The epic middleweight title bout between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard turns 30 years old today, the same age Leonard was when he was awarded the decision fight fans still argue about.
To this day, Leonard seems awed by what he was able to accomplish against a fighter who was widely considered unbeatable, in particular doing so after having fought just once in the previous five years. And Hagler, who walked away from his first loss in more than 11 years and never fought again, continues to look back in anger and bitterness, convinced that a combination of corruption and incompetence robbed him of the one fight in his 67-bout career he simply could not bear to lose.
In addition, the Hagler-Leonard fight marked a tipping point in the way professional boxing was presented and consumed, being not only the highest-grossing fight to that point, but representing the high-water mark of boxing’s closed-circuit television era, when those unlucky – or unwealthy – enough to afford a ticket to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas could recreate the fight night experience among thousands of like-minded individuals in movie theaters across the country.
There had never been a night like April 6, 1987 in boxing history – the first Ali-Frazier fight, on March 8, 1971, while its equal in terms of buildup and anticipation could not approach its ability to generate revenue – and considering the way the sport, its fan base, and its means of delivery have changed in the ensuing three decades, there probably never will be again.
Leonard, of course, loves to talk about that night. Hagler has rarely spoken about it publicly – he did reflect on the fight in a 2015 SiriusXM radio interview – and refused an interview request for this story. He did, however, provide written answers to emailed questions submitted through a publicist.
“People love to ask me about Hagler-Hearns," he wrote. “Not many people ask me about Hagler-Leonard!"
Here, the voices of the Hagler-Leonard fight recreate that night:
When I think about it being 30 years ago, I go, "Wow. That’s a long time ago." But it doesn’t feel that long ago. It really doesn’t. The only way I can describe it is, it was a moment. It was a moment.
(From the radio interview) The only way they could beat me was to steal it, and that’s what they did... But I gotta tell you something. In the long run, it coulda been the best thing that ever happened because of the fact nobody would still be talking about it. If I knocked him out, people woulda forgot about it. So now the way that the controversy is there and the people are still talking about it today, it’s unbelievable.
And it truly was. Staged in the 15,000-seat outdoor arena in the parking lot of Caesars Palace, the fight was shown on closed-circuit television in more than 600 theaters across the US and around the world at prices ranging from $20 to $60 a seat.
FORMER HBO SPORTS PRESIDENT SETH ABRAHAM: It really was the peak of closed-circuit boxing. In those days, going to a closed-circuit fight was a social event. You’d have to leave your house, you’d meet up with friends, go to dinner, then the fight, then maybe for a few drinks afterward to discuss it. Now, people stay home to watch a big fight on their TV sets. So when pay-per-view took over that was clearly a bend in the culture of watching sports.
TOP RANK MATCHMAKER BRUCE TRAMPLER: Going to see it on closed-circuit really was like going to the fight. Pay-per-view changed everything. People watch the fight, and when it’s over, they turn off the TV and go to sleep.
JUDGE DAVE MORETTI: People still ask me about this, and I’m always thinking, "When are you guys going to get off of this thing?" But if you showed it tonight, I bet a million people would tune in.
A fight between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard had been in the talking stages for years, but it seemed to have died on Nov. 9, 1982, when – after summoning Hagler to a charity event in Baltimore, where Hagler hoped Leonard would be announcing they would finally fight – Leonard abruptly announced his retirement. He had undergone surgery to repair a detached retina in his right eye, and wasn't willing to risk getting back in the ring. Two years later, Leonard returned – but had to get off the canvas to beat journeyman Kevin Howard, after which he promptly retired again. So it came as a shock to everyone when Leonard, having fought just once in the previous five years, came out of retirement one more time and announced he would fight Hagler without so much as a tune-up. Everyone, even members of his own family, thought Leonard was out of his league, and perhaps, his mind.
LEONARD: And rightfully so. If I was the other person, I would have looked at it and thought the same thing. People were afraid. People were very afraid. And I was out there. I was on the dark side [abusing] drugs and alcohol. My people knew it. My father-in-law looked at me and said, “You can’t do this, Ray. You can’t do this." My father said, "Son, this man has never been beat. He’s never been beat." My brother said, "Who’s your tune-up?" I said Hagler. Hagler’s my tune-up. And when I told them I was going to make $10 million, they all said, “Well, you go kick his ass."
The Hagler camp, naturally, was overjoyed, thinking their man would reap a windfall – Hagler’s guarantee was $12 million plus a percentage of closed-circuit revenue that would push his paycheck up another $6 million – in what they expected to be a walkover.
