DARKNESS was Ray Leonard’s light during his years away from boxing. Denied the stage he had illuminated as his sport’s most celestial exponent in the immediate aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s sad decline and exit, he descended into an abyss.
“I discovered alcohol and cocaine mix very well together, very easily, and I nearly lost it, I really did,” he acknowledged. “I went all the way to the edge and I nearly went over.”
With no ring in which to perform, no arena, no opponent, nothing in his life providing him with the sharp clarity of focus he needed in order to feel fully alive – to be Sugar Ray – he plummeted until what he saw staring back at him did not bear contemplating.
The ghosts of two sexual abusers, one of them an Olympic boxing coach in whose hands he believed lay his destiny of a gold medal in Montreal in 1976, came back to haunt him and he was unable to exorcise them from his mind. There were nights he came home, fuelled by his substance abuse, and allegedly manhandled his wife, Juanita. On one occasion she described how he pulled a gun and threatened to shoot himself. On another how he poured a can of paraffin over the floor and vowed to burn down the house if she decided to leave. His behaviour was erratic, out of control.
He woke up one morning hungover, his head feeling like it was in the bell tube of a trombone, the contents of his stomach threatening to erupt. An action movie was on the TV and every bullet that was fired penetrated his skull and reverberated like a shock inside his head. The only way he could kill the noise, he figured, was to take his own gun and put a bullet through the TV, which he did.
“I just blew the TV out,” he recalled. “If I had stayed on that road, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The road he chose led him back to the bright lights. An abortive comeback was characterised by portentous moralising over the detached retina in his left eye, which had prompted his retirement at the peak of his powers at the age of 26. More ominously, the non-title bout featured nine of the most unimpressive rounds he had ever boxed in his life against Kevin Howard, who floored him for the first time in his career before being stopped on his feet.
“Even before the knockdown I knew it was over for me,” Leonard admitted. “There’s no sense fooling myself or anyone else. I just can’t go on humiliating myself. I’ve retired from boxing for good.”
Marvelous Marvin Hagler, whose $100 seat Leonard paid for personally having invited the world middleweight champion to be ringside, was conflicted. Humoured greatly by Leonard’s humbling at the hands of a journeyman, he also recognised what it represented for their much-anticipated encounter. “We had basically agreed [with Hagler’s management team, Goody and Pat Petronelli] the two fighters should get together,” Mike Trainer, Leonard’s lawyer, said sombrely.
The SuperFight had disintegrated like a supernova when Howard was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off Fort Knox.
My oldest boxing memory is of the ghostly figure of Marvin Hagler on an old black-and-white TV screen. Hooded and about to unleash chilling levels of malevolent intent upon the unfortunate Alan Minter. I was seven years old.
The poisoned, warped motivations which transformed Wembley Arena that night into a seething cauldron of hate, persuading Harry Carpenter, the BBC presenter and commentator, to describe it later as “reeking not so much of nationalism but a decidedly rancid smell of racialism, the low point of my many years at British ringsides”, passed over my head. But the foreboding presence of Hagler infiltrated my bones.
Sectarian violence and the sinister, brutalising politics of Northern Ireland served as an insidious, unnerving backdrop to my growing up years. That escapism, indeed sanctuary could be discovered in a sport such as boxing may say something about the traumatising effects on the soul of ‘The Troubles’, our long war.
Why any of us are drawn to the violence of the ring is a subject for deeper and more substantive discussion. But for me, while sport in general offered direction and refuge in its values and rituals and the various intricate requirements to be mastered, boxing became my deepest fascination. And despite the ambivalence, the passion endures.
Over the years I have spoken to and reported on Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant, A.P. McCoy and Frankie Dettori, Beckham and Ronaldo. I have witnessed their virtuosity at Augusta National and Wimbledon, Super Bowls and NBA games, Newmarket, Cheltenham and Champions League nights, stages which enrapture all the world. But I would still choose a seat at ringside over any other. Football, as Ali said to Pele, is more beautiful than boxing, but the spectacle of a big fight is unique, like seeing close-up an intoxicating, primitive form of war.
