by | Apr 8, 1987 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Sugar Ray Leonard leaps after hearing the decision. LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Sugar Ray Leonard was hanging on the shoulders of his trainers, his legs stringy, he expression dazed, and Marvin Hagler was doing a boogaloo shuffle in the middle of the ring. This was the paradox of what they’re calling “the greatest return in boxing history,” because in seconds, Leonard would be crowned the winner by split decision, the new middleweight champion, the comeback-kid of all time, and Hagler, the guy doing the dance, would be thrown to the wolves.

“Oh, Jesus . . . ” Hagler would cry when the decision was announced, his seven-year middleweight reign suddenly over. “Oh, come on . . . come on . . . I won this fight! . . . they stole it. . . . Come on! . . . ” He was babbling, walking in circles, he still looked strong, his muscles taut, his face wore no blood after 12 rounds, nor did Leonard’s, but Leonard was exhausted over in the other corner, and his mother was kissing him, then his wife was kissing him. The cameras worked their way through the crowd and suddenly, almost inperceptibly, he seemed to straighten, and then he winked, and you knew he’d had this thing all along.

Leonard wins! And in the aftermath of this mini-war, Hagler and his camp would blame the 12-round limit — which they had agreed to at Leonard’s insistence, although championship fights are usually 15 — and they would say Marvin was the aggressor, and they would point to Sugar Ray’s exhausted collapse after the final bell as evidence their man was better. “He was dead on his feet!” Hagler would moan. “He couldn’t have gone another round.”

He didn’t need to. Know this. Leonard won this fight. He was exhausted because he executed his plan perfectly, he used the last drop of gas in the tank — he should have been exhausted — while Hagler was left with a boxer’s most useless possession, a surplus of strength. He had plenty left. He could have knocked out five men. But he had lost the fight, without a cut, without a knockdown and without a single punch that even registered a stun.

How could it be that Leonard, inactive for nearly three years, comes to this desert, moves up a weight class, and steals the belt right off Hagler’s waist? Easy. He used his head. He came as Hagler’s nightmare. He came as himself.

And this fight was all but over before it started.

Sugar Ray Leonard had haunted Marvin Hagler’s sleep for years. Like a wallflower watching a prom queen, Leonard seemed to Hagler all he could never be: glib, witty, younger, a sweetly heroic persona with a face for TV and an Olympic gold medal to get him there.

And what was Marvin? A wolf. He scared people. He was brooding, silent, bald-headed with a goatee. Women and children never approached him the way they would Sugar Ray. Hagler had no medal, he was right off the streets, the Newark ghettos, and when he started fighting in Pat and Goody Petronelli’s gym in Brockton, Mass., it was strictly small-time, earn your way up. He got 50 bucks for his first pro fight.

In another life, Hagler, 32, and Leonard, 30, might never have met. But in boxing, they reached a peak like two men climbing different sides of the same mountain. Hagler fought twice as often and made half as much, and every time he saw Sugar Ray, sweet Sugar Ray, dancing Sugar Ray, popular Sugar Ray, he was just waiting for the chance to face this little squirt in the only place they might be equal.

Both men became champions. And then Leonard retired in 1982, a rich man with eye problems. Hagler ached. He came to Leonard’s retirement press conference. “It’ll never happen,” Leonard said to him then of their bout.
“It’s over.” Hagler’s chance was gone.

He fought other men, beat them, made money, but it was like dancing with every girl except the one you really want. So when the talk started last year that Leonard — after several years as a TV commentator — wanted a fight, one fight, only with Hagler, well, forget the delay and Hagler’s retirement plans. Those who really knew the champion knew it was a yes.

Deep down, Leonard knew it, too. “Hagler has this thing about me. He is obsessed,” Leonard said. The challenger used that knowledge to hold out for 1) the gloves he wanted 2) the ring he wanted 3) the 12 rounds he wanted. Hagler gave in on all three.

Obsession. Muhammad Ali, in his prime, had opponents beaten simply by being who he was. They could never get past that. In the five years from Leonard’s first retirement, Hagler — bitten by such a bug — had been chasing his ghost, looking for the kind of adulation Sugar Ray once commanded. And he never got it. Oh, the men Hagler beat! Duran. Hearns. Mugabi. Beat them decisively. Took every challenge. Yet, he looked in the mirror and he was still Hagler. “You guys,” he would lecture the press, “you never give me the credit a champion deserves. Everybody talks about Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray . . . “

In Hagler’s mind, Leonard was now more than an opponent. He was a demon, a nightmare, an uncatchable stallion. And slowly, just as the wallflower, for all her envy, knows she could never replace the prom queen, Hagler began to sense, in the dungeons of his heart, that he somehow did not deserve to take over Leonard’s pedestal. Sugar Ray was now larger than life.

And Hagler was his to beat.

When the fight began Monday night in that ring in the middle of Caesars Palace parking lot, Hagler didn’t throw a punch for 30 seconds. Leonard taunted him from the beginning, first refusing to look at him during the handshake, then refusing to look away. Leonard scored with the first combination. He flitted out like a bug.

For that round and the next and the next, Leonard was pure motion, he drew Hagler in, herky-jerky, as if attached by a loose string. He played peek-a-boo, he stuck his chin out. In the fourth, he suckered Hagler with a bolo punch to the right kidney. The crowd roared. Hagler was off-balance, switching between righty and southpaw, missing badly, and never once landing a truly painful punch.

