APRIL 15, 1985: MARVELOUS MARVIN
HAGLER STOPS THOMAS HEARNS
APRIL 15, 1985: MARVELOUS MARVIN
HAGLER STOPS THOMAS HEARNS
t was like something out of the Circus Maximus played out in a ring. On April 15, 1985, a sold-out crowd of over 15,000 gathered in Las Vegas to witness Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns recreate a gladiatorial battle featuring Reyes gloves, over-the-calf tube socks, and Ponys instead of parmas, hastas, and galeas. The kitschy Roman trappings of Caesars Palace were an appropriate backdrop for these two warriors—even if they were fighting on tennis courts lined with bleachers beneath the big sky of Nevada.
Its opening round set a baseline for havoc that may never be surpassed. Even Nero might have overdosed on adrenaline that night. What made Hagler-Hearns one of the most memorable brawls of its star-crossed era, however, was the raw talent under the lights. These were not mid-card pugs putting the boots to each other for rent money in front of a sparse crowd at some VFW or bingo hall. No, by 1985, with Sugar Ray Leonard already retired after a lackluster comeback, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns were the two best fighters in the world, and they would enter the ring on April 15 with a combined record of 100-3-2.
lthough Hagler, 60-2-2, had been undefeated since 1976 and would be making his 11th title defense by facing Hearns, he had never relinquished the bitterness he felt at receiving a title shot in his fiftieth pro fight during an age when champions with fewer than a dozen bouts had been crowned. Nor did he appreciate being overshadowed by flashier pros like Sugar Ray Leonard.
Oh, yes, Hagler had his reasons—more reasons than history can remember, perhaps—for his bleak outlook. For years, Hagler had toiled in near-anonymity for paltry purses along the Eastern seaboard. To make money in those hardscrabble days, Hagler had to travel to Philadelphia and face one trouble man after another at the Spectrum, where the infamous Broad Street Bullies played second fiddle to the likes of Bennie Briscoe, Cyclone Hart, Willie Monroe, and Bobby Watts. When the notorious U.S. Championship Tournament took place on ABC in 1977, Hagler was conspicuously left off the tourney board by the scammers and flimflammers behind the scenes.
In his first title shot, in 1979, Hagler fought to a controversial 15-round draw against Vito Antuofermo in Las Vegas. Naturally, Hagler bristled when the decision was announced, but he got one more chance to stick it to the establishment. On September 27, 1980, Hagler finally won the world title by stopping Alan Minter in London, but he was unable to celebrate after the crowd erupted into a riot. Bombarded by bottles and debris hurled by hooligans overrunning Wembley Arena, the new champion had to flee the ring. To Hagler, it was a sign of things to come.
The seething blue-collar pro from Brockton, Massachusetts, had even gone so far as to have his name legally changed to “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. If no one else was going to give him the respect he thought he deserved, he would fashion it himself. Of course, some of that disrespect may have been in Hagler's head. After all, not only was he considered one of the three or four best fighters in the world during his early title reign, he was also the first fighter HBO signed to an exclusive contract, and he regularly cashed seven-figure purses.
But even the staggering payday he earned in his first closed-circuit foray—against Roberto Duran on November 10, 1983—could not soothe his anger. After nicking a cautious 15-round decision over the fighter formerly known as “Hands of Stone,” Hagler was pilloried by the media for his tentative approach against the former lightweight great. The whispers began: Hagler, without a defining fight as middleweight champion, was no longer at his ferocious peak.
efore the age of the Twitter celebrity, before rabbit ears and clunky UHF knobs disappeared completely, before the World Wide Web was anything other than a futuristic flight of fancy, fighters earned reputations for what they did in the ring—and how they did it.
On August 2, 1980, Hearns won his first world title when he butchered fearsome Pipino Cuevas in two gruesome rounds for the WBC welterweight championship. His 1981 unification showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard was one of the most anticipated fights since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. Until Leonard stopped him in the 14th-round of a thriller, Hearns had been the most intimidating fighter in America—a distinction no one would replicate until Mike Tyson began making gory headlines in 1986.
Entering the bout with Hagler, the 26-year-old Hearns, 40-1, was enjoying a resurgence after a few spotty performances and a layoff due to injuries. On June 15, 1984, Hearns had reignited his waning mystique with a bone-chilling KO of Roberto Duran in Las Vegas for the WBC light middleweight title. Duran, who had repaired his own tarnished image after “No Mas” by blitzing Davey Moore for his third world title and battling 15 competitive rounds with Hagler, had never been cleanly knocked out going into his match with “The Hit Man.” But nothing—not his machismo, not his snarl, not his world-class skills—could help him against Hearns, who left Duran facedown on the canvas like a corpse waiting for a chalk outline.
That a welterweight who had lost his biggest fight was now in a position to challenge for the middleweight title irked Hagler and aggravated his highly-developed sense of outrage. In December, Hagler agreed to meet Thomas Hearns in April for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. No one knows whether or not Hagler signed the contract with a sneer on his face.
n order to publicize the fight, promoter Bob Arum arranged a coast-to-coast media tour in select closed-circuit markets. It was a new kind of barnstorming hype—perfect for the ostentatious “Greed Is Good” 1980s—and it may have left Hagler puzzled. “I don’t know why Bob Arum keeps calling this the ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’” Hagler said. “There’s no mystery about it. I’m going to knock Thomas out.”
