by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Thomas Hearns was clean. Smooth skin. Not a mark on him. He was talking to a couple of women in tight dresses, and his entourage had a party on its mind. And this was about 30 minutes after his fight.

Marvin Hagler wasn’t so clean. It took him an hour to emerge after his bout, and he wore sunglasses to cover the swollen tissue over his eyes. He moved slowly, everything was beginning to ache, and when someone asked him for an autograph he answered softly: “I can’t do that for you right now. I can’t sign with my hand. How about we just shake instead, OK?”

You saw these two fighters — the two winners from Monday night, the two men who, by virtue of their victories, mailed in their RSVPs for a middleweight championship rematch against each other in late November — and something jumped out at you.

They fought the wrong guys.

It should have been Hearns against John Mugabi and Hagler against James Shuler. You want a rematch, prove you’re worth it. That’s the way boxing once operated. It should have been Hearns taking the punishment of a relentless beast like Mugabi, who gave Hagler a hailstorm of a fight for 11 rounds. It should have been Hearns bloodied and exhausted and finally, after putting Mugabi down, grabbing a microphone and saying, “OK, now, Marvin. I licked this guy. I earned you. Let’s mix it up.”

Instead, Hearns waltzed in against a lemon. Doesn’t matter that he was the No. 1 contender. Few people in boxing thought Shuler was much of an opponent, and when Hearns destroyed him with a 73-second boxing lesson — open with a body shot, make him drop his hands, then smash his face — everybody was sure of it.

“Let’s party,” Hearns said. He went inside.

While Hagler came out and went to war. Hagler got caught in blitzkrieg And make no mistake, the Hagler-Mugabi fight was mortal combat. More than 1,200 punches were thrown — they count those things now — and 600 landed. Landed hard. Mugabi bloodied Hagler’s face and mouth, while Hagler staggered Mugabi constantly with jabs and crosses from both sides.

It was a physical blitzkrieg. And in the sixth round, when Hagler pummeled Mugabi around the ring, and Mugabi’s head jerked back time after time, the sweat and wet blood flicking off into the cold night air, and the crowd was on its feet in a horrifying frenzy and yet Mugabi did not go down, would not go down, and when the bell rang and his body drooped from the punishment, he somehow found the ego to make a face at Hagler — well, from that point, it was emotional warfare as well.

It ended finally in the 11th with a mean right hand by Hagler. “I’ve been through these kinds of wars before,” he said wearily. “I know what kind of punishment I can take. He fought very smart. But you gotta remember something.

I’m a smart fighter, too.”

He shouldn’t have to remind us. He is, after all, the champion. He never has ducked anyone. Someone asked his manager: “How come Marvin doesn’t take on a stiff or two?” I thought it was a pretty good question.

The answer is partly because Hagler knows what it’s like to be ducked — it happened to him for years — and partially because you don’t get rich by punching featherheads. The result? Hagler versus the best available. Fight after fight.

“There’s no one left,” he admitted. “I’m going around a second time.” Hearns vows he’ll be different And soon enough, it will be a second time against Hearns, who was already having his back slapped by party-goers by the time Hagler got dressed Monday night.

No, it’s not Hearns’ fault that he won so easily. It’s his credit. But you have to wonder what a Mugabi-Hearns bout might have yielded. “I think,” Hagler mused, “Mugabi would be the champion.”

He clearly was a tougher fighter than Shuler, who should have been at a blackjack table, the way he said “hit me” Monday night. And yet it’s Hearns who next gets Hagler, who decked him in three rounds last April. “I’ll be a different fighter this time,” Hearns promised.

Maybe. Let’s hope. Hearns could fight someone between now and then — it says here that he should — but he might not have to. So let’s get this straight: Hearns could meet Hagler in November, a year and a half after their first meeting, and have fought just one round in between to earn his way there?

Where’s the sense? Well. Hey. In the heat of the Hagler- Mugabi fight Monday night the crowd started chanting “Beast! Beast!” They were rooting on a guy from Uganda against the gamest champion this country has seen in years.

Where’s the sense in that? There is none. Just as there’s none in the way Hagler and Hearns looked after their bouts Monday night. They fought the wrong guys. But this is boxing. Everyone will just keep their mouths shut and wait for the money.


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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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