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.