Looking Back With Fresh Eyes, the Right Guy Won the Hagler-Leonard Fight

MY HAGLER-LEONARD NOTEBOOK REVISITED — Thirty years later, some people still can’t understand why Marvelous Marvin Hagler walked away from boxing in total disgust after losing his world middleweight championship by split decision to a comebacking Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 6, 1987. Was it as simple as Leonard’s apparent refusal to ever grant Hagler a rematch? That was surely a big part of it but there was more.

During his career, the Marvelous One acted as a clarion, calling out Vegas judges who first screwed Hagler against Vito Antuofermo on the Leonard-Benitez undercard in 1979. That was the initial sting. Hagler told the world his judges were “K” and “O” — his left and right fists. Then again in the City of Sin against Roberto Duran, it was judges approved by the Nevada Athletic Commission who had the “Hands of Stone” up after twelve.

Hagler’s paranoia grew deeper.

Four more KOs followed.

Then came the biggest night of Hagler’s life against Leonard in 1987.  Again, Las Vegas. Hagler, a 3-1 favorite, didn’t win the Super Fight as expected but he sure as heck didn’t lose ten rounds to two, 118-110, as Mexican judge Jo Jo Guerra infamously deemed he did. “I can’t believe it,” Hagler told his hometown newspaper, the Brockton Enterprise. “I have to go to sleep and wake up and believe this all over again. They took it away from me and gave it to Leonard and I really hate that,” said Hagler. “I feel in my heart I’m still champion.”

Hagler’s trainers, Petronelli brothers Pat and Goody, were furious. “The phony official Jo Jo Guerra should be put in jail,” Pat told the media the day after the fight. “The other two judges had it 115-113 and that’s how close it was,” he continued.  “You can live with that, but two rounds for Marvin Hagler? The judges beat Marv,” concluded Pat. Goody was peeved as well. “That kook should be banned from boxing,” he said. “If Guerra had it close, fine, but he was way out of order.” The real irony here is that the Petronellis rejected a British judge (Harry Gibbs) in favor of a Mexican judge (Guerra) because it was believed that the Mexican official would favor Hagler’s more aggressive style. Guerra only gave Hagler the fifth and final round. Before the fight, Hagler promised to KO Leonard.

Twelve (rather than fifteen) rounds later, a disgruntled Hagler was singing a new but familiar tune. “I told y’all about Vegas,” Hagler grumbled his way into retirement. The boxing media of the day indignantly told Marvin to stop complaining and fight again. “Quit your bitchin’,” they collectively suggested. One notable boxing publication stood by the insulting 118-110 tally as identical to their unofficial magazine score. Fickle fans (and media) were quickly jumping off Hagler’s post Hearns/Mugabi bandwagon and onto that of the impossibly present new champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Why in the world would Hagler stick around for more of this?

Boxing no longer wanted him.

The feeling was mutual.

Hagler, a man who lived for boxing, never fought again.  And so started the greatest debate in boxing history: Who really won? Did Leonard actually outbox and outpoint Hagler or did Hagler do enough to retain the championship on the strength of his aggression and harder punches? Did Leonard steal the fight with flashy flurries in the final thirty seconds of each round or did Hagler successfully outwork his challenger with a more professional approach? These are questions that fans (and media) are still wrestling with today.

Enjoy now as The Sweet Science’s own New England correspondent Jeffrey Freeman takes a look back at Leonard vs. Hagler, round-by-round, and scores the fight for you, the boxing fan. It’s been thirty years since the debate started with an improbable split decision victory for Sugar Ray in Las Vegas. It will take at least that long for the argument to ever be settled by nostalgic fight fans.

Let the debate rage on.

