As Alexis Arguello was trying to create the impression of himself as a champion reborn in knocking out Billy Costello, light-heavyweights Marvin Johnson of American and Trinidad and Tobago’s heartthrob Leslie Stewart traded authentic power punches until, in the seventh, Johnson nuked Stewart to win the WBA 175-pound title. Even fighting in slow motion at times, Johnson’s late career determination and highlight reel hitting power brought him all the way back to the title, a professional distinction he’d lost six years before to then Eddie Gregory, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. For ten enthralling years, from the late 1970s until the late 1980s, he and rivaling cohorts Matt Franklin, a.k.a. Matthew Saad Muhammad, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Victor Galindez, Michael Spinks, John Conteh, Mate Parlov and Dwight Braxton, a.k.a. Dwight Muhammad Qawi produced some of the most dramatic interchanging moments in championship boxing.
The fear factor distinction that each brought to the ring was that on any given night – and we are not invoking the cliché of boxing’s lore – danger awaited them. No run of form or pervious patterning of domination was enough to guarantee a successful title defense. Other than Parlov they all possessed concussive power, and though all had very solid technical aspects their respective weaknesses were glaring and downright heartbreakingly, ever on the cusp of exposure, almost every time they fought, with the exception of the great Michael Spinks. And it was those fatal flaws ripe for exposure that made their drive to be kings of the ring a kind of theatrics of the damned, explosions and monumental letdowns assured. Other than the fixatedly steady Spinks, these light-heavyweights peeked and petered with an oscillating unpredictability, blunting promise and even genius, at a rate that boxing fans found maddening and compelling.
In 1986, boxing still could boast of the genius of Roberto Duran, though the full measure of his rampaging genius had become as bloated as his waistline and the absolute technical mastery of Ghana’s Azumah Nelson. Nelson, aptly nicknamed “The Professor” showed his fearlessness, if not his greatness, when he bested the popular Marcos Villasana to retain his WBC featherweight crown in front of a wildly partisan Villasana crowd in Los Angeles. The middleweight division, though for years generally terrorized during the reign of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was a division thought to be heating up by 1986. With young bloods James Schuler and John “The Beast” Mugabi campaigning for the middleweight title, the air of expectation – if not yet transition – was hyped to be crackling. This despite the persistent rumors that former welterweight and junior middleweight champion “Sugar” Ray Leonard was bored commentating from ringside and had been medically cleared to fight, should he choose to, for over a year. In public, Leonard tried to assure the media that he was not considering a fight with the dangerous Hagler; smiling and denying interest, he pledged that his family and commercial endorsements were his chief concerns by 1986 and not boxing.
Undaunted by his epic defeat at the fists and furry of Hagler, Detroit’s Thomas Hearns was fired up about the opportunity to prove his merit when he was matched to fight James Schuler; Mugabi had won the Hagler sweepstakes, in what boxing experts were forecasting as a rousing title fight prospect. The 32- or 34- or 35-year-old Hagler was keeping his eye on the middleweight championship title defense record held by Argentina’s ring icon Carlos Monzon. A win over Mugabi would give Hagler thirteen, putting him just one shy of Monzon’s benchmark for middleweights of fourteen. Behind the scenes, Hagler was becoming distracted and less passionate about the regimental training he had always willingly submitted to under taskmasters Goody and Pat Petronelli. His training t-shirts stamped out words of fanaticism, but the mental grind of all-out disciplined industry for months at a time was wearing on the Marvelous One as he nevertheless flung himself into his training for the dynamite-handed Mugabi. Few realized that circumscribing difficulties of being an aging champion were materializing in the mind of Hagler right at the zenith of his dominance.
