LOSING narrowly to Philadelphia’s tough, world-rated stalwarts Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe were not setbacks for Marvin Hagler, arguably the greatest middleweight of all time; they were an education.
The Marvelous One was born in Newark, New Jersey, but his rise to prominence came when he moved with his family after the 1967 race riots, travelling to Brockton in Massachusetts and training under the Petronelli brothers, Goody and Pat.
Marvin Hagler – who passed away this weekend aged 66 – was a stubborn, determined and narrow-minded fighter, insistent not just on getting to the top but becoming the best fighter in the world.
“If they cut my bald head open, they will find one boxing glove. That’s all I am. I live it,” he once said.
He lived, ate and breathed the sport and for nigh on a decade was the best middleweight in the world.
A shaven-skulled southpaw – who could switch-hit – he turned professional after winning the AAU title in 1973 and, in his 15th fight, defeated Olympic gold medallist Sugar Ray Seales and although he had lost only two fights in half a century of contests he did not get a shot at the title until 1979 and on that night Vito Antufermo held onto the crown with a draw.
But the New York-based Italian’s belt was taken by England’s Alan Minter and the night Marvin came to rip the title from the Briton was coated in shame for the nation’s fight fans.
Hagler had overwhelmed the champion and cut him to shreds before the contest was halted in round three, turning Wembley Arena into a viper’s pit of hatred.
Hagler had to be shielded by his team in the centre of the ring as missiles, bottles and coins, were hurled at him from the stands.
They were disgusting scenes but Hagler became a fine champion who did the sport proud.
He made 12 title defences, including a ferocious stoppage of Britain’s Tony Sibson and a 15-round points triumph over the great Roberto Duran.
But his greatest win was among the best in boxing history. His 1985 fight with Tommy Hearns, called The War, lived up to its name. The two set about one another with startling ferocity from the opening bell and Hagler was badly cut on his forehead. With the flowing blood obscuring his vision, he charged at Hears – one of the great punchers – and managed to overwhelm the Detroit Hitman in scintillating style in arguably the best fight the 160lbs division has seen. Hagler was cut beneath his right eye in round two and referee Richard Steele stopped the fight to ask him, “Can you see him?” Marvin snapped, “I’m hitting him, aren’t I?”
In the decisive round, Hagler landed a crunching, clean right hook that took a hold of Hearn’s legs and almost spun him around Hagler quickly pursued, sensing his moment and clubbed away until Hearns collapsed.
Amazingly, the Michigan man rose but referee Steele had seen enough, ending the contest with a respectful embrace of the beaten challenger, signifying the end of nine brutal minutes.
“Tommy Hearns was a little cocky,” commented Hagler, “and I had something for him.”
There were other tear ups for Marvin, he had his hands full with an inspired Roberto Duran and a gruelling battle with John Mugabi, but the big fight he longed for was with Sugar Ray Leonard, who had already spent years in and out of retirement.
Hagler was in a league of his own. “There are currently two middleweight divisions,” wrote the excellent sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, “Hagler and the rest.”
The fight captured the world’s imagination and some felt Leonard was risking his health by finally getting in the ring with the middleweight great. “If I were a betting man,” said Leonard, “I’d bet on Hagler. If I were a smart man, I’d bet on me.”
Hagler, by now, had made more defences than any middleweight since Carlos Monzon and, to this day, only a handful of fights have divided opinion so greatly. On the night, Leonard took a tight decision with the fighters earning a 115-113 scorecard each from two judges but a third scoring Leonard a wide 118-110 winner, meaning the official in question – Mexico’s Jo Jo Guerra – felt Hagler had won just two rounds.
Marvin Hagler was desperate to avenge the loss but Leonard was not interested, despite the many millions he would have made for it.
And he would never be tempted to fight Hagler again who, frustrated at being able to tempt Leonard back into the ring, walked away from the sport and never returned.
“I missed being punched,” said the former champion, who moved to Italy to further a career in acting. “Seriously, I really loved the art of boxing.”
When it was all said and done, the names Watts and Monroe – both knocked out in rematches – were mere footnotes on an incredible record, belonging to an incredible fighter. In fact, he was so good he added his “Marvelous” moniker to his name by deed poll in 1982, and no one disagreed with the sentiment behind it.