THE richest fight in boxing history produced one of the sport’s most controversial decisions as Sugar Ray Leonard defied the odds and the still formidable skills of middleweight legend Marvelous Marvin Hagler to become the 10th man to win world titles at three different weights.
Leonard, the former welterweight and light-middleweight (WBA) champion, ended Hagler’s seven-year spell at the top of the middleweight division with a superbly executed but bitterly disputed split decision win in front of a capacity 15,000 crowd in Las Vegas’ Caesars Stadium and an estimated worldwide TV audience of around 300 million on April 6, 1987.
Leonard (11st 4lbs) had boxed only once in five years, and by fight time had drifted to four to one against in the Las Vegas betting.
The gamble paid off gloriously, even if I could not agree with the verdict, and especially with the ludicrously wide margin of 118-110 which judge Jo Jo Guerra of Mexico City awarded the new champion, giving Hagler only two of the 12 rounds.
Leonard’s other vote came from judge Dave Moretti, 115-113, while the third official, Lou Filippo, had it 115-113 for Hagler (11st 4 1/2 lbs). I scored it 116-113 Hagler or 7-4-1 in rounds.
Hagler was scathing about the judging: “Leonard came to me at the end and said: ‘You’ve won, man you beat me.’ But I thought – let’s wait. This is Las Vegas, the big betting town. They did this to me before with Antuofermo.” (Hagler’s first bid was against Vito Antuofermo in this city in 1979, when he got a draw).
Leonard, unmarked except for some slight lumpiness around the left eye, gave his press conference before Hagler and so could not be questioned as to whether he had, as Hagler claimed, acknowledged defeat in the ring.
Certainly there was no suggestion of it in anything he said at the conference.
A second conference was scheduled for Tuesday morning, local time, after the issue had gone to press.
“This was what I said I would do and I did it,” he said. “It wasn’t for the title – just beating Marvin Hagler was enough.
“Tonight was a special accomplishment for me. This fight meant the world to me. I want to thank Marvelous Marvin Hagler for giving me this chance to make history. My strategy was to stick and move, hit and run, taunt and frustrate and it worked.”
Hagler replied by saying “Leonard fought like a girl. I really thought they should have deducted points for all the holding and grabbing. His punches meant nothing.
“I fought my heart out. I kept my belt. I can’t believe they took it away from me. A champion shouldn’t lose on split decisions.”
The fight should have happened five years ago, before Leonard was forced into retirement by his eye injury. Neither is clearly as good as he was then but between them they still produced a championship which justified the hype and the $23m guarantee that they shared.
The fight fell into two segments, with Leonard winning the early rounds and Hagler coming on strongly to take command from the fifth.
Leonard’s lead was steadily eroded – at least on my card – until by the 10th it had disappeared.
But it was always a fascinating tactical battle, even if it lacked the fire and fury of Hagler’s epic wins in this ring over Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi.
Hagler’s split decision defeat of Roberto Duran is perhaps a better parallel. Duran, Leonard’s arch-rival in their welterweight days, fought the same kind of smart, countering campaign,frustrating Hagler with constant movement and superb defensive boxing.
But Leonard did not just try to stay out of trouble: he showed a champion’s iron will and courage when he had to and some of the close quarter hooking exchanges were breathtaking in their quality and ferocity.
Whenever hurt, as he was in the fifth and ninth, Leonard always managed to come back with something special to take the play away from his opponent, and that is the mark of a true great.
The ravages of a long career are apparent in Hagler’s work. The snap has gone from the punches that destroyed Hearns, Tony Sibson, Mustafa Hamsho and all the others in the succession of pretenders whom he has turned back over the seven years in which he has ruled his division.
But even 70 per cent of an all time great is still formidable proposition, and it is just possible that this bitter defeat could inspire him to one last burst of brilliance in the rematch which is surely inevitable.
It would be a shame if such a magnificent championship career had to end on this sour note, although there was not much sympathy wasted on the ex-champion amongst this Las Vegas crowd who have never warmed to him, despite the unmatchable entertainment he has offered over the years.
Leonard has always been America’s favourite son, ever since his Olympic gold medal days in 1976 and the crowd’s loyalties were apparent from the moment the challenger ducked through the ropes in his short jacket-style gown.
The long wait for the fight to get underway must have been hell for Leonard and the tension showed in quick, almost furtive glances he directed at the champion during the preliminaries.
Hagler, always the cold professional, did not even look at Leonard until they came to ring centre for referee Richard Steele’s instructions and even then there was none of the eyeballing nonsense which has become such a tiresome
Leonard and Hagler were on social evening terms before the fight was made, and anyway they had too much respect for each other as professionals to consider such chest pounding necessary.
Leonard had acknowledged beforehand that he could not hurt Hagler. “If I’m going to win, I have to outbox him,” he said “There is no way I can hope to knock out a man like that.”
His strategy was clear from the first bell…move and jab and don’t get involved. He let Hagler chase him in the opening round, the shaven-skulled champion switching constantly from southpaw to orthodox but being equally unsuccessful in either stance as Leonard scored on the retreat and smothered him whenever they came to close range.
