A Boxing Memory: Hagler vs Leonard
On April 6th, 1987, I had finished work and made my way to the local train station. A couple of stops later I was in Manchester. I soon found an Indian restaurant and sat there as a naïve 19-year-old intrigued that on a Monday night at just after seven in the evening, some of the ‘punters’ were already worse for wear as a result of excessive amounts of alcohol, and I wondered if I was to witness my first fight of the evening. I paid my bill and set off on some uncharted expedition to try and find the Apollo Theatre.
The purpose of my visit to Manchester was to see the ‘Superfight’ on a closed circuit, Marvelous Marvin Hagler defending the world middleweight title against the returning Sugar Ray Leonard. 1987 was of course long before the days of Sky and this was the only option to witness the fight live, ITV would show the fight on delay the following evening.
The hope was I could stay awake all night to see the fight, a challenge I was desperate to complete, my first ever night shift.
Leonard the former undisputed welterweight champion and for a brief time the WBA light middleweight king had only boxed once in 5 years, and that was an uninspiring win over the journeyman Kevin Howard in 1984, where Leonard suffered the first knockdown of his professional career. After the Howard fight, Leonard had made comment that every punch hurt and promptly announced his latest retirement that very same evening.
Leonard was given little hope and was a big underdog against the long-reigning Hagler. Leonard was considered too small and too inactive to give Hagler any real problems. There was real concern that Hagler could do serious harm to Leonard.
Hagler had ripped the middleweight titles from Alan Minter on an unsavoury night in London when crowd trouble ruined Hagler’s moment, and he had held the title for 7 years and had made 12 successful defences. Hagler hadn’t lost a fight since 1976. Two years earlier Hagler had destroyed Thomas Hearns in 3 sensational rounds and was coming off a hard-fought win over John Mugabi.
Leonard was ringside for the Mugabi fight, and seeing Hagler struggle had convinced him that he could beat Hagler. Leonard and Hagler had met at social gatherings prior, and Hagler had confessed to Leonard privately that he was losing motivation and was thinking of retiring. Leonard sensed an opportunity and also that it was a case of now or never, he then publicly challenged the feared Hagler, in an act that most viewed as madness driven by his ego to regain the spotlight from Hagler.
It was a fight Hagler always badly wanted when Leonard was active in the early 80’s, but due to the numerous retirements of Leonard, it had never happened. Hagler had always resented the way he had been played and teased in the past by Leonard when the fight had been talked about before, Hagler made Leonard wait several months before accepting the fight, but eventually, he agreed to fight Leonard, but only after 109 days of making Leonard wait for his decision.
Before the fight could be signed sealed and delivered the complex negotiations had to take place, Hagler received the higher end of a then-record purse of $23 million. But Hagler’s team made several vital concessions, he gave Leonard a 20-foot ring and agreed to a 12 round fight instead of a 15 rounder, the latter, a decision that almost certainly cost Hagler the fight.
In camp Leonard thought he could go toe to toe with Hagler and slash open his opponents fragile skin, but at a public workout close to the fight a sparring partner Quincy Taylor badly hurt Leonard, “He hit me so hard I was out cold” Leonard said, he hid it and the session was quickly wrapped up, but that convinced Leonard to change tactics for Hagler.
Over 15,000 fans were packed in the Las Vegas outdoor arena to witness the fight and I took my seat in Manchester hoping for a miracle that my man Leonard would somehow pull off the seismic shock. Leonard had told reporters pre-fight
“The reason I will win is that you don’t think I can” very few believed him.
Leonard clearly had worked on his physique, this was no skinny welterweight, Leonard looked strong at his heaviest ever weight.
Hagler entered the ring with a 62-2-2 record while Leonard was 33-1 at the time.
Hagler perhaps by a combination of overconfidence, and a willingness to prove he could outbox the master boxer chose to fight orthodox and try to outbox Leonard. Despite the layoff, Leonard looked on point, fighting in flurries, landing crisp combinations and then getting out of range. Leonard’s corner had been instructed to shout out when there were 30 seconds left in the round, so Leonard could flurry and try to impress the judges into giving him the rounds.
Some called it an illusion of victory, the judges giving Leonard rounds because he was doing better than was expected, or stealing the rounds with a few flashy combinations as the rounds close. But Hagler gave away most of the early rounds, he had Leonard badly hurt in the 5th when Leonard decided to stop moving, but Leonard came back brilliantly in the 6th. Hagler badly needed to win the 6th and build on the success he had in the 5th.
Hagler marched forward for the remainder of the bout, but couldn’t quite close the gap on the scorecards, giving away the early rounds cost him dearly. The 9th was the best round of the fight, Leonard was hurt and forced on the ropes but a series of at times breath-taking exchanges brought the Vegas crowd to its feet.
Leonard looked exhausted during the last 3 rounds, and a stoppage looked a real possibility, but he bravely saw the fight out and still having his moments in the process.
The crowd in the Manchester theatre all cheered, convinced Leonard had won, and he had by virtue of a disputed split decision. The judges had it 115-113, 118-110 for Leonard and the other judge had it 115-113 for Hagler.
The scoring was highly controversial and still is to this day, Hagler remains convinced he was robbed. On a little side note regarding the scoring, Harry Gibbs was scheduled to be a judge for the fight but was removed because the Hagler camp objected to his appointment. Jo Jo Guerra the replacement for Gibbs scored it 118-110 for Leonard, Gibbs watching from home scored it for Hagler by 4 rounds.
Despite talk of a rematch Hagler never fought again, and it would have been a good time for Leonard to finally quit for good, to go out a winner on perhaps his most memorable night, he didn’t and came back again numerous times.
It was a truly special night and the fight justified the hype, it grossed a reported $78 million. I set off to get the first train home, went straight to bed, and got up in the afternoon, and waited patiently to watch it all over again that night. It was and still is my favourite ever fight.