Almost a full year had passed since “The Fight,” the huge event that was Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns for the undisputed middleweight title, but no one could forget it. That three round scorcher in April of ’85, which saw Hearns and Hagler pack an incredible amount of action and drama into just eight minutes, before Tommy hit the deck and a bloodied Marvin raised his arms in triumph, was still a vivid memory for all who witnessed it. Now the obvious big money match to be made in 1986 was Hagler vs Hearns II.
But while Tommy and Marvin had put on an extraordinary show, the ending had been conclusive: “The Marvelous One” was the better man. So to make the rematch a monumental event, the public needed to see both in action again, both back in the winner’s circle. In other words, a little marinating was in order. And so, almost a full year after the famous “Eight Minutes of Fury,” the pair returned to the ring, on the same night and in the same stadium, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But not against each other.
However, both were facing serious challenges to set up their second showdown. Undefeated James “Black Gold” Shuler, the current USBA champion, was set to battle “The Hit Man,” but the main event was an even more tantalizing match-up. The undisputed middleweight champion would be defending his title against one of the most exciting knockout artists to emerge in quite some time, the fighter they called “The Beast.”
John Mugabi, an undefeated Ugandan warrior with some seriously heavy hands, had scored a series of impressive stoppage wins on national television to establish himself as a legit threat to anyone at 154 or 160 pounds. His knockouts of Curtis Parker, James “Hard Rock” Green, Frank “The Animal” Fletcher and Earl Hargrove were highlight reel fodder, and the prospect of such a dangerous puncher going up against the battle-hardened Hagler had fight fans drooling in anticipation. Lucky for them, Hagler vs Mugabi more than lived up to the expectations.
It was a chilly March night in Vegas, but Thomas Hearns added some heat when he held up his end in terms of setting the scene for Hagler vs Hearns II with a spectacular win. Barely a minute in the opening round, Tommy struck with the speed and suddenness of his namesake, “The Motor City Cobra,” smashing home his deadly right hand on the jaw of James Shuler and deciding the match in an instant. Philadelphia’s “Black Gold” went down hard and took the full count. The fight was over in just 73 seconds.
“I just got caught,” said Shuler later. “There’s no excuse. When he hit me with the first [right hand], I thought, ‘Shoot, I can take it from him.’ And then he hit me again. I guess I was wrong.” Tragically, Shuler would be killed in a motorcycle accident just ten days later.
So, sooner than expected, Mugabi and Hagler were called upon to enter the ring and the sold-out crowd cheered loudly for the man universally acknowledged as the best fighter in the game, pound-for-pound. “Marvelous Marvin,” in tremendous condition as always, his muscular frame and shaved head exuding menace, paced about the ring like a caged panther. It was clear he couldn’t wait to pounce on his prey. Meanwhile, watching Hagler vs Mugabi from ringside with keen interest, was one Sugar Ray Leonard, the ex-champion who had fought only once in the last four years.
Right from the opening bell, Mugabi, who up to this point had campaigned exclusively at 154 pounds, made it known he could hang with the best middleweight on the planet. Showing no reluctance at all to mix it up with Hagler, he came forward fearlessly, winning the opening round with solid blows from either hand and a heavy jab, taking advantage of the southpaw champion’s inexplicable decision to commence hostilities in the orthodox stance.
But in round two Marvin became a left-hander again and immediately started tagging Mugabi with a stiff right lead. Midway through the round the pace picked up as both men let their hands go and landed solid blows, “The Beast” pressing forward, throwing bombs. The slugfest was on and, to the surprise of many, Mugabi was more than holding his own. But by the end of round three Hagler had found his rhythm, snapping home that southpaw jab as he moved to his right, away from Mugabi’s dangerous right hand.
Round four saw the champion gaining control with his quicker hands, but “The Beast” showed he could take Hagler’s best shots without flinching, eating those right leads and firing back. At the end of the round he landed the hardest blow of the fight thus far, a flush right uppercut that snapped back Marvin’s glistening bald dome. And at the bell he stopped Hagler in his tracks again with a heavy right hook to the temple.
