To me, he just looked and acted the way a prizefighter should. The chiseled body and his shaven skull proved that sometimes you can absolutely judge a book by its cover. If the sport of boxing had a logo, Hagler would’ve been its Jerry West. Look up the word “boxer” in Webster’s Dictionary and there should be a picture of this guy.
You say the name “Hagler” now and what immediately comes to mind is his fierce determination and warrior spirit, honed in training camps held in the winter months of closed-down resorts he’d coin “jail.” He’s now universally thought of to boxing fans as a legend and paragon of a bygone era when those inside the squared circle just seemed a bit better.
But for so long, Hagler was just another hard-luck story, stuck with two construction guys in his corner who simply couldn’t move him to where he needed to be. For much of his career, he was an afterthought and systematically ignored, a fighter too dangerous for his own good. Joe Frazier once famously told Hagler that he had three strikes against him: he was southpaw; he was good and he was black (and probably not in that order). This is why he was forced early on in his career to go to Broad Street in Philadelphia through the gauntlet of talented, hardnosed middleweights like Willie Monroe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Eugene Hart and Bennie Briscoe.
Hagler didn’t come out of the Spectrum unscathed (losing to Monroe and Watts and then avenging those losses later on) but he was forged into a legitimate middleweight contender. Back then, you weren’t microwaved to title shots; you were slow-cooked and developed over the long haul. Still, a title shot was not imminent. It was at this point, when promoter Bob Arum came into his life and career.
But originally, this happy union was a shotgun marriage arranged by politicians who demanded their local constituent was properly represented in the Wild, Wild West that is the boxing industry.
“It was [then-Speaker of the House] ‘Tip’ O’Neill I got a letter from and Senator [Ted] Kennedy, threatening a congressional investigation,” recalled Arum, last Friday afternoon. The mandate was clear; get this man a long overdue shot at the middleweight crown. (the guess here is that Hagler was a Democrat).
Arum says of this process, “So I had done a lot of pay-per-views with the promoter up there that I knew had promoted Hagler, Rick Valenti. So I called Rick up and he set up a meeting with himself and the Petronellis [Pat and Goody, who co-managed and trained Hagler] and they came up to see me and I said, ‘Look, I’ve been doing these middleweight fights, particularly the European-type of thing. We had an Argentine middleweight champion named Hugo Corro and he was fighting Vito Antuofermo for the title in Monte Carlo.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll give you an eight-round fight on the card against a pretty good Argentine boy named [Norberto Rufino] Cabrera and you win that fight, you fight the winner of Antuofermo-Corro.”
So with that scheduled, Hagler would break out his passport for the first time as a fighter and face Cabrera on June 30th, 1979 in Monaco.
“And Hagler was brilliant in the eight-round fight,” recalled Arum. “Cabrera was a helluva fighter; he beat the hell out of him and then Antuofermo beat Corro in a split decision and we put that fight on as the second fight in primetime underneath Leonard-[Wilfred] Benitez.” So after 50 fights, Hagler finally got his shot at the belt.
Exactly five months later in front of a national audience on ABC at the Pavilion at Caesars Palace, Hagler was held to a highly-disputed draw versus the defending champion, Antuofermo. The overwhelming majority of the press and public believed Hagler had done more than enough to win the title but the journey with Top Rank was just beginning. Despite what Frazier had lamented to Hagler years before, Arum says he wasn’t particularly difficult to promote once the ball got rolling.
This wasn’t Guillermo Rigondeaux.
“Marvin was a different kind of fighter. The problem with Marvin was that people didn’t want to fight him. In other words, what was he bringing to the table? He couldn’t sell tickets particularly well at that point. He was a tough out, a terrific fighter,” explained Arum. “So why would people volunteer to fight him? Now once he got a little notoriety, then he brought the money to the table and it was easy to get opponents. So he was not tough to promote.”
Soon enough, he won that elusive middleweight championship and just as quickly, the general public’s perception of Hagler began to change.
“He became, like, legendary in New England and the crowning moment was when he had the draw with Antuofermo and then the WBC had Antuofermo fight Alan Minter and then Minter beat Antuofermo,” Arum remembered. This turn of events saw Hagler face Minter on September 27, 1980 in not-so-Jolly Ol’ England after taking three stay-busy bouts in six months (twice at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. There was no waiting around a half-a-year for television dates for Hagler). “They stopped the fight [in the third round] because Minter was a bloody mess and that’s when all the f**king racists threw down the beer bottles at Howard Cosell and everything.
“So Marvin became huge coming off that. We did fights for Marvin in Las Vegas and there would never be less than 5,000 people coming from New England. Now that’s a lot of people, the big players and everything.”
