SHARE
The showdown

“Soul radiation in the dead of night.                                                                             Love in the middle of a fire fight.                                                                              Honey, gotta strike me blind.                                                                                      Somebody gotta save my soul.                                                                                     Baby, penetrate my mind.                                                                                           I’m the world’s forgotten boy.                                                                                 The one who searches, only to destroy.”                                                                       –Iggy and the Stooges

Search and Destroy

It spoke volumes (pun very much intended) when Iggy Pop memorialized Scott Asheton, with whom he served two tours of duty in the Ann Arbor-based, funk and blues-infused punk outfit The Stooges over a span of nearly fifty years, by suggesting that “Scott played drums with a boxer’s authority.”

To the uninitiated, watching a boxing match or The Stooges perform live may instinctually come across as chaotic, brain-damaging, bloodletting exhibitions. This is negated, however, by repeated and careful consideration of the fine nuances that are as inherent to Iggy’s phrasing and spastic dancing; not to mention their methodically constructed rhythmic accompaniment, as they are to a prizefighter’s prowess in slipping a punch, working from a variety of angles, or hooking off the jab.

“When he wanted to, he had a heavy hand on the drums,” Iggy elaborated on his deceased bandmate and longtime friend in April 2014 to Rolling Stone. “He hit the drum very hard, but there were never a lot of elbows flying. He wasn’t showy. He didn’t have to make a physical demonstration to get the job done. He brought a swinging truth to the music he played and extreme musical honesty.”

To my way of thinking, if there was ever a single individual who personified the fistic characteristics which would underscore the poignancy of Iggy Pop’s analogy, the name that comes immediately to mind is Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Even if he was not above throwing an elbow or using that hard head of his as a weapon every now and then.

 

I Got a Right

Referee Mills Lane approached the challenger’s corner, offering anticipatory congratulations as well as instructions on where to stand so as to be in proper position to face the television cameras and press photographers when it came time to raise the new champion’s arm and fasten the middleweight title belts of the WBA and WBC around his waist.

Vito Antuofermo had accumulated and was cursed with scar tissue only slightly less delicate than that of British Heavyweight Champion Henry Cooper or ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ Chuck Wepner. One sportswriter quipped that Vito would begin hemorrhaging halfway through the National Anthem. He made a generous donation of hemoglobin on this night too, thanks to the challenger’s relentless and punishing aggression.

Marvin Hagler had entered the ring with a 46-2-1 record and a character which demanded and valued intensity, pride, and privacy above all else. The incivility often shown toward Hagler was perceived as the systematic shunning of a renegade on whom conventional stipulations could not be imposed.

In fact, Hagler was routinely denied a title shot until a triumvirate of political heavy hitters from the Boston area (Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and Paul Tsongas) intervened on Marvin’s behalf after having received an entreaty from Pat and Goody Petronelli, threatening Top Rank head honcho Bob Arum, among others, with a Congressional investigation into the matter.

A natural southpaw who could effortlessly alternate between his lefty stance and an orthodox attack, Hagler unleashed such an ambidextrous onslaught against Antuofermo, bloodying and befuddling the middleweight titleholder before admittedly running out of gas on his way to the finish line. Even so, what seemed a foregone conclusion to everyone else in attendance at Caesars Palace on November 30, 1979, was anything but to the ringside judges who collectively ruled the brutal fifteen-round skirmish a split draw. Antuofermo retained his belts. Hagler felt that he found himself, by no means for the first or (arguably) last time, staring down the business end of a screw job.

Their bout was the co-main event to the more highly-anticipated feature attraction which saw fan favorite and media darling ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard earn a million dollar payday along with the WBC Welterweight Championship by way of a spectacular 15th round TKO of Wilfred Benitez.

Marvin commanded a not-so-marvelous $40,000 against Antuofermo (as a decorated Olympian, Leonard would get almost exactly that for his pro debut) and did not even get to take home the gold straps as gestures of token appreciation. This only further widened the dividing line between ‘Sugar’ Ray and Marvelous Marvin, which would forge distinctly opposing paths along the collision course down which both men were headed, taking strange twists and turns, overlapping momentarily and enticingly along the way before culminating nearly seven and a half years later on the grounds of the very same casino.

