By Frank Lotierzo
It's hard to believe that it's been 29 years (April 6th 1987) since the showdown between undisputed middleweight champion Marvin Hagler 62-2-2 (52) and former undisputed welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard 33-1 (24). As most boxing aficionados know, Hagler and Leonard had been on a collision course since November 30th 1979. That was the night Hagler fought middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo to a draw in the semi windup to the WBC welterweight title clash between title holder Wilfred Benitez and challenger Sugar Ray Leonard.
The Antuofermo-Hagler bout served as the warmup to the main event between Benitez and Leonard. Hagler fought Antuofermo to a disputed draw, a fight most observers thought he won, but he left the ring as the number one contender instead of the champ. An hour later in the same ring Leonard stopped Benitez with 6 seconds left in the 15th round to capture his first world title. To add insult to injury, Leonard was paid a million dollars for his 26th bout opposed to a paltry 40 thousand for Hagler in what was his 50th bout. Since that night Hagler longed to get Leonard in the ring since he felt he was always one-upped and overshadowed by him going back to their amateur days.
Finally, after nearly eight years of speculation and two retirements and comebacks by Leonard, they finally met at the Caesars Palace outdoor arena in Las Vegas for Hagler's WBC title. Prior to the bout Leonard agreed to letting Hagler make the larger purse as long as Hagler consented to fighting Leonard in a bigger than normal ring, 20 by 20, 10 ounce gloves instead of eight, and 12 rounds instead of 15. And even after granting those concessions, Hagler opened a 4-1 betting favorite. Leonard, who had only fought once in five years prior to facing Hagler, went on to win one of the signature bouts of his stellar career via a 12-round split decision.
In a bout which basically amounted to Hagler fighting as the aggressor and Leonard the boxer/counter-puncher, it turned out Leonard was just a little too quick of hand and foot and had his biggest moments at the close of most of the rounds that he won. For some unknown reason, Hagler tried to out-box Leonard, a tactic that resulted in him clearly losing the first three rounds. Being down 0-3 in rounds, Hagler reverted to fighting more and boxing less and probably won five of the remaining nine rounds – resulting in Leonard winning the bout by a consensus 7-5 in rounds or 115-113 on points. Officially, Judge Lou Filippo scored it 115-113 Hagler, Judge Dave Moretti saw it the other way, 115-113 Leonard, with the deciding vote being cast by Judge Jose Juan Guerra 118-110 in favor of Leonard.
Since the fight many fans have argued over the decision. The decisions rendered in close bouts are always subjective and if the bout isn't conclusive, the fans of both fighters think their guy won and that holds true regarding Hagler vs. Leonard. Some also believe Ray waited for Hagler to show signs of him being on the decline, due to the tough bout he had with John “The Beast” Mugabi in his previous fight 13 months earlier. However, the bigger issue that was missed by many and still is, was that Leonard always had the fighting style to give Hagler an ulcer. Hagler was at his best when his opponents carried the action to him, thus setting him up to fight as the great counter-puncher he was. The problem for Marvin on this night was, Leonard, like Roberto Duran, the only other fighter to go the distance with Hagler in a title bout, dictated that Hagler assume the role of “Smokin” Joe Frazier and fight as the predator. And that wasn't Marvin's forte, whereas fighting on the move and using his feet to get in and out was Leonard's.
It is my belief that had Hagler not lost to or never fought Sugar Ray Leonard in April of 1987, he would've remained middleweight champion until 1990. Instead of retiring with a final career record of 62-3-2 (52) going 12-1 (11) in title defenses, he most likely would've made one title defense a year for the next three years and retired as champ with a final record of 65-2-2 (55) and 15-0 (14) in title defenses. What gets lost in the aftermath of the bout is, stylistically, Leonard was all wrong for Hagler. Ray had the height and reach, the chin and just enough punch and strength to live with Marvin every day of the week. It was also Hagler's misfortune that Leonard had been observing him as a ringside commentator on HBO during his retirement in addition to Marvin conceding to Leonard's demands during the negotiations for the bout which began in late August of 1986.
After reviewing the following, I'm convinced Hagler could've held the title into 1990…..Think about this, in 1988 Ring Magazine's top five middleweight contenders/title holders excluding Sugar Ray Leonard were Sumbu Kalambay, Michael Nunn, Roberto Duran, Iran Barkley and Thomas Hearns. In 1989 the list reads Michael Nunn, Sumbu Kalambay, Mike McCallum, Roberto Duran and Iran Barkley. As for 1990, the order is Michael Nunn, Julian Jackson, Sumbu Kalambay, Mike McCallum and Steve Collins.
Let’s assume instead of fighting Leonard, Hagler fights three times circa 1987-1990 and meets Kalambay, Nunn and either Hearns or Barkley in title defenses. Does anyone believe the Hagler who was edged out by Leonard would've lost to any of them during this time frame? Hagler was the toughest and had the best chin among the group. He was a very underrated boxer/counter-puncher and unless you are an all-time great the likes of Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard, not one of the fighters listed above could've defeated him fighting in retreat. And we certainly know that none of them were in better condition, nor could they better him by going toe-to-toe and fighting it out.
Hagler of the late eighties, although not in his vintage form, would've been too physically hard and strong for either Kalambay or Nunn. There's no chance they could've held him off and out-boxed him. Sure, they may have survived into the last third of the bout but they'd both be looking more to survive than fighting to win. Neither could've hurt Hagler and it's doubtful they would've made it to the final bell. In a rematch with Hearns, Thomas would have tried to box Hagler instead of rumbling with him like he did in April of 1985. His problem would've been, as in their first fight, he couldn't hold Marvin off when he had his feet planted and tried to put him in one of the ringside seats. How long could Hearns realistically have held him off in a rematch fighting on his toes like Leonard did while looking to pick his spots? In a rematch with Duran, I doubt Roberto could've fought to the level he did the first time they met. And Hagler would've entered that bout with a severe grudge and something to prove. If we insert Barkley instead of Duran, Hagler could've out-boxed Iran with his eyes closed and probably stopped him due to cuts over his eyes somewhere during the second half of the bout.
The biggest conjecture regarding Hagler post-1987 is, how hungry would he have remained? Based on what we know of him and his history, he probably would've continued to chase and eventually break former middleweight champion Carlos Monzon's record of 14 consecutive title defenses. And Hagler surely would have been an overwhelming favorite to defeat every potential challenger mentioned. Monzon retired in 1977 at age 35. Had Sugar Ray Leonard remained retired, Hagler more than likely would have retired in 1990 at age 36 after breaking Monzon’s record with his 15th consecutive middleweight title defense.
In the nearly 30 years that have passed since Hagler and Leonard touched gloves, no one has highlighted who the top middleweights of that era were chasing Marvin for his title. The consensus after losing to Leonard was Hagler in 1987 was basically a shell of the fighter he was two years earlier. Something that wouldn't have even been an afterthought had he been awarded the decision over Leonard that many observers believe he deserved.
In closing, let’s set the record straight….Sugar Ray Leonard legitimately out-boxed a live body in Marvin Hagler who very well may have underestimated him going into the fight. Leonard owned the style matchup and the concessions that Hagler made all but sealed his fate. More importantly, had Leonard not been around, Hagler would've remained the undisputed middleweight champ for another three years simply because there wasn't another middleweight walking the planet who could've beat an even less than vintage version of him.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com