The defining fight of this Hall-of-Fame career came on April 15th, 1985 when he squared off with Thomas Hearns in a fight that is looked upon in mythical terms. What “Casablanca” was to movies, Hagler-Hearns is to boxing. They’ve dubbed it “Eight Minutes of Fury” because, well, that’s exactly what it was. Hagler became a household name and reached the zenith of his popularity after stopping the “Hitman” in three pulsating stanzas.
“That f**kin’ fight you still can’t believe,” said Arum, whose amazement at what took place at Caesars Palace can still be heard in his voice. “Tommy, the greatest right-handed puncher ever, hit Marvin with his best shot straight on and it was like hitting a bull. The bull reacts and then he comes right back and comes on. That is unbelievable. He stuns Hagler and Hagler, in a nanosecond, absorbs it, comes right back, throwing punches. At that point, the fight was over.”
It’s rare that fights of this caliber actually exceed expectations. Hagler-Hearns did just that. But this tension between the two had been brewing for months according to the Hall-of-Fame promoter. “Usually, these fights, these guys say that they don’t like each other and all that. But we did the first two-week tour in 14-days. We hit 23 cities and Hearns doing nothing - he was a nice kid - he got on Hagler’s nerves because he was very jumpy and so we really had to break up a fist fight in St. Louis and I remember yelling. I jump in the middle; I said, “You mother**kers! You’re not getting paid to knock each other out! You’re not getting paid!’
“There was real animosity.”
Back in that era, a fighter like Hagler could wear a cap emblazoned with “WAR” across the front of it and it would’ve been perfectly acceptable. Political correctness be damned; every time Hagler trained, he was a modern-day gladiator preparing for battle.
And he was as honorable as he was tough. Throughout Hagler’s championship run - which lasted seven years and 12 title defenses - you always saw the same cast of characters in his corner, his half-brother Robbie Sims and the familiar faces from Brockton, Massachusetts (where his mother had moved herself and Marvin after the race riots in Newark, New Jersey in the late-‘60s) led by the Petronelli brothers, who never had to worry about Hagler. He had an uncommon loyalty to the brothers through thick and thin, never leaving them for greener pastures.
Al Haymon couldn’t have lured him away from the Petronellis.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live. He wanted to retire [after the John Mugabi victory] and the money was so big for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight that Pat, his lady and myself, we drove - and I remember the fog from Boston - through the night to New Hampshire where he was staying and Pat met with him in the early morning and Pat said, ‘Look, Marvin; Goody and I get one-third but if it’ll help make the fight, we’ll take a lot less to make it.’” recalled Arum, who ended up making that fight for April 6, 1987.
“And Hagler, like incensed, hit his hand on the table and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to fight the mother**ker but if I fight him, you’re going to take the 33 percent!’”
Hagler would lose a bitter split decision to Leonard and no amount of money ever persuaded him to return to the ring. Perhaps it was lingering bitterness or personal pride and honor that wouldn’t allow a system he felt had cheated him for so long to ever exploit him again. And soon he was off to Italy, starring in spaghetti westerns and enjoying civilian life. There are so many sad stories in boxing - and in Hagler, you had someone who exited with the same grace and honor in which he fought. While his colleagues, Leonard, Hearns and Duran, all fought well past their respective primes, Hagler walked away for good with his dignity untouched.
We are all slaves to nostalgia to a certain degree. As writers, we have to be careful to not fall too far into the past. I often times find myself comparing the behavior and mentality of today’s fighters to Hagler and honestly, that’s not fair. Can you ever really make a comparison to any modern thoroughbred to Secretariat or any defense today to the ‘85 Bears?
Of course not.
Hagler wasn’t perfect (none of us are) but he was a fighter’s fighter and man’s man.
“Absolutely,” agreed Arum, who never had a contract on paper with Hagler, just a handshake agreement. “One of the greatest experiences of my whole career was promoting that guy.”
For those who may have missed it, here’s “Legendary Nights: Hagler-Hearns”:
GOOD MORNING, MARVIN
Hagler had become enough of a household name by 1986 that ABC’s “Good Morning America” was sending out special correspondents to do preview features on his fight versus John “The Beast” Mugabi, then interviewing him the next morning (alongside Thomas Hearns, who fought on the undercard).
The artwork you see is from one Amanda “On the Kanvas” Kelley, a talented artist who loves the “Sweet Science.” The piece you see accommodating this article is called “Marvelous Marvin Hagler.” Her Twitter handle is @kelley_AK and her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amanda-Kelley-Art/125588647594566...For all you young‘uns, here a look at Hagler: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPw2YVR1KCc ...Hagler had a career mark of 62-3-2 with 52 knockouts. But what stands out is that it took him 50 fights to get a title shot. I mean, most fighters today don’t end up seeing that record for an entire career...One of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers is the one that read, “MARVELOUS” after the Hearns fight. It’s somewhere around here in my stack of old magazines...I can be reached at email@example.com and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing, where you can discuss our content with Maxboxing readers as well as chime in via our fully interactive article comments sections.