For some in the boxing community it was the most anticipated fight since the “Fight Of The Century” between heavyweight Champ “Smokin” Joe Frazier and challenger Muhammad Ali 16 years earlier. And if you think about it, reigning middleweight champ Marvin Hagler and former welterweight/junior middleweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard were on a collision course longer than Ali and Frazier were.
One could argue that ever since Hagler and Leonard challenged for their first world titles on November 30th 1979, they were often mentioned as future opponents. And even then Hagler played second fiddle to Leonard being that his title bout with defending middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo was the semi-wind up bout prior to Leonard challenging WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez. The heavily favored Hagler was held to a disputed draw against Antuofermo an hour before Leonard stopped Benitez with six seconds remaining in the 15th and final round.
Well, it's been 25 years–April 6th 1987–since Leonard came out of a three year retirement having only fought once in five years to challenge the slightly eroding undisputed middleweight champ, Hagler, who was fighting just once a year by April of 1987. Most forget that it was Leonard who challenged Hagler after retiring on November 9th 1982 with Hagler sitting there watching Ray announce that a fight between the two greats would never happen. As we found out later Leonard wanted to continue fighting and wanted to meet Hagler eventually, but succumbed to family pressure and retired after having his detached retina repaired. For the next five years Leonard did commentary for Hagler's title defenses on HBO while taking notes on him subconsciously the whole time.
When Leonard finally initiated the challenge to Hagler, that should've raised a red flag in Marvin's head. Mainly because for the previous five years it appeared that Leonard was less interested in the fight than Hagler was. Then after a grueling fight with the undefeated John “The Beast” Mugabi, six months later Leonard is all in to meet Hagler? What changed? Perhaps Marvin looking a little less hungry and ferocious and him starting to mention that Mugabi may have been his last fight?
Here's what many weren't sophisticated enough to know or didn't understand about the at the time 30 year old Leonard and 32 year old Hagler…..
1) Leonard never stopped training or running during his retirement. He knew boxing was still in his blood and that he might fight again.
2) When he came back to fight Kevin Howard in 1984 and suffered the first official knockdown of his career, he wasn't focused and was still dealing with personal turmoil.
3) Leonard realized beyond all doubt after Hagler had trouble with Roberto Duran's wait and react counter-punching that he matched up great with Hagler stylistically.
4) Ray knew that as dangerous as Hagler was, he was dramatically less effective fighting as the attacker and that Marvin was no Frazier when it came to cutting off the ring and forcing the fight. He was fully aware that he'd force Marvin to pursue him if they ever fought.
5) Hagler's money punch was his right hand, which fighting as a southpaw he obviously led with. Ray was confident he wasn't going to be iced by any fighter's lead punch. Furthermore, Leonard had no fear or concern over Hagler's left cross, uppercut or hook and viewed them as nothing more than set-up punches with their intent to make you forget about the right.
6) Leonard also grasped that Hagler was an overrated puncher coming off his three round war with Thomas Hearns. Unlike the public perception of Hagler, Leonard didn't view Marvin as a “catch-n-kill” style attacker. He said repeatedly if Hagler was such a killer, why'd he have to hit Hearns so many times with his Sunday shots before finally stopping him?
7) Leonard knew that Hagler wouldn't feel complete until they fought and knew Marvin would fight him under almost any circumstances.
8) Leonard knew that Marvin thought he was a pretty boy and didn't view him as a tough guy with a much better chin than he ever got credit for. And that it was conceivable that Hagler would take him lightly regardless of what he said.
9) Hagler was an incredible cheapskate and thought about money constantly. Leonard knew that money would make Marvin do foolish things, like consent to 10 ounce gloves when middleweights fought with eight ounce gloves at that time.
Lets also clear some other things up.
Hagler's previous two title defenses (Hearns & Mugabi) were scheduled for 12 rounds and fought in 20 foot rings, which were the conditions in which the fight with Leonard was conducted. So saying Leonard made Hagler consent to unfavorable conditions (12 rounds instead of 15) really doesn't apply. Prior to their fight Leonard did everything but send Hagler a hand written letter saying that he was gonna move and box while looking to flurry at the end of the rounds to impress the judges. Was there the slightest doubt that Leonard had no intention of obliging Hagler in a knock down drag out war?
For some reason as great as Hagler was, surely one of the top five or six greatest middleweight champions in boxing history, he was a little awed by legends his equal like Roberto Duran and Ray Leonard. He was psyched out by Duran's ring antics during a good portion of their bout and abandoned his southpaw style in the early going of his bout against Leonard.
