For the length of his time at the forefront of the American sports consciousness, Marvin Hagler was perceived as someone who struggled with splinters on both shoulders. This, after all, was a man who was so offended by the denial of his request to be introduced with his nickname “Wonderful” that he changed his name by court order.
Hagler, who died Saturday at his New Hampshire home at the age of 66, has been remembered not only as one of the greatest boxers in the history of boxing’s middleweight division, but also as one of the best in boxing. any weight at any time. The undisputed 160-pound champion from 1980 to 1987, he took center stage as one of the “Four Kings” of the sport, along with Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, whose series of classic all-on-all fights in the 1980s represented a golden age. that is romanticized to this day.
But those days in the sun were just the final chapter of a long and complicated journey filled with dead ends and denied opportunities generated by the machinations of the dark forces of sport. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get you.
Hagler arrived orphaned of a father in the rough ghettos of Newark, the once flourishing district of New Jersey in the shadow of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. When his family’s home was burned down in the 1967 riots, the family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts. After coming out on the wrong side of a street fight with a local boxer, Hagler headed to the Petronelli brothers’ gym in downtown Brockton and declared on the first day that he would be a champion. Somehow, it would be even more complicated than he imagined.
A menacing presence with a shaved bullet head and haunting personality, Hagler was a natural right-hander, but he fought from a southpaw stance to bring his beam closer to his opponent. After winning all but one of his 56 amateur fights and capturing the 1973 AAU Middleweight Championship, he entered the paid ranks instead of waiting three years for Olympic fame and remained undefeated for the first three years. of his professional career, compiling 25 wins with 19 knockouts. and a solo draw for Sugar Ray Seales. As the perhaps apocryphal story goes, Hagler was told he had “three strikes against him” in the early days of his career: “You’re black, left-handed and good.”
In search of a bigger game and more prestige, Hagler made the trip south to the Philadelphia Proving Grounds, then home to four of the world’s 10 highest-rated middleweights, where he fought local opponents five times in 31 months. He suffered a pair of narrow 10-round decision losses to Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe that were widely contested as hometown decisions, which only stoked internal fire.
He went on to avenge both insults with knockouts in the opening rounds. These days they would have said that Hagler was being mismatched, but the pox marks on his ledgers amid those years of nearly anonymous work on the East Coast would forge an edge that would carry him through the deepest waters. Under the brightest lights
Eventually he was awarded a title shot in his 50th professional outing against champion Vito Antuofermo in 1979, denied once again when one-eyed Las Vegas judges gave him just a 15-round draw. So when the title changed hands and Hagler got a second chance the following year against Alan Minter, he would not leave the result to the umpires. After entering Wembley Arena amid a cacophony of boos and racial jeers, Hagler severely mistreated Minter for three rounds before the referee intervened. He fled the scene without his belt and before their hands were raised, as London spectators filled the ring with bottles and debris.
The indignities kept coming even at the peak of his powers. Shortly after defending his title for the sixth time, against Fulgencio Obelmejias in the fall of 1982, Leonard invited him to a benefit event in Baltimore where it was thought that Leonard would announce a super fight with Hagler, just to announce his surprise. retirement and regrets that a fight with Hagler never happens. Hagler’s resentment at being used as a fixture on Leonard’s show persisted into his last days.
All of this is a necessary backdrop to Hagler’s finest moment: a 1985 showdown with Hearns amidst the Roman kitsch of Caesars Palace. Two all-time greats with a combined 100-3-2 record exchanged 339 punches over eight minutes in a violent encounter that is known as “the War,” but which could more directly be described as the greatest fight ever staged. The third-round stoppage was Hagler’s moment of sheer glory after a career spent mostly among the ranks of the underdog.
He fought one more time before Leonard finally consented to his long-running mega fight: the Mayweather-Pacquiao of his day. As expected, Hagler was the aggressor, with his opponent fighting back foot and the judges awarding Leonard a split decision that is contested to this day. Hagler left the ring in disgust and never fought again, retiring with a record of 62 wins, three losses and three draws and moved to Italy to embark on an acting career.
However, the respect he felt denied him throughout his wrestling career was undeniably paid off in the end, and the interest has only grown with the passage of time. There will never be another like him.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism