One Saturday afternoon about a month or so ago, a very good friend of mine and I headed out to our favorite restaurant to grab some lunch. As we approached the front door the face of one of the patrons exiting the restaurant grabbed my attention. It was none other than Ray Leonard, Jr., aka “Little Ray.” I introduced myself and started a conversation. We only talked for ten minutes or so, but it was a ten minute conversation that I will never forget. I assure you of that. Being that I’ve never met “Sugar” Ray Leonard, in my view, this was the next best thing: A conversation with his namesake.
Considering the fact, ten minutes isn’t a very long time. There were only a couple of topics that we could have actually talked about. Truth be told, we only discussed one: Leonard vs. Hagler. As our conversation approached it’s crescendo, I simply told Ray that I didn’t know how some people actually thought that Hagler won that fight.
Ray looked me right in the eyes and said, “The reason why some people believe that Hagler won that fight is because they don’t know boxing.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more. I’ve watched this fight at least a hundred times and at bout’s end, each and every time, I come to the same conclusion: Leonard beat Hagler. And he did it convincingly. The decision by which Leonard won was split, but in the eyes of many it should have been unanimous. For those of us that aren’t so sure about how a professional fight is judged, pull up a chair, take a seat and turn your antennae on. A pro fight is judged in four different categories: clean punching, defense, effective aggressiveness and ring generalship.
If you go back and watch the fight you will see, when the judging standards are properly applied, that Leonard decisively and definitively bested Hagler. Hagler gave the first four rounds to Leonard by following him around the ring and landing only a few scoring blows. Leonard, for the first few rounds of the fight, was probably a little faster than Hagler had anticipated. He hit Hagler pretty much at will. It’s not hard to see why Marvin would slightly underestimate Ray: it was only his (Ray’s) second fight in five years. A big concern among most boxing pundits at that particular time was Leonard’s right eye.
He had to have surgery on it to repair a detached retina he sustained in his epic battle with five-time world champion Tommie “Hitman” Hearns about six years earlier. As the bout progressed, the eye eventually became a non-issue. Even though Ray boxed well in the beginning, I still gave round five to Hagler after he buckled Leonard’s knees with a sneaky right uppercut right up the middle. Rounds six, seven and eight were all close rounds and could have gone either way. Hagler, the champion, took the fight to the Leonard, the challenger, and landed some good scoring blows during these (rounds 6 Ôo 8), the middle rounds.
In close rounds the benefit of the doubt always goes to the champion. However that may be, Leonard’s defensive ability, boxing savvy and pin-point counterpunching may have stolen two of those three rounds on the judge’s scorecards. Round nine went to the marvelous one after he visibly hurt Leonard for the second time during the fight. Ray fought back like the great champion that he was, but for the first time during the fight he started to show signs of fatigue. Signs of just how good Marvin Hagler really was.
At the end of round nine both fighters wearily plodded back to their respective corners, feverishly attempting to gather themselves for the stretch run, aka “the championship rounds.” At the start of round ten both fighters start out fairly slow, still winded from round nine, one of the best in middleweight championship history. Hagler, “He’s as solid rocks,” as he is referred to by boxing trainer and analyst extraordinaire Gil Clancy, starts out after the challenger sensing that the proverbial “moment of truth,” if it were ever to be, was now. Leonard, even after seeing the diminishing ferocity of the champion, still jabs and circles, clutching him (Hagler) every time he gets within his punching range.
This goes on for pretty much the first two minutes of the round and then Leonard came to life like a man brought back from the dead. Jab, left-right, left-right-hook, straight right, hook, jab-jab. And Leonard has stolen another round from Hagler. Rounds eleven and twelve are all Leonard as he starts to taunt Hagler with his hands down at his side, no more than two feet away from the champion. During this stretch Hagler lands no meaningful punches of consequence. Leonard hits him time and time again. At will, if you please.
There is one stretch in round twelve where Leonard lands a twelve punch combination. At this point Leonard knows that he has won. And so does the crowd for that matter, as they chant in unison, “Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray.” At round’s end Leonard is hoisted by his handlers, arms raised high in victory. Or so he hopes. Hagler dances around the ring with his arms raised, much to the chagrin of Goody Petronelli who admonished him to cut it out with the shenanigans. As ring announcer Chuck Hull prepares to read the score cards, all eyes and ears are focused on him and his signature monotone voice. The first two score cards are read. One is for Leonard, the other for Hagler. The third judge’s score card will determine who was the better man on this night. “And new WBC Middleweight Champion of the World, “Sugar Ray Leonard.” Leonard had won and he had proven even his harshest critics, the ones that said that he was making a huge mistake stepping into the ring with the great Marvin Hagler, wrong.
When the decision was read the crowd erupted as if it were an uncontrollable volcano. Leonard celebrated as Hagler walked around the ring dejected and in disbelief. This bout was to be Marvin Hagler’s last. He said that he would never fight again and he was true to his word. A few months later he packed his belongings and moved to Italy, which is where he resides at the present time. I believe that it’s safe to say that Hagler’s loss to Leonard broke his fighting heart. He was humiliated in front of millions of people and he just didn’t possess the desire a fighter must have to go on. I believe Marvin Hagler to be the greatest middleweight champion of all time, but on the evening of April 6, 1987 he was proven to be the lesser fighter.