On April 15, 1985, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, after 12 long years of struggle and sacrifice, finally conquered the summit of professional boxing and established himself as not only boxing’s best middleweight, but as the finest fighter in the world, 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 world champion for almost five years, the best at 160 for at least two more, but until that 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, raised his own arms in triumph, he had never felt properly recognized or truly satisfied.
In the late 70s, Hagler had clearly been the best 160 pound boxer on the planet but no one wanted to fight him, especially the middleweight title holders. When he did finally get a shot at a world crown in 1979, the judges denied him, scoring his bout with Vito Antuofermo, in which Hagler had boxed beautifully, 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 always denied the Marvelous one, his subsequent wins and brilliant performances failing to impress the general public, but now veneration was the only response possible after his awesome destruction of the deadly puncher they called “The Hitman.” With the biggest win of his career, Hagler received his just due along with lucrative endorsement contracts and appearances on the talk show circuit. Finally, the glory, the adulation, and the big money that goes with it, was all rightfully his.
For the first time, 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 fight available remained a rematch with Hearns, and to set it up the two competed on the same card almost a year after their first fight. But while Hearns impressed with a vicious first round knockout of James Shuler, Hagler struggled to stop John Mugabi in eleven rounds in a thrilling slugfest. Perhaps it was the inactivity, but the edge of Hagler’s game had clearly been dulled. And this fact was not lost on one keenly interested ringside observer: Ray Leonard.
The hallmark of Hagler’s career had been his remarkable consistency, the result of an ironclad work ethic. For every fight, Marvelous Marvin put himself in jail, and trained with relentless intensity, that 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 the 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, the fire was gone. How could he see himself as a victim of injustice after signing big endorsement deals with Gillette and Pizza Hut?
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 Marvin might face Hearns again first. But 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 it was made, 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 signing the contract – to dispel any future impression that he had ducked Sugar Ray – sounded hollow, a hypothetical motivation instead of a fervent desire to conquer one last challenge.
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 was being conned which further undermined his focus and confidence, the sense that, despite being the champion, Leonard vs Hagler 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 12 ounce gloves, an extra large ring, and a 12 round distance. He followed that up with an effective psych job on Marvin, 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.
At the opening bell Hagler stalked Leonard without conviction and not in his customary southpaw stance, but tentatively and in the orthodox manner, anticipating Leonard would bring the fight to him. And right there the outcome was decided. Boxing smartly, a confident Sugar Ray swept the first four rounds and of the two aging and stale boxers competing that night, proved slightly more effective in a very close bout. 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 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