Fight #26: Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler
Fight #26: Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler, April 6, 1987, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV
This is the first mega-fight I remember, in that I clearly remember the long buildup to this showdown for Hagler's middleweight championship. I was in the fourth grade, and one day on the way to school, I carried a copy of the Washington Post sports section with me in the back seat of my mother's car. The sports section featured a profile of Leonard and Hagler. I already knew Hagler as the man who had beaten Tommy Hearns two years earlier, but I had never seen Leonard fight.
My mother said, "Yes, that's because he's always retiring and then coming out of retirement. Boxers do that a lot."
I asked why.
My mother said, "Because boxing is really dangerous and it can do long-term damage to your body and your brain. Look at Muhammad Ali now. He was once so smooth and eloquent and now he can barely talk."
My mother was always trying (for very good reason, as it turned out) to discourage me from playing any sport that involved taking blows to the head. Usually that meant telling me that I would never be allowed to play football, a stance that made me so angry that I once wrote a letter to an advice columnist for children asking what I should do. My letter was never published, but the columnist did respond to me, saying, "Listen to your mother. Football is dangerous."
Since I would never be allowed to play football, I knew boxing would be completely off-limits. But my mother could already tell I was fascinated by fighters. And looking at the profile of Leonard and Hagler in the Washington Post, I knew I wanted Leonard to win. Mainly, I think, because I liked that he was named "Sugar." At the time I don't think I even knew who Sugar Ray Robinson was. For me, there was only one Sugar. Of course, Leonard was also a Maryland native, and so that hometown bias probably rubbed off on me in some way. At any rate, like with the other mega-fights of my childhood, I was not allowed to watch this live. I did watch the rebroadcast, but was happy that Leonard beat Hagler.
It was only years later that I learned that the outcome of the fight came with a lot of controversy. There's been a whole book written about how Hagler was supposedly robbed of victory in this, the final fight of his career. So let's talk about this fight and about the scoring.
First, one thing needs to be said. Anyone who says that Hagler was "robbed" is full of shit. That person is likely a Hagler partisan who refuses to acknowledge the inherent ambiguity of scoring a boxing match, and who believes that close rounds should only be scored for their preferred fighter. There were a lot of close rounds in this fight, and so I have no problem with someone saying Leonard won, no problem with someone saying Hagler won, and no problem with a draw. But I do have a problem with someone saying that anyone who had it for Leonard was guilty of corruption or incompetence.
Let's talk about the actual fight. On a tactical and strategic level, it was pretty straightforward. Hagler, the longtime middleweight champion of the world at 32 years of age, needed to get Leonard to the ropes and use his experience and power to punish Leonard. Leonard, at 30 years of age coming off a nearly three year layoff and moving up in weight, needed to use ring generalship to dance around, make Hagler miss, and generally outbox the fighter from Brockton, Massachusetts.
Both men at times accomplished their objectives, but neither really imposed their will on the fight. With excellent lateral movement and an accurate left jab, Leonard was the clear winner of most of the early rounds. But he never *hurt* Hagler. He just frustrated him. And by the fifth round, as Leonard began to tire and lose some of that lateral movement, thanks to both the layoff and the extra weight he was carrying around the ring, Hagler was able to get to work on the inside and land meaningful punches. But the problem was, Hagler only really hurt Leonard maybe once in the fight, in the ninth round. The rest of the time, Leonard was fairly effective at fighting off the ropes, landing combinations, dancing away from danger when needed.
Leonard also showboated a lot in this fight, keeping his hands down, throwing bolo punches, mocking Hagler, etc. These tendencies in Leonard's style definitely pissed Hagler off, and I get the sense that a lot of Hagler fans have come to see Leonard as basically a bullshit showman rather than a blood and guts fighter. I think that's wrong. Leonard had the opportunity to display courage many times in his career. He came from a rough and abusive background himself, and had the instincts of a killer in the ring. Throughout his career he showed a willingness to engage and put himself in danger. He was a superior boxer, of course, but this should be celebrated, not condemned. Leonard was a great athlete and a very smart fighter who showed in this bout that he knew how to move around the ring, when to hold, when to fight on the inside, etc. He was a big underdog in this fight and took on a lot of risk getting into the ring with Hagler at all, given that he fought most of his career at welterweight.
If Hagler wanted to prove himself the better fighter to Leonard, then he needed to hurt him repeatedly and put him on the canvas. He couldn't do that, and at times looked a bit foolish trying to hit the elusive Leonard, missing wildly with many of his punches in this fight.
In the end, the judges gave a split decision win to Leonard, by scores of 115-113, 118-110, and 113-115. The 118-110 looks wrong to me, but Leonard had a knack for trying to steal rounds with flurries of punches at the bell, and perhaps this judge bought into Leonard's confidence and arrogance. I scored the fight 115-113 for Leonard. I gave Leonard rounds 1 through 4, as well as rounds 6, 10, and 11. I gave Leonard about three rounds that I thought could have gone either way, and Hagler two rounds that could have gone either way. The rest I thought were pretty clear cut one way or the other for one of the two fighters.
As I said, this was Hagler's last appearance in the ring, and his first loss in 11 years. He finished his career with an incredible record of 62-3-2. Leonard, who dealt with eye damage throughout his career, would continue to retire and unretire for another 10 years, finishing his career with a record of 36-3-1. Both are obviously in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
I am now halfway through the list of the top 50 fights a boxing fan should watch. Here is the video of Leonard-Hagler.