ROUND ONE: Leonard is on his bicycle immediately, dancing in circles around an orthodox Hagler.  Immediate first impressions are that Leonard looks a little bigger than Hagler, not unlike Danny Jacobs last month against Gennady Golovkin. Leonard does not stop to punch very often but the first time he does strike, he unleashes a fast combination from which a left hand clips Hagler on the chin. Marvin smiled and Sugar Ray went back to dancing but the message was received loud and clear. Leonard was for real.  And now he was taunting Hagler by sticking out his chin. More combination punching from Leonard outscores Hagler’s initial body attack.

Leonard wins the first round 10-9.

ROUND TWO: Still fighting orthodox, Hagler is looking to close the distance quicker and punch more. A wide left hook grazes Leonard early in the round. Leonard is boxing well and showing flashes of the defense he’s well known for. Leonard grabs on for the first time after punching while Hagler pounds the body with his free right hand. A whipping right from the outside catches Hagler high on the head. Leonard places a nice left to the body under the elbow. Leonard clinches. With thirty seconds left in the round, Leonard connects with a clean right hand to the side of Hagler’s head. Another left to the body from Leonard at the bell.

Leonard wins the second round 10-9.

ROUND THREE: Fighting southpaw for the first time, Hagler is bobbing and weaving but he’s having a hard time keeping Leonard in one place long enough to punch at him. Lead right hands from Leonard are actually landing cleaner than anything Hagler is throwing in the challenger’s direction. Hagler cannot land his right jab effectively and his uppercut is not breaking up and through the guard of a very defensive minded Leonard. With less than thirty seconds to go, a pair of one-twos from Leonard connects.

Leonard wins the third round 10-9.

ROUND FOUR: Hagler is boxing southpaw and trying unsuccessfully to catch up to Leonard. The challenger is sliding around the ring while Hagler swings and misses. A lead right hand from Leonard connects before a quick clinch. While tied up, Hagler worked the body a few times with his free hand. Leonard landed a clean right to the head on the break, a sign that he is neither intimidated by nor respectful of Hagler. Leonard confirms this fact later in the round when he winds up a showboat bolo punch that lands directly on Hagler’s groin. Referee Richard Steele warns Leonard but Sugar Ray is doing what he wants in there when he wants to do it.

Leonard wins the fourth round, 10-9.

ROUND FIVE: Leonard starts the round strong with a pair of one-twos that connect as Hagler tries to get inside. Leonard is still moving well, beating Hagler to the punch. It looks at times like Hagler’s feet are stuck in mud, while Leonard looks to have wings on his tasseled heels. With less than thirty seconds in the round, Hagler lands a right uppercut on the inside and Leonard is knocked back wobbly from the impact of the punch. Hagler hammers Leonard on the ropes at the bell. Hagler was out-landed this round, but Leonard was hurt.

Hagler wins the fifth round 10-9.

ROUND SIX: The fight is being fought at a familiar pace. Hagler is pressing forward trying to connect. Leonard is boxing from the outside, potshotting Hagler off the jab. Hagler’s stance switches don’t seem to bother Leonard at all. From the southpaw or orthodox position, Hagler misses wildly while Leonard glides away to safety or stands right in front of Hagler; bending back and away from the champion’s wide punches. The objective reality is that Leonard is landing more than Hagler and Hagler is missing more than Leonard.

Leonard wins the sixth round 10-9.

ROUND SEVEN: With Leonard beginning to show his first signs of weariness, Hagler takes advantage to close the gap, landing well with the southpaw jab. Leonard is still countering more effectively but Hagler’s power is starting to find the target. A left uppercut on the ropes from Hagler distorts the pretty face of Sugar Ray. As the round times out, Leonard reverts to shoeshine punches from the outside while Hagler deters his movement and puts Leonard on the ropes for some much needed body punches. This was a very close round.

Hagler wins the seventh round, 10-9.

ROUND EIGHT: Despite Leonard using every inch of an unusually large boxing ring, Hagler’s long right jab lands clean in the first minute of the round. Hagler is starting to look marvelous for the first time in the bout. Leonard is not so tired yet that he can’t keep moving but he is fading to the point where his punches lack the hard snap of earlier. Hagler makes Leonard pay when he opens up and exposes himself to counters. Leonard stands and fights on semi-even terms with Hagler to close out a good round for the defending champion.

