MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER, who was universally respected within the boxing community and was one of boxing’s greatest champions, died suddenly on March 13 at age 66.
Usually, there are warning signs before a great fighter dies. He’s old. Or he’s relatively young but in failing health. Newspapers dust off their obituaries. The end is near.
There was no such warning here. The news came in a post on Hagler’s official fan club page signed by his wife, Kay, that read, “I am sorry to make a very sad announcement. Today, unfortunately, my beloved husband Marvelous Marvin passed away unexpectedly at his home here in New Hampshire. Our family requests that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
No cause of death was announced. TMZ later reported, “One of Hagler’s sons, James, tells TMZ his father was taken to a hospital in New Hampshire earlier on Saturday March 13 after experiencing trouble breathing and chest pains at home. We’re told about four hours later the family was notified he’d passed away.”
Hagler came up the hard way. Most fighters do. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 23, 1954. His mother moved the family to the blue-collar town of Brockton, Massachusetts, in the wake of the 1967 riots that devastated Newark. Marvin started boxing in Brockton and was discovered in a local gym by Goody and Pat Petronelli – brothers who would train and manage him for his entire ring career.
Hagler fought all of that career as a middleweight. His creed was simple: “Anytime, any place, in anyone’s backyard.” He turned pro on May 18, 1973, and compiled a 62-3-2 (52) record over the course of fourteen years. All but the final blemish on his ring ledger were cleansed.
Sugar Ray Seales fought to a disputed draw against Hagler in Seales’s home state of Washington. Hagler had decisioned Seales in an earlier fight and destroyed him in one round in a later one.
Bobby Watts won a hometown majority decision over Hagler in Philadelphia and was knocked out in the second round when they met again. Also in Philadelphia, hometown fighter Willie Monroe decisioned Hagler. They fought twice more with Hagler knocking Monroe out in the twelfth and second round.
Vito Antoufermo benefited from what is widely acknowledged to have been an ill-considered draw when he fought Hagler for the first time. Eighteen months later, Hagler knocked out Antoufermo in four rounds.
The only blemish not avenged was a loss by decision to Sugar Ray Leonard on April 6, 1987, in the final fight of Hagler’s career. Against Leonard, Hagler took a calculated risk. Or more accurately – a miscalculated risk. A natural southpaw, he fought in an orthodox stance for the first three rounds, shortening the fight for Leonard and losing points on the judges’ scorecards. Lou Filippo scored the bout 115-113 for Hagler. Dave Moretti had it 115-113 for Leonard. Jose Juan Guerra (who seemed to have trouble understanding what he’d been watching) cast the deciding tally 118-110 in Leonard’s favour.
Hagler fought with a withering seek-and-destroy style. He was as relentless in training as he was in the ring and wore combat boots while doing roadwork. He seized the middleweight throne with a third round knockout of Alan Minter in London in 1980 and successfully defended his crown 12 times against the likes of John Mugabi and Roberto Duran. His most notable victory was a third-round knockout of Thomas Hearns on April 15, 1985, in a non-stop slugfest that’s widely regarded as one of the most thrilling fights in boxing history.
After the Leonard fight, Hagler (one month shy of his 33rd birthday) walked away from boxing. He moved to Italy, learned Italian, and played the hero in grade B action movies. He was a boxing success story – a great fighter who retired in good health with money in the bank and stayed retired.
One anecdote speaks volumes. Flying home from Las Vegas after an eight-figure payday, Hagler called his wife on the telephone. Phones on planes were a novelty in those days and were activated by using a credit card. Marvin spoke with his wife for about a minute before telling her, “I got to hang up now. I don’t know how much this thing costs.”
How good a fighter was Hagler?
Six years ago, I conducted a poll to rank the greatest middleweights of modern times. The contenders were limited to the post World War II era and did not include fighters like Stanley Ketchel and Harry Greb because there isn’t enough film footage available to properly evaluate them.
The fighters under consideration, listed alphabetically, were Nino Benvenuti, Gennady Golovkin, Marvin Hagler, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jake LaMotta, Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Robinson, and James Toney. The panelists were asked predict the outcome of every fight if each of these fighters were to fight the other eight in a round-robin tournament.
Twenty-four experts participated in the ranking process. They included matchmakers, trainers, fighters, historians, and media representatives ranging from Teddy Atlas and Don McRae to Bruce Trampler and Mike Tyson. The electors were to assume that both fighters in each fight were at the point in their respective careers when they were able to make 160 pounds and were capable of duplicating their best 160-pound performance.
The incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson finished in first place. Hagler beat out (or one might say “beat up”) the other contenders to finish as the #2 ranked middleweight of modern times.
Putting matters in further perspective, I once asked Bernard Hopkins how he would have fared against Sugar Ray Robinson.
“Sugar Ray Robinson at 147 pounds was close to perfect,” Hopkins answered. “But at middleweight, he was beatable. I would have fought Ray Robinson in close and not given him room to do his thing. He’d make me pay a physical price. But at middleweight, I think I’d wear him down and win.”
And how did Hopkins think he would have done against Hagler?
“Me and Marvin Hagler would have been a war,” Bernard responded. “We’d both be in the hospital afterward with straws in our mouth. We’d destroy each other. My game-plan would be, rough him up, box, rough him up, box. You wouldn’t use judges for that fight. You’d go by the doctors’ reports.”
There came a time in Hagler’s ring career when he decided that he should be introduced at fights and referenced in the media as “Marvelous Marvin Hagler.” But as Muhammad Ali learned after changing his name from Cassius Clay, the boxing world isn’t always compliant in matters of nomenclature. Finally, after being introduced without the “Marvelous” at one fight too many, Hagler went to court and legally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Hagler was a true champion in and out of the ring. He earned the right to be called “Marvelous.”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.