This past weekend’s action leads me to throw it back to a bygone era where the best fought the best. “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler and “Sugar” Ray Leonard were two members of the famous ‘fab four’ which also included Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns. They squared-off in 1987 in circumstances not too different from the recent Canelo vs Golovkin bout.
Hagler, like Golovkin, was the genuine middleweight, a few years older, had been champion for many years with many defences, boasted a high knockout percentage of 78% and had begun to show signs of slowing down. Leonard, like Canelo, was the younger quicker fighter, an adored fan favourite and had moved up from lower weight classes over the course of his career. However, the similarities don’t end here as both fights were similar stylistically. With Hagler and Golovkin producing consistent work, whereas Canelo and Leonard won early rounds and avoided confrontation choosing instead to throw quick flashy combinations sporadically. Hopefully, this fight can put last weekend’s bout into perspective.
Before the fight
Leonard was the golden boy of American boxing after winning Olympic gold in 1976. However, in 1982 “Sugar” Ray Leonard discovered he had a detached retina and retired soon after, claiming a bout with Hagler would unfortunately never take place. He soon decided to return to the ring, but again had problems with a loose retina which lead to many urging him to stay retired. Nonetheless, Leonard recovered from surgery and returned to boxing in 1984. His opponent, Kevin Howard (20-4-1), handed Leonard the first knockdown of his career in round four, but Leonard battled back to win by a disputed stoppage in round nine. Many, including Leonard, believed he just didn’t have it anymore and so Leonard retired once more.
Meanwhile, Hagler had battled on through the years and faced John “The Beast” Mugabi in 1986 searching for his 12th title defence. Mugabi was an Olympic silver medallist and came to the ring with a record of 25-0 with 25 knockouts. Hagler managed to tame the beast in the 11th round of an action-packed fight, but many observers noticed a change in Hagler’s style and chalked it down to age. It was clear Hagler was slowing and seemed easier to hit.
Upon watching the Hagler and Mugabi fight, Leonard was convinced he had a game plan to defeat Hagler and decided to come out of his three-year retirement. The move was criticised by many due to Leonard’s history of eye injuries, his inactivity and the fact he had never fought at middleweight before. Months later Hagler put aside his own retirement and agreed to the bout. It would be Leonard’s first contest at middleweight, but he later revealed that he had had several bouts behind closed doors in preparation for the fight.
During negotiations, Hagler was given a larger share of the fight purse at the cost of a larger ring, bigger gloves and a twelve round fight instead of fifteen. Both boxers were set to make over $10m. 18 of 21 writers picked Hagler to win the bout even after all the concessions he had made. Hagler was the odds-on favourite.
“Marvellous” Marvin Hagler entered the ring at Caesar’s Palace aged 33 with a record of 62-2-2. He had been middleweight champion for over 6 years with 12 defences. Leonard was 31 and came with a professional record of 33-1, he had fought just once in the last 5 years.
At the start of the first round, Leonard took the centre of the ring immediately. Surprisingly Hagler started in the orthodox stance, making it easy for the skilled Leonard. “Sugar” Ray moved around the ring using his hand speed to pepper jabs and throw flashy combinations. Hagler struggled to catch him and started talking to him, landing to the body late in the round. 10-9 Leonard.
Hagler came out for the second round still in an orthodox stance throwing a leaping left hook, chasing Leonard. Leonard kept on his toes but began to clinch landing a solid one-two counter on the inside. Leonard finished the round strong as Hagler struggled to land. 10-9 Leonard.
Hagler decided to return to his usual southpaw stance in the third. Leonard continued moving, trying to keep the fight at distance, but as a southpaw Hagler starting to catch him. Leonard fired a flashy body shot causing the crowd to roar, but Hagler was out punching him when they exchanged in the centre. Leonard started landing right hands and finished the round with another quick combination, Hagler had been outworked. 10-9 Leonard.
Clearly frustrated Hagler came straight out with purpose for the fourth. He was made to miss as Leonard continued to move around, firing combinations out of the clinch. Hagler eats a low blow from Leonard with no change in expression. Hagler had become more active and started attacking the body, but Leonard’s work was cheered by the crowd and he again finished the round with a quick combination which Hagler laughed at. 10-9 Leonard.
The fifth began with Hagler coming fast trying to force a fight. He was an easy target and Leonard landed a big right and another flashy combination early. Both struggled to land throughout with Hagler switch-hitting trying to figure out a way inside Leonard. Eventually, Hagler got the range as Leonard’s movement slowed and they both exchanged, Hagler finished the stronger. 10-9 Hagler.
