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Boxing's Fab Four Part Eight: Hagler Vs Leonard

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

06th April 1987, Caesars Palace Outdoor Arena, Las Vegas

WBC Middleweight Title

Marvelous Marvin Hagler Vs Ray Leonard

Ray Leonard's defeat of Thomas Hearns back in 1981 to unify the welterweight division was meant to put him on a collision course with middleweight king Marvin Hagler. Unfortunately for Leonard his career was put on hold due to retina trouble.

He defended the undisputed welterweight crown against Bruce Finch, stopping his challenger in the third round. He was due to to face Roger Stafford in May 1982, but it was discovered that Leonard had a detached retina in his left eye. After successful surgery the champion thought it best to retire from boxing, even though he had the all clear from the doctors.

In May 1984 Leonard came back against Kevin Howard. Though He stopped Howard in the ninth round, he had to get off the canvas in the fourth round from a right hand, the first time Leonard had been down. He was so disgusted with his performance that he announced his retirement straight away.

Hagler was chasing shadows at times

After blasting out Thomas Hearns in three pulsating rounds of pure violence, Marvin Hagler next entered the ring eleven months later against unbeaten John 'The Beast' Mugabi. The Ugandan challenger had won all his twenty-five victories by knockout and was ranked number one by the WBC, WBA and IBF authorities. 

Hagler was making his twelfth defence of the crown he won in 1980, with only Roberto Duran taking him the distance. Mugabi gave the champion a tough fight and almost closed his right eye, but the champion put Mugabi down for the count in round eleven. Both men urinated blood and had to be hospitalised after the bout.

'Sugar' Ray Leonard's decision to fight Hagler came when he was ringside watching the Mugabi fight. "I was at ringside, sitting with Michael J Fox," Leonard said. "We were sitting there having a few beers, and I'm watching John 'The Beast' Mugabi outbox Hagler. Of all people John 'The Beast' Mugabi. Now, I had a few beers, and I said 'Michael, Michael, I can beat Hagler.' And he said, 'Ray, do you want another beer?' I said, 'Yes I do, but I can beat Hagler'."

On 18th August 1986 Hagler announced he would be fighting Ray Leonard next and a press conference held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan on 03rd November officially announced the contest. With concerns over Leonard's retinal problems he turned up to the press conference with a medical seal of approval from a number of doctors.

At first the Nevada State Athletic Commission were reluctant to sanction the fight, but the commission's chief physician, Dr Flip Homansky, was satisfied that the challenger had gone through an extensive medical examination and was declared to be in top shape. "A patient is a patient. We went about it the same way we would examine any person," stated Dr Homansky. "My conclusion is that Mr Leonard is in excellent physical health. There was no finding to preclude his fighting in the state of Nevada."

Lloyds of London, the insurers of the bout, hired Dr Louis Angioletti, the director of the retinal diagnostic centre of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary to examine Leonard. "The weak area (of the retina) was completely reinforced so that, in my opinion, there is less risk of further damage. I do not find Mr Leonard would be subjected to any unacceptable risks. If I thought there was a one percent chance that he was at any greater risk to have damage done to the eye, I would sit him down and say, 'I don't think you should be fighting.' "

Exactly where Hagler wanted Leonard

Hagler was asked if he was going to hit the challenger on the surgically repaired eye. "I plan on hitting him all over his body," he responded with a smile. "This is K," he said holding up his right hand, "and this is O," holding up his left hand. "There ain't nobody going to take nothing from me."

"The key is mobility and lateral movement. I don't hit that hard," admitted Leonard. "I just hit consistent. The key is to be elusive, but also to be present. To score points. He thinks I'll be tired by eight or nine rounds. But by then the fight will be over. By then I'll have scored enough points through those eight or nine rounds to win. It's a twelve-round fight."

When the bout was announced in November, the champion opened as a four-to-one betting favourite, but by fight night his odds dropped to three-to-one. Many felt this fight had come too late in their careers, but Hagler wasn't showing any signs of decline with a large section of the press predicted another successful title defence for the champion.

Leonard hardly took a step forward

Leonard, in his absence, said he had grown into the middleweight division and weighed in on the day of the contest as 158 pounds (71.67 KG) and the champion came in a little higher at 158½ (71.89 KG).

The champion entered the ring as KO magazine's number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world and as the WBC title holder, as the World Boxing Association stripped him of their belt as he refused to fight their number one contender Herol Graham. The IBF didn't strip Hagler, but refused to sanction the contest and declared their championship would be vacant if Hagler lost.

The bell chimed to get 'The Super Fight' underway. The champion came out in an orthodox stance as Leonard danced around the ring, flicking out jabs, with Hagler stalking his prey and loading up like a coiled spring to land his hurtful punches. The challenger turned southpaw momentarily just as the champion switched, to try and psyche him out. Leonard went back to his normal fighting stance and offered more lateral movement and pitter-patter punches.

"He's all yours son, he's all yours," praised Angelo Dundee in the Leonard corner. "Just keep messing him around. Box! Box! Box! That's all I want you to do."

The challenger stayed in his reverse gear, circling the ring as Hagler came forward and tried to cut off his man. He clipped Leonard with a lead left hook, but it didn't have much venom in it. Hagler, exclusively stayed in his orthodox stance in the second round, was made to miss by the mobile challenger, who pot-shotted with his right hand and grabbed hold when the champion got in close. As 30 seconds of the round remained Leonard came to life, standing his ground and fought out of a clinch, as they swapped blows briefly.

The champion came out for the third round leading with his right hand. The challenger continued to back away as Hagler stalked his man. He caught Leonard with a solid left as the challenger backed off looking to score with the body shots and the odd lead right. Hagler was becoming frustrated with the challenger's lack of engagement.

Leonard frustrated his opponent

Hagler came out with purpose in the next round as he looked to land the hurtful shot to get the challenger off his bicycle. Leonard circled the ring, making Hagler miss, countering with his own shots and more importantly, ensuring not to get trapped on the ropes or in a corner, right where the champion wanted him. Leonard took a hard left, but showboated, landing his bolo punch and sticking out his chin as the round ended.

Finally, Hagler made his man work hard in the fifth. Leonard was still on his bike, making the champion miss wildly at times, but he had to punch and stand his ground. Hagler found his range with a right uppercut that made the younger man grab. As the final seconds of the round ticked away, Leonard was where he didn't want to be, against the strands. As the bell rang referee Richard Steele had to prise them apart.

Leonard was breathing heavily in his corner; the pace of the contest was getting to him and his lack of action in the last five years questioned his fighting stamina. His corner implored him to box and not allow a punching match.

Both men looked lethargic in the sixth round with Leonard offering a constant back-pedalling target. He was forced to the ropes again, this time mustering up his dazzling speed to get out of trouble. He was landing, but there was nothing in his punches, as the champion was having trouble 'getting off'.

Hagler tried to press the action

Leonard still refused to make a step forward in round seven, as Hagler marched forward and landed some strong punches. Leonard fired in some flashy punches, but they lacked power and it looked as if he was a spent force. If his second wind didn't come soon then the champion would bulldoze his way to a stoppage victory. The champion had his man on the ropes and forced him to throw punches back as they continued to fire in shots after the bell. Leonard raised his arms as he returned to his corner, as the crowd got to their feet.

"I want you off the ropes. I want you to box this guy," Dundee implored. The pattern carried on in round eight; Leonard would back off firing soft counter punches whilst the champion exclusively came forward landing the harder blows. As the round was drawing to a close both men traded on even terms.

The champion had his man pinned on the ropes at the halfway point of round nine. Leonard looked weary, but he dug deep and rallied off the strands. Both men fired in hurtful punches as the fight began to turn into a brawl, exactly what Hagler wanted. They looked tired as the bell clanged to end the most eventful round of the contest so far.

With nine minutes of the fight remaining it appeared that Leonard had caught this second wind. He was bouncing on his toes letting Hagler chase him. The champion was working well to the body and was the busier of the two, with Leonard looking to wane as the tenth came to a close.

The challenger still refused to take a forward step as he continued to box on the back foot. Hagler was landing, but the snap from his shots appeared to have deserted him. Leonard, with his hands by his sides fired off some flashy combinations to see out the penultimate round.

Referee Richard Steele went over to both corners "One more round and the fight is over." Leonard raised his hands in victory with the crowd going wild. They came to the centre of the ring and touched gloves for the final three minutes of action.

Leonard stayed away, dancing around the ring. Hagler pinned him on the ropes, but Leonard fired out a quick flurry of punches in a frenzied exchange then danced out of trouble once more. The challenger had his hands low and evaded any advancement from the champion, who desperately wanted to trade some big punches from the running challenger.

With 60 seconds left Leonard raised his hand, Hagler responded and looked to cut off the ring. The crowd were chanting "Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray." Both men traded shots as the bell rang to signal the end of the fight. There was no embrace as Leonard walked around the ring, his arms aloft, enjoying the reception he was getting from the crowd.

Don King, who was just a ringside spectator, got into a shoving contest with rival promoter Bob Arum when he tried to enter the ring after the fight. Both men had to be separated by security. "That man had nothing to do with the fight," stated Arum. "There was no way he belonged in the ring."

Leonard looked exhausted as Hagler stood in the centre of the ring, doing a little jig, as the challenger came over to him and they finally exchanged a hug of respect and appreciation for the other. He then climbed one of the ring posts and acknowledged the crowd, as the champion simply raised his arms, waiting for scores to be announced.

The verdict was split, judge Lou Fillipo had Hagler in front by 115-113. Dave Moretti scored the contest the same, but in Leonard's favour and Mexican judge Jose Juan Guerra scored it a very wide 118-110 to the challenger, meaning there was a new WBC middleweight champion. Not only was it Hagler's first defeat since losing to Willie Monroe back in March 1976, the verdict was also debated many decades after the contest. You either liked the way Leonard boxed or you preferred the aggressiveness of the champion.

Hagler wanted to swap blows with Leonard

"Hagler never hurt me. He shook me up, he stunned me. But he gave away the first six, seven rounds. After that, I knew that he would have to go all out to win in the late rounds. the best man won. He was talking to me. he called me a sissy," said the new WBC middleweight champion. "This fight meant the world to me. Congratulations to Marvelous Marvin Hagler for giving me the opportunity. It wasn't the belt, I just wanted to beat him. To me Marvelous Marvin Hgaler is still the undisputed middleweight champion."

Hagler also had those sentiments, feeling he won the final three rounds and believing he would have got the decision had the contest been staged anywhere but Vegas. He also griped that boxing people wanted Leonard to win in order to create a lucrative rematch. "At the end of the fight, Leonard told me 'You beat me man'." 

Guerra only giving Hagler two rounds wasn't well received by Pat Petronelli. "This here official, Jo-Jo Guerra, should be put in jail. Way out of order. I'm serious. How could he give Marvin only two rounds?"

"Guerra was way out of order," stated Goody Petronelli. "They should remove the man. He was inept."

Though both brothers believed their man won the fight, they did concede that it was a close contest and, in their view, there could be no argument with judge Moretti's score of 115-113 in favour of Leonard.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler never boxed again after his defeat to Leonard, which the verdict is still debated today. He moved to Italy where he would star in several action movies. He will go down in history as one of the greatest middleweights to ever grace the ring as his 62-3-2 (52 KO's) record would testify.

All the best fight fans


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