Leonard-Hagler decision still a topic of debate 30 years later

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Like most fathers and sons, my old man and I didn’t always agree. But boxing was our safe zone where a shared love of the fight game trumped the rest of the world and its troubles.

Yet even in this cozy, familial realm, occasional disputes arose. Chief among them was Sugar Ray Leonard’s split-decision victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987.

Dad had Hagler. I had Leonard. And never the twain would meet. Thirteen years later, during induction weekend at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, my father interrupted Hagler’s lunch to tell him he’d been robbed. Marvin agreed.

It was that kind of decision, felt deeply and passionately by both sides. Hardly anybody changed their opinion. Ever.

Scorecard rip-offs have been the scourge of boxing since they invented scorecards. The worst of them can make you feel ashamed of being associated with such a corrupt enterprise. But Leonard-Hagler wasn’t one of those, certainly not in the same vein as Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis I, Tim Bradley-Manny Pacquiao I and countless other monstrosities.

It was, instead, close and difficult to score. Neither man dominated. Nobody was knocked down. Call the decision controversial if you wish, but “robbery” simply doesn’t apply.

Why, then, is the Leonard-Hagler decision still a topic of debate 30 years later? And why are opinions so dogmatic?

The magnitude of the match definitely had something to do with it. You could feel the buzz as soon as you got off the plane. It slapped you in the face almost as hard as the desert heat. Vegas was engulfed by fight fever the likes of which I’d never quite experienced before or since. There was a sense that you were at the epicenter of something important, something more than just a prizefight.

The smell of money was everywhere. Vendors hawked souvenirs by the thousands, and high rollers cast their bets by the millions. The indirect impact on the Las Vegas economy was $350 million. It’s estimated that the fight itself generated roughly $70 million. That’s almost $153 million in today’s money.

For all this and more, Leonard-Hagler was impossible to ignore or, for that matter, forget. But to fully understand the long-running quarrel, we must look beyond punches thrown and landed, beyond rounds lost and won.

What it’s really about is boxing’s great aesthetic divide. Some of us like punchers best, other prefer boxers. It’s as simple as that. True, plenty of fans appreciate both, but ask yourself, which would you choose if you could only have one? No straddling the gap.

Stylistic progression also played a role. During the second decade of the 18th century, at the dawn of modern-day boxing, it was all about brute strength and the ability to absorb copious amounts of punishment and still come to scratch. Even the most rudimentary defense was frowned upon, and the fighters who dealt in evasive tactics were considered cowards.

Thanks to the success of fighters employing defensive tactics things began changed, and the notion of avoiding a punch every now and then gradually caught on.

As the manly art gradually morphed into the manly art of self defense, one deep-rooted ethos held fast until this very day — the love of knockouts and the breed of fighter who seeks them. It’s probably something in our DNA.

Nobody had to ask Hagler if he was going for the knockout. He wore a cap with “WAR” written on it and never wavered from his “destruct and destroy” mantra. It took him a long time to reach the top, much longer than it should have. But when he finally arrived, it was his tough attitude that got him there.

Hagler epitomized the savage side of boxing’s great divide, a man tough enough, had he been born a hundred or so years earlier, to thrive as a bare-knuckle bruiser in fights to the finish.

While it’s hard to imagine Leonard participating in bouts conducted under the old London Prize Ring Rules, he and Hagler had more in common than you might think. It’s just that Ray’s persona was as smooth as Hagler’s was rough.

Leonard was the boyishly handsome darling of the 1976 Olympics, a gifted charmer groomed for greatness. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but was virtually handed one when he stepped down from the podium in Montreal.

Well, that was the image, anyway. Part of it was true, but as anybody who actually paid attention to what Leonard did inside the ring could attest, he was a stone-cold assassin. He just went about it differently than Hagler.

If you want to get technical about it, Leonard was far from the ideal representative of the safety-first school of pugilism — not after the bell rang, anyway. The take-as-few-risks-as-possible methodology reached its apex in Floyd Mayweather Jr. But Mayweather wasn’t around in 1987. Sugar Ray was.

Slugger versus boxer is the elementary struggle between brute force and skill, and as it turned out, Hagler and Leonard both did a commendable job representing their side of the philosophical rift. But neither did enough to categorically settle the issue.

I had Leonard ahead 115-113, the same as judge Dave Moretti. Lou Filippo gave it to Hagler by the same margin, which was much more representative of what took place in the ring than Jo Jo Guerra’s surreal 118-110 for Leonard. It was Guerra’s score that fired up Hagler supporters and fueled rumors of a fix.

If different fighters were involved, it would have been a decision that ended with reasonable people agreeing to disagree, but not with Leonard-Hagler. So much emotion was invested on both sides of the ideological rift that agreement was never part of the equation.

Both men were past their best when they climbed into the ring at Caesars Palace’s outdoor arena — not by much, but enough to skew the outcomes. It is difficult to say if things would have been different had they fought during their primes. Leonard peaked at welterweight, and Hagler was a career-long middleweight. In the end, such deliberations are relegated to the what-if category, the place where fantasy bouts go to die.

Sixty-one fights during a 14-year pro career had worn Hagler down. The demanding victories over Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi in his previous two bouts had not helped. Even a guy named Marvelous Marvin, who once posed in a superhero costume for a magazine cover, is ultimately as vulnerable to the vagaries of the ring as anybody else.

Leonard was coming off almost three years of inactivity, but his dilettante approach to the twilight of his career paid off on this occasion. While Hagler was grinding away against hard cases, Leonard was chilling and saving himself for the right moment.

However, where each was in his respective career was secondary. The principal thing to understand is that Leonard and Hagler represented opposite sides of boxing’s philosophical schism.

Leonard didn’t wait until the fight started to begin outmaneuvering Hagler. During negotiations he acquiesced to the defending champion’s demand for an extra million dollars, providing the match was scheduled for 12 rounds instead of 15. Depriving Hagler of nine more minutes to try to bash Leonard’s face in was worth every penny.

Leonard fought just the way he told everybody he would, winning one round at a time, using lateral movement and hand speed. There was a Zen-like quality to his performance. He bent but refused to break and used his opponent’s anger against him. It was a subtle blend of style and substance, a rare mix of artistry and an illusion.

Did Leonard do enough to win? I thought so, but wouldn’t have complained about a close decision going Hagler’s way. He fought better the second half and had Leonard in trouble in the ninth. But when he trapped Leonard on the ropes in the final round and forced a toe-to-toe exchange, Hagler couldn’t close the deal.

Leonard retaliated with a dazzling flurry, and when Marvin backed off, Sugar Ray danced away, the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears. That, in my mind, was the moment that won the fight for him.

Looking back 30 years later, perhaps we should be grateful Leonard-Hagler ended inconclusively. The tension between the boxer-versus-slugger paradigms is essential to the health of the sport. In offensive terms, it’s like the running game vs. the passing game in football, or the 3-point shot vs. the dunk in basketball. The duality creates the whole.

If I’d laid that riff on my father, he would have called it “bloody nonsense” and poured himself another bourbon. To his way of thinking, Hagler might not have won on the scorecards, but he sure as hell didn’t lose the fight.

Maybe that’s as close as we’re going to get to some sort of understanding. Total agreement is as remote as the possibility of a rematch.


You make the call:

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