It was early spring of 1985.
Larry Holmes was undefeated and considered the baddest heavyweight in the world.
Mike Tyson was 2-0 as a pro.
Michael Spinks was the undefeated/undisputed light heavyweight champ.
Sugar Ray Leonard was 11 months removed from his latest comeback fight.
Marvin Hagler was the undisputed middleweight champ and very disappointed that Leonard retired after beating Kevin Howard in his last fight.
Thomas Hearns was the WBC junior middleweight title holder and was lobbying for a fight with Hagler.
In 1985 boxing was thriving. Khaosai Galaxy was the man at junior bantamweight. Jeff Fenech, Daniel Zaragoza and Richie Sandoval were fighting it out at bantamweight. Juan Meza and Lupe Pintor were title holders at junior featherweight. Eusebio Pedroza, Azumah Nelson and Barry McGuigan were passing the title back and forth at featherweight. Julio Cesar Chavez, Rocky Lockridge and Wilfredo Gomez were title holders at junior lightweight. Hector Camacho, Livingstone Bramble and Jose Luis Ramirez were the top lightweights. Aaron Pryor was the king at junior welterweight and Donald Curry was going through the welterweight division like a hot knife through butter and would be the undisputed champ by year’s end.
Today, professional boxing is driven by the so-called must see fights that do nothing to enhance the sport usually headlined by Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, available only via PPV.
In 1985 there was only one PPV bout, Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns on April 15th for the undisputed middleweight championship (a fight that was originally scheduled for May of 1982. However, Hearns hurt his right hand and the fight was cancelled and never rescheduled, much to Hagler’s dismay, though they tangled in 1985).
At the time due to Sugar Ray Leonard’s retirement, Hagler 62-2-2 (50) and Hearns 40-1 (34) were the two biggest pound-for-pound stars in boxing. Both had their eyes on Leonard, who was either starting or squashing rumors that he was returning to the ring. Hearns felt that he had Leonard beat when they fought in their 1981 unification showdown before being stopped in the 14th round, and was trying to goad him into a rematch. Hagler felt stood up at the altar when Leonard invited him to his special dinner “A Night With Sugar Ray Leonard” in November of 1982, then looked Marvin in the eye and said that a fight between them is never going to happen.
Hagler smiled and kept churning along and beating every middleweight in the world who was qualified to fight him, and doing so in a convincing fashion. But Marvin was always griping about how much money Leonard made and often spewed he just wanted some of it and only fighting Leonard could bring it to him. At the time Hagler hadn’t lost in nine years and avenged the only two losses on his record by stopping the perennial Philadelphia contenders who beat him, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe. Hearns was 8-0 since losing to Leonard and 10 months before fighting Hagler, knocked out Roberto Duran face first for the count, the same Duran who seven months earlier had gone 15 full rounds with Hagler for the middleweight title and was never hurt or in trouble once during the bout.
With Leonard on the sideline and working for HBO as color analyst, Hagler and Hearns was the next biggest fight that could be made. Hearns, 26, figuring that he was never going to get a rematch with Leonard, rationalized that beating Hagler would quell the sting he carried with him after losing to him.
As for Hagler, 30, the closest he’d ever been to a super fight was his battle against Duran a year and a half earlier. And in the eyes of the public, Marvin underperformed because he had to rally back during the last third of the fight to secure the decision victory he rightly earned. In the back of Hagler’s mind he had to take Hearns out faster and more impressively than Leonard did because everybody was using Duran as the measuring stick to compare him with Hearns. And Hearns never let Hagler forget during their press tour that he devastated Duran in two rounds with one punch, whereas Marvin had to go the full route with the former lightweight and welterweight champ. Which led many to speculate and believe that the matured Hearns would be too much for even a monster like Hagler.
The disdain between Hagler and Hearns was real and they almost came to blows more than once during the press tour to promote the fight. Hearns repeatedly called the 5’9″ Hagler a midget, and Hagler reciprocated, labeling the 6’1″ Hearns a freak. As the fight grew near the fighters personalities changed. Hagler closed his workouts and was very secretive and appeared uptight, whereas Hearns trained in front of the public and mixed with the crowd after his workouts. A confident Hearns quit sparring almost a week prior to the fight opposed to Hagler, who sparred as recently as two days before the bout.
The goal for Hearns going into the bout was to keep Hagler at the end of his long left jab and in line for his right hand that carried fight ending/altering power with one clean connect. For Hagler, he knew that allowing Hearns the distance to set up his right hand was the last thing he could do. Marvin was cognizant that he had to smother Hearns and force him to rush his right hand and not allow him to set it up. Hearns was a fighter who could really box and punch, and sometimes came out fast and sought the early knockout. That wasn’t Hagler; as champion he only won inside of three rounds three times in 10 title defenses before defending against Hearns. Hagler opened as a 13-10 favorite but a lot of late Detroit money came in and by the day of the fight Hagler was a 6-5 favorite.
Right before the bell sounded for the first round HBO’s Larry Merchant said, “Hagler is the strongest fighter Hearns has ever fought. Hearns is the best fighter Hagler has ever fought. We’re here to get the answers.”
During the pre-fight, Hagler proclaimed the fight “WAR” and that’s just what it was. Hagler started uncharacteristically fast against Hearns and forced the action with the first punch he threw. There was no feeling out process and he never gave Hearns a chance to box. Within the first seconds of the fight Hagler and Hearns were exchanging their Sunday best punches, and in the very early going Hearns really shook Hagler. However, Marvin had an all-world chin and Hearns fractured his right hand on Hagler’s head. They exchanged bombs for the entire first round, a round that many feel was/is the most exciting three minutes in boxing history, and it could’ve been scored for either fighter.
If you were a fan of Hearns you had to feel uneasy going into the second round because he nailed Hagler with the same right hand that pulverized Pipino Cuevas, Roberto Duran and changed the geography of Sugar Ray Leonard’s cheek and eye socket, and Hagler was still coming at him as if nothing happened. In the other corner if you were rooting for Hagler, you had to feel pretty good knowing that Hearns couldn’t hit him any harder than he already did and it wasn’t like Hearns was going to grow stronger as the fight progressed.
The intense pace resumed in the second round with Hagler still forcing the action and Hearns looking to find the time and space to launch a fight changing right hand with the hopes of impeding Hagler’s aggression, but it never happened. Tommy got off with some good right hands but he was usually off balance because of the non-stop pressure he was under. By the end of the second round Hagler looked strong and Hearns seemed to be running out of steam. In the third round Hagler went right at Hearns as he did in the previous two rounds, but the fight was briefly stopped because of a cut he sustained in the first round. When the ring doctor allowed the fight to continue Hagler went at Hearns as if living meant knocking him out and dying would be having the fight stopped because of the cut and losing. Hagler unloaded everything he had and knocked Hearns out at 1:52 of the third round.
This was Hagler’s finest hour as a pro and the showing had many observers saying “Sugar Who?” Today, 30 years later, everyone who saw the fight can recall it as if it were yesterday. The result boosted Marvin’s reputation as a destroyer and forced some to think of Hearns as not being durable, but neither is the least bit accurate. Don’t forget, Hagler had to hit Hearns with his Sunday best punch over a hundred times before he broke him, and Hearns took over a hundred of Hagler’s best punches–in three rounds!– before he went down just as many other greats would’ve. That’s hardly a guy who is not durable.
After the fight, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star Ledger summed it up best, saying, “What Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns fashioned here will make it forever impossible for anyone who saw it to call one’s name without thinking of the other.” And oh how right he was, both Hagler and Hearns were elevated by their historic “WAR” 30 years ago this April 15th, 2015.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com