Hagler wins the eighth round 10-9.

ROUND NINE: Before the bell to start the round, Leonard’s trainer Angelo Dundee can be heard begging Ray to “just box” and not stand toe-to-toe. By contrast, in the opposite corner, the Petronellis are very calm and collected. Almost too calm. Like an “IBM board meeting” kind of calm. When the action resumed, both Hagler and Leonard went back to what they found effective earlier, Leonard boxing on the outside and Hagler trying to get close with the jab to rough Ray up inside. At the halfway point in the round, Hagler finally has Ray on the ropes, standing straight in front of him. Hagler does great work with his more powerful punches. Under fire in the corner, Leonard shoots off a lightning fast combination as he spins away from danger. It’s clear that Leonard can hit Hagler. It’s not so clear that he can hurt him. Hagler is walking through Leonard’s punches to land harder shots of his own in a great ninth round.

Hagler wins the ninth round, 10-9.

ROUND TEN: With nine minutes left to go in the career of Marvin Hagler, the champion comes out to start the round with a wild right hand that misses. While both fighters are showing some signs of fatigue, it is Hagler who is landing the harder punches as Leonard’s ability to move diminishes. Hagler is the more aggressive fighter in this round, although not always the more effective boxer. Leonard is still scoring points with basic boxing as Hagler wades in head first. Another extremely close round to call.

Leonard wins the tenth round, 10-9.

ROUND ELEVEN: The pace is slow to start the first minute of the championship rounds. Leonard is still finding Hagler’s chrome dome with left-right combinations. Leonard starts to showboat again, taunting Hagler; then unloading with slashing punches. The majority of Leonard’s punches miss but he is now more active than Hagler. Showing his first signs of desperation, Hagler lunges in with wide punches that Leonard is able to deftly avoid by leaning back at the waist. A clean left to the body, then upstairs, lands for Leonard.

Leonard wins the eleventh round, 10-9.

ROUND TWELVE: With three minutes left in the fight, Leonard is ecstatic in the corner before the bell. Both he and Dundee feel they have the fight won as Dundee yells out “new champion” over and over again.  Leonard beckons Hagler to the center of the ring where Steele makes them touch gloves. Hagler goes on the attack immediately, perhaps sensing the seriousness of the situation. Pinned on the ropes in a corner, Leonard again impresses the crowd with a flashy combination to Hagler’s head before dancing away to circle the ring. With ninety seconds left to go, Leonard looks content to run and grab. Hagler misses with a left and a right over the top of a crouching Leonard with a minute to go. Both boxers begin to acknowledge the crowd by raising a fist. Leonard again holds and Hagler punches him repeatedly in the side of his body. They trade inside with Leonard’s back to the ropes to close out the fight.

Hagler wins the twelfth round, 10-9.

I scored the fight 115-113 for Leonard, the same as on the night I first saw the fight live in 1987. Judge Lou Filippo scored it 115-113 for Hagler. Judge Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 for Leonard. And Judge Jo Jo, well, you know what he did.  The A.P. scored for Hagler. The Boston Globe scored for Leonard. HBO’s Harold Lederman had it 115-113 Leonard.

Larry Merchant?  He had it a draw.

Ultimately, Leonard was much better than anyone could have realistically expected. And Hagler was much farther past his prime than anyone truly realized. Quite naturally, it was the perfect time for Leonard to have come out of retirement for a fight with the aging Hagler. So there you have it folks.  I’ve thrown down the gauntlet.  Feel free to pick it up and tell me where I’m wrong.

How did YOU score the fight?

Who REALLY won?

Was it Hagler?  Was it Leonard?

The debate rages on…

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-dollar bond :

115 - 113 for SRL

-KO Digest :

30 years later, where does the time go? Seems just yesterday Sugar Ray announced this comeback...