I could go on and bore you with the cookbook reasons as to why Leonard out boxed Hagler, but I'm assuming those reading this have a high enough boxing aptitude that doesn't require me drum-beating the nuanced trinkets you already know. The bottom line is Marvin Hagler was at his best when his opponents took the fight to him. The fallacy at the time was because of Vito Antuofermo's draw with Hagler in their first fight the way to beat him was to make him go back.
Ironically, Marvin never lost in his career to a fighter who tried to make him go back. The worst Hagler ever looked were in his first fights with Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe in Philadelphia. Watts and Monroe handed Hagler his first two defeats (although the Watts bout is considered a home town decision). The point being both Bobby and Willie used their feet and brought Marvin to them en-route to out-boxing him. And like Duran and Leonard after them, they didn't try to take his head off or knock him out.
Ray Leonard knew that Hagler wasn't really that fast of hand or foot and followed movers like Mike “The Roadrunner” Colbert (who wasn't stopped until the 12th round) instead of cutting them off and forcing them into the ropes or a corner. In order for Hagler to beat Leonard in 1987, he was gonna have to freeze him with one shot to where he was defenseless, then go in and finish him. Only Leonard knew Hagler wouldn't get that many Sunday shots on him and the odds of freezing him with one shot weren't that great due to his chin and movement.
What Leonard showed the boxing world in his fight with Hagler was, Marvin wasn't that great at cutting off the ring. He tended to follow more than stepping in front of Leonard to block his escape route. The only time Hagler was able to corner or pin Leonard against the ropes was when he tired and started slowing down. By Leonard moving and using the ring, Hagler wasn't able to take advantage of his most significant advantage, his physical strength. Because Hagler had to constantly keep his feet moving in order to track Leonard down, he was never able to mount a sustained offense or get set, especially in the early rounds. Leonard continually beat Hagler to the punch and was just about always a step ahead of him, thus forcing Hagler to reach and sometimes miss wildly.
Some have implied that Leonard's punches were nothing but pitty-pat punches that lacked power. What amazes me about that is, Hagler had one of the best chins in history. If Leonard's punches had nothing on them, why didn't Hagler just walk through them and force Leonard to fight instead of box? Actually, Leonard won many of the exchanges and fought Hagler straight up when he was too tired to move.
Another ridiculous statement made over the years is that Leonard should've fought Hagler like a man. In other words, Leonard should've nullified his own strengths and made it easy for Hagler. Suggesting that Leonard should've fought Hagler like a man is one of the most ignorant statements I've ever heard about a fight or fighter. I guess Muhammad Ali should've fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman toe-to-toe like a real man.
The style in which Leonard fought Hagler wasn't a surprise to any knowledgeable fight observer. It was the only style he could employ against him to win. On top of that, it was the style Leonard fought in every fight of his career with the exception of his first bout with Duran. If Hagler was shocked by Leonard trying to keep the fight from becoming a slugfest, shame on him.
The bottom line is Sugar Ray Leonard out-fought and thought Marvin Hagler. He set the pace early by moving and boxing, using his greater hand and foot speed to its fullest advantage. In those first three or four rounds, Hagler couldn't get near Leonard. Starting around the fifth round Hagler began to get closer and scored as Leonard started to slow.
There is absolutely no doubt that Leonard was up 3-0 after three rounds. At best Hagler won 5 of the last 9 rounds. That makes it 7-5 Leonard or 115-113. On top of that, there was not a 2-point round in the fight. Although Hagler was the aggressor he wasn't the effective aggressor. An effective aggressor is Frazier versus Ali in their first fight or Duran versus Leonard in their first fight. Not Hagler versus Leonard.
Lastly, some have said that a reigning champ shouldn't lose his title on such a close decision. The problem was, despite not having the title, Leonard was the star and bigger personality which neutralized Hagler being the champ. However, that had no bearing on the fight. Sugar Ray Leonard was just a little sharper and more effective than Marvin Hagler the night they fought and earned a clear cut close decision victory.
Recently a friend of mine said, “I think one of the reasons Hagler didn't press hard for a rematch was because he was afraid his legacy would suffer even more from a second loss to Leonard. In Hagler's mind it was better to go out disputing a 'controversial' loss rather than a more decisive one.”
Looking back 25 years, I think you nailed it, Bill. And based on Seth Abraham's quote in Sports Illustrated years after the the fight, he may have been right.
Seth Abraham: There was talk of a rematch, but it never went anywhere. Marvin made it very clear — he thought he was jobbed and he was never going to fight again. And he never did. There were conversations, but they were never at the level of negotiations. If people say Marvin wanted the fight and Ray didn't, that's revisionist history.