April 6, 1987: Leonard vs Hagler

On April 15, 1985, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, after twelve long years of struggle and sacrifice, finally conquered the summit of professional boxing and established himself as not only the best middleweight in the world, but as the finest fighter on planet Earth, bar none. On that night Hagler demolished Thomas Hearns, knocking him out in the third round of a brutal slugfest. At long last Hagler stood alone atop the mountain, lord of all he surveyed. He had been the official champion of the middleweights for almost five years, the uncrowned king for at least two years prior to that, but Marvelous Marvin had never felt wholly satisfied until that singular moment when the referee wrapped one arm around a tottering, half-conscious Hearns and waved the other in the air, and Hagler, blood streaming down his face, then raised his own arms in triumph.

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Hagler’s win over Hearns was huge.

Prior to that transcendent night, Hagler had been haunted for years by prophetic words from the great Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Upon meeting Marvin in Philadelphia in the late 1970’s, the former heavyweight champion had predicted a long, tough road for the young contender as he had three strikes against him: he was black, a southpaw, and he was good. And so, despite the fact many pundits regarded him as the best middleweight on the planet, no one wanted to fight Hagler, especially the guys with the shiny belts. When he did finally get a chance at a world title in 1979 (as the warm-up act for Sugar Ray Leonard’s championship win over Wilfred Benitez), the judges denied him, scoring his bout with Vito Antuofermo, in which Marvin had boxed masterfully, a draw. The following year he took the world title from Alan Minter in London, England, but the British fans cut his celebration short as they pelted the ring with bottles and garbage.

It seemed glory was somehow always denied the Marvelous one, his subsequent wins and brilliant performances failing to impress the general public, but now, having conquered the deadly puncher they called “The Hitman,” veneration was the only response possible. With the biggest victory of his career, Hagler finally received his just due, along with lucrative endorsement contracts and appearances on the talk show circuit. At long last the glory, the adulation, and the big money that goes with it, was all rightfully his.

After Marvin struggled with Mugabi, Ray got brave.

For the first time in his career, Hagler took an extended break from boxing, during which the sport suffered. With Sugar Ray Leonard retired, with the Mike Tyson era still to come, Hagler stood alone as the sport’s brightest star. The only big ‘superfight’ anyone could look forward to remained a Hagler vs Hearns rematch, and to set it up the two fighters competed on the same Vegas fight card, almost a full year after their first battle. But while Hearns impressed with an emphatic, opening round knockout of James Shuler, Hagler struggled to stop John Mugabi in eleven rounds in a grueling slugfest. Perhaps it was the inactivity, or maybe the champion’s newfound celebrity status, but the edge of Marvelous Marvin’s game had clearly been dulled. And this fact was not lost on one keenly interested ringside observer: Ray Leonard.

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Leonard picked the perfect time to finally face Marvelous Marvin.

The hallmark of Hagler’s career had been his remarkable consistency, the result of an ironclad work ethic. For every fight, he put himself in jail and trained with a relentless intensity borne out of anger and resentment, which in turn stemmed from the conviction he was a victim of injustice, that the only answer to being ducked by the champions and robbed by the judges was to work ever harder. Even as champion he had maintained that same drive and desire as he watched other boxers collect bigger paydays and garner more face time with Howard Cosell. But after the Hearns fight, that inner fire had cooled. How could he see himself as a victim after signing big money deals with Gillette and Pizza Hut?

Leonard vs Hagler

When, several weeks after the Mugabi fight, Leonard emerged to challenge Hagler, the pundits and experts regarded it as pure folly on Ray’s part. The smaller man with only one bout in five years, the former champion surely represented an easy knockout for Hagler, not to mention a huge payday. The only question was whether the middleweight king might opt to face Hearns again first. But then Hagler held a press conference and surprised everyone when he announced that, instead of facing either man, he was contemplating retirement and needed more time to make up his mind.

Ambivalence marked Marvin’s final decision when the contracts for Leonard vs Hagler were signed, a reluctant compliance with the public’s wishes, the financial terms set by Leonard and Bob Arum impossible to resist. Even his stated reason for agreeing to the fight – to dispel any future impression he had ducked Sugar Ray – sounded hollow, a hypothetical motivation instead of a fervent desire to conquer one last challenge.

Leonard vs Hagler

And in training, as much as Hagler tried to resurrect the old wrath and fury, it just wasn’t there. Missing was that essential viciousness borne from a grievance, a sense of injustice, which had always driven him. Perhaps too there was the nagging feeling he had been lured into a fight he really didn’t want, the sense that, despite being the champion, the match was taking place on Ray’s terms, not his. Having waited until Marvin’s reflexes and timing had eroded and his desire had waned, Leonard then insisted on ten ounce gloves, an extra large ring, and a twelve round distance. He followed that up with an effective psych job, vowing to slug it out with the champion, promising a knockout. On that April night, a rusty, ring-worn, and mentally unfocused Hagler could not have been riper for the picking had someone spiked his water bottle with valium.

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At the opening bell Hagler, anticipating an aggressive Leonard who would bring the fight to him, stalked tentatively, and not as a southpaw but from the orthodox stance. And right there the outcome was decided. Boxing smartly, a confident Leonard swept the first four rounds, and of the two aging and stale boxers competing that night, proved slightly more effective in a very close duel. Meanwhile the hollow shell of the once-marvelous Hagler struggled to keep up, his punches lacking snap, his reflexes slow, his ability to close the distance with fury a fond memory.

After Leonard took the split decision, scoring a huge upset, he competed sporadically for another four years, but Hagler never fought again, was never tempted to return, even when Leonard offered him millions for a revenge rematch. Instead Marvelous Marvin Hagler moved on, creating a new life for himself, in Italy of all places, and except for occasional public appearances, turned his back on boxing once and for all. It was the correct decision, just one fight too late.     – Michael Carbert

5 thoughts on “April 6, 1987: Leonard vs Hagler

  • April 7, 2015 at 1:22 am
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    I was 12. Great time in boxing!

    Reply
  • April 7, 2015 at 4:29 am
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    Beginning of the end. Great article!

    Reply
  • April 7, 2017 at 10:13 am
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    I love your ending: “It was the correct decision, just one fight too late.”

    Reply
  • August 12, 2018 at 1:59 am
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    Hagler won that fight!

    Reply

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