Editor’s Pick: The hard road of Marvin Hagler

Marvin Hagler
Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs boxing’s powers-that-be and white supremacy. By Springs Toledo

“YOU’RE not welcome in here,” the bartender said. The bar was across the street from a truck stop in Moody, Alabama where the Confederate flags drooped in the buzzing heat and the population was 98.8 per cent white and had yet to break 2,000 in the summer of 1983. A minute before, the unwelcome guest had walked out of the angry sun and into something angrier still. He didn’t notice the hard-looking men around a pool table, the billiard ball that clicked but hadn’t quite clunked into a corner pocket when the four of them straightened their backs and locked hard eyes on him.

His complexion was the problem. It was a rich sienna, the colour of earth itself, though that was lost on a crowd animated by something in opposition to the earth itself, to life itself, for 364 years. He wasn’t looking for trouble. Standing a little more than 5-feet-8, he wore a sleeveless shirt and a big straw hat that made him look about as troublesome as a gardener. In fact, aside from arms carved from granite and attached by galvanized wire rope, there was nothing intimidating about him, nothing even unfriendly.

He didn’t come in by himself. A white man trailed a few steps behind him like a servant in an upside-down world.

“Two chili dogs please, a Heineken, and a Coke for my man.”

My man? That’s what did it.

“—Get the f**k out of here,” the bartender spat through clenched teeth.

The unwelcome guest didn’t respond. Any trace of an expression on his face was shadowed under his hat, his eyes shadowed again under sunglasses. He just stood there as if frozen in time, as still and as separate as a king come down from a mountaintop with a disguise a little too good.

★ ★ ★

“It was a dangerous place for us to be,” said Jackie Hurley, who was with Marvelous Marvin Hagler in that dive on that day.

Hurley was hired as his driver in 1980, not long after he had to deal with issues around race in another dangerous place — London’s Wembley Arena — where he destroyed Alan Minter to take the middleweight crown. “His limo driver was parked behind the arena when all hell broke loose,” he told me. “You know how all those skinheads in the crowd threw beer bottles at Hagler in the ring? They spiled outside and threw beer bottles at the windshield of his limousine too. The driver bailed. He jumped out and ran like hell.”

After that, Hagler’s managers knew they needed a driver who could be relied upon and Hurley got the call. He had a successful limousine company and was living on Beacon Hill when Pat Petronelli told him he’d heard through the grapevine that Hurley was what Boston guys are supposed to be, street-wise and true-blue, a guy who would never strand the champ.

Hurley knew what Hagler knew, which was that the champ had been left stranded too many times already, and from the very beginning. He was barely a teenager and long since abandoned by his father when he and his mother and siblings were stranded in their third-floor flat in Newark’s Central Ward during the race riots of 1967. For five days they flinched at the gunfire outside and crawled around on the floor and prayed the building didn’t burn down. After another riot broke out in 1969, his mother moved her brood to Brockton, Massachusetts where he was stranded again, this time under a parked car. He’d rolled under it after a neighborhood bully named Dornell Wigfall decked him while he was taking off his new leather jacket.

Marvin Hagler
Photo by Boston Globe Archive via Getty Images

The shame of it was like a railroad switch; it changed the trajectory of his life. His first stop was the Petronelli Gym and his fourth professional fight was against Wigfall, who was 8-0 on the local circuit. Hagler avenged his shame at Brockton High School’s gymnasium in 1973 and again in 1975, when he left Wigfall lying in the ring like deadfall. He never even heard the ten count. “This one was personal,” Hagler said over his shoulder.

In 1976, he stranded himself in the danger zone that was Philadelphia, where he faced Boogaloo Watts and Willie “the Worm” Monroe inside of two months. He lost both and avenged both, by knockout — Monroe twice within a year-and-a-half — and resolved not to lose again even if it cost him his life. He trained harder and went on to defeat Cyclone Hart and Bad, Bad Bennie Briscoe. In between those he was back in Massachusetts to send both Mike Colbert and Kevin Finnegan to Mass General Hospital. Colbert’s jaw was broken on both sides. Finnegan needed 40 stitches in his face.