HAGLER PUBLICIST LEE SAMUELS: Marvin hadn’t lost a fight for 10 years. And in that camp, losing never crossed their minds. It was just never discussed. All they talked about was how we’re going to win and what we’re going to do next. I mean, look what they were going into. Leonard hadn’t fought, he had an eye problem. There was no question of winning the fight, it was just how it was going to be done.
What the Hagler camp wasn’t saying – and what the Leonard camp may have sensed – was that the joy of the fight was beginning to wear off on Hagler, whose last fight had been an unexpectedly tough struggle with John "The Beast" Mugabi.
BRUCE TRAMPLER: He was losing his appetite for training, going up to Provincetown, going out to Palm Springs, being away from his family and all. After the Mugabi fight, writers were asking him, "Are you going to retire or are you going to keep fighting?" And he couldn’t answer it. We all knew he was near the end. There was no Leonard fight in sight at the time and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he never fought again.
That ambivalence even showed itself in training camp for the Leonard fight.
LEE SsAMUELS: Marvin trained hard for that fight, but some days he would decide, I don’t want to train today, so I would tell the press guys we’ll stay by the pool today. We did a lot of interviews at poolside.
Leonard, meanwhile, was training harder than anyone outside of the camp could have known.
CAMP COORDINATOR JD BROWN: People thought Ray had been off for five years but [manager] Mike Trainer set up three or four fights for Ray before he fought Hagler that were not sanctioned fights, in the gym. They were like real fights against good, top-rated fighters. The opponents wore headgear and small [fight-sized] gloves and Ray wore big gloves and no headgear, cause he wanted to get used to getting hit again. We brought in a referee and everything. So he really did have a few tune-up fights.
Leonard also had a secret weapon – a camp mole he sent to infiltrate Hagler’s training camp in Palm Springs.
JD BROWN: I dyed my hair gray on the sides, put on these horn-rimmed glasses and went to watch Hagler train for three days. I saw that he didn’t have an entourage, that he carried his own bag, and that he trained hard like a beast. I also saw that he started getting frustrated when his sparring partners boxed and moved. He wanted them to stand and fight. When they used their legs he didn’t like that. And that’s one of the first things I told Ray.
After the workout, Brown sidled up to Hagler and posed for a photo, which he brought back to Leonard’s camp as proof that he had accomplished his mission. After the fight, Sports Illustrated ran the picture of Hagler with his arm around Leonard’s spy in his camp.
BROWN: Marvin was kind of hot at me after that. I saw him at a fight in Atlantic City and he looked like he wanted to kill me that day. Thank God he didn’t. But he didn’t talk to me until about five years ago. Me, him, and Ray ate lunch together recently at the same table. But it took 25 years for him to do that.
Leonard employed his own brand of reverse psychology on Hagler, who always wore a ballcap emblazoned with the word “WAR," the Edwin Starr recording of which was also his camp theme song.
LEONARD: At the press conference I said, "It’s a damn shame that you guys look at him as a slugger because of the way he fought Tommy Hearns." I said, "This man is a better boxer than you give him credit for." I kept saying it. Every day, every day. I planted the seed. And the last thing he said at the last press conference, he said, "You know what, I may surprise all of you. I just may outbox Ray."
Hagler was good for his word; at the start of the bout, rather than rush Leonard, he came out tentatively – and inexplicably boxing right-handed although he was a natural southpaw.
LEONARD: That gave me a couple of rounds to kind of get acclimated. Because I had one fight in five years, I just didn’t know what to expect. But he gave me a chance to get stable, get comfortable in there. Oh, thank you Marvin.
There was still the question, however, of whether Leonard’s body was up to the task. In fact, the fight was in serious doubt less than a week before when Leonard was nearly knocked out by sparring partner Quincy Taylor, an incident that plunged his camp into dread about the upcoming fight.
JD BROWN: If he had hit Ray with another shot the fight probably wouldn’t have come off. The van ride back to the hotel was like going to a funeral. Nobody said anything. If Quincy Taylor could hurt him like that, what was Marvin Hagler going to do?
LEONARD: My original plan was to stand toe-to-toe with Marvin. But that punch there made me see, you know what Ray? Do what you do best. Thank God it happened.
JD BROWN: That one shot changed his whole philosophy, his whole mindset, his whole game plan. And that’s how he ended up boxing Hagler the way he did. That’s what won him the fight.
LEONARD: When I got to the ring, I still felt confident but there wasn’t confirmation, because you don’t know what you have until you throw. And when I threw my first punch – it was a jab, and I hit him – I thought, "Wow, this shit still works." My speed was still there and my mobility was still there.
More encouragingly, he found Hagler wasn't quite the beast he had been led to expect.
