A Boxing Memory: Hagler vs Hearns
On April 15th 1985 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, two fighters gave us everything, and a little bit more.
One came for redemption, the other for greatness. They met head-on, in the most dramatic, brutal 8 minutes of action we are ever likely to see in a boxing ring.
The undisputed world middleweight title was the prize advertised, but much more was on the line on a truly unforgettable night where both combatants were seemingly on a mission to oblivion.
We can all create an illusion of the past, but those two fighters in that Vegas ring went to work in the most simplistic way that even now 35 years on, the magic lives on, probably now even more enhanced.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the formidable destructive long-reigning champion had cleaned out his division since he ripped the title away from Alan Minter on an unsavoury night in London in 1980.
But in the eyes of many, maybe even Hagler himself, the champion needed to do more to convince that he was indeed a true great and not just a champion of a division that lacked the necessary talent to elevate Hagler to another dimension.
But the wait was over for the shaven-headed champion, Thomas Hearns would once again enter his life. After a failure to make the fight in 1982, Hearns had Hagler very much in his sights.
Sugar Ray Leonard had taken away the unbeaten record of Hearns in 1981, but the Detroit native had recovered at least some of former invincibility. A two-round destruction of the legendary Panamanian Roberto Duran in 1984 reinvigorated the Hagler fight, and what we witnessed on that April night will never be forgotten.
Ian Darke was ringside on that monumental evening covering the fight for BBC radio and earlier this week I had the pleasure of speaking to Darke about the fight. Even before I could ask the obvious question Darke said:
“It was the best fight I ever covered from all the fights I did for radio or television. It was 8 minutes of spellbinding fury. The atmosphere around it was electric from the moment we got to Las Vegas.”
The betting lines had Hagler a very narrow favourite, late money on Hearns saw the fight become a virtual even fight. Darke also favoured the Kronk star:
“Hagler oozed a lot of menace and was the natural middleweight. But a lot us were thinking that Hearns would detonate that right hand and take Hagler out, and that was the way I was leaning.”
Colin Hart the veteran boxing journalist was also there covering the fight with Darke, and he too was astonished by what he saw in that mesmerising opening round:
“Colin is never short of a word or two, but when then breathless first round ended, Colin literally couldn’t speak it had literally taken his breath away. After a few seconds he managed to splutter out the line, That was the greatest round of boxing I have ever seen in my life. and it was.”
Long before the days of satellite TV, radio was often the only way to experience a big fight live. The voice of Darke had a unique way of relaying a fight back to his listeners, often making a fight far more exciting than it actually was, not that the Hagler Hearns needed any sort of enhancement:
“When I got back home to London I received a letter from a guy who was an amateur boxing coach from Kent. He said I very much enjoyed the fight, it sounded a good one. But what you didn’t tell me was how many punches were being slipped and parried. He obviously hadn’t seen the fight yet, only heard it. So I politely wrote back saying that when you get to see the fight you will know that not a lot of punches were seen or parried.”
The tactics of both men would prove to be pivotal in the outcome of the fight.
“Looking back at some old notes. A lot of people thought Hagler would try and dance and move, trying to stay out of the way of Hagler’s big right hand. But Hagler said after the fight at a press conference, this is my domain, this is my division, if you want a tear up come on then. That’s what made it such a good fight, a last man standing type of fight.”
Hagler despite winning the fight was covered in blood, and at the time it appeared as though there was a real risk of the fight being stopped:
“I was told on pretty good authority that the referee Richard Steele went to the corner of Hagler, and said to him, can you see OK, and Hagler replied, I am not missing him am I.”
The first round is without too much argument the greatest round in boxing history, certainly at the elite end of the sport. I asked Darke how did he manage to commentate on it, with so much action to relay back to his audience:
“With difficulty. On the radio, you are the eyes for the listener. Trying to keep with up that level of frenetic action, was practically impossible. All you can do is give the listeners an impression of what is going on.”
At the end of the opening round, with Hagler absorbing the best of Hearns, it appeared, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, that the champion had the fight won. But watching it live and from ringside, the opinion was anything but:
“I don’t remember at the end of the first round thinking the fight was over, because both were still landing bombs on each other, and you still thought one might still knock the other out. I think even in the second round, Hearns hit Hagler with a right hand that seemed to buckle his legs a little bit. But you could see that bit by bit Hagler was getting the better of the argument, but I didn’t get that impression at the end of the first round.”
The champion looked to be in control in the third round. Hearns was seemingly visibly wilting, the legs were betraying him and he looked as though he was at the point of breaking. But with Hagler covered in blood, Steele momentarily stopped the action, with the champion on the brink of victory, suddenly his title looked in real danger:
“I didn’t think Steele would stop the fight, I think there would have been uproar. I didn’t think the cuts were that bad at the time in terms of them stopping the fight. But if the fight had gone longer, then it would have been a bigger problem, but it was never going to be a long fight at that sort of intensity.”
Hagler famously went into isolation before his fights, and there was a stark contrast between how the two prepared for the fight, Hagler in relative solitude, Hearns in a much more public manner. Even on his biggest night, the champion didn’t celebrate his victory too hard:
“The great story after the fight was that Hagler declined the usual million-dollar suites that were usually on offer, Hagler just wanted a simple room. He put his two trainers, Pat and Goody Petronelli in a single room sharing. After the fight, Hagler just celebrated with just some soft drinks and water. One of the guys around the place, a publicist said you got to do better than this and ordered six bottles of champagne. Hagler had a little bit, but not much. Then a few weeks later, he rang the guy and said what’s going on, I’ve just had a bill for $1300 for this champagne. He had just made millions of dollars from the fight and he still challenged this bill.”
There was a narrative spun after the fight that this was a version of Hagler we hadn’t seen before. All the frustration of being denied the respect he felt he rightfully deserved looked as though it all came out on that April evening, Darke offers a different opinion:
“I think Hagler always had a chip on his shoulder, right the way through to his retirement, that he never got the proper recognition, he did in the end of course. But after everything, I think Hagler was a cold and calculated professional. I think they thought as a camp that Hearns would come out and try to land the big punches. But Hagler and his team thought that they were the punchers in this fight, not Hearns, and that Hagler was the full-blown middleweight. They rolled the dice on that and if Hearns wanted that type of fight then we will meet him head-on. A straight forward collision and wear him down and that’s exactly what happened and you have to say Hagler got his tactics spot on.”
Very few fights, if any, in the modern-era can match what we witnessed 35 years ago. The most savage and unrelenting fight I personally have ever seen.
In many ways, both Hagler and Hearns created a very special piece of history on that April evening. The ring an inconvenience, a street fight of the highest order, the judges an unnecessary addition.
Hagler came for greatness, for respect and acceptance, nobody will argue he left Vegas with everything he came for.