Managers were getting jittery; they’d look at their watches and ease their way toward the nearest exit whenever his name came up. Hagler, his dream of becoming middleweight champion fraying, began holing up with the Petronelli brothers in Provincetown, the fist at the end of the flexed arm of Cape Cod, where the wind howls on winter nights and everyone feels stranded. He’d be up in the morning before the sun, doing miles of roadwork in combat boots in the sand and the snow and getting no closer to the crown he coveted. It was like he was running in reverse and losing more ground than he gained.

Don King snubbed him, the networks were doing the same. Bob Arum made a lot of promises but nothing was happening. The WBA and the WBC, then as now, had no interest in fair play. As late as August 1978, when Hagler was sending the iron of Philadelphia to the scrapheap, they left him stranded at #8 and #9 respectively—far below #1, which would have forced the title shot he had a right to.

He began to descend into a pit of despair. His fans in Brockton and Boston knew what was going on. Massachusetts Boxing Commissioner Joe Wright did too. He reached out to Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jnr at Barry’s Corner in North Cambridge where they used to meet every Friday in the 1970s. O’Neill was the Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives and wielded power that was second only to the President’s. “I told Tip to do me a favour and make sure Hagler gets his title shot,” Wright told me. Around the same time in 1979, Goody Petronelli walked into the Speaker’s office. “We manage Marvin Hagler, who’s been rated in The Ring at #1 for a long time but they’re not giving him a title shot,” he said. O’Neill sat and listened to how it was that the best middleweight in the world was being willfully and maliciously marooned, how boxing’s powers-that-be were operating as bald obstructionists, and he blew his top. He called Bob Arum. “You tell those clowns in South America that if my constituent doesn’t get a title shot very soon, I will open a federal investigation into boxing and you can all get in line for subpoenas.”

On St. Patrick’s Day I spoke with Thomas P. O’Neill III, the late Speaker’s son and the former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. He told me Don King got a call too, on the same day. They were all put on notice. “If this kid doesn’t get his shot,” he recalled his father saying. “There will be a massive investigation.”

It sent them scrambling. The clowns at the WBA and WBC, who also got calls from a U.S Senator from Massachusetts, moved Hagler to #1. The next time Arum was asked by reporters whether Hagler will get a title shot, he nodded his head so vigorously his glasses flew off. “Definitely, definitely, definitely,” he said.

Marvin Hagler
Michael Brennan/Getty Images

That’s what did it. That’s what it took. When he finally became middleweight king, Hagler never forgot what his powerful patron on Capitol Hill had done for him. Six tickets were reserved in his name at the will-call window for every title defence. If it was a Vegas fight, Hurley would drop them off at his office. Hagler made sure of it, every time. He’d put his hand on Hurley’s shoulder. “Tip got his tickets, right?”

“Yes! Of course!”

The Speaker of the House attended his fights at the Boston Garden. His son, also a boxing fan, attended his fights in Las Vegas right up to and including “The Super Fight” with Sugar Ray Leonard “—which he won,” he added. Some years later he ran into Arum at a party for Pulitzer Prize-winning author (and sports journalist) Doris Kearns Goodwin. “You know, I made Marvin Hagler,” Arum said, “…after your father called me.”

“Marvin was a careful man, even superstitious sometimes,” Hurley said. When he fought the rematch against Fulgencio Obelmejias in San Remo, Italy, Hurley was with him. They stayed at the Riviera on Arum’s tab and Hurley shared a room with photographer and fellow Boston native Angelo (“Angie”) Carlino. At eight in the morning on the day of the weigh-in, there was a knock on their door. Hurley opened it to see Hagler standing there in a sweat suit and sneakers. He wanted to take a walk around the city. They headed down by the docks, passing by yachts where 70-year-olds had 19-year-old “nieces” on their laps. Hagler was mobbed by one and all; they were hugging him, snapping pictures, applauding as he went by. In the United States, he felt like he was still a bricklayer toiling in the shadow of Sugar Ray; in Italy, he was the second coming of Caesar Augustus. “I’m coming back here someday,” he said.