 

Down on the Street

Marvin was not guaranteed, nor would he receive, a rematch against Antuofermo who instead dropped his belts to European Middleweight Champion Alan Minter on a split decision in only his second defense and would lose by TKO in the eighth round of their return bout ninety days later. Hagler could be denied no longer and, three months after Minter’s second win over Antuofermo, would be pelted with projectiles hurled from the nosebleed seats of Wembley Arena after dismantling Minter inside of three rounds. This disgraceful backlash was the handiwork of National Front hooligans fueled by egregious amounts of intoxicants and anti-immigration sentiment. Although he later attempted to walk this statement back, it is also possible that they were acting on Minter’s pre-fight assertion that “no black man is going to take my title.” Additional allegations by Minter that Hagler had refused to shake his hand, or that of any white man, forced Marvin to have to make the ridiculous proclamation that “I am not here for a race fight.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Marvin Nathaniel Hagler grew up in a city set atop an unstable powder keg of social tension and racial unrest. The inevitable explosion occurred in the summer of 1967.

Mae Hagler had seen enough violence in the streets below their tenement window to know that this was no environment in which to bring up a child with any hope of an adolescence that did not involve gangs, drugs, or run-ins with reactionary cops. Accepting an invitation to stay with family in Massachusetts, Mae made the move to Brockton, a tough town in its own right, best known for being home to Rocco Marchegiano.

A tragic plane crash near Newton, Iowa the day before he would have turned 46 stole Rocky Marciano’s life in August 1969. Allie Colombo, Rocky’s long-time trainer, had died in a car wreck just months before. Goody Petronelli, who was a friend of Colombo and was known to “shoot craps and climb fences with Rocky Marciano”, was involved in the plans to open the Rocky Marciano Gym in Brockton, partnering with Rocky, Colombo, and his brother Pat. Instead, Pat and Goody soldiered forward together, establishing their own gym that same fateful year. Shortly thereafter, fifteen year-old Marvin Hagler first walked through its doors.

Whether hitting the heavy bag and getting in some sparring at their gym or hanging sheetrock and pouring concrete on one of their construction sites, Pat and Goody never failed to be humbled by Marvin’s unforgiving and uncomplaining work ethic, or by the trust this young black kid put in these two white guys who returned it in kind. Head down, power through, to hell with superfluous distractions which mean nothing or wasted words worth even less.

Hagler would win the 1973 AAU National competition in the 165-pound weight division with (not yet Sugar) Ray Leonard placing second in that year’s lightweight class. Leonard emerged victorious in both the Golden Gloves and nationals the following year, doing so again in 1975 after stepping up to light-welterweight, which is the division in which Ray would earn his Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Montreal games. Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr. would also take to the upper tier of the medal stand, in the flyweight and lightweight divisions respectively, as would a pair of siblings fighting out of the Pruitt-Igoe projects of St. Louis, Michael and Leon Spinks.

While the brothers Spinks, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph, and Ray Leonard were winning and wearing their gold medals as the United States was swept up in the Spirit of ’76, Marvin Hagler was already in his third year as a professional prizefighter, having earned a small measure of acclaim for a unanimous decision over and hard-fought draw against another Olympian (and Sugar Ray), 1972 light-welterweight gold medalist Ray Seales.

Undefeated in his first 26 contests, Hagler would suffer his first two losses at the Philadelphia Spectrum against Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts and Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe within two months. Not only would Marvin later violently eradicate this pair of blemishes, he would not lose again for another eleven years.

 

Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell

The intrigue for a super fight between Hagler and Leonard first ran high among sportswriters, fight fans, and Vegas odds-makers in the early 80s with both men at their physical peaks and much more attention being lavished upon the lower weight classes after the sadly overdue departure of Muhammad Ali.

It was ‘Sugar’ Ray, the Olympic hero with the mile-wide smile who appeared to be custom-made to fill a good deal of the public relations void left behind by Ali. By contrast, Marvin Hagler’s goatee, shaven head, perennial scowl, and sometimes sullen, often cantankerous demeanor did little to endear him to the casual boxing fan. Whereas Leonard enjoyed attracting sizeable crowds and traveling amongst an entourage, Marvin preferred the minimalist approach if not total unreachability, likening his training camps to solitary confinement.

