by | Mar 9, 1986 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The Beast is mean, The Beast is vicious. That’s what they want you to believe out here, anyhow. But at the moment, The Beast is simply late for work. And the small crowd around the Caesars Palace boxing ring is getting restless. “Where is he?” someone asks. “Where’s The Beast?” Who knows? Maybe he’s out grazing.

But wait. Here he comes, dressed in yellow running shorts, a blue sweat suit top, and a three-day growth on his cheeks. “La- dies and gentleman,” yells some British guy into the microphone, “the No. 1 middleweight contender, John (The Beast) Mugabi!” There is only polite applause. Face it, the guy is short, his build is good but not spectacular, and he has no fur. The Beast? Well, shoot. The crowd sticks around anyhow. Maybe he’ll show them something in his workout. Besides, you can’t just ignore a guy who once shadowboxed Idi Amin.

Yeah, that’s the story going around. When Mugabi was a kid in Uganda, Amin, who reportedly was a big fight fan (no doubt the more blood, the better), would come visit the boxing club in Kampala where Mugabi trained. He’d take the boxers up in his plane. He’d joke around. And occasionally he’d shadowbox the young dudes.

Mugabi never hit his dictator with anything that mattered. And how fitting. Because on Monday night he’s going to have the same problem in a title fight against Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Just think of him as Big Dada, you little beast. Who are these guys?

True, Mugabi, 26, is a knockout artist. And true, he’s been ferocious in fights since winning a silver medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But his pro record shows the same discriminating taste as a jungle snake; he’ll eat anything. He has knocked out 26 straight opponents and you have never heard of a single one. Unless you’re a zoologist. How about Frank (The Animal) Fletcher? Or (Vampire) Johnson? Or somebody named Pedro Guerrero? Doesn’t he play for the Dodgers?

Billy Bradley, Don Morgan, Nino Gonzalez. Impressed yet? And now, suddenly,

it’s Marvelous Marvin Hagler — only the best fighter in the world. Yet at Friday’s press conference, Mugabi took the microphone and in strained English
(his native tongue is Swahili) uttered this prediction: “I will knock Hagler out.”

Say good night, John. You don’t wake a sleeping lion. And Hagler heard you. While everyone has been talking about the kind of punch Mugabi can throw, few have considered what kind he can take. You don’t worry much about punches when you’re fighting vampires and animals. You worry about rabies.

But it’s a different story here in the desert. These are the punches of Marvelous Marvin, the master of disaster, the world champion, undefeated in the last 10 years. He doesn’t break easily. He doesn’t blink easily. He trains quietly, motivates quietly, then comes out and beats your face in. “How will you feel,” someone asks Mugabi, “when you enter the ring Monday night?”

“I will feel like I’m growing up,” says The Beast, “like I grow into King Kong. Grrrr. I ready to go.”

Grrr. Take a seat, pal. Let’s face it. This fight is mostly a prelude for Hagler, a setup for the big-money rematch against Thomas Hearns (who also fights here Monday night.) Whatever interest has been generated has been based largely on The Beast’s nickname. If Hagler were simply fighting someone named John Paul Mugabi, it might not outdraw the lounge act at the Dunes. His handler needs handling

But what’s in a name anyhow? Yes, Mugabi comes at you from all angles — his trainer claims he once knocked out a fighter with a blow to the back of the head. And it’s possible his unorthodox style will take Hagler a few rounds to get used to.

But beastly? So far the only beastly thing has been the way Mugabi has been handled. His manager is a British joker named Mickey Duff. Duff puppeteers Mugabi’s interviews, interprets his questions, and generally treats the guy like a three-year- old.

Three of Duff’s boxers have already lost to Hagler. “Marvin says he’s going to feast on The Beast,” Duff says, grinning, “but he better be careful not to break his teeth.” Great line, huh?

Doesn’t matter. Neither words nor grunts is going to help Mugabi on Monday night. Only a lucky — and awfully powerful — punch will make any difference. And you don’t figure that will happen to Hagler, who may, come to think of it, even have an advantage in nicknames.

A few years ago, in a Cape Cod hotel, someone made a comment about Hagler’s shaved head. The fighter rubbed a palm over his squeaky scalp and smiled. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” he said.

You remember what beauty did to the beast.


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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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