Farther along was a little chapel. Hagler went in, doffed his hat, and lit about 10 votive candles, Hurley about five more, but when they reached into their pockets for the offering box, the only thing jangling was room keys. They’d left their wallets back at the hotel. Hagler was worried about a jinx, so Hurley promised to come back and pay after the weigh-in. “Make sure you do!” Hagler said.

But he completely forgot.

Hagler lost the first two rounds and in the fourth he was missing big punches and wondering if Hurley ever did get back to that little chapel. In the fifth, he finally put his combinations together and Obelmejias crumbled at his feet. The theatre erupted with the kind of exhilaration Italians know best and practice most freely, though it was an Irishman who outdid them all. Hurley can be seen on the broadcast jumping up and down like a pogo stick, his hands aloft as if he won something grand or was spared something grievous. After he made his way into the crowded ring, Hagler grabbed him.

“Jackie! Did you pay for those candles?! I had a hard time knocking him out!”

“Yes! Of course!”

Hurley was more than Hagler’s driver. Despite the fact that he was smaller than Hagler, he functioned as his security, ostensibly. “You got the easiest job in the world Jackie,” Hagler said to him one day. “I can hit real hard, so if trouble comes all you have to do is get outta my way.” He knew to get out of his way when fight time drew near and Hagler’s mood turned dark. He’d leave him to brood alone in the hotel room with gangster movies flickering on the TV.

In June 1983, Hagler’s mood turned sunny when Roberto Duran signed a contract to face him in the first big-money fight of his life. He decided he’d go on the road and promote what was already being touted as an historical clash. He had another reason too, he wanted to remedy the fact that he still wasn’t recognisable on the street. So he bought a motorhome and set off on a cross-country junket. The Petronelli brothers wanted two Brockton cops to go with him, but Arum was paying and he nixed it. “Hurley,” he said. “No one else.”

“Why you?” I had to ask.

“I guess I had a way with him. He trusted me, and Marvin didn’t trust a lot of people.”

Arum found that out when he asked Hagler to interrupt his junket for a press conference in Los Angeles. Hagler didn’t want to do it, and Arum was a wreck; he’d already invited 30 media executives from South America. He turned to Hurley in hopes that he was as true-blue as everyone said. When Hagler walked into the press conference on time with Hurley, Arum fell in love.

Hurley spent six weeks on the road with Hagler and his wife and kids, and Angie Carlino. He and Carlino followed Hagler’s motorhome in a Hertz rental car. From Los Angeles, they hit San Francisco and Las Vegas and stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the way to New Orleans. Hurley was returning from an errand one morning when he saw a Mexican boy sitting on a picnic table near Hagler’s motorhome. “Hey, do you know who’s in there?” the boy said, pointing.

“Who?” said Hurley.

“Marvelous Marvin Hagler! The champ of the whole wide worrrrld. I got all his stats!”

“Yeah?” Hurley said. “Wait here a minute.”

The boy’s eyes widened when Hagler emerged from the motorhome, shook his hand, and joined him on the picnic table. Hagler’s eyes widened up when the boy convinced him that he knew more about Hagler’s career than Hagler himself. “Jackie,” he said out of earshot. “What’s my schedule like? I wanna light this kid’s life up.” Hagler took him to the bumper cars. He took him to lunch. He told him all about his fights and how it felt to be king. He lit up his life.

Hurley stayed in the background, taking care of the grunt work and keeping everything on schedule and everyone happy. In the morning he’d stop at a payphone and dutifully call Arum to check in. Arum insisted on it, and never stopped reminding him that he had “13 million dollars at stake — eight for Hagler and five for Duran.” Every day he asked the same question and every day he got the same answer:

Marvin Hagler

“Is everything okay?”

“Yes! Of course!”

