By Alan Hubbard
Like myself, promoter Frank Warren was a huge admirer of fellow Hall of Famer Marvin Hagler, even though he never promoted him. But I know he wished he had. Not only was Marvelous Marvin the fighters’ fighter, he was the promoters’ fighter. And, of course, every fans’ fighter.
“Marvin had it all and I doubt many people would quibble with me calling him one of the finest fighters of all time” Warren wrote in his column here this week. “He has sadly been taken before his time but he has left us with never to be forgotten fights that we can look back and marvel over that will serve as an inspiration for generations to come.”
I heartily endorse that, as does the man who did stage so many of his fights, including those sensational scraps with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, Frank’s promotional pal in the US, Top Rank’s Bob Arum who said of him: “He was the greatest athlete Top Rank ever promoted, a man of honour and a man of his word. He performed in the ring with unparalleled determination. I will miss him greatly.”
Hagler, whose sudden death at the weekend aged just 66 at the family home in New Hampshire – rumoured to be from a heart attack which his wife says was unrelated to a coronavirus jab – came from the same boxing backyard in Brockton, Massachusetts, as Rocky Marciano. For a golden spell four decades ago he, Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard were boxing’s holy trinity. Toss Roberto Durán into the mix and between them they fought each other nine times.
If there is one fight I could watch over and over again – apart from “The Thrilla in Manila” – it would be Hagler-Hearns.
Their brutal and bloody collision at Caesars Palace Las Vegas on April 15 1985 lasted a mere eight minutes but it stunned the boxing world with its undiluted savagery.
It is said that the first blistering round was the fiercest ever seen. Boxing’s Bible, The Ring magazine called it “the greatest round in boxing history.”
Both slammed sickening punches to the other’s head, leaving Hagler with blood pumping out of a deep gash.
Hagler emerged from that early skirmish looking as if someone had ripped at his face with a can opener. At the end of the round the referee Richard Steele, alarmed at the amount of claret cascading down Hagler’s face, asked him: “Can you see?” Hagler snapped back: “Well, I ain’t missing him, am I?”
Just under two rounds later, Steele had to rescue Hearns from being knocked out – or worse.
In the third, immediately after the ringside medic had given Hagler a reprieve, the champion chased after Hearns, catching him with a powerful left and then a right that spun Hearns around and made him stagger back defenceless. Hagler followed him across the ring and landed two more long, solid rights.
Hearns went down and lay unmoving on his back seemingly unconscious, yet somehow he staggered to his feet by the count of nine. But his eyes were glazed, his legs were rubbery, and the referee rightly stopped it.
At the weigh-in, Hagler, who had been the undisputed middleweight champion since September 1980, had warned Hearns. “You better hope I don’t bleed, it only makes me meaner.”
When I caught up with Marvelous Marvin at a Laureus Awards function a few years ago he recalled: “That fight may have been decades ago but I can still feel those punches he landed on me.. It was definitely the highlight of my career.
“Whenever I see it, I still get chills up and down my spine. When I look at it, I’m glad it’s over. It was war.”
That was Hagler’s 65th fight and the 11th defence of the title he won from Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980 amid a deeply unsavoury backdrop involving racism.
Minter, who died last year, had made a stupid pre-fight comment which would probably see him banned today. “There’s no way I am going to lose my title to a black man,” he had vowed. A furious Hagler demolished him in three rounds, causing a riot outside the ring with bottles and glasses being thrown at Hagler by some National Front thugs who had infiltrated Minter’s supporters. Hagler had to be hustled to the Wembley dressing room by police.
He quit two years and two fights after beating Hearns, controversially losing a split decision to Leonard. Hagler was bitter to the end that Leonard refused a rematch. He steadfastly remained less than a stone over the 11st 6lb middleweight limit, grinning “I keep my weight down just in case Leonard ever decides to give me that return.”
Hagler moved to Milan after falling in love with Italy and in particular with an Italian lady Kay who was to become his second wife – he had five children from his previous marriage – and also appeared in four action movies.
“I’ve been long retired but people still talk about my fights as if they were yesterday,” he told me. “Who knows anything about most of today’s fighters?
“If you have the skills you don’t need to impress everybody by being a show-off.”
Before Floyd Mayweather finally got it on with Manny Pacquiao, Hagler had correctly predicted the so-called fight of the century would bore the pants off the punters. “Mayweather can put you to sleep. The way he boxes and moves brings no excitement to the game.” Unlike the way Hagler and Hearns did.
Hagler chose to turn professional after winning the US national amateur championship in Boston in 1973, rather than wait for a tilt at Olympic glory in Montreal three years later. “You can’t take a trophy and turn it into a bag of groceries,” was his philosophy.
After Muhammad Ali, Marvelous Marvin was my favourite fighter of the past half-century or so. He took no prisoners, combining breathtaking boxing skills with an aggression that was both fearsome and accurate, dismantling the opposition with a ferocity rarely seen in boxing these days. When Ali’s career began to fizzle out, he replaced “The Greatest” as the sport’s flagship fighter.
Of Hagler’s 13 world title defences, only two went the distance. He was unconventional as a right-handed southpaw and would switch freely from southpaw to orthodox, carrying equal power in each hand, attacking opponents to both head and body.
His death leaves a huge cloud of sadness over the boxing world. Among the scores of tributes was one from Lennox Lewis, the former world heavyweight champion and an Olympic gold medallist. “I’m stunned to hear the news,” he said. “Marvin was not only a living legend but I was proud to call him my friend. He was so full of life, energy and positivity in our conversations that you would never guess what a wrecking machine he was in the ring. The world is one great man less today.”
Marvin Nathaniel Hagler changed his name legally to Marvelous Marvin in 1986, insisting on the singular spelling of the soubriquet. No doubt because he always was one L of a fighter.