For too long Marvin Hagler had been denied, ignored and unjustly sidelined while lesser middleweights got the big opportunities and the big money. For too long Hagler had toiled in the shadows, in grimy gyms in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, while the bright lights in New York and Las Vegas failed to highlight his remarkable intensity and undeniable talent. The title of “Uncrowned Champion” had gotten old. It was 1980, a new decade, and Hagler should have been the real champion a long time ago.
Despite decimating the division and steamrolling over Willie Monroe, Eugene Hart, Bobby Watts, Mike Colbert, and Bennie Briscoe, a shot at the title never came Hagler’s way and the words of Joe Frazier – “You have three strikes against you: you’re black, you’re a southpaw, and you’re good.” — sounded more and more like a prophecy. And when his overdue chance finally arrived in November of 1979, the judges denied The Marvelous One his due. Defending champion Vito Antuofermo won, at best, six rounds against Marvin on national television, but the Vegas officials somehow scored Hagler’s fifteen round clinic a draw. Marvin went back to Massachusetts. And seethed.
Antuofermo defended four months later against British champion Alan Minter and dropped a close and controversial fifteen round decision. The rematch in England saw Vito battered and stopped on cuts in eight and Minter became a national hero, his status as champion bringing pride to all Englishmen. Little did they know the misfortune awaiting him. Securing the world title meant he had to face next a very dangerous and determined Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Held in London’s Wembley Arena and broadcast to millions in America on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Hagler vs Minter would highlight the best and worst of professional boxing. The worst emanated from the overzealous patriotism, fueled by booze, of the British fans; the best from the cool proficiency of Hagler’s performance, his unique blend of ferocity and sublime technique.
Just days before the fight, caught up in the pressure and the hype, Minter uttered words he would later retract, but that presaged the mayhem to come. “No black man,” growled Minter to an interviewer, “is going to take my title.” And by the time the rafters of Wembley Arena had stopped reverberating after some fifteen thousand gave a thunderous rendition of “God Save the Queen,” it began to dawn on the organizers of the bout what was taking place. They had unwittingly created a flashpoint for the worst manifestations of British nationalism. Gangs of young white men filled the upper tiers and by this time they had been freely buying and drinking beer for hours. The pro-white, pro-British passions, as well as the anti-American sentiments, were all on full display.
In the midst of this tension and fury, Hagler was the still-point, the eye of the storm. Having waited too long and endured too much to let a hostile crowd intimidate him, he remained calmly focused on the task at hand. The debacle with Antuofermo in Las Vegas was fresh in his mind and prior to the match he had made it clear he would not allow a similar outcome. “This time,” he told anyone who would listen, “I’m bringing my own judges.” And then he would hold up his fists to make his meaning crystal clear. When informed of Minter’s racist slur, Hagler simply turned to his manager, Goody Petronelli. “Goody,” he said. “I’m going to hurt that man.”
Now the battle was underway and round one saw brisk exchanges, with both men scoring, but two things were evident by its end: Hagler enjoyed a huge advantage in power and, while Minter figured to rely on tight defense and smart boxing technique, the challenger was out-jabbing the champion. The latter fact forced Minter to commit strategic suicide as he marched forward and threw flurries of punches, hoping aggression could win the day. It was a futile hope, though it made for spirited action. The inebriated patriots in the stands bellowed their approval with deafening chants of “MIN-ter! MIN-ter! MIN-ter!”
The champion’s manager, Doug Bidwell, was less enthused and he gave his man a stern talk between rounds, his final command being “Settle down,” and Minter did show discipline at the start of round two, keeping Hagler at the end of his punches. But then the challenger, with ease, closed the distance, connected with a sharp one-two, and instantly Minter lost his head. To the delight of the British fans, he scowled at Hagler and waved him in and the two southpaws went toe-to-toe. Within seconds Minter’s nose was gushing blood and a nasty cut had opened under his left eye. The champion came back near the end of the round to land some good left hands, but this was now the fight Hagler wanted, a brawl, where his greater strength, power and counter-punching skills would be the deciding factors.
Throughout his career, Minter’s handicap had been his tissue-paper skin, its tendency to tear and cut having led to all of his career defeats. And now the Briton was bleeding all over the ring as Hagler’s shorter and more precise punches snapped his head from side to side. The champion’s mouthpiece went flying and so did the blood from cuts around both eyes. Minter had no reply. He was missing badly while Hagler countered with thudding right hooks and uppercuts on the inside. The referee, alarmed by the gashes around the champion’s left eye, paused the action half-way through the round and led a dazed Minter back to his corner. Bidwell surveyed the damage and immediately signaled surrender.
As soon as the crowd comprehended that the bout had been stopped, the arena was engulfed in chaos. Hagler, in a gesture of triumph and thanksgiving, raised his arms and then sank to his knees at ring center. A full can of beer, hurled out of the darkness above, just missed him. Then a hail of bottles and cans descended as Hagler’s cornermen rushed in to shield him. More than one ringsider was struck by wayward projectiles, as people dived for cover under chairs and tables, and even the ring itself. A phalanx of British police swiftly hustled the new champion and his people out of the ring and the torrent of debris followed them as they ran for the exit. Later, as the car carrying Hagler exited the arena, someone heaved a brick and smashed the windshield. It was a shameful night for British sports fans.
Nothing came easy for Marvelous Marvin Hagler, especially the glory. What should have been the most resplendent night of his entire career was marred by hate and drunkenness and racism. But Hagler had waited so long, had endured so much, that when it was all over, he refused to let the mayhem undermine his satisfaction. “It was a dream fulfilled,” he said of the moment when he realized he had won. He had finally done it; he was the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. Seven hard years of striving and struggling were, at long last, redeemed. – Michael Carbert