By Alan Hubbard
Publishers will tell you that more books are written about boxing than any other sport. Probably because the basic brutality of the fight game is laced with a beauty and nobility which attracts the great wordsmiths from George Bernard Shaw to George Plimpton.
Yet as far as I can recall only one work has been devoted to a single fight – Norman Mailer’s 234-page tome entitled simply The Fight which chronicled every conceivable aspect of the build-up, contest and aftermath of the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.
Until now that is. This week happens to have seen another momentous anniversary in the annals of boxing, as Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard fought acrimoniously over 12 rounds for the undisputed world middleweight title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas exactly 34 years ago.
This classic collision has been brilliantly recaptured by the British writer Brian Doogan who even goes one better than novelist Mailer by calling his own book SuperFight.
Unlike Mailer, who was as pugnacious with his fists as he was with his words – as those who witnessed the unseemly scuffle between the author of such masterpieces as The Naked and the Dead and Tough Guys Don’t Dance and Britain’s own literary maestro Hugh McIlvanney in a New York apartment back in the 1970s will testify – is a gentler soul with a fine a turn of phrase much in the mould of McIlvanney, his erstwhile Sunday Times stablemate.
It is apparent that he was captivated by the showdown between Hagler and Leonard which, while not as enthralling or exotic as the Rumble in the Jungle or indeed the “Thrilla in Manila”, still had the world of sport agog.
Doogan has dug deep into the respective psyches of both men.
His diligent research and painstaking profiling makes compelling reading even for those beyond the realms of fistic aficionados.
Although they fought only once, the rivalry between Leonard and Hagler was as bitterly intense as that between Ali and Frazier.
Leonard, sleek and skilful, an Olympic gold medallist at Montreal 1976, was the sweetest of scientists, the natural successor to Ali and before that his own namesake Sugar Ray Robinson. Hagler was the teak-tough, blue-collar brawler from Rocky Marciano territory in Brockton, Massachusetts, a man whose fearsome punching and indomitable valour struck terror into the hearts of his opponents.
Sugar Ray, formerly world welterweight champion, had been forced to retire after retina surgery and had battled just once in five years before he decided he wanted to step up and take on arguably the best world middleweight champion of all who had been unbeaten for 11 years, with 12 title defences behind him.
Doogan, an award-winning sports journalist and author of the bestselling autobiography of Joe Calzaghe, No Ordinary Joe, opens his account by revealing how a Machiavellian Leonard slyly began to seduce Hagler into accepting his challenge over a family steak dinner and a bottle of Dom Pérignon. At the end of the meal Leonard’s wife Juanita turned to her husband and said of Hagler and his then-wife Bertha: “They’re nice people, honey. Wonderful people. I really do like them.”
Leonard responded mischievously. “You won’t say that when he’s trying to knock my head off. When that man wants to hurt me bad.” And so it was.
While paeans of praise have been piled upon Hagler, and rightly so since his untimely death at 66 just two weeks ago, Leonard has been largely a background figure, with the main focus being on Hagler’s titanic three rounds of warfare with Tommy Hearns.
Recalling that Hagler was always going to be his Mount Everest, Leonard said: “He has been on my agenda for a while but I was sidetracked through circumstances. But he’s always been there and there is a burning desire in me now…
“This fight had to happen.”
When it did, Hagler was an overwhelming favourite. Months earlier the veteran American promoter Bob Arum had been scathing about the suggested match-up. “Hagler would take out Leonard in 30 seconds. It would be ridiculous,” he declared.
“I wouldn’t want to promote it. It will be ludicrous. A joke.”
So who was the promoter when it did occur? Arum, of course, such is the weird, wacky and perverse world of boxing.
There was a crowd of 15,000, in the open-air car park of Caesars Palace car park where, seven years earlier Larry Holmes had brought about the final, tragic demise of Ali. Hagler, who had said darkly he enjoyed messing up pretty faces, was not at his sharpest, struggling to match the speed and sleight of fist of Sugar Ray. Even so the majority in the crowd thought his non-stop aggression had edged the fight which went to Leonard on a shock split decision. Right up until his death Hagler insisted he had been cheated of victory and cursed Leonard for not giving him the return.
It is eleven chapters before Doogan gets to describe the $100 million fight itself in gripping detail but the revelations of how Leonard was tormented by the memory of the sexual abuse he endured as a young amateur inflicted by a coach he trusted, his battle with drink and drugs to become, at the time, the world’s highest-paid athlete, is one of boxing’s most fascinating comeback stories.
In a prologue, Mike Tyson gives his assessment of Leonard’s character. “He was a pit bull with a pretty face. Outside the ring he was cute, articulate, smart, great looking but deep inside he was a vicious animal. When he comes out fighting he’s like a monster.”
Throughout its 269 pages SuperFight – published by Brian Doogan Media at £20 – more than punches its weight to earn its place in the well-stocked bookcase alongside other celebrated classics of the hardest, grimmest yet most fascinating trade of all.
BOXING IS DANCING to the tune of several anniversary waltzes at the moment, notably Ali-Frazier 1 and now Leonard-Hagler, and it is the turn of Hall of Famer Frank Warren to take to the floor this Sunday. A documentary covering his 40 years in the fight game is on BT Sport 1 at 9.30pm. In Frank’s case it is more of a quickstep as he turns back the clock on his promotional years which began in Bloomsbury and have traversed the globe to currently reside with Queensberry.
Frank’s backstory, Make It Or Die Trying, as he says himself, pulls no punches. His highs and lows and genuine love of the sport make riveting viewing, contrasting somewhat steeply with the current BBC series on Amir Khan’s lifestyle that I am finding full of frippery and embarrassingly flaunting of his fiscal excesses. There is little doubt that Frank is British boxing’s supreme kingmaker, nurturing so many young fighters, Khan among them, to reign as world champions. Fascinating stuff, don’t miss it.