In 1987 professional boxing was experiencing something of a boom. Fights remained a staple of network TV weekend programming, a young Mike Tyson had recently destroyed Trevor Berbick to win his first championship, and four lower-weight-class stars were engaged in a roundelay of impassioned violence that captivated the public imagination. Between 1980 and 1989, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran confronted one another in a series of title fights, producing a handful of the most thrilling sporting events of the second half of the 20th century. The last truly significant of these battles, and the one with the most shocking outcome, was Leonard’s successful challenge to the brilliant, long-running middleweight king, Hagler. It took place 30 years ago this week.
The first of many surprises was that the bout took place at all. For years, the two fighters had warily circled one another. Leonard was the polished Olympic hero who drew large purses and ecstatic crowds from the outset of his professional career. Hagler was a hard-scrabble Brockton, Massachusetts–based 160-pounder of no special pedigree who honed his meticulous craft over the course of 50-plus club fights before finally winning the middleweight crown in 1980. Both men were double tough — any nagging suspicions about the fleet-footed Leonard’s makeup were rendered moot by his fearless efforts in apocalyptic wars with Duran and Hearns. Hagler was justifiably seen as nothing less than an assassin: technically flawless, with devastating power in both hands and an apparently impervious chin. By April of ’87, he had defended his title 12 times against top competition and hadn’t been beaten in 11 years. Both Leonard and Hagler liked one another personally, and both liked their chances against the other in the ring.
Still it seemed it would never happen. Leonard suffered a detached retina against Hearns during their epochal 1981 showdown, and fought only one more time before deciding to retire rather than risk permanent blindness. This being boxing, the retirement didn’t take, and he was back in the ring two years later. A tune-up fight with journeyman Kevin Howard went sideways — Leonard prevailed but performed terribly and suffered the first knockdown of his career. Embarrassed, he promptly retired again, seemingly permanently.
In the meantime Hagler slowly grew his legend. In 1985 he savaged Tommy Hearns in three ultra-violent rounds that many consider the eight most exciting minutes of prize fighting in history. He manhandled worthy contenders ranging from Duran to John Mugabi and found his bald-headed visage on national TV advertising for Pizza Hut. As he encroached further on the mainstream, Leonard took notice and finally couldn’t stand it anymore. In 1986 he announced his intention to un-retire and face Hagler in April of the following year.
Leonard’s decision to come back following one fight in five and a half years was largely regarded as an act of lunacy. Many feared he would be badly hurt. In addition to manifold other disadvantages, Sugar Ray would be moving up to 160 pounds, taking his first middleweight fight against one of the best ever to compete in the division. A good big man always beats a good little man, the old boxing maxim goes. So exactly what happens when a great big man takes on a little man who is rusty or even shot? That was the tenor of the Leonard-Hagler pre-fight discussion.
On fight night, every last detail had been negotiated to the Leonard camp’s satisfaction. They would go 12 rounds instead of 15, despite Hagler’s penchant for building up steam over the course of accumulating frames. The ring would be larger than usual — 20 feet, the better to abet Sugar’s mobility. And the gloves would be larger, mitigating the pulverizing force of Hagler’s two-fisted assault. None of this was thought to matter in what amounted to a glorified public mugging.
Boxing fanatics continue to argue the point, but it remains clear to me 30 years on that Leonard certainly won the fight. The first four rounds were a blur of Sugar Ray’s whirlwind athleticism, speeding around a bedeviled Hagler, who plodded along and walked into rat-tat-tat combinations. In those early frames, Hagler bizarrely abandoned his usual southpaw stance, choosing to fight orthodox. It was an odd concession, almost self-handicapping. It was not known and remains unclear what he was trying to prove, but the net result was that Leonard swept the opening third of the fight on the judges cards.
The middle rounds turned brutal as Hagler turned southpaw and his relentless body attack began to take its toll. At times Leonard could be heard to audibly gasp as the champion punished his liver and ribs. At other points like the final minute of the fifth round, Leonard seemed almost assured to be knocked out. Then, somehow he punched his way to safety. The fighters exchanged barbs and taunts. The fight grew closer.
The ninth round was a classic. Leonard was exhausted — he remained game but had taken a beating from the fifth round on. The Vegas crowd, most of whom had wagered heavily on the champ, began migrating toward Leonard, moved by the potential of witnessing an historic upset. Hagler, no doubt surprised the fight was still going on, let alone that he might well be behind, bulled forward waiting for the knockout he was certain must be coming. For the first minute, Leonard kept Hagler at bay with stinging combinations.
But then Hagler caught him on the ropes and unleashed hell with two hard left hooks to the chin followed by clubbing flurries in the corner. Leonard desperately flurried in return, but it was buckshot versus cannon fire. With 20 seconds remaining in the round, Sugar Ray looked like he might faint. But he somehow kept throwing punches, and Hagler’s best chance for a knockout passed with the bell.
The final three rounds followed much the same pattern, with Hagler bullying Leonard but never quite able to put the right punches together to stop him. Meanwhile, Leonard responded in perfectly timed bursts, throwing eye-catching combinations toward the end of each frame. He clearly won the 11th and appeared to be the champion if he could survive the final round. His trainer, the great Angelo Dundee, exhorted him in the corner, as he had so many times before, and for Muhammad Ali before that: “Deep breath, Ray! We’ve only got three minutes! C’mon baby! New champion!”
As the crowd buzzed and the “Sugar Ray” chants grew louder, it was nearly impossible not to get chills. Boxing is in many ways reprehensible, but this was the sort of thrilling moment that the sport alone can provide.
The split decision was, needless to say, controversial. Most of the focus came on JoJo Guerra’s wide margin of victory for Leonard — he scored the fight 118-110, but in truth that was no more wildly off base than Lou Fillipo’s 115-113 tabulation for Hagler. Who knows what goes on with this stuff. In the end, Leonard had pulled off one of the most shocking and thrilling comeback stories in sports history. He out-thought Hagler in and out of the ring — had the fight been scheduled for 15 rounds, there is no way he would have made it. He required every advantage he’d so cannily negotiated.
It was a more credulous time. Leonard had been marketed with great success as a clean-cut family man, while Hagler had taken on the aura of a menacing villain. The truth was more complicated. Leonard wasn’t a bad guy, but he was no saint, either, and would spend years taming the alcohol and cocaine issues that would end his first marriage. Unable to walk away from the spotlight, he continued fighting, including a tedious third bout with a badly faded Duran and a draw that should have been a loss in a rematch with Hearns. It would take two more brutal losses to finally convince him to walk away.
Not so for Marvin Hagler. A friendly but reclusive man in real life, he felt so dejected by the loss to Leonard (he was certain he’d deserved the decision) he did the thing fighters never do and exiled himself permanently. Discussions of a rematch lingered for a couple years but ultimately went nowhere. Shortly after the fight Hagler moved to Milan and starred in some little-seen action films. He has lived there ever since.
Boxing has always been criminally mismanaged, frequently by literal criminals. A failure to consolidate its many governing and sanctioning bodies into anything remotely coherent began to water down the meaning of championships. Tyson remained a huge star throughout the 90’s, but as ratings dwindled and sports like golf brought in a higher tax bracket of consumers, network TV mostly lost interest in prizefighting. Globally the sport remains a huge attraction, but it is unlikely that its pull on the American consciousness will ever be the same. Maybe that’s for the best — it’s a pretty rough way to make a living.
But 30 years ago, there was no bigger sports story than Leonard-Hagler, boxing’s end of the beginning.