Sugar Ray Leonard, a five division world champion, has fought wars, epic wars with people like Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Donny Lalonde. Yet when Leonard looks back on his Hall of Fame career, one fight stands out, a beautifully brutal battle.
“Marvin Hagler,” said Leonard Illustrated Sports in a telephone interview. “That was the closest I’ve ever come to death.”
For a boxer, compliments don’t get much better.
Hagler died on Saturday, his wife, Kay, announced Hagler’s passing on Facebook. He was 66 years old. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1954, Hagler’s family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, a blue-collar suburb of Boston, in the late 1960s. It was there that he began boxing, racking up some amateur titles before turning pro. in 1973. He claimed his first middleweight belt in 1980 and spent the better part of a decade as the dominant middleweight of his day. In 1987, Hagler lost a hotly contested decision to Leonard. He never fought again.
The 1980s were a Golden Age for boxing, and Hagler was at the center of it. A member of the Four Kings, alongside Leonard, Hearns and Duran, Hagler participated in some of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
April 15, 1985: Hagler risked his middleweight titles against Hearns, then the 154-pound champion. Outdoors in Las Vegas, Hagler and Hearns participated in one of the most memorable fights in middleweight history. The first round, a robot rock ’em, sock’ em affair, has been hailed as possibly the best fight in boxing history. In the third round, a Hagler right hand sent Hearns stumbling over the ropes. Another right hand finished him off. The entire fight lasted eight minutes. It will be remembered for an eternity.
Hagler wanted to retire after beating Hearns. “He had saved all his money,” said Bob Arum, Hagler’s longtime promoter. Illustrated Sports. Arum recalled convincing Hagler to defend his titles again, a year later, against John Mugabi. Hagler fought early before finally stopping Mugabi in the 11th round. Leonard, who had been retired for two years, watched the fight from the ring.
Leonard wanted to fight Hagler. Years earlier, after losing to Hagler, Duran told Leonard that he had the skills to overcome him. Hagler, Arum recalled, wanted nothing to do with it. Arum flew to Boston to meet with Pat Petronelli, Hagler’s co-manager. Together, Arum and Petronelli drove two hours to New Hampshire, where Hagler owned a home. When they arrived, Petronelli told Arum to wait in the car. From the front seat, Arum watched Petronelli and Hagler sit at a table in the front yard. Suddenly Hagler started pounding the table with his fist. Arum’s heart sank. When Petronelli got back to the car, Arum asked what happened. Petronelli explained that he offered to cut the commission that he and his brother, Goody, Hagler’s trainer, took from 33% to 15%. Hagler exploded.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to fight that p …'” Arum said. “But if I do, you’ll get the third.”
Hagler’s bitterness for Leonard ran deep. “It was kind of a thing,” Arum said. “Marvin was never an Olympian. He went into the pros and fought for $ 50 or $ 100 a fight. He had to fight the toughest guys. He had a hard time getting fights. “Arum said he only got involved with Hagler because in the late 1970s, Ted Kennedy, then a US senator from Massachusetts, and Tip O’Neill, the Boston-born speaker of the House of Representatives, sent him letters threatening to open Congressional investigations if Arum, then a power running back in the 160-pound division, didn’t give Hagler a shot at the middleweight title.
Said Arum: “I wasn’t looking for trouble.”
Hagler and Leonard finally agreed to fight in 1987. Stepping into the ring, Leonard admits he was nervous. “But I looked at him,” says Leonard, “and I thought he was just as nervous.” Early in the first round, Leonard peppered Hagler with punches. “And I could hear it,” says Leonard. “He kept saying, ‘Fight like a man, little [expletive]. ‘”
For 12 rounds, the two stars fought. Leonard won the quickest exchanges, scoring and coming out of trouble. Hagler won the head-to-head moments, burying Leonard with heavy combinations. “He hit like a heavyweight,” says Leonard. In the end, Leonard emerged with a split decision victory, a result Hagler could never accept.
Leonard was willing to do it again. “He deserved a rematch,” Leonard said. Hagler wanted nothing to do with it. In 1988, Arum, Hagler, and Leonard were in Las Vegas for an event. Leonard spotted Hagler and walked over to Arum. “He said, ‘Bob, go talk to Marvin, and tell him not to be a fool. Let’s do the rematch, we’ll make a lot of money, ‘”Arum recalled. Arum did. He told Hagler that Leonard really loved him. It reminded him of the millions he could earn for that fight. “He just looked at me in this really cool way,” says Arum. “And he said, ‘Bob, go tell Ray to take a life.’
That was Hagler. “He was one of those rare fighters who could just walk away,” says Leonard. He moved to Italy and immersed himself in the Italian film scene, appearing in several action films. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. He finished with a 62-3-2 career record and never seriously considered increasing it.
Could I have done more? Maybe. Hagler fought five times between 1984 and 1987, his best years of income. He never fought in any division other than middleweight. But he didn’t care. “Hagler did things his way,” Arum said. And his own path was enough.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.