Again Hagler came out strong. Leonard threw quick hands, but Hagler was countering well. Hagler began attacking the body as he got on the inside. Leonard had stopped dancing as much and was pawing with a frequent jab struggling to land solid shots. As they exchanged on the ropes Hagler’s arms seemed stuck in treacle and Leonard often got the better of him. “Sugar” Ray was often holding and punching much to the referee’s annoyance. Leonard peppered a few shots and finished the round well. It was a close one, tough to score. 10-9 Leonard.
The seventh started with Hagler out fast once again, but Leonard started moving again, peppering shots. Hagler had become more active, now throwing combinations, but he was being made to miss eventually finding success when he attacked the body. Hagler had more and more success as Leonard became flat-footed, but Leonard still had some fight in him throwing his hands but Hagler laughed the punches off once more. They ended the round exchanging, Leonard’s work was flashy, but Hagler was consistent and landed the harder shots. 10-9 Hagler.
Haggler jabbed early in the eighth before his momentum was taken when the referee called a timeout to fix loose tape on Leonard’s glove. Leonard was moving, but not throwing many punches except sporadic quick combinations. Hagler worked away throughout the round jabbing and attacking the body, landing a big right hand over Leonard’s glove. 10-9 Hagler.
The ninth was an entertaining round. Hagler came out with a right hook and both exchanged well, but it was clear Leonard was tiring and Hagler was landing harder punches. They traded on the inside, with a flashy combination from Leonard drawing a crowd reaction, but Hagler was having more success as Leonard now stayed static against the ropes. Hagler got the best of the frequent exchanges. 10-9 Hagler.
Leonard seemed to get a second wind as he was back up on his toes again to start the tenth. Hagler was in hot pursuit landing frequent single shots. Leonards pawing jab and occasional combinations were met by Hagler’s solid shots. Hagler looked tired as they exchanged to end the round. These three minutes seemed evenly matched. 10-10 even.
Again Hagler was throwing early, attacking the body well. Leonard maintained his quick snappy combinations and moving, but Hagler was landing solid jabs and body shots more frequently. Leonard countered well throughout, but Hagler had more success on the inside causing Leonard to back into the ropes. Hagler landed a higher volume of clean shots, Leonard showboated but struggled to land anything meaningful instead hiding behind flurries and his hand speed. 10-9 Hagler.
The final round began with both fighters out early calling the other to come forward. They touched gloves and the action continued. Hagler landed a big right hand and was jabbing at Leonard, landing more than his opponent. Leonard answered with a few shots, but his arms were flailing with no real weight and his feet had slowed dramatically. Hagler managed to back Leonard into a corner resulting in an incredible flurry from Leonard before he danced away. He showboated and avoided Hagler throughout the round, but Hagler had more success on the inside. They exchanged well to end the fight, but it was clear Hagler had landed the cleaner shots and Leonard was avoiding him. 10-9 Hagler.
The judges in attendance were JoJo Guerra, Dave Moretti and Lou Filippo who scored the fight, 118-110 Leonard, 115-113 Leonard and 115-113 Hagler respectively. Meaning “Sugar” Ray Leonard had become the middleweight champion of the world by split decision.
Al Bernstein of ESPN scored it 115-113 to Hagler, Harold Lederman of HBO had it 115-113 to Leonard and Larry Merchant of HBO scored it 114-114 even. Ringside press was equally divided with 6 scoring the bout in favour of Leonard, 5 in favour of Hagler and 3 scoring it a draw. I scored the fight 115-114 to Hagler. Harry Gibbs, a judge who Hagler had asked be replaced by Guerra, scored the bout in Hagler’s favour.
A quote from a writer at Sport illustrated summed up my thoughts exactly:
“His [Leonards] plan was to “steal” rounds with a few flashy and carefully timed flurries and to make the rest of each three-minute session as unproductive as possible for Hagler by circling briskly away from the latter’s persistent pursuit. When he made his sporadic attacking flourishes, he was happy to exaggerate hand speed at the expense of power, and neither he nor two of the scorers seemed bothered by the fact that many of the punches landed on the champion’s gloves and arms”
Punch stats showed that Leonard landed 306 of 629 punches (49%) whereas Hagler landed 291 of 792 (37%).
Hagler later claimed that during an embrace after the fight Leonard told him that he knew he had been beaten, but Leonard denies this. HBO cameras and microphones support Hagler’s version of events.
Many were angry with the scorecards, especially Guerra’s wide decision, and the result remains hotly disputed to this day.
Hagler immediately requested a rematch but Leonard refused choosing to retire instead. The decision reportedly sent Hagler into a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse, although Hagler denies these claims. Disillusioned with the sport Hagler retired in 1988 and moved to Italy to become an actor. Leonard offered him a big money rematch in 1990, but Hagler refused making it clear that he thought he had been robbed in the first bout and wanted nothing to do with the sport again.
The contest was named Fight Of The Year and upset of the decade.
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