Having knocked out “The Hitman” in April of 1985, his expectation was that 1986 would be the year he and Leonard would fight for what amounted to the championship bout of the decade, if the fight was to happen at all. Hagler was kept waiting and wondering, then compelled back to facing up to his mounting mandatory defenses: enter Mugabi and the threat of the cusp of a new generation of middleweights with names like Mike McCallum, Juan Domingo Roldan, Sumbu Kalambay, James Kitchen, Iran Barkley, Herol Graham and Julian Jackson. If Mugabi was the immanent threat to Hagler and Leonard the pot of gold at the end of his career rainbow, then James “Black Gold” Schuler was the heir apparent. But the 22-0 (16) Schuler was going to have to go through a rejuvenated 40-2 (36) Thomas Hearns to get the chance to challenge Hagler. Caesars Palace co-featured Hagler-Mugabi with Hearns-Schuler to set up the inevitable showcase eliminator scenario. All the elements were there, straight from central casting. The budding legend Hagler in pursuit of Monzon’s defense record for middleweights, the Ugandan self-labeled “Beast” riding not only media hyped racial stereotyping of African menace incarnate, but also the fact of his perfect record, 25-0 (25); yes, all wins by knockout! Then there was Hearns, his legend blunted by Hagler, going into the breech to put some Motor City style hurt all over the newbie “something special” Schuler, Philadelphia reared or not. Hearns made it crystal clear he wanted another chance to reverse fortunes with the middleweight champion.
What, in fact, transpired at Caesars was the unmasking of Schuler as a tall, good-looking, capable challenger but hardly the talent of the moment, let alone barrier of anything to rival Hearns at his most determined. Schuler, who had nabbed a close shave decision from fellow young gun James Kitchen a year before, was out of his depth, be it technical or mental against a razor sharp Hearns who simply leveled what appeared to be an awestruck Schuler. Promise had met pedigree to produce predictability and not passage and it took only 73 seconds. A week later, fate consummated a terrible finality to James Schuler’s career, when the 26-year-old was killed in a motorcycle accident. The champion found his thirteenth title defense a fight for his ring life, when Mugabi hurled volley after numbing volley his way. All week during the countdown to this showdown of scowlers, Mugabi had told reporters Hagler was great, but no middleweight could stand up to his best power punches. And the fight almost proved “The Beast” as good as his words. With Hagler fighting from both sides, working the body and Mugabi landing hard with hooks and from long range with artillery blasts, the fight was punishing, physically rugged and contested as a continuous give and take of debilitating exchanges.
“Sugar” Ray Leonard, commentating at ringside was transfixed by the action, his analytical mind noting how Hagler’s feet were not carrying him efficiently from hitting positions to defensible counterpunching positions, which had always characterized Hagler’s best boxing. The grit and determination under fire was still there, no question, and yet Leonard was astonished how easily Mugabi’s telegraphing blows were getting to their intended targets. Watching the furious action at the outdoor arena, Leonard began to reevaluate his chances against the middleweight champion, his thoughts turning inward as meditative dreams of money and unimaginable glory.
When Scottish welterweight Steve Watt died following surgery on a blood clot in his brain, three days after losing to Rocky Kelly in London, there were renewed calls for the abolition of professional boxing. Boxing also had the public relations issue of a heavyweight division with too many titleholders and no unifying champion, giving impetus to Don King’s assertion that only a heavyweight elimination series starting with Pinklon Thomas and Trevor Berbick would reignite the marquee division in the minds of the general sports fans, in North America and beyond. Acting as much as an independent contractor as possible, Michael Spinks was awarded a controversial decision over Larry Holmes, in their April rematch. The general contention that their first fight had been close and subject to speculative subjectivism only made Spinks’ second decision win all the more controversial. The boxing in the ring made the decision controversial as well. Holmes improved dramatically from his first outing against Spinks to a degree denying the ravages of a long career and the best combinations Spinks could jinx.
The decision loss was a bitter one for Holmes, who should have found some solace in the regard and admiration many in boxing heaped upon him, even in his hour of defeat. But that was the emotional makeup of Holmes, a champion delegated to endure demonstrating his own ring greatness, as a follow-up to the eternal luminosity of Muhammad Ali. During his prime, Holmes was never allowed, never allowed himself, to just be the champion. He always tried to act out the role of expected presentation with himself as the champion, and in that way he dominated while being dominated. Yet, in the ring, poaching mere mortals, behind the greatest left lead in ring history, Holmes was reflexively brilliant. Graced with a hall of fame chin and the speed of a welterweight, he was determined to the core, confident in method and manner, ready to best the elite without discrimination. And in 1986, with Larry Holmes’ absolute best boxing ebbing, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were punching out wins of almost pretentious design.