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Boxing Classic: Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns

BY Pat Putnam ON February 22, 2005
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It might surprise some of the younger members of the boxing media, both print and mouth, to learn that there were other middleweights - even a good one or three - before Bernard Hopkins. Now I have long been an admirer of the greatest 160-pounder since, what, April 4, 1995. I’ve always enjoyed the brilliance of a boxing chess master, but I was never one to turn away in horror at the scene of a particularly nasty mugging, and Hopkins offers both, if always in carefully measured portions.

I like the way he fights to please himself, and not to cater to the bloodlust of the live audience. I like the way he deals out punishment in measured doses, while craftily measuring his opponent in the fashion of a coroner contemplating the current resident of the coldest of tables. I like the way he hoards his punches, expending them only when he is sure he will get full return for his efforts. I like the way he spends three or four rounds doing his homework and the remaining rounds acing the exam. I like the way he blends a dash of Willie Pep with a splash of Genghis Kahn with a full measure of patience, causing bored audiences to suddenly roar like lions.

He is good; lord, is he good, undefeated in his last 22 middleweight title fights good. He’s 40; if he were 10 years younger every 160-pounder in the world would be trying to gain or lose 13 pounds. They are waiting for him to get old. Howard Eastman, the loquacious Guyanese out of Battersea, England, waited for 36 minutes last Saturday night and it did not happen. They may be still waiting when he turns his back on the lot and walks away, pleased with himself.

That is when it will be time to consider his position among the middleweight immortals, not now, not while there are still a few young lions willing to test the latest in a long line of great Philadelphia 160-pounders.

As I watched Hopkins turn Eastman into vintage British whine on HBO, I heard---before hitting the mute button the first time Larry or Curly asked Moe how he had it scored----almost as much discussion about where Hopkins should be placed in the mythical pantheon as I did about the fight. Roy Jones Jr. offered that he judged Hopkins no worse than fifth in the royal line; since Jones was the last man (and the only middleweight) to defeat Hopkins, I have to assume that means he has positioned himself somewhere in the top four.

Jones’ line of thinking, and I have read others recently that were as generous, leaves open only three slots for Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Stanley Ketchel, Marvin Hagler, Mickey Walker, Charley Burley, Tiger Flowers, Freddie Steele, Tony Zale, Carmen Basilio, Fred Apostoli, Carlos Monzon, Emile Griffith, and, perhaps the greatest middleweight of them all, Ezzard Charles. OK, so I forgot a few.

I was thinking of that while watching the muted HBO telecast, during one of those lulls when you hoped someone would hit somebody, even if it was the referee. I thought how wonderful it would be if I could punch a remote button, there in Staples Center, and instead of Hopkins and Eastman in the 54th hour of a three day dance-a-thon there would be Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns.

You remember that one . . . Don’t you?

LAS VEGAS, Aug 15, 1985 -There was a strong North wind blowing through Las Vegas Monday night, but it failed to sweep away the smell of raw violence as Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns hammered each other with a fury that was spent only after Hearns was rescued by the protecting arms of referee Richard Steele. The fight in a ring set up on the tennis courts at Caesars Palace lasted only a second longer than eight minutes, but for those who were witnesses, the memory of the nonstop savagery will remain forever.

Hagler’s undisputed middleweight championship was the stake, and for the first time since he won it from Alan Minter in 1980, people were questioning his ability to retain it. In the weeks leading up to the fight, Hagler fumed as the odds tilted back and forth before settling on the champion by the thinnest of margins.

The champion is a proud man and his pride was sorely stung. It was with a deep burning anger that he wrote his battle plan.

His was a simple strategy, one that might have been taken from the playbook of Attila the Hun. Keep the swords swinging until there were no more heads to roll. Give no quarter; take no prisoners. For this fight, Hagler would use only one pace, all out; he would move only in one direction, forward.

The strategy was a gamble, for Hagler knew he would be exposing his 30-year-old body to the cannons that had knocked out 34 of the 41 men his 26-year-old challenger had faced. Hearns nickname The Hit Man was no idle nom-de-guerre.

“But he ain’t never hit Marvin Hagler,” the champion sneered. “I’ve taken the best shots of the biggest hitters in the middleweight division, and I’ve never been knocked off my feet.” Hagler refuses to concede that his knockdown by Juan Roldan was anything but a slip. “And this guy (Hearns) is a welterweight.”

As the challenger, Hearns entered the ring first. Tall and strikingly muscular at 159 3/4 pounds, he wore a red robe with yellow trim. He jumped up and down to limber up his leg muscles, and then he strolled about the ring smiling and nodding at the crowd. Then came Hagler, in a royal-blue robe over trunks of the same color. Most champions use their rank to keep challengers waiting, and, hopefully, nervous, but Halger had warmed up well in his dressing room and wanted to make an appearance while the sweat still oiled his hard body. As he entered the ring, the champion speared Hearns with a scowl that never wavered, not even during Doc Severinsen’s trumpet version of the National Anthem.

“I think Marvin may come out so fired up that we’ll just have Tommy stick and move,” said Emanuel Steward, Hearns’ manager-trainer. “Hagler will be so juiced up, after seven or eight rounds it will sap his strength. Then we’ll go for the knockout.”

But even the canny Steward underestimated just how juiced Hagler would be. From the opening bell, the champion gave Hearns little chance to do anything but fight for sheer survival. The 5'9½" champion swept over his 6'2" opponent like a 159¼ pound tidal wave.

