Two of the most prominent and celebrated athletes in the world, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard came together to contest the $100million SuperFight on April 6, 1987 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
From Frank Sinatra to U2, Joan Collins and Bo Derek to Whoopi Goldberg, the stars were drawn to ringside by the huge box-office appeal of the blue-collar, dominant world middleweight champion facing his nemesis, the charismatic and flamboyant Sugar Ray, who was coming out of virtually five years of retirement.
Drawing on his deep reservoir of nerve, outstanding technique and a strategy which Budd Schulberg – who provided Marlon Brando with the immortal line, ‘I coulda been a contender’ – called a compound optical illusion, Leonard won on points. It was boxing’s greatest comeback, but to this day the judges’ decision remains bitterly disputed – among fans as well as by the protagonists.
But the story of The SuperFight goes much deeper. It is a psychological thriller, embracing an emergent, elaborate, some might suggest Machiavellian plot. Key moments are explored in the recent social history of the United States.
Two remarkable lives are detailed, along with the demons that drove both men and the formidable challenges they overcame inside and outside the ring.
Hagler grew up in the Newark, New Jersey ghetto of Central Ward, where a riot/rebellion rooted in racism claimed the lives of 26 people, injured 1,000 more and, to the young teenager, was “like the end of the world.”
Fuelled by anger, transforming himself into The Monster, he climbed to the top of his domain and ruled for seven years as champion, one of the most accomplished in boxing’s annals.
Leonard was an Olympic gold medallist and all-American hero whose career was cut short by a detached retina after he became the world welterweight king. He was Muhammad Ali’s gifted and anointed successor but he succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse.
For years, too, he was tormented by a secret, the sexual abuse he endured as an amateur boxer by a trusted coach and another man.
As provocative and polarising in its own way as Ali’s defining rivalry with Joe Frazier, The SuperFight is the story of Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard and a pure flame that still burns.
Brian Doogan wrote the Sunday Times bestselling autobiography of Joe Calzaghe, No Ordinary Joe. For 20 years he was the UK and European correspondent for The Ring.
He is an award-winning former Sunday Times and Daily Express sports journalist and for 10 years was head of media and communications at Premier League football clubs Aston Villa and Everton.