Bill Tibbs looks back at a fight that’s decision is still hotly debated.
On April 6/2020, it will be 33 years since one of the biggest fights of the 80’s, certainly one of the biggest sporting events of that year, and (by far) the biggest boxing event of that year. This was a big one - like as in an 8-page spread in Sports Illustrated big – back when hard copy magazines were media that mattered for sport fans. And, for sports fans, let alone boxing fans, it didn’t get bigger than Sports Illustrated.
The fight featured rugged, long reigning middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler looking to hold back the challenge of once great welterweight champion “Sugar” Ray Leonard. (Note - Marvelous was indeed Marvin’s real handle after he legally changed his name in a showy, un-Hagler like quest for a brighter shine in public a few years previous).
I remember going to see the fight, on closed circuit TV, with my father. My father and I didn’t agree on a lot of things, but we did agree on boxing. He liked the sport; I loved the sport. My dad loved real, old school fighters. He didn’t care about glossy records, he just wanted to know they were real fighters who would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. “That is what they do for a living, so they should do that, against the best they can.
Otherwise, don’t call yourself a fighter, and go find something else to do." (He was a little hardcore in his expectations of fighters – men in general really. Different time, different era).
He wouldn’t care for the climate of sensitivity we live in today; he didn’t have the patience for that. He didn’t like guys who used to “pick their spots” as he used to say. That was his term for guys who were tough when the situation was right but would find an exit if things weren’t in their favor. Naturally, he loved the likes of old school, 50’s and 60’s fighters, and the legendary George Chuvalo. And, yes, Marvin fell into that category.
However, so did Ray in my dad’s mind. He knew tough - and Leonard was tough. As Pops put it, “He’s the flashier of the two, and he plays to the crowd, but don’t kid yourself, that guy is tough." You know, looking back, for a part-time boxing fan, Dad really did know a lot about fighters.
Coming into the fight, Hagler was starting to look more than a little bit of his 33-years (unbelievably, somewhat older for fighters back then). He had fought once in each of the previous 2 years stopping tough John Mugabi, a year before in a rough fight. A year previous to that, Marvin had KO’d welterweight monster Tommy Hearns in one of the sports’ great middleweight matchups. He had Hearns out in 3 but it was a war up to that point. He had to go longer with the determined Mugabi in that one that he ended after 11 ferocious rounds.
An interested ringside observer named “Sugar” Ray Leonard was working the Hagler-Mugabi fight, someone who always craved the spotlight boxing brought him; he decided it was time to step forward and give boxing the dream match it had yearned for. The initial plan was for Hagler to give Hearns a rematch and Hearns’ blowout of undefeated James Shuler (on the Hagler-Mugabi undercard) had set the stage. However, when Hagler promoter Bob Arum came forward with a record purse for Marvin (11-12 million dollars seems to come to mind?) Hagler jumped. Hearns was on the outs, Leonard was back in the spotlight and fight fans were thrilled.
Heading into the bout, Leonard seemed set to be roasted by a bigger, stronger, tougher Hagler who had long owned the middleweight title. Leonard, his best days at welterweight long behind him, had been out of the ring for 3 years, had dealt with eye surgery and had only fought twice in 5 years heading into the ring with Hagler. Marvelous, in a pre-fight promo spot with Johnny Carson on The Tonight show, spat that, “He (Leonard) had a good reason to get out of boxing, with his eye. But, if he’s crazy enough to get in the ring with me, I’m crazy enough to rip it out.”
Those were fightin’ words… and nobody ever wondered if the iron-tough Hagler meant what he said; Hagler was all business in a boxing ring.
Styles? This was the classic plodding, ever-advancing brawler up against the fleet footed, fast-paced style of the (more pure) boxer Leonard. Hagler was a very gifted boxer and was a sharp shooter from both the left and right sides. But, perhaps due to age or fighting styles in those most recent bouts, his previous fights with Mugabi and Hearns had been more brawling than boxing and Leonard felt he could capitalize on this.
Pre-fight buzz? I do not think anyone who was born in the internet era really understands how big a promotion something would have to be to be dominate The Tonight Show, be the lead on every sports spot on TV and radio, and consume huge portions of sports and entertainment publications; this fight was that big!
Predictions? Leonard was coming into the fight with an eye that had been operated on for a detached retina and had looked very ordinary in his two previous bouts (3 and 5 years gone) against a couple of unremarkable fellows named Bruce Finch and Kevin Howard. To say there were questions as to whether he would get hurt, let alone lose, would be an understatement.