There were no knockdowns in the first round, but only because both men were superbly conditioned and courageous athletes. Surely each hit the other with mighty blows that would have felled lesser men. In the first furious three minutes, Hagler threw 82 punches, just one less than Hearns.

Startled by the intensity of Hagler’s assault, Hearns responded in kind. Normally he is a sharpshooter who prefers to fight on the outside, setting up his powerful right with a full quiver of cruel jabs. But because of the intensity of Halger’s assault, Hearns’ normal tactics were quickly discarded: only 22 of his first 83 punches were jabs. As he attacked Hearns’ slender middle, Hagler threw none. Fury rewrote boxing’s textbook.

“I started slugging because I had to,” Hearns unnecessarily explained later. “Marvin started running in at me and I had to protect myself.”

For those who enjoy pure violence, it was a classic first round. Both fighters were rocked during ferocious toe-to-toe exchanges. Midway through the round, Hagler’s forehead was ripped open over his right eye, either by a Hearns’ right hand or an elbow. With Hagler distaining any sort of a defense, and fueled by the sight of blood, Hearns went for the quick kill. His gloves became a red blur as he rained punch after punch against the champion’s head; it would prove his undoing.

“He fought 12 rounds in the first three minutes,” Steward said later.

When Hearns returned to his corner, he wore the drained look of a man who had already fought for 36 minutes.

“What are you doing?” Steward screamed at him. “Don’t fight him. Stick and move. Use your jab. Use your legs.”

Over in the champion’s corner, Dr. Donald Romeo, the chief physician of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, studied the cut on Hagler’s forehead. There was another abrasion under the right eye. Deciding that the cut was not that serious, at least for the moment, Dr. Romeo returned to his seat.

“Don’t change a thing,” trainer Goody Petronelli told the champion. “Just keep your hands up a little higher. Don’t worry about the cut. Just keep charging and keep up the pressure.”

“I’m not worried about the cut,” Hagler said. “If you go to war, you are going to get wounded.”

Hagler’s pace in the second round was only slightly less relentless. “When I see blood, even mine,” said the champion, “I become a bull.” Snorting, he came out angry. Although rocked by a hard right hand midway through the second round, never for an instant did Hagler eased off on the pressure.

Later he said: “All that right hand did was make me even madder.”

A veteran of 64 pro fights (all but two of them victories), near the end of the round Hagler could sense the strength seeping from Hearns’ body. As he returned to his corner, the champion knew the fight was just about over.

“He’s ready to go,” said Hagler, spitting a mouthful of water into a pail. “He’s not going to hurt me with that right hand. I took his best and now I am going to knock him out.”

“The cut isn’t bad, but it is starting to bleed a lot,” Petronelli said, casting an anxious eye at Dr. Romeo, who remained in his seat. “Let’s not take any chances. Take him out this round.”

As he had in the first two rounds, Hagler came out fast and hard. Forcing himself up on his toes, Hearns tried to hold off the champion with his jab, but he had little left. Pressing forward, always punching, Hagler did not try to avoid Hearns’ jabs; he just ignored them. When one Hearns’ left hand widened the cut on the champion’s forehead, sending blood splashing across both fighters, Steele singled time-out. The referee led Hagler back to his corner, where Dr. Romeo waited.

“Can you see all right?” the physician questioned Hagler over the screams of 15,088 outraged fans.

“No problem,” said Hagler. “I ain’t missing him with any punches, am I?”

Deciding that Hagler hadn’t missed Hearns with many, Dr. Romeo motioned for Steele to let the fight continue.

Deciding that he did not want anyone but himself to determine the fight’s outcome, Hagler shifted his attack into a higher gear. He followed a short left with a smashing right to Hearns’ head. Dazed, the challenger staggered backward across the ring.

The pursuing champion unloaded a classic right hand-left hook combination, then leaped in with an overhand right that crashed thunderously against Hearns’ head. On instinct alone, the badly dazed challenger tried to clinch, failed, and toppled down in parts seemingly disconnected.

As Steele picked up the count, Hearns lay on his back, his long arms stretched out, his eyes open but unseeing. With a great will, Hearns managed to roll over and rise by the count of nine. But Steele, after a careful study of the challenger’s glazed eyes, wisely signaled a ceasefire. The time was 2:01 of the third round.

Ignoring the blood still streaming down his face onto his chest, Hagler leaped into the air, still champion and at least $5.7 million richer. It was his 11th successful defense, leaving him on track in his drive to surpass Carlos Monzon’s middleweight record of 14.

Hearns had to be carried back to his corner. Several minutes passed before he was able to stand. Later, still the WBC junior middleweight champion and with $5.4 million more in his pocket, he made his way to Hagler’s dressing room.

“We made a lot of money and we gave them a good show,” Hearns said. “Tell you what. You move up and fight as a light-heavyweight, and I’ll stay and clean up the rest of the middleweights.”

Hagler laughed. “I like it here. You move up.”

After receiving four stitches for the cut in his forehead, Hagler went to a party in the Augustus Room at Caesars Palace. There he spoke briefly to the celebrators. Then with his wife, Bertha, he watched a video replay of the fight. After seeing the knockout for the fourth time, he finally smiled and applauded. He looked at his watch; it was midnight. “Let’s go,” he said to Bertha.

His work was done, at least for one more night.

(Special to TheSweetScience.com from the Pat Putnam Classic Series. Portions of this article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.)

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