Barry McGuigan was the local hero of my youth, bringing together our community, proud and uplifted as we were to march beneath his banner, temporarily leaving the fighting to him. Frank Bruno and Tim Witherspoon, Lloyd Honeyghan and Don Curry, Reg Gutteridge and Jim Watt, Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, Duran, Hearns, McAuley, McKenzie, Laporte, Pedroza, Spinks, Tyson, Chavez and a long line of other fighters were all welcomed – via brand new colour TV – into our home, though not always by my mother.
She would have recoiled especially from the spectacle of a possessed Hagler running across the ring at the end of eight minutes of the most unremitting and brutal mayhem to land two final, devastating right hands on the jaw of Tommy Hearns, “a tomahawk followed by an axe” as Teddy Brenner, the old Madison Square Garden matchmaker, recalled. When the question was posed as to whom Hagler should fight next one stunned ringside observer was moved to suggest with a shudder: “How about Russia?”
No one, not even Hagler or Leonard, considered at that moment they were still on a collision course. “If ever I needed a reason to stay retired,” Leonard mused, “Hagler-Hearns, that was it.”
That he retained deep down an intense desire to demonstrate his virtuosity over the master of the middleweights and that the fight would become as provocative and polarising in its own way as Ali’s defining rivalry with Joe Frazier held me in thrall at the time and that appreciation never diminished. Part of the reason I pursued a career in journalism and in sports in particular was to try to discover what lay at the heart of such drive and character and performance as demonstrated by people like Leonard and Hagler. That there was trauma as well as triumph in their lives and that at the root of The SuperFight lay an emergent, elaborate, some might suggest Machiavellian plot compelled me ultimately to write a book about it having spoken in-depth to both men on multiple occasions.
Newark’s Central Ward, the main black neighbourhood in New Jersey’s largest city, cultivated within Hagler a diamond core. It was here he came to understand he would never catch a break in life unless he made it happen himself and even then the odds would be heavily stacked against. When years of tension and pent-up grievances – stemming from the grim reality of urban deprivation, institutionalised discrimination and the overt racism demonstrated by police and local lawmakers – gave way to the inevitable eruption of violence on Newark’s streets, the deployment of the National Guard and a city engulfed in an infernal red blaze from burning buildings and the blood of 26 dead people and 1,000 more injured, Hagler made an inviolable vow. He would get out of Central Ward even if Central Ward would never escape him.
“Some memories are too painful,” his mother would say.
In the penal solitude he inflicted on himself at his training camp in Provincetown on the edge of Cape Cod, Hagler kept alive that internal flame of pure, uncontrollable rage and it fed the almost indestructible monster he became inside a boxing ring. “Just give me a name, that’s the way I was,” he told me. “If you sign a contract and say you’re gonna turn up, that’s when my meanness would start.”
Nick Pitt, my former colleague on The Sunday Times, made the pilgrimage to Provincetown more than once and his recollections and contemporaneous reports along with those of my friend, Ron Borges, a bastion of Boston’s feverishly impassioned sports scene, helped to recreate for me the mood and essential elements of that capricious place. As beautiful as Provence in the height of summer, transformed in the long, lonely winter months – “the dark period,” as the locals call it – into a ghost town, pummelled relentlessly by the primordial Atlantic. Hagler’s spartan regime remained the same for all seasons and even as a champion, fuelled still by all the fires he had to combat in his youth, he renewed his vows to continue to train like a challenger every cursed time. “One of the few champions who became better after he won the title, a rare thing in sports, particularly in boxing,” reflected the veteran commentator, Larry Merchant, and this was why.
It was Tony Sibson’s misfortune to have to face Hagler at the absolute peak of his powers. The testimony of the former British, Commonwealth and European middleweight champion – after he had been subjected to six rounds of Hagler switching seamlessly between the southpaw and orthodox stance to maximise the brutal authority of his punching – remains as impactful today in attempting to appreciate the extent of Hagler’s dominance as it did when Sibson first said it: “I figured I’d find him with a solid punch sooner or later, but I never did. I kept asking myself, ‘Where did he go?’ But I knew he was there because he kept hitting me.”