Hagler landed his first worthwhile punch early in the second, a left hook to the head, and Leonard’s eyes widened, as if in apprehension.
Hagler tried to club rights to the body when he came in close, but Leonard was always quick to tie him up and them move away, scoring with quick in and out bursts.
The round ended with a brisk exchange of hooks, and Hagler glared at him before turning to his corner.
Hagler started the third southpaw again, having boxed most of the preceeding two rounds orthodox.
He got through with some solid jabs, and drove in two-handed hooks whenever he backed Leonard against the ropes. But the challenger was always quick to move out of danger and his footwork sometimes left Hagler floundering.
Leonard landed a couple of neat combinations on the retreat but Hagler’s steady pressuring brought him a share of the round on my card.
But his frustration was growing. There were already echoes of Leonard’s demoralisation of Roberto Duran in New Orleans – although it was inconceivable that Marvin Hagler would ever say “No mas”.
Hagler was made to miss badly with a right and a left at the start of the fourth, and Leonard scored with a fast right close-in, then landed a low right.
But Hagler, always a model professional, made no complaint.
The fight so far must have been going better than Leonard ever imagined and his growing confidence showed as he wound up a flashy right (just as he did against Duran) and landed it as cleanly.
When Hagler tried to get a counter-attack going, Leonard simply walked away, hands dangling and shaking his head. It was sound psychological warfare, and he knew it was working when the frustrated Hagler shouted something at him as they turned away at the bell.
But the fight swung away dramatically from the challenger in the fifth, one of the two rounds judge Guerra felt able to award the champion. Hagler got through with a couple of rights early on then forced Leonard to stand and trade.
Leonard tried to hit back, but Hagler blocked the blows on his arms and gloves (as he did with much of Leonard’s work).
Leonard made him miss widely in a corner, landed a good countering left hook, but then was rocked by a big left hook from Hagler and looked to be in trouble as Hagler blasted him with two rights and then drove him to the ropes with a two-handed attack.
Leonard was hurt, and rolled and ducked as best he could, before pulling himself together and firing back in the closing seconds of the round – but Hagler made the breakthrough, and they both knew it.
It was Leonard’s first crisis point, and he rode it like a champion, coming back to take the sixth with sharp counter-punching and some brilliant defensive work against the ropes.
He was noticeably slower, and I thought that the body blows which Hagler was landing at every opportunity might be beginning to take effect.
Hagler’s victory push started from the seventh, and I gave him every round from then onwards. Leonard had his first success in the round with a good left hook. But Hagler came straight back and had Leonard momentarily in trouble on the ropes before he recovered and turned Hagler cleverly.
The champion’s superior strength showed as he shoved Leonard’s back into the ropes again, ignoring Leonard’s counters to drill in body shots.
Leonard did an Ali-shuffle, but Hagler was unimpressed and shook the challenger with big left hooks.
Referee Steele (who handled the fight with quiet authority) took time out early in the eighth to have Leonard’s glove-lace retied, but the respite did not help the challenger any, as Hagler backed him into the ropes with jabs and hooks.
Leonard’s left eye was starting to look swollen, but he rallied with a left hook to the side if Hagler’s head that sent spray flying into the night air.
Hagler forced him back to the ropes, and Leonard had to stand and trade with him in the round’s final half minute.
The ninth was perhaps the best round of the fight. Leonard opened with a hard left hook and Hagler pounded to the body at close range, forced him to the ropes and stung him with a pair of left hooks.
Leonard was hurt and gave ground towards his own corner. Hagler pinned him there with sustained two-handed attack before Leonard, now fighting open-mouthed and looking weary, summoned up another rally that finally made Hagler back off.
Leonard seemed to be nearing exhaustion in the 10th, fighting flat-footed and just placing his gloves, rather than punching with any authority, as Hagler kept him under relentless pressure.
When the normally immaculate Leonard missed crudely with a sweeping right late in the round, it made me think that he was so tired that Hagler might even stop him in the 11th.
But instead Leonard got on his toes, dancing around the ring perimeter with his hands dangling, taunting the
champion and then catching him with two great left hooks.
But he could not keep the effort going (although all three officials saw it differently and gave it to Leonard).
Leonard raised both arms aloft in a salute as he waited for the start of the final round, and then caught Hagler with a fast combination to the head, talking to him when Hagler tried to shove him backwards. Hagler landed two left hooks and then Leonard turned him smartly and then launched a dazzling counter attack.
They traded briefly before Leonard broke off and went back “on his bike”, dancing backwards, while a section of the crowd whistled their disapproval.
Leonard waved his right glove threateningly and Hagler mocked him with the same gesture before having a last word with a left hook that sent Leonard into his own corner, seconds before the bell.
There was a long wait for the announcement of the verdict, which was followed by the customary pandemonium. Hagler slipped away almost unnoticed while Leonard savoured the moment.
It was a downbeat moment on which to end a fabulous career, but hopefully history will be kinder to Marvin Hagler than were the Las Vegas judges.