Hagler vs Mugabi was, thus far, a fierce and exciting battle but it went to another level in round six, the turning point of the struggle. Mugabi sought to overwhelm Marvelous Marvin as he unleashed one devastating shot after another, but it was Hagler who jolted the Ugandan with a vicious left hand. Astonishingly, the challenger responded by picking up the pace, throwing big hooks with both fists. The champion in turn closed the distance to unload some heavy artillery of his own to both head and body, but more than one shot strayed below the belt and just as Mugabi seemed to be rocked back on his heels, referee Mills Lane paused the action to issue Hagler a warning.
The brief respite aided Mugabi, but Marvin went right back to work, landing a series of right hooks that had his quarry staggering about the ring. Amazingly, the challenger rebounded in the last thirty seconds of the round, and what ensued was sheer carnage as the two warriors went toe-to-toe, guns blazing, both throwing and catching huge shots as the crowd stood and roared.
But that ferocious round took a heavy toll on the challenger. “The Beast” continued to battle valiantly, but his legs now seemed sodden and heavy, as if stuck in quicksand, and his punches became increasingly wide. Lane helped out the challenger again with an interruption to deduct a point from Marvin for low blows, a questionable call, but the rest of round seven featured more brutal toe-to-toe warfare, with Marvin’s straighter, quicker shots giving him the edge.
Round eight saw no let-up in the action as Mugabi landed solid body blows and looked again to trade as Hagler consistently beat his man to the punch, finding the distance he needed to land flush right hooks. It was clear Marvin enjoyed a commanding lead, but at the same time a nasty lump was ripening under his right eye. And near the end of round nine it was Mugabi who opened up with a series of hard right hands.
The pace quickened yet again in the tenth, both fighters getting home heavy shots, upstairs and down, but soon enough Hagler had regained control, landing hard body blows on the inside and forcing Mugabi to retreat. Marvelous Marvin’s sheer physical strength was now dictating the terms as “The Beast,” his tired legs faltering, searched in vain for a second wind.
Round eleven was Mugabi’s last stand and no one could ever say he lacked for heart or courage. As he struggled to keep his balance and fight back, Hagler ruthlessly pressed his advantage, continually marching forward, working on the inside like an expert bricklayer, methodically putting one short, sharp blow after another in place, slowly but surely stealing away what was left of the challenger’s stamina.
Finally, the last of three consecutive right hands buckled Mugabi’s legs and sent him stumbling backwards. Two more rights landed and the challenger fell into the ropes and collapsed. He rose to a sitting position as Lane tolled the count but that’s all he could manage. Exhaustion, and an accumulation of heavy punishment from an all-time great middleweight, kept “The Beast” on the canvas. But only after giving “Marvelous Marvin” one hell of a fight, a brawl to remember. Indeed, Hagler vs Mugabi would prove to be one of the year’s most exciting battles.
Considering Mugabi’s sheer power and his spirited effort, this stands as one of the late, great Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s most impressive efforts, his last truly “marvelous” performance. He showed it all: heart, power, strength, accuracy, amazing durability and smart tactics. He won almost every round as he broke his adversary down with ruthless efficiency, risking heavy punishment to give boxing fans an action-packed donnybrook and a conclusive finish.
And yet, this was the fight that convinced an observer at ringside named Ray Leonard that now was the time to step forward and give boxing the dream match it had wanted for years: Marvelous Marvin vs Sugar Ray. The stage and the timing had supposedly been set for Hagler vs Hearns II, but Ray spoiled those carefully laid plans. At first, Marvin, perhaps still hurting from his brutal slugfest with “The Beast,” demurred, but a record payday beckoned and eventually the contracts were signed as Thomas Hearns fumed on the sidelines. The biggest fight in boxing was on. But it was that action-packed and punishing slugfest, Hagler vs Mugabi, that made it possible. — Robert Portis