Of course, the three-round war with Hearns represented Hagler at his most hellishly destructive. Even Norman Mailer, who had chronicled Ali-Frazier, Ali-Foreman and his own tortured experience of the United States campaign in the Philippines in World War Two for his debut novel, The Naked And The Dead, was awestruck and acknowledged he had “never seen anything like it”.
My journey through the wars involved an effort to discover conclusively why a chastened Leonard, who had barely managed to subjugate Howard and had succumbed again to his dual demons of drink and drugs, would even subject himself to signing up for the kind of terrorising battle Hagler promised. Five years had elapsed since his initial retirement prompted by the injury to his eye. “If he’s foolish enough to step in the ring with me, I’m foolish enough to rip his eye out,” Hagler said with typical brevity and menace.
The devil is in the detail, of course. The precipitous decline of a great warrior, which Leonard witnessed from ringside. Hagler’s tortured, clouded contemplations immediately following – and, crucially, leading up to – that punishing performance against John “The Beast” Mugabi in which he had been made to fight, in the words of America’s most celebrated columnist, Jim Murray, in the Los Angeles Times, “like a guy trying not to get thrown off a precipice”. Hagler’s decision to share his misgivings with Leonard over dinner. Leonard’s apparent duplicity, which Hager considered a betrayal. The terrible darkness my late colleague, Hugh McIlvanney, always said Leonard must have endured to fuel his performances of sometimes frightening brilliance – Verdi underscored with Stormzy’s language of the street. The interminable resentments accumulated throughout Hagler’s undervalued life and career.
Hagler, at home in the Lombardy region of Pioltello, less than 10 kilometres northeast of Milan, where he and his Italian wife, Kay, spend their time when they are not in New England, explained to me once why he could never forge any kind of relationship with Leonard in the years following The SuperFight. Leonard, with whom I spoke across the years in such locations as Buffalo and Birmingham, Los Angeles and London, ultimately provided a telling truth as to what drove him, insisting he would go to his grave in the certain belief he could beat Mike Tyson. In his $52million palatial home in Pacific Palisades he has never appeared too aggrieved that he cannot be buddies with Hagler.
“Don’t ever be fooled by the pretty face,” Tyson has reminded. “Ray Leonard was a pit bull with a pretty face. When it comes to this fighting thing, he’s like a monster.”
Briefly, when the COVID-19 pandemic first began to hit hard, the monsters that haunt a significant period of his past threatened to take a grip of Leonard once more. An alcoholic by his own admission, he has maintained sobriety for almost 15 years but, denied the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous he considers almost meditative, he found himself slipping until his wife, Bernadette, told him point blank, “You need your AA.” He has been attending online group meetings ever since.
Hagler lives in one of Europe’s coronavirus hotspots. Throughout the pandemic he has utilised his social media channels to impress upon people in the Lombardy region and further afield the importance of complying to the necessary restrictions. In a sense these enduring rivals have been reunited through the prism of a pandemic and recent events in America where insurrection at the Capitol, people choosing white supremacy over democracy, the Confederate battle flag being paraded on the floor of the People’s House, institutions of state coming under siege following the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, false claims of election fraud and promises of violent restoration by the mob have echoed some of the worst scenes of social unrest in their youth.
“Outside the ring I’ve never been confrontational but where we are today I’m confrontational. I just can’t sit back any longer,” Leonard said in the wake of George Floyd’s death for which four Minneapolis police officers will stand trial this year.
“I went through all of that growing up in a black area, the riots, a lot of poverty,” said Hagler. “I can’t understand the ignorance of people who are against people of another colour. We’re all on this earth together. I don’t look at people as black, white or whatever. I look at people for who and what they are.”
Elder statesmen of their sport, Leonard and Hagler will never see eye-to-eye over what went down at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on a night immortalised as The SuperFight, the central showpiece of a glorious era when both were kings. But they are not alone in being focused on the bigger fight now for America’s heart and soul.