Given his background in construction, if Hagler was in search of a foundation on which to build his lasting legacy, he could do no better than the toppled body of Ray Leonard. The same was not necessarily true in reverse. Leonard, very well aware of this, played this advantage for all it was worth. And its value was virtually inestimable. His convincing victories over Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Ayub Kalule, and Thomas Hearns established Leonard as boxing’s preeminent welterweight, even if he deliberately (and probably wisely) avoided Aaron Pryor at all cost. Even Marvin Hagler, as badly as he yearned for the recognition and multi-million dollar purse that facing Leonard promised, cautioned on the occasions that he was invited to join the broadcast teams for Ray’s fights that Leonard would be making detrimental sacrifices by moving up to middleweight.

A detached retina, diagnosed while Leonard was in training for a title defense against Roger Stafford, would require career-threatening surgery and, for all intents and purposes, bury the hopes of a fight with Hagler. The procedure was such a success, however, that Leonard’s anticipated return implied that the dream match was back on the table.

The charity event organized by ‘Sugar’ Ray at the Baltimore Civic Center in November 1982 was believed by most to be the venue for a long-awaited and public calling-out of Leonard’s Marvelous nemesis. No one was more certain of this than Marvin Hagler, whose presence had been personally requested. Just a few weeks earlier in Italy, after Hagler had obliterated Fulgencio Obelmejias with a right hook from hell, Marvin had good-naturedly kidded Ray on camera about how he wanted Leonard to extend some of that same generosity his way and give him the big payday that their fight would guarantee.

During the Baltimore fundraiser, Ray rightfully acknowledged, and shrewdly teased, that going head-to-head with “this great man, this great champion, would be one of the greatest fights in the history of boxing.” But Leonard then leaned over the ropes of the makeshift ring and looked directly into Marvin’s eyes when he said that “unfortunately, it will never happen.” And, with that, he handed the microphone back to emcee Howard Cosell, bestowed a blessing onto his fans, and was gone. For the time being, anyway.

Ray plotted and embarked upon a comeback which was supposed to consist of a handful of tune-ups before a possible third bout with Roberto Duran and, eventually, the Hagler showdown. After a brief postponement due to lingering concerns over the risk to Leonard’s eyesight, he was medically declared fit to fight in the spring of 1984. On May 11, Marvin made the hour-plus drive over to the Worcester Centrum from Brockton and visited Ray’s dressing room, wishing him luck against Kevin Howard. Hagler was introduced before the fight (along with two other very interested parties, Aaron Pryor and Donald Curry) to a rousing ovation and shook hands with Leonard before returning to his ringside seat, which Ray had bought for him as a show of good faith.

Leonard, who had insisted on the use of thumbless gloves, was deposited onto the canvas in round four by Howard and remembers reflecting after the fact, “I felt if this guy could do this to me, what would a Hagler do? I think I would’ve been more up for Hagler. But I couldn’t take that chance. I had built up my reputation. It would have destroyed me.” Marvin could be seen laughing in the crowd. His jocular mood wouldn’t last for long.

Leonard would go on to win on what many considered a premature ninth-round stoppage. Hagler concurred with this assessment, adding in his post-fight interview with HBO’s Barry Tompkins that he thought Leonard looked “careless” and “too overconfident”.

Despite what was said in the ring about contemplating his future in a more relaxed environment, ‘Sugar’ Ray announced his second retirement during the press conference backstage. When made aware of Leonard’s decision as he watched a fellow Petronelli fighter compete in the walkout bout, Hagler barely took his eyes off the ring or changed his expression. He merely grumbled, “It’s the story of my life.”

 

Real Cool Time

Marvin Hagler had no problem keeping plenty busy, extending his winning streak (in pursuit of Carlos Monzon’s record of middleweight title defenses) with a hard-fought TKO of the tough Argentinian Juan Roldan, who was a one-eyed warrior from the third round forward. The protests from Roldan’s corner that a thumb was responsible for the grotesque swelling of his right eye notwithstanding, replays proved that no foul play was involved and that Hagler’s left uppercut had done the damage. Not quite ten seconds into the fight, Roldan had landed a glancing blow atop Marvin’s skull while he simultaneously bounced and crouched. The resulting slip was ruled a knockdown by referee Tony Perez, the first and only of Hagler’s professional career. Even the objective Ray Leonard, calling the action for HBO, had to admit that “it was more of a push”.