When they crossed into Louisiana, Hurley went on high alert. He knew how peculiar the Old South was; how racial progress slowed to a crawl like everything else in that buzzing heat. He didn’t even have a gun. But he did stash two hatchets in the trunk, and he’d showed them to Marvin when they were up in Klan country. “See?” he told him. “I don’t have to shoot straight!”

They were travelling along Interstate 59 in Alabama when the motorhome’s engine light flashed on. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a Klan-made bomb killed four little girls in 1963 was only twenty miles and twenty years behind them. “We can’t break down here!” Hurley said as he popped the hood at the next campground. Angie stayed behind with Hagler’s wife and kids. Hagler plopped his straw Stetson on his gleaming head and climbed into the motorhome with Hurley. They pulled into a truck stop about a mile off to get it serviced, and that’s when Hagler spotted the dive across the street.

“Let’s go get a drink and some chili dogs,” he said.

Hurley took a deep breath and followed.

★ ★ ★

“Marvin was always polite,” Hurley said. “When that bartender told him ‘get the f**k out’, he did. It was how his mother raised him; be strong, but be polite to people.” They walked the mile back to the campground in silence. There was a caboose there and Hurley ordered chili dogs and brought them to a picnic table. Hagler was sitting there glowering and clenching his jaw. Then he pushed the paper plate away and stood up. “Martin Luther King died for this kind of stuff,” he said. “I’m goin’ back.” He turned to Hurley. “You with me?”

Hurley knew what going back meant. He knew what kind of a place that was, what kind of people were in that place. There was no way — no way — there weren’t at least two pistols and a shotgun under that counter in that bar, never mind pool sticks for every patron. He knew that going back could get really bad really fast.

“I could see the next day’s headlines in my head,” he said. “Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Wacky Jackie Hurley gunned down in Moody, Alabama and s**t, I was security for Marvin and Arum’s millions! I was supposed to talk him out of a move like this!”

“Jackie, you with me?” Hagler said again.

“Yes! Of course!”

“I’m goin’ in there and ordering drinks and then I’m gonna knock them all out. Plus the bartender.”

“Will you at least let me grab a pool cue first?”

They walked the mile back to the truck stop in Moody, Alabama where the Confederate flags drooped in the buzzing heat and the population was 98.8 per cent white and had yet to break 2,000 in the summer of 1983. Hagler was 29 and at the peak of his powers but might’ve whispered a prayer for strength and courage anyway as the bar bobbed into view. He swung the half-rotted door wide and walked in.

The hard cases turned around and squinted at the silhouette standing there with the angry sun behind him. He locked his hard eyes on theirs. His complexion was no longer the problem; they were.

“I want a Heineken, and a Coke for my man,” he said as he tore his sunglasses off and threw down his big straw hat like a gauntlet.

Hurley thought, “Ohhh s**t, here we go!”

He was halfway to the pool cues when one of the guys at the bar jumped up with a smile cracking the plaster on his face. “Ohhh s**t! That’s the champ!” he said, and 364 years of history took a hiatus.

“Billy!” said another, “Call the fellas! Marvin Hagler is here!” The bartender, that’s Billy, was so elated he could hardly get his finger to spin the rotary phone. And in less time than it takes to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and more time than it takes to recite the motto on Moody’s town seal, half the population was crowding Hagler in the suddenly hospitable and suddenly famous bar that he had blessed by his presence.

★ ★ ★

THE next morning, Hurley stopped the Hertz rental car at a payphone and left Angie sleeping inside. He called Arum for the daily check-in.

“Any problems?”

“No, no. Everything’s been great. Marvelous.”

Up ahead, Hagler had pulled the motorhome off the road, his elbow and the wide brim of his hat jutting out the window. Hurley might’ve seen him smiling in the side-view mirror as he shifted into drive and rumbled on toward Interstate 59.

The middleweight champion of the world, of the whole wide world, is waving as he disappears in the distance, as if to say so long to Hurley, to Moody… to us.

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