Hagler vs Hearns: The War For Respect & Acceptance
It took Marvelous Marvin Hagler nearly eight years to win the world middleweight title, even longer for people to realise, accept just how good he was.
But one fight changed everything.
Sugar Ray Leonard wasn’t present in that Las Vegas ring in 1985, but in many ways he was the reason two of his contemporaries were.
Hagler and Thomas Hearns shared a ring together because the fight they both craved wasn’t now an option.
The shaven headed champion always felt he lived in the shadow of Leonard, and he badly wanted the opportunity to fight the sports biggest superstar.
Hearns had only lost one fight, and he wanted the chance of revenge against Leonard. But when his rival ‘retired’ in 1982 Hagler and Hearns turned to each other.
But when two scheduled fights in 1982 failed to materialise, Hagler said:
“Hearns is afraid to fight me. He always was, and he always will be.”
Both then went their separate ways, but fate would pull them back together. Leonard briefly returned in 1984, and Hagler and Hearns saw a glimmer of hope that their wishes would now be granted.
But after being floored for the first time in his career by the journeyman Kevin Howard he waved goodbye once again. But yet again Leonard brought Hagler and Hearns together, this time nothing could keep them apart.
Hagler was denied many things in his boxing life. Despite the endless ‘Philly” wars Hagler was long denied his rightful world title opportunity. Joe Frazier once told Hagler:
“There were three things going against me: one, I was black. Two, I was a southpaw. And three, I was good.”
When that chance eventually came, the judges denied him against Vito Antuofermo in 1979. A draw little reward for Hagler.
The following year Hagler went to London and finally won the world middleweight title from Alan Minter. But in a fight with racism very much in the air, he was denied his moment of celebration by a tsunami of flying bottles.
A long unbeaten run starting in 1976 and multiple defences of his world title couldn’t get him the respect his talents deserved. Hagler needed a superfight, Roberto Duran answered the call, but Hagler let slip his chance to make a statement.
Only a late rally saved his title against the much smaller Duran, Hagler won but didn’t win over the doubters.
Since losing to Leonard in 1981, Hearns had added the WBC super-welterweight title to his collection, but he still seemed to be treading water. Hearns needed some form of redemption, even beating Wilfred Benitez couldn’t give him that.
But a certain Panamanian would play his part in Hearns getting what he wanted. Duran had recovered his reputation from his ‘No Mas’ surrender against Leonard, and after pushing Hagler so close, Hearns had the chance to make the world sit up when the two clashed in 1984.
Hearns detonated one of the hardest punches ever seen inside a boxing ring, and the formidable Duran was knocked out for the first time in his career. Even as the legendary fighter was falling face down to unconsciousness, Hagler must have sensed the Kronk native would again be in his life.
A further routine win over Fred Hutchings in defence of his WBC world title would set up the fight with Hagler.
Without Leonard, Hagler and Hearns needed each other. In April 1985 they served up one of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
Hearns moved up to middleweight to challenge Hagler in his 10th defence of his title. The reigning champion was the betting favourite, but late money for ‘The Hitman’ saw the odds narrow to make it a virtual even fight.
With the normal feeling out process seemingly reserved only for the pre-fight introductions, the fight exploded into action inside the first few seconds. The three judges must have very quickly realised their night would be a short one.
Hagler came out aggressively, but was momentarily stunned by a big right hand, but he not only stayed upright he responded in kind.
For the entire 1st round, we were privileged to watch them trade without complaint, an electrifying, breathtaking exchange of punches. Hearns more than had his moments in a round that you just can’t tire of watching. Hagler finished the round on top, but with his face covered in blood.
Harry Mullan who was ringside for Boxing News described the 1st round as the:
“Most explosive and astonishing first round he had ever witnessed.”
Hearns went back to his corner complaining his lethal right hand was broken, and his legs were already showing signs of betrayal.
Trying to find the space he was denied in the opening round, Hearns tried to box Hagler and was having some success. But inside the last 30 seconds Hearns was hurt and pinned on the ropes taking heavy shots.
Hearns looked on borrowed time in the 3rd. His balance was all over the place, Emanuel Steward blamed a pre-fight massage, Hagler was a bigger reason. Hearns stumbled around the ring, but still bravely, instinctively tried to stay in the fight.
Suddenly the referee Richard Steele stopped the fight to inspect Hagler’s cut above his right eye. But the champion was allowed to continue, and almost immediately the fight was over.
One big right hand was the beginning of the end, another saw Hearns fall to the floor, and his brave challenge was ended when victory seemed so near only seconds ago.
Hagler had finally got his signature win, and the manner of the victory took his career and reputation to another stratosphere. After being a pro since 1973 aand with 64 fights in the bank, Hagler got what he wanted in just 8 minutes.
For Hearns it was a different story, yet again on the biggest stage he had come up short again. For many all he had achieved was overshadowed by his two defeats.
Hearns had further success in his career after the Hagler war. He continued to move up in weight and world titles from middleweight to cruiserweight were added to his collection.
But Sugar Ray Leonard would again resurface, and leave Hagler and Hearns with resentment and frustration.
Hagler finally got the fight with Leonard in 1987 when Sugar Ray made yet another comeback. Hagler lost a bitterly disputed split-decision to Leonard, and never fought again, leaving the sport in disgust and frustration. Very much how he viewed his career, nothing came easy, everything earned the hard way.
Hearns finally got his rematch with Leonard in 1989, but despite dropping Leonard twice, Hearns was only deemed worthy of a draw.
Hagler vs Hearns is a timeless classic. The opening round was fought with unbelievable ferocity and left seasoned journalists open mouthed at ringside, scarcely believing what they were witnessing.
Mullan said post-fight:
“I was praying for it to end, I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
Hearns may have lost, but he more than played his part on an unforgettable night. Hagler finally got the acceptance and respect he deserved.
Memories can deceive with the passing of time, was something as good as we remember it. ‘The War’ had some competition in an era of great fighters and classic fights, but the years have been kind. Hagler and Hearns went to war, and both achieved greatness in a fight that will never be forgotten.
Hagler should rightfully be viewed as one of the greatest middleweights of any era. The fight with Hearns told us what we should have already known.
It seemed as though he let out all the years of frustration and anger on the face of his opponent. Hearns really didn’t have a chance in that Las Vegas ring, wrong place wrong time.
Hagler had to fight like a challenger, going head first into the cannon. The war was a short one, the guns blazed but one man had the greater ammunition.
Very few middleweights in history, if any, would have survived the avalanche Hagler unleashed on that monumental April evening.
Without this fight the narrative around the legacy of Hagler would have been very different. The Marvelous one had many fights in his long career, by far this was the most important.