There followed a second sadistic knockout of Mustafa Hamsho, and an eight-minute cyclone of savagery which tore through Thomas Hearns. His contracted whacking of ‘The Hitman’ made a household name of Marvelous Marvin Hagler at long last. He got a guest spot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and lined up commercial endorsements with Pizza Hut and Right Guard. “One would hate to be considered malodorous by one’s chums, now wouldn’t one?”, a dapper looking Hagler queries the home viewer with perfectly enunciated diction as he gently sets a Sport Stick beside a teapot on an open veranda. “Anything less would be uncivilized.”

Enter John Mugabi. It took eleven rounds of hellish hand-to-hand combat for Hagler to ultimately break the unbeaten Ugandan Beast. Among those in agreeance that the Mugabi fight took something vital from Marvin that he would never quite recover were ringside spectator ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler himself.

Leonard invited Hagler out to dinner to talk shop and test the waters and found that his suspicions were correct. Marvin uncharacteristically let his guard down and gave his arch-enemy all the incentive he required to allow a gentlemanly amount of time go by before attacking Hagler anew at his most vulnerable spot. His pride.

Leonard’s head games had only just begun. When the contract was signed and the date marked on the calendar, ‘Sugar’ Ray unfurled a litany of advantageous demands that Hagler ponderously relented to right down the line. A 24-foot ring rather than the standard 20. 12-ounce gloves instead of 10. 12 rounds and not 15.

Psychological warfare of this exact variety was practiced by two of Leonard’s heroes, his pugilistic namesake ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson and, the all-time master of theatrical mind games, Muhammad Ali. Angelo Dundee was a living, tangible link connecting Ali to Leonard and they had perfected their tandem routine by ferreting about the brain of Roberto Duran before and during their ‘No Mas’ rematch, flipping the script on their ‘Brawl in Montreal’ when Duran had gotten inside Leonard’s head by belligerently questioning Ray’s sexuality and degrading his wife Juanita. Leonard took the bait and engaged in a mostly stand and deliver type of fight at uncomfortably close quarters which worked to Duran’s advantage.

There are several extenuating circumstances that can be evoked to question why what happened between Marvin and Leonard at Caesars Palace went down the way it did. Did Mugabi remove Hagler’s executioner’s hood, revealing the mortal coil beneath? Did Marvin over train and hit his maximum stride too early, setting up camp in Las Vegas eleven weeks prior to fight night when six was the norm for him? Did Leonard’s protracted layoff as well as intentional (and fallacious) leaks from his handlers that Ray was not working out consistently and looked questionable during sparring sessions instill false confidence in Hagler?

 

We Will Fall

I had been a huge fan of ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard when I was younger for the same reason that I loved the LA Lakers. For the showbiz flash, the pomp and circumstance that accompanied every behind-the-back pass dished out by ‘Magic’ Johnson or bolo punch thrown by ‘Sugar’ Ray, the effortless fluidity of each Kareem sky hook and Leonard left hook. As time and life wore on, my allegiances swung dramatically to the East and I gained immeasurably greater respect for the hardscrabble New England aesthetics embodied by Marvin Hagler and even a begrudging appreciation for the same traits that defined the lunch pail work ethic of Larry Bird and the hated Celtics. Well before April 6, 1987, Marvin was my main man. Still is.

Which makes it all the harder to accept the verdict that I know to be the true one, even if I still watch the Hagler/Leonard fight repeatedly, hoping childishly for some alternate ending. It pained me to have to agree with Bert Sugar, the walking, talking boxing encyclopedia who passed away less than a year after I discussed the subject with him during the 2011 IBHOF induction weekend, when he summed up that, “Leonard won. I don’t like the way he did it, it wasn’t an honorable win. But he did win.” He then craned his neck around in exaggerated fashion, laughing that craggy cigar-and-scotch laugh of his and asked in mock fear, “Marvin didn’t hear that, did he?”

What Hagler did hear repeatedly was Dundee screaming his instruction for Leonard to “stick the jab” and “slide and dip”, as well as calling out “30!”, alerting Leonard that the last half-minute of each stanza had arrived. Ray would know to then let loose largely ineffectual flurries that they were nonetheless confident would nullify in the judges’ collective consciousness whatever bona fide power punches Marvin was capable of getting off earlier in the round.

