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.