Understand the psychology at work here. Leonard was acting out all the things Hagler hated him for — the showboating, the quickness, the fluid grace. The more he did this, the more angry Hagler became. And the more anger, the more fuel for Sugar Ray. “Hagler doesn’t get tired, he gets frustrated,” Leonard said last week, “If he goes back to his corner shaking his head, I’ve got him.”

He had him. That early. The judges awarded the first four rounds to Leonard
— so right there, if this was going the distance, Sugar Ray had money in the bank. Hagler continued to stalk him relentlessly, throwing wild punches for Leonard’s head, not his body. Body shots would have been smarter, they would have slowed Leonard down, but Hagler wanted a definitive statement. He wanted to kill the devil, once and for all.

In the fifth, Hagler landed blows, he shortened the ring, and he won the round; but in the sixth, he got Leonard in a corner and still couldn’t score. The emotion of the long wait, the years, the buildup, seemed to hit Hagler like a sudden injection, and while Leonard could not hurt him, he could not unleash any bombs himself. So for much of the round, much of the fight really, they were at a dance, chasing and flicking and tap-tap-tap, get in, get out, circle, flurry, take one, give one. This was Sugar Ray’s type of fight and Hagler knew it.

Now, frustration began its drum roll. At one point in the seventh round, Hagler stuck his tongue out at Leonard, a remarkable gesture for him, but he was trying to beat Leonard at his own game — showmanship — and that was fatal. Leonard just danced and feinted, and lay against the ropes, a la Ali, and then moved away.

And then came the ninth, and Hagler’s sky caved in. Four times, Leonard engaged him in toe-to-toe exchanges, and four times Leonard danced away with little damage. It was reckless on Sugar Ray’s part, for until then, he was winning on points. He was tired and his tricks had diminished, so he was taking a chance with Hagler’s aim. Yet each time, he escaped those flying fists, the crowd erupted. Leonard lost that round on two of three cards, but he found his second wind.

Now in Hagler’s corner, they were worried. They had been this route before, against Vito Antefuermo in 1979, Hagler’s first title shot, and that one went the distance and Hagler should have won but it was called a draw and Antefuermo kept his crown. All week long, Hagler had boasted how he would let his fists, “K” and “O,” be the judges, because leaving it to judges in Las Vegas was like suicide. “We need these two! Don’t let up!”‘ Goody Petronelli urged him in the 11th.

So the fight for Hagler had reached desperation. Where was Sugar Ray? He could whup him if he could find him. But Leonard was in his element now, sensing victory, moving and dancing. He ducked under a bad miss by Hagler and taunted him with a windmill fake. Had there been four more rounds, Hagler might have taken his time, wore Leonard down, clubbed him with a killer punch. But that is why Leonard wanted 12. And before that final round, he raised his hands in apparent victory and taunted Hagler to come to the center of the ring, he wanted to shake his hand.

Hagler was outfoxed. Three minutes later — in the din of the crowds chanting “SUG-AR RAY! SUG-AR RAY!” — it was over. Hagler claims Leonard told him, “You beat me, man,” and that is what prompted his boogaloo dance. But when the decision was read, it was two judges for Leonard, one for Hagler, and one of the judges, somebody named Jo Jo Guerra, actually scored it 118-110 for Sugar Ray, giving Hagler just two rounds. “That guy ought to be in jail,” Pat Petronelli would say. “We were jobbed.”

When Leonard came out from his post-fight dressing room, he was wearing a yachting cap and a T-shirt. His face was pretty. “I got something to say,” he began, pulling out a list of fight “experts” who had predicted a Hagler win.
“Let’s see here . . . “

No one groaned. He was entitled. This was a remarkable feat no matter what, springing from retirement to a title. It was something Jim Jeffries couldn’t do in 1910 and Joe Louis couldn’t do in 1950 and Ali couldn’t do in 1980. Leonard had done it against a beast, a man whom he had seen looking at him, envying him. Obsession. Sugar Ray Leonard had Marvin Hagler’s number and Leonard knew it all along. “I didn’t want the belt,” Leonard said of the WBC middleweight title, “I just wanted to beat him.”

A half-hour later, Hagler, too, would emerge, looking only weary, not beat up. Even the enormous scar tissue above his eyes was barely swollen. He looked too good to feel this bad. “I’ve never seen a split decision go against a champion . . . ” he would say. “I feel as if I’m still the champion . . .

But, all right. These are merely words, and the words of a fighter are no more reliable than the fists of a politician. Fighters speak with their bodies, and in the final rounds Monday night, Hagler’s said defeat, he had been stumped, stymied, tripped up by light punches and fast footwork and a psych job that he knew was coming. And that must have been the worst part. Like a man who can stay awake no longer, Hagler closed his eyes and found his old nightmare — right in front of him. “I knew this would happen,” he mumbled at one point.

Hagler lost everything on this fight — his title, his streaks, his
“unbeatable” reputation — and in weeks to come, second-guessers may wonder why on earth he ever took it. It is a useless question. Obsession does not die with the bell. Marvin Hagler never had a choice. CUTLINE

Sugar Ray Leonard leaps after hearing the decision.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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