If fans were expecting to see the same Hagler that had barged his way recklessly through the protective barrier established by Thomas Hearns’ 80-inch reach with carnage on his mind, we would all be left guessing as to when or if he might show up. Instead, Marvin came out in a cautious orthodox style, the brawler turned boxer, and would remain so for the majority of the first two rounds. He had done the same against Mugabi with favorable results and enjoyed his finest moments of the Duran fight when switching from lefty to righty. Of course, they both proved to be far more stationary targets for the launching of Hagler’s offensives. Leonard was not so compliant. He consistently beat Hagler to the punch and would then pivot out of harm’s way and run laps around the enlarged ring with the champion unable to head him off at the pass.

Goody Petronelli could be overheard advising Marvin to revert to his southpaw attack, urging Hagler to “put on a little more pressure” and “rough him up”. His strategy to take the fight to Leonard was easier said than done. Exasperation was evident on Marvin’s face as Leonard taunted, teased, mugged, dropped his hands, did the Ali shuffle, and unloosed a bolo punch that landed a little below Hagler’s beltline.

Ray later recalled Marvin telling him to “fight me like a man, you little bitch.” Not only would Leonard have none of that, but there was really no need to. Not when Leonard now knew that he had burrowed beneath Hagler’s skin as well as inside his mind. Anger is a serious liability to a prizefighter. It turns one’s self into just as dangerous an enemy as the other man in the opposing corner attempting to physically incapacitate you. Like Edwin Starr asks rhetorically in Marvin’s famous ring-walk song, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

A shift crept into the fight’s narrative in the middle rounds when Leonard visibly began to tire and, as Larry Merchant quipped, “put his bicycle in the garage.” Suddenly flat-footed, he was susceptible to Hagler’s body shots, hooks, and short uppercuts now that Marvin could fire from short range and expect to dodge or absorb fewer counterpunches in the process. The ninth was clearly Hagler’s best round. Still, there must have been mounting frustration due to the fact that he could not “get this guy out of there” as Goody Petronelli was beseeching.

Leonard rode a second wind through the last few rounds and celebrated in his corner after the tolling of the final bell while Marvin strutted around the center of the ring in a rare show of bravado. We have all witnessed the full spectrum of emotion displayed by a fighter who feels they were shortchanged by the officials, ranging from grim acceptance, to petulant tantrums, to resentment and rage. I don’t know that I have seen anyone so utterly crestfallen by losing a decision as Marvin Hagler that night. He lived for boxing, loved it despite all its faults and foibles, and it went ahead and broke his heart.

 

No Fun

Why a rematch never happened is still a matter of debate. So too is its speculative outcome. Hagler, befitting his reclusive mentality, exiled himself to Milan, Italy where he took up an acting career that proffered only a select few minor roles in low-budget thrillers and direct-to-video action flicks.

Joe Frazier, who had pointed out to a young Marvin the predetermined pitfalls he would have to circumnavigate throughout his upward mobility, never let go of the hurt and hate which pierced and poisoned his heart. Blind in one eye, body ravaged by cancer, his gym facing bankruptcy and foreclosure, Smokin’ Joe took to his grave an undying resentment toward what he felt to be an indifferent boxing community and a specific hostility for Muhammad Ali.

Marvin Hagler exhibits a more or less similar disinclination toward extending or accepting an olive branch to or from Ray Leonard. Rare and uneasy is the occasion when Hagler will appear in public with him, still bitter thirty years later at the injustice Marvin feels Leonard was somehow personally responsible for.

Inspired by the critical and financial success of Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth, ‘Sugar’ Ray had proposed a touring show called The Fabulous Four, which would feature himself and Hagler in addition to Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran telling tales and airing grievances. Like Tyson’s exposition, it promised to be a spectacle somewhere along the lines of a scripted vaudeville routine and a devil-may-care sideshow.

Needless to say, it hasn’t happened. I’ll believe it when I see it. It would be nice, though. For Marvelous Marvin to sit in the spotlight, break his silence, and relate his version of events. He deserves at least that much. If only he will allow it.

Having said all of that, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with a variation on Iggy Pop’s opening statement. That Marvin Hagler boxed with a drummer’s authority.