had Marvin reaching and missing. But Hagler came back with a strong performance in the fifth, landing an uppercut which stopped Leonard in his tracks.
“It was the first round that unlocked the door,” recalls Ray. “He knew he did wrong and made a mistake the way he fought me. My corner was so relaxed. I looked in the audience and felt very confident. The first four rounds I started well and in the fifth, he came back. But I had a great corner. Angelo [Dundee] was great for sound bites. When I got buckled by Hagler’s uppercut in the fifth, people got freaked out, but Angelo would say ‘Quiet! Quiet!’I told my corner before the fight to let me know when there were 30 seconds left and they did every time and that way I knew to finish each round strong. I would throw a series of combinations at that point and it was effective.”
The middle rounds saw Hagler rebound and impose his will and rounds eight and nine featured some furious exchanges. In the ninth especially, Hagler landed heavy shots with Leonard’s back against the ropes, but the challenger responded with sharp flurries that put Marvin on the defensive and brought the crowd to its feet. In the tenth, Ray, moving more and landing his left hook, kept the fight in ring center, and in round 11 a seemingly fresher Leonard landed rights to the head and left hooks both upstairs and down. Meanwhile, Hagler’s punches seemed to have lost their snap. At the end of round 11, Gene Hackman at ringside yelled, “Way to go, Ray!”
With one round to go, Dundee exhorted Leonard on by saying, “Three minutes, new champion,” and Leonard stood and raised his hands in his corner prior to the bell. Meanwhile, Petronelli implored Hagler to fight an aggressive final round: “We need it, bad. Do it for everybody. This is critical. Don’t stop until he’s down.”
“As a fighter, you know when you are winning or losing,” says Ray. “And I knew I was winning this fight.”
The last round saw Hagler desperate to score something huge, but he was unable to get home the big punch that could change the course of the bout. Leonard landed again with the left hook, clearly his most effective punch in this fight, and then, with a minute left, began playing to the crowd: dancing about the ring, pumping his right fist in a victory salute, even doing an Ali shuffle.
At the final bell the long-shot challenger raised his arms in triumph as the crowd roared. Minutes later Leonard was declared the victor by split decision in one of boxing’s biggest all-time upsets and for three decades the debate amongst fight fans as to who really deserved to win has never stopped. For what it’s worth, out of 25 ringside writers, 13 scored for Leonard, with six for Hagler and six more scoring it a draw.
“No one thought I had a chance,” says Ray. “No one thought I could win. Even my brother Roger thought Marvin would win. I did something that no one thought was possible. Most people didn’t think I had a prayer.”
Hagler of course did not agree with the decision and stated that he thought it was obvious that he won. “I beat him and he knows it. I told you about Vegas. They stole it.” But Leonard points out that Hagler was acting strangely prior to the decision being announced, clowning and dancing in the ring, something completely out of character for Marvelous Marvin.
Leonard describes the challenges of battling someone as talented as Hagler: “He had heavy hands and was very strong. He could knock you out with either hand. He had the balls, the heart, and the mind to win. He was ambidextrous. I consider Marvin one of the best that I fought. And I fought in the golden era of boxing. As I am talking to you right now, I see a picture of me and Duran; I see me looking into Benitez’s eyes; a photo of me against Thomas Hearns. All of us paid our dues and a lot of times going into a big fight, it was 50-50. Either man could win.”
On the anniversary of his historic victory, Sugar Ray puts in perspective what that improbable victory in the desert means to him 30 years later. “It’s amazing. It’s humbling. It tells you how fast time goes by. It’s one of those moments that I will never forget, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.” — Thad Moore