It remains to this day one of the more controversial fights in boxing history. No, there was no long count. Nor was there the sudden appearance of a fan man. No one said “no mas” and there wasn’t a phantom punch to be found. Still, Sugar Ray Leonard’s 1987 victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler intrigues fight fans – and even non-fight fans – to this day. Who truly won that famous scrap? Sure, Leonard got the decision, but did he really deserve it? Depends on who you ask. Get a gang of fight analysts together and the chances are better than good they won’t arrive at a consensus. It’s just one of those matches which defies a genuinely satisfying conclusion.
Here, however, is what’s irrefutable: Hagler never fought again after that night on the tennis courts of Caesar’s Palace in Vegas (yup, they erected the ring and stands on the casino’s tennis courts). Word is that Leonard was more than willing to give his foe a rematch. Yet Hagler reportedly refused, certain as he was that he could never get a fair shake from boxing’s powers that be. Whether Hagler’s fears were warranted or not will never be known. Here, though, is something few mention: the fact Hagler never fought again, his abrupt departure from the ring, has in fact enhanced his legacy.
In truth, the Hagler who faced Ray Leonard didn’t appear to be the same Marvelous Marvin who took apart Tommy Hearns just two years before. Indeed, it’s worth wondering whether or not that violent three round battle took something out of the bald-headed great from Brockton. If it did, his win the following year over John Mugabi, a brutal war of attrition against an opponent Marvin surely would have defeated with relative ease a few years previous, must have taken even more. Sure enough, word is Leonard realized he could beat Hagler after watching that fight. And while a clear underdog, Ray in fact looked far better against Hagler than almost anyone thought he would.
Those of us old enough to remember the buildup to Hagler vs Leonard will recall people thinking Sugar Ray was, figuratively speaking, a dead man walking when he made his way to that ring. Hagler was still the big man on the fight scene. Tyson had yet to reach his zenith and Leonard, well Leonard hadn’t fought in nearly three years. Yup, the American icon had been away from the ring for quite some time. I remember my high school gym instructor telling us that Sugar Ray, who had a history of eye trouble, would be permanently blinded by Hagler. The general feeling was that Leonard was risking life and limb in a foolhardy attempt to turn back the clock.
Needless to say, Leonard proved many wrong that evening with a game plan that utilized slick movement and sharp defense, an approach that clearly frustrated Hagler. Was it enough to earn a legitimate victory, though? Again, it depends on who you ask. I’ve long argued that Hagler won that night, though I think the fight needs yet another viewing before I reiterate that opinion, though I’ve probably watched it more than any other fight, by the way. Why, after all this time, is the controversy surrounding Leonard’s victory significant? Because it’s kept Hagler from looking like one of “Sugar Ray’s” victims.
Think of it this way: Hagler and Leonard are both members of the highly, and deservedly lauded, Four Kings, a group which also includes Hearns and Roberto Duran. To be sure, only Ray holds official wins over all three of his peers. Yet due to the fact that his bout with Hagler was so controversial, Leonard is not universally recognized as the conqueror of the entire group. Many still believe Marvin got robbed on that long ago April evening. A rematch could have settled things once and for all, but Hagler didn’t want it. He retired with a question mark hanging over his last fight, and an argument that Leonard didn’t really beat him. That’s left his legacy strangely untarnished.
In a sense, it reminds me of the Dempsey vs Tunney scenario of close to a hundred years ago. Tunney won the heavyweight title in convincing fashion over Dempsey, and was winning their rematch convincingly when Dempsey suddenly knocked him down. Tunney got up, but not until after fourteen seconds had passed due to a controversial “long count” from the referee. While Tunney went on to win the fight, it’s never been universally accepted that he bested Dempsey the second time around.
Dempsey’s reputation and standing as an all-time great didn’t really take a hit from the second Tunney loss. In the same way, Hagler’s image as one of the greatest middleweights of all-time, a dominant champion who ruled his division like a brutal dictator, didn’t take a hit from his decision loss to Leonard.
Despite my opinion on the decision, if I’m honest, I would have to admit that Leonard likely would have won a rematch with Hagler. While Marvin may, at least in my eyes, be the true victor in the first fight, he did appear to have lost a step. He looked like an aging champion nearing the end of a long career, while Ray, quite surprisingly, appeared completely rejuvenated and on the cusp of a second act.
Still, by refusing to engage in his own second act, Hagler sealed his legacy and ended his career on his own terms. And the fact that he refused a huge payday for a rematch and ever after resisted the urge to embark on a comeback, only bolsters his integrity and his standing in the eyes of boxing fans. Simply put, he refused to accept defeat and then turned his back on the sport, with both his faculties and his bank account in excellent shape. Meanwhile, Leonard would go on to suffer humiliating losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho. Viewed in that light, isn’t Marvelous Marvin the real winner?
— Sean Crose