Nobody gave Sugara ghost of a chance.
Not against undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous, who was coming off 12 consecutive successful defenses of his titles, 11 by knockout. Among them was a third-round KO of future Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns.
Making matters worse was that Leonard was coming off a long retirement, forced by a detached retina. He had fought one inconsequential fight in more than five years. You don’t spend that long away from the ring and come back without a warmup fight to face the mighty Hagler.
The two men were disparate characters in almost every sense. Leonard was a beloved figure, an Olympic hero, the darling of America, always smiling. Hagler was introverted, a scowler, what his promoter Bob Arum called a “blue collar” guy who came up in boxing the hard way. He was highly respected but not beloved.
“He fought any fighter that would step in the ring with him,” Arum said. “He’d have to go from Boston to Philadelphia and other places to find opponents who would fight him.”
Arum, who chatted with a few reporters last week to commemorate the event, said it took intervention from House Speaker Tip O’Neil and Sen. Ted Kennedy to get Hagler, from Brockton, Mass., a shot at the middleweight title, which he won by bloodying Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980.
That’s the backdrop for this spectacular super fight that took place in a makeshift outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas 30 years ago: April 6, 1987.
“The closed circuit locations were filled. This was the first fight that really started into pay-per-view (era) in various parts of the country. It was a massive, massive event,” Arum said. “The fight was sold out in one day and everyone was gathered for this terrific event. I’ll tell you I haven’t seen that fight in 30 years but I remember it as if it happened yesterday.”
Truth be told, Hagler didn’t even want the fight with Leonard, according to Arum. He wanted to retire, though he was only 32. Matter of fact, he wanted to retire after his KO of Hearns two years earlier but was talked out of it by Arum and his manager, Pat Petronelli. Turned out to be a good move for the Marvelous One, who earned $19 million to fight Sugar Ray, an unfathomable amount for a prize fight three decades ago.
Leonard had seen something in Hagler’s previous fight against John Mugabi that made him believe he could beat the champ.
“He saw that Marvin was aging, he was slowing up and Ray, even though he was retired, felt he could come back and take on Hagler,” Arum recalled. “When he announced that he was coming out of retirement, people were incredulous.”
And worried about how badly Hagler would hurt Leonard.
But Leonard, in the late George Kimball’s book Four Kings, said, “I’ve heard this theory that I ducked the fight until I saw Marvin slowing down. That’s bulls—. As he gets older, I get older, too! And I’m out of the ring! When I hear these things, I laugh. I’m a smaller guy, I’ve had one fight in five years and a detached retina. If I wait until I saw him slowing down, don’t I slow down, too?”
Sportscaster Tim Ryan, who called the fight with Gil Clancy, said there were so many questions attached to the fight.
“What did Ray have left, and those kind of things everybody speculated on, which really builds up the promotion,” said Ryan, who wrote about the fight in his recent book, On Someone Else’s Nickel. “Plus it turned out to be a very good fight. It was fascinating in the way the various tactics were explored.
“Hagler (a southpaw) came out fighting orthodox for the first few rounds. Gil Clancy was all over that. He was the greatest boxing commentator ever, because he could see what was going on with both fighters at the same time. It was amazing how he could stay on top of the shifts in strategy, and see the things that really mattered, whether a guy was really hurt by a punch or not. That fight had all of the elements that made it intriguing, probably the best adjective for it.”
Another big part of the story was that Hagler gave into Leonard’s insistence that the fight be 12 rounds, and not 15. It was a time where there ws movement to cut championship fights down to 12 rounds for safety reasons.
Leonard accomplished what he was so skilled at during his sparkling career: stealing rounds. Fight hard at the end of each round, and put that in the mind of the judges when they go to score it. In fact, Leonard’s corner, which included Washingtonians Ollie Dunlap and Charlie Brotman, would yell “Thirty!” at the 32-second mark loud enough for Leonard to hear, at which time he’d go to work.
“He was a brilliant fighter, because physically he couldn’t compare at that point to Hagler,” Arum said of Leonard, who started as a 6:1 underdog but late betting on him brought the odds down to 3:1 by fight night.
In a fight for the ages, it came down to the judges. The two from Las Vegas scored it 115-113, one for Hagler and one for Leonard. The third, Jose Guerra, amazingly scored the fight 118-110, giving Leonard 10 of the 12 rounds. Guerra never judged another fight in the U.S. Arum, who was incensed by Guerra’s scoring, had it 115-113 for Hagler.
In a testament to how hotly contested the fight was, Arum had three of his undefeated champions – Oscar Valdez, Jessie Magdaleno and Gilberto Ramirez, plus his newest signee, Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson – watch the fight without sound and judge it off what they saw, not what they heard. Of the four, all of whom fight April 22 at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., only Valdez scored it in Hagler’s favor. And Ryan, who called the fight, had Hagler winning by a close margin while Clancy scored it for Leonard.
Hagler, now 62, never fought again, taking his $19 million paycheck and retiring with his wife to Italy, where he acted in Italian movies. He still lives there, and, as Arum said, might still have the first dollar he ever earned.
Leonard, 60, fought five more times, including a draw in a rematch with Hearns, and a win vs. 38-year-oldin a rematch of the “No Mas” fight. He retired after losses to Terry Norris and Hector “Macho” Camacho. Leonard lives in California, does a lot of charitable work and golfs as much as possible. He still does some ringside analysis.
And Arum? Still going strong at 85, heading Top Rank, the company he founded nearly 50 years ago. He believes Stevenson has what it takes to be another Leonard-type fighter. And he said he would put his fighter Ramirez up against Gennady Golovkin in a winner-take-all fight.
“Thirty years from now, we’ll be talking — I hope I’ll be talking, he laughed — about major, major fights that these young men will have had,” he said. “And we’ll be looking back to those fights as being key points and key aspects of boxing in our era.”
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