Never one to miss a slight—even an imaginary one—Hagler went from simmering to a roiling boil as Hearns, who had referred to Hagler as a “midget,” heckled him during the promotion. Sullen, uncooperative, and almost obsessively driven, Hagler refused to hold public workouts, arrived late to press conferences, and, finally, stopped attending publicity ops altogether. Hagler was through with the sideshow scenarios. More than anything else, however, he was through with Hearns.
“I don’t like him,” Hagler said. “That’s why I’m thinking KO, because he’s got a very big mouth and is very arrogant. I think his head is gone now. I think he’s lost all sense of reality. To tell the truth, I think boxing kinda bothers him. He’s strutting around with all kinds of body guards. Believe me, I had two weeks of that nonsense.”
For his part, Hearns, who had been virtually monosyllabic during the buildup to his showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard four years earlier, taunted Hagler with a new-found verbal prowess learned from tutors hired to improve his speech. Still, Hearns was no less blunt for having been coached in glibness. “I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me,” he said. “That’s not the usual pre-fight talk; that’s just the way things are.”
As the fight drew closer, Hagler, whose flinty persona may have kept him out of the mainstream spotlight he so craved, whittled his bitterness down to a single word he had stitched on a baseball cap he wore at the weigh-in: WAR.
y the time they entered the ring that Monday evening, Hagler and Hearns looked like they were expecting a powder keg to explode. After an intense staredown, both men waited for the opening bell to sound. Hearns, as chiseled as stonework in his gold Kronk trunks, stood in the red corner and continued glaring at Hagler. It was the last calm moment between them until the post-fight press conference.
When the bell finally rang, it was a cue for pandemonium to begin. Within seconds, Hagler, normally a measured tactician, tore after Hearns, hurling shots with abandon. In order to slow Hagler down, Hearns immediately retaliated with blazing combinations. He staggered an onrushing Hagler with a flashing right uppercut and immediately opened fire with both hands. But Hagler had a chin like bedrock, and he survived the assault by clinching and leaning under the fusillade of blows. Then, bobbing and weaving frenetically, Hagler began driving Hearns back with hooks and knifing body shots.
In an instant, blood began to pour from the wound in rivulets, and Hagler, with 11 rounds still scheduled for the night, now resembled a cover story for Fangoria instead of Sports Illustrated.
Determined to force Hearns into debilitating exchanges, Hagler ignored the blood and charged Hearns with redoubled fury. While Hearns lashed roundhouse rights and ripping uppercuts, Hagler banged away to the body and brought short hooks over the top. As both men whipsawed blows in close, the crowd lost itself in a euphoria of bloodlust. During the last 45 seconds of the round, Hearns and Hagler traded artillery against the ropes in a blur. Just before the bell rang to end one of the most explosive opening rounds in history, Hagler wobbled Hearns with a crushing right. “At first I was wondering when this guy was gonna stop punching,” Hagler would later tell George Kimball, “but I was sorry to see that round end."
It would be difficult, however, for Hearns to recover from what he had suffered in that violent opening collision. On his stool between rounds, Hearns told his trainer, Emanuel Steward, that he had broken his right hand.
earns began the second looking to work behind his jab. Because his deadly right was out of commission, "The Hit Man" tried to replicate some of his stealthier moves from fights against Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez. From time to time he feinted with the right and unleashed a left hook, but Hagler shook off the shots and attacked—sometimes from a southpaw stance, sometimes from orthodox.
Again, Hagler finished strong during the closing seconds, bludgeoning Hearns against the ropes. At the end of the round, Hearns grinned at Hagler before wobbling back to his corner.
o sooner did the third round begin than referee Richard Steele halted the action and ushered a bloodied Hagler over to ringside physician Donald Romeo, who examined the champion and allowed the fight to continue. A possible TKO loss on cuts was all the extra impetus Hagler needed to move in for the kill. An overhand right sent Hearns staggering across the ring like a tipsy old-timer. In hot pursuit, Hagler, his face contorted in sporting rage, clubbed away before crashing another right with Hearns against the ropes.
Ringside photos of that moment show Hearns flat on his back, eyes seemingly lifeless, resembling, despite the Jheri curls, a painting of Christ in his tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Halfway through the count, Hearns began to stir. With supernatural courage and pride, the stricken "Hit Man" staggered to his feet and managed to beat the count by a nanosecond. But his blank stare told Richard Steele, and the rapturous crowd, that he had come so far, but it was over. Steele called a halt to the battle at 2:01 of the third round. Hearns, spent, tottered into his arms as 15,000 spectators exploded in delirium, their collective altered state broken by the sudden, savage ending.
n one night, Hagler had turned his bitterness into a moment of glory. Nearly fifteen years after turning pro in a high school gym in Brockton, Massachusetts, Marvelous Marvin Hagler finally had stardom within firing range of his deadly left cross. Now a bona fide celebrity, he was mobbed by fans wherever he went. Even Madison Avenue finally came knocking: Hagler received sponsorship deals from Pizza Hut, Diet Coke, and Right Guard. Eventually, the surly middleweight champion with the devilish goatee popped up in an episode of “Punky Brewster.” But it was Thomas Hearns who boiled down those eight minutes of hell best: