To this day, the mere mention of the famed middleweight championship fight between all-time greats Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler can still elicit an argument between boxing fans over the outcome.
There are legions who believe that the stylish Leonard, with his eye-catching late-round flurries, did enough to pull off the mega-upset, while there are probably just as many who believe that Hagler landed the cleaner, more damaging blows and deserved the close decision.
In the end, it was Leonard, coming out of a three-year retirement and moving up two weight classes, who had his hand raised by referee Richard Steele in a split-decision victory. Judges Dave Moretti (115-13) and Jose Juan Guerra (an absurd 118-110) had it for Leonard while Lou Filippo had it 115-113 for Hagler.
Hagler, so disgusted with the result, never put on a pair of boxing gloves again, while Leonard fought five more times (going 2-2-1) over the next 10 years.
But that fight was perhaps the crowning moment of Leonard’s brilliant career. It came 30 years ago, April 6, 1987, at the legendary outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as the sports world stood still for one of the biggest fights of the 20th century.
Top Rank’s Bob Arum, in his 51st year in boxing, promoted the fight and considers it the biggest event he has ever been involved in. That’s saying something, considering he promoted 27 Muhammad Ali fights and countless of bouts involving the likes of George Foreman, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya and many other stars.
So how did Arum have it?
“I thought it was a great fight. I thought Ray did a tremendous job, better than anybody expected him to do,” he said. “I had it 115-113 for Marvelous Marvin Hagler.”
With the anniversary at hand, Arum has been asked a lot about the fight in recent weeks, and he happily reminisced about it.
“It was a momentous event in the world of boxing,” said Arum, 85. “I want to set the scene for that event particularly for the younger people who may not be aware. The scene was very important. Marvelous Marvin Hagler had come up the hard way in boxing. He had never been to the Olympics and he fought any fighter that would step in the ring with him. He’d have to go from Boston to Philadelphia and other places to find opponents who would fight him. Through intervention of the [State of Massachusetts] Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy, who sent letters to various people, including myself at Top Rank, they forced everyone to give Marvelous Marvin Hagler a shot at the middleweight title.
“His first shot, I thought he clearly won the fight against Vito Antuofermo, but the judges scored it a draw. A year later he fought Alan Minter over in London and stopped Minter in the early rounds — bloodying him so much that the fight had to be stopped. Marvin was greeted by the great sportsmen in England by a barrage of bottles and cans so that everybody had to hide under the ring until the police were ready to restore order. But he came back to the United States a real hero then he embarked on a streak of defending his middleweight title. His first big fight was in 1983 against Roberto Duran and then in ’85 in a major, major event, he and Thomas Hearns fought a great middleweight championship battle and Marvin knocked Tommy out in the third round.
“Marvin wanted to retire from boxing at that point, but his managers and myself as the promoter convinced him to carry on, and in 1986 he fought John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi. Mugabi was a tough hard-punching guy. They went toe-to-toe and in the 11th round, Marvin knocked Mugabi out.
“Ray Leonard had been retired for a number of years and he had been watching that fight and he saw what very few people saw — that Marvin was aging, he was slowing up and Ray, even though he was retired, felt he could come back and take on Hagler. When he announced that he was coming out of retirement, people were incredulous. Hagler went off as a 6-1 or 7-1 favorite in the fight because Leonard was retired and Hagler was this dominant champion. Nobody gave Leonard a chance. To put it in perspective, remember the media frenzy when Manny Pacquiao fought Oscar De La Hoya? All of the media people were saying what a mismatch it was and De La Hoya was an overwhelming favorite. We remember, because it was fairly recent. What happened in that fight? Pacquiao dominated and won that fight, but the feeling was the same going into the Hagler-Leonard fight. Ray Leonard was a great fighter, retired, and then coming out of retirement against this dominant middleweight, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
“The country was mesmerized. Ray Leonard was extremely popular. He was the poster boy for boxing. Marvin was respected. Everybody realized what a workmanlike fighter he was. The closed circuit locations were filled. This was the first fight that really touched/started into pay-per-view in various parts of the country. It was a massive, massive event. The fight was sold out in one day and everyone gathered for this terrific event.”
Asked about Leonard’s tactic to flurry in the final 30 seconds of the rounds as a way to leave an impression on the judges, Arum said it worked, even though he disagreed with the result.
“That was not a unique tactic for Sugar Ray and it was modeled after Muhammad Ali,” Arum said. “Very often, in close rounds, particularly in the [Ken] Norton fight, he would flurry at the end so that the impression he left in the judges’ minds was that he won the round. Obviously, rounds should be scored for the full three minutes but there is no question that human beings being human will give more credit for the last part of a round — not that that’s correct, but that’s how it works.”
Arum said he did try to make a rematch, but Hagler wanted no part of it.
“I remember a year later at Caesars they were doing a big dinner to honor the fighters that had fought at Caesars and it was really a salute to boxing,” Arum said. “At that dinner, Muhammad Ali was there and I was there, Ray, Marvin and Roberto Duran. Ray called me over and said, ‘Bob, go speak to [Hagler] and say let’s do the rematch; it will do a fortune of business.’
“So I went over and talked to Marvin and said, ‘Ray wants me to talk to you about a rematch.’ And Marvin looked at me with that scowl and said, ‘Tell that guy to get a life.’ That was it — we tried. Marvin was having no more of that.”
All these years later, Arum remains friendly with both fighters and said he thoroughly enjoyed working with both of them, although he was much more closely associated with Hagler than Leonard.
“They were great fighters and great people,” Arum said. “They had a presence about them in the ring and they never ducked anybody. They were happy to take on any challenge that was there. Boxing had extraordinary popularity during the ’80s and a lot of that was attributable to Ray and Marvin and Tommy and Roberto Duran. They were the focus of boxing.
“Ali retired [and] the ’80s belonged to the ‘Four Kings’ and boxing was extraordinarily prosperous then and boxing was on the tongues of sports people and non-sports people, not only in the United States but all over the world.”
Arum was involved in many of those big 1980s fights, but none as big as Leonard-Hagler.
“I’ll tell you I haven’t seen that fight in 30 years,” he said, “But I remember it as if it happened yesterday.”