Righteous Rounds: Sugar Ray Leonard vs Marvellous Marvin Hagler
By Kieran O’Sullivan: Brothers and sisters, today we are going to get righteous. Together we are going to look at one of the great righteous rounds in boxing history: the ninth round between Marvelous Marvin and Sugar Ray.
The Super Fight
Picture the scene. 1987, open air in Caesar’s Palace temporary arena, a balmy April evening, a 15000 capacity crowd. Imagine the crush and spell of it, the ringside high rollers, the pneumatic call girls on the prowl, the hustlers, the purists, the great unwashed, all waiting in the night electric for the long-awaited return of the princely Leonard, waiting for the dark promise of the mighty marvellous one.
Because something was about to happen. Something righteous.
The Comeback Kid
Leonard was the comeback kid. Twice retired, first in 1982 after surgery for a detached retina suffered sparring, then in 1984 retiring again after beating Kevin Howard in a lackluster performance, Leonard brooded on fame’s margins. His workaday position as a commentator for CBS and HBO couldn’t salve the itch. Although his was the handsome, articulate face of the brutal art, deep down, he missed the squared arch lights, the brawling glamour of it all.
“Everything snowballs after you’ve been a world champion,” Leonard once remarked. ”The more you win, the bigger you are, the more you’re on television, the more you want. You want people to call you champ. You go to a nightclub, and you think you’re supposed to get in for free. You expect a good table at a packed restaurant. It’s something that happens. It happened to me.”
Life is a vanity fair. The hero falls in love with himself first; the crowd show up later armed with roses. Poor Leonard fell lovestruck headlong into the cold marble arms of that Janus-faced goddess called Fame:
”I don’t consider myself a fighter,” Leonard said. ”I’m a personality.”
Darker currents swirled within Leonard. After his initial retirement, he sank into the lethargy of alcohol and cocaine addiction. Domestic breakdowns, violent disorder: one morning, he pointed a gun at a TV and blew a hole in it because he had a hangover, and the noise was too much to bear.
“I just blew the TV out,” Leonard recalled. “If I had stayed on that road, I wouldn’t be here today.”
What we think we are and who we really are? – that is the question. Leonard, vain and impetuous, a self-made black Gatsby, that Leonard exists. Leonard, the haunted man shadow boxing his demons. He plays his part too. Leonard, the handsome charmer, the brand, the product. The celebrity Leonard.
But beneath the fragile carapace of this vaunted celebrity – a monied surface Leonard has spent a lifetime commodifying – beneath this surface we find the adamantine heart of the true fighter.
Leonard could fight.
The Marvellous One
The teak-tough Hagler, born in Newark, New Jersey, and later raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, learned life lessons on the street and at the lathe. One of five siblings, Hagler dropped out of school at 14, a child laborer ironically condemned to work in a toy factory to support his family.
Nothing came easy. Not for Hagler, the lauded Olympic career and fat purses enjoyed by Leonard in his early career. Hagler fought in dingy clubs and backroom sweatboxes, forging killer skills in the fires of hard experience.
They couldn’t have looked and been more different: Leonard with his schoolboy good looks and homespun manner versus the bald-headed, taciturn Hagler, a muscled monument with eyes that growled back at the world.
It was a world he’d learned to fight from the age of ten in cheap, laced gloves gifted to him by his social worker Mr. Joe. If you close your eyes, you might just see him still, Marvin Nathaniel Hagler, the angry little boy shadowboxing before a Newark street hydrant in the city’s cool, metallic, industrial dawn.
Call Me Marvellous
Hagler took his voiceless anger and nameless grudge with him everywhere. In 1982, offended at ring announcers continual failure to announce his ring moniker correctly, Hagler changed his name by deed poll. Now he would be officially known as Marvellous Marvin Hagler.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Gaming The Game
Today, fight fans bemoan the endless machinations of promoters, managers, and fighters, machinations that often see fights postponed or infinitely delayed. ‘He demanded this’; ‘they want that’ – ring walks, gloves, money, contracts, percentages, etc.