The general feeling on Marvin was that despite the fact he’d probably lost a step in 66 fights over 14 years in the ring, he had more than enough guile to deal with the slick Leonard and certainly had him outgunned in the power department. While Hagler was not a one-punch, KO guy, he had good power and was relentless in his pursuit of any man facing him in the ring; he chopped down fighters like no other. Leonard, a career welterweight, wouldn’t have the big guns to keep Hagler off him, and an even slightly diminished Hagler was more than enough to take care of the little guy with the big grin.
In short, while a few people picked Leonard to give Marvelous some trouble, and a few even picked him to pull off the upset, most people thought this was a lock for Hagler. As former middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo (and previous Hagler victim) said before the bout, “This’ll be the easiest 11 million dollars Hagler ever made”.
The outcome? Well as predicted, it was the brawler against the boxer. Leonard, moved side to side and was never in any one spot long enough for Hagler to land any serious, fight-changing punches. Clearly, in a brilliant tactical move, Leonard had prepared to move, a lot.
When he got the opportune moment, he’d rattle off as quick a combination as he could to grab the judges attention. Leonard had good legs that night and he used them for all 12 rounds. He had also maintained his punching speed. He knew he didn’t have the juice to lay it out for 3 minutes of all 12 rounds so he very carefully, and strategically, picked his moments to let go with his fast, albeit light hitting (and doing little or no damage) combinations. However, what the fast blurr of punches did do was capture the fans’ attention, who roared in approval, and no doubt swayed the judges.
Hagler, for his part, marched forward, punching more consistently, but with much less pizzazz. As a result, while probably landing more shots, they held less eye candy for the fans, and more importantly, the judges.
Hagler was quietly consistent while Leonard was sporadic and flashy.
The judging came down to a matter of what caught your attention. Did you go for the sizzle or the steak? Hagler was in a tough spot coming into the fight. If he won, he beat an old, retired welterweight. If he lost, it would confirm that years and years of boxing had caught up with him and has exposed him as a guy on the downside of his career.
In the end, Leonard walked away with a split decision win. Judge Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 for Leonard. Lou Fillippo scored it 115-113 for Hagler and, astonishingly, judge Jo Jo Guerra scored it 118-110 for Leonard. I had Hagler winning the fight 8-4, or I could even live with 7-5.
He did land more punches and he was the aggressor all night. Leonard, while smart and flashy in the ring, ran all night and the fast flurries he did land didn’t appear to ever hurt Hagler. Most punches landed by Leonard brought a smile from Marvin.
I’ve always said, Marvin won the fight but Ray stole the show.
I also felt the corner work of Hagler cost him somewhat in the bout. Never, ever, did I hear a sense of urgency from his long-time corner men Goody and Pat Petronelli. It was the usual calm, measured instructions throughout the fight. In my opinion, they should have had him fighting from the southpaw stance much earlier in the fight.
And, as the fight was drawing to a close, they needed to remind Marvin to step on the gas, and hard, to not leave any room for doubt with the judges. These are tactical errors, and just my opinion, and in no way diminishes my great respect for the Petronelli brothers; I also loved Marvin’s loyalty to them throughout his entire career.
Post fight? Hagler waited for a rematch with Leonard but was kept dangling too long as Ray waited for him to get even older. After a divorce, and a few personal troubles, Marvin left for Italy where he remarried and reinvented himself as an action movie hero.
After waiting a year or so for a Leonard rematch, Hagler decided enough was enough and retired for good. He left the ring as one of the greatest middleweight champions in history and a record of 62-3-2 (52 KO’s)
As for Leonard, he returned to the ring in ’88 to capture the WBC world super middleweight/light heavyweight titles from Canadian Donny Lalonde. He then returned in ’89 to draw with old nemesis Thomas Hearns (in a fight he clearly lost) and then picked up a UD win over Robert Duran to conclude a once-great rivalry long past its sell-by date. Then, he returned in 1991 and lost a UD to Terry Norris. Like many fighters, he had trouble walking away and he foolishly returned in 1997 to fight Hector Camacho and was KO’d for his troubles. He left the ring for the last time with a record of 36-3-1 (25 KO’s).
The decision in the fight was controversial. I thought Hagler won but it was close enough, in very contrasting styles, that I could live with the fight going to either man. As my late dad said to me as the decision was announced for Leonard, “Ahhh, they gave it to him." Yes, they did.
Hagler looked a little tired at times in the ring, perhaps a bit over-trained? Maybe the three-month, pre-fight, training camp at his age was going overboard; he looked like he had left a little in the gym. Leonard did much better than most people expected and maybe he was rewarded for that. Who knows? In the end, although I didn’t agree with the decision, it was a great event that is still talked about today.
To Marvin and Ray – thanks for the memories.