LEONARD: He was throwing big punches but I could see them like 100 miles away. They were telegraphed. That’s the funny thing. Hagler never, ever hurt me in the fight. He knocked me around. His fists were like cement. He’s heavy-handed. But he never hurt me in the fight like [Roberto] Duran did, or like Tommy Hearns did. He was so close to me and yet so far away. I could smell his breath and yet he couldn’t hit me.
Hagler improved as the fight wore on, hurting Leonard with an uppercut in the fourth round and taking a measure of control in the middle rounds. But Leonard’s habit of conserving his energy for flurries at the end of the rounds – helped by cornerman Ollie Dunlap’s shouts of “30!" when there were 30 seconds remaining – left a lasting impression in the eyes of the judges, who tend to remember the last thing they see.
At the bell, Hagler’s corner was subdued while Leonard’s, perhaps overjoyed that their man had been able to get to the finish line in a fight many thought he would never survive, were behaving like winners.
LEONARD: Fighters know when we lost, without them even announcing it. We know. I felt like I won anyway because I had gone the distance. I was already on top. But I was sure I won.
HAGLER: I think I probably just lost the first three rounds. After that, I put the pressure on this guy and I started fighting and trying to catch this guy for the rest of the fight. No question I won it.
Afterward, Hagler claimed that Leonard told him, “You beat me, man,’’ in the ring after the final bell.
LEONARD: Even if that was true, I wouldn’t say that. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and I said, "You’re still champ to me." Cause he was more devastated than I was against Roberto Duran. I know what it feels like to lose. It’s traumatic, like it’s the end of the world. But the thing about it, if it was anyone else, I think he would have been OK with it.
The final verdict was a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti had Leonard a 115-113 winner while Lou Filippo had the same score for Hagler. Judge JoJo Guerra, added to the bout when the Hagler camp insisted on the removal of judge Harry Gibbs, had Leonard a 118-110 winner, giving him 10 of the 12 rounds.
MORETTI: This is not to pat myself on the back, but a lot of people at ringside said you had the right score, you did a great job. So I felt that. I could accept Lou Fillipo’s score. It was a close fight. JoJo Guerra, he seen something very different than both of us did.
As did the official loser of the bout.
HAGLER: Something about that fight was not right. I believe the referee was not doing any justice for me in the ring. I don’t know if they paid this guy or what. I don’t know if they paid the judges. Because the fight was just not right.
It is a belief Hagler took out of the ring with him, and one he has carried for the ensuing 30 years.
“People know I won that fight," Hagler wrote via email recently. “The whole world saw it. I still feel the same even though they gave the fight to Leonard. In all the history books it will always be described as 12 rounds with a “controversial’’ split decision. That tells you all!’’
SETH ABRAHAM: Marvin was the first fighter HBO did a multi-fight deal with and the only fighter that I ever allowed myself to become friends with. At ringside I scored the fight 6-6 and then I say no, that’s really wimping out. So I replay the fight in my mind, still sitting in my seat, and I score it 7-5 for Ray. The next week Marvin asked me how I had scored the fight, and I told him. He wouldn’t talk to me for a year. I wrote him notes. I called him. He wouldn’t respond. He was so angry at me. To this day, Marvin thinks he won the fight.
Reportedly, Hagler and Leonard ran into each other in the men’s room at a fight in Atlantic City not long afterward. Accounts of what were said differ.
LEE SAMUELS: I heard Ray said to Marvin, “Let’s do it again.’’ And Marvin said, “Let’s not,’’ and walked away.
LEONARD: Something did happen in a bathroom. I saw him, and I reached to shake his hand, and he walked away. And I thought, he took this shit serious.
HAGLER (via email): “I never met Leonard in a restroom! LOL – not then and not after!!’’
The bottom line was Hagler walked away not only from Leonard, but from boxing. Just 33 years old, he never fought again.
HAGLER: I just got fed up with all the politics and everything that had been happening to me in my life and my boxing career. They can’t whup me. The only way they could beat me is they had to steal it.
LEONARD: Hagler always claimed I wouldn’t give him a rematch. That’s such BS. I would have fought him the next day.
HAGLER: I had a great career. I have no complaints. There isn’t much to say besides that.
Recently, Leonard, Hagler, and referee Richard Steele found themselves together for the first time since that night in the Caesars Palace ring, at Hagler’s induction to the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.
HAGLER: I see Leonard often. We talk, and we respect each other. He has his life and I have mine. We know the deal.
LEONARD: I said, "Marvin, let’s get a picture with the three of us." And Marvin said, "No, because you fucking paid him off." But I said, "No, it’s OK, he’ll raise both of our hands." So we did it, and took the picture. But it came out blurry. You can’t tell who’s who!
Thirty years after Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler met in the ring, it’s still tough to distinguish winner from loser.
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