In the fight game, first, you have to fight to get the fight made, then you have to fight to keep it made, and when it’s made, you might just get to fight.
And it’s always been like that. In 1986 when Hagler-Leonard were negotiating the Super Fight, it looked like details and demands would scupper everything. Leonard demanded the seemingly impossible: 10-ounce gloves rather than the standard 8; 12 rounds rather than Hagler’s preferred 15. And the ring…?
…22x22ft! Enough space to pitch a tent, stoke up a barbie, and invite friends over for a burger and beer. Room to park a minted Corvette. Honey, I might just build an extension in that roped corner yonder.
A big ring.
And more than enough space for Leonard to run away in.
And who could blame him? Leonard, the supreme welterweight, five years out of the ring, going up to fight a middleweight killer?
Perseus and the Minotaur.
Sugar sweet. Marvellous and mythic.
And that ain’t hyperbole.
The fight begins well for Leonard. He comes out dancing, light on his feet, all Olympian grace and craft. Hagler, a natural southpaw, inexplicably fights as a rightie for the first two rounds. Leonard takes advantage. Lightning-fast combos. Cat like. Catches Hagler. Makes the marvellous one appear clumsy. Old even.
By the fifth round, Leonard is gassing. Hagler, an expert at cutting off the ring, starts to get to Leonard. Lots of bodywork. Brutal. Bit by bit, he edges Leonard to the ropes. Toward the precipice.
The rock and the hard place.
In the eighth round, Hagler lands stiff-armed jabs. One of the commentators – the great Gil Clancy – remarks, ‘There’s nothing on Leonard’s punches – Hagler’s able to move right through them’.
The heat is on. Hagler moves up the gears. Venom. Body and head. Leonard is in trouble.
The Ninth Round
The first significant punch is a Hagler body shot described by Clancy as ‘vicious’. However, Hagler appears to be slowing down, prompting Clancy to memorably declare, ‘He’s trying to hit the head. The body doesn’t move!’
Hagler is headhunting. But he looks slow. He hooks, Leonard pivots – then isn’t there. Ghost.
At 1.35 in, Hagler backs Leonard into the corner. Clancy again: ‘He’s nailing him now!’ And he is. Clubbing hooks. A raw meat grinder.
The crowd senses the end.
…Leonard fights back. A six, seven punch whirling flurry. If there’s something between a rock and a hard place, then that something surely is Sugar Ray Leonard. Clancy: ‘Look at that determination in Leonard! You’re talking about a champion! Absolutely gritted his teeth! Look at him go!’
The arena is electrified. Everyone knows they’re witnessing greatness. Myth in the making.
They go toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring. The second commentator Tim Ryan says, ‘We’ve got another minute to go…and most of the crowd are on their feet.’
Leonard is on the ropes again. Fire catching fire. Clancy, breathless, ‘Leonard is punching in desperation, Tim. What a display!’
Hagler is throwing everything at Leonard. And still, he hangs in there till, in the final few seconds of the ninth, he tags Hagler with a last flurry. Nothing on those punches – apart from everything he’s ever known in this world.
The bell rings.
And if we’ve all just witnessed myth, then the rest is history.
According To The Historians
Hagler loses on a split decision.
Clancy scores it 7 to 5 to Hagler. The arena, like the cards, is split too.
Later, at Leonard’s after-party, Leonard asks Clancy who he thought won. Clancy tells him. Leonard is shocked. They spend much of the evening sitting around a table, going through the scorecards. Surreal.
Hagler never got his rematch. Leonard left him waiting. Roll on fourteen months and Hagler‘s retired. Took a long boat to Italy. Made movies. Sat in the sun. Drank wine. Forgot it all.
Your Righteous Rounds?
Over to you now. Let us know your favorite round of boxing.
Pick a round where the hurt game made sense to you, where you saw something true and good – a righteous round.
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