Then There Were Three: A Tribute To Marvelous Marvin Hagler
By Lea Worrall
Sunday morning, 14th March 2021, I’m lying in bed and click open the Sky Sports App on my phone, going straight to the boxing page to look for news on Anthony Joshua vs Tyson Fury.
I see Marvin Hagler’s face at the top of the feed and I’m wondering why he’s there! Then I read the headline, ‘Marvin Hagler dies aged 66.’
I can’t believe it! I only tweeted about Hagler the other day on the anniversary of his fight with John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi.
His death was announced on The Marvelous Marvin Hagler FAN CLUB Facebook page by his wife, Kay: “I am sorry to make a very sad announcement. Today unfortunately my beloved husband Marvelous Marvin passed away unexpectedly at his home here in New Hampshire. Our family requests that you respect our privacy during this difficult time. With love
Kay G. Hagler”
Many of boxing’s stars also took to Twitter to offer their tributes and condolences:
“Marvelous Marvin Hagler was among the greatest athletes that Top Rank ever promoted. He was a man of honour and a man of his word, and he performed in the ring with unparalleled determination.
“He was a true athlete and a true man. I will miss him greatly.” – Bob Arum
“I’m simply stunned to hear the news of Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Not only was he a living legend, but I was proud to call him my friend. He was so full of life, energy and positivity in our conversations that you would never guess what a wrecking machine he was in the ring.
“This one hits so hard also because he was the one I emulated my own training camps after when I saw how seriously he took his training camps. The world is one great man less today.” – Lennox Lewis
“I am crushed at the news that MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER has passed away! He was-in his prime-POUND4POUND-the best, going 11yrs in 38 fights w/o defeat! He dominated the MW division 4 a decade!
62 wins/52KOs-3 losses
“R.I.P. 4EVER CHAMPION-4EVER REMEMBERED💔” – Michael Buffer
“Marvin Hagler came to my fight in Boston. I appreciated what he said to me after my fight. Rest In Peace, my friend. Condolences to the Hagler family. Thank you Marvelous Marvin Hagler for all you gave to boxing #boxing #legend #icon #friend #boxer #worldchampion #wildcardboxing” – Freddie Roach
“Sad to hear of the death of one of boxing’s true greats – Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Initially sidetracked and ignored, he carried a bitter but brilliant intensity in his long middleweight reign and his pulsating “war” with Tommy Hearns is the greatest fight I ever covered.” – Ian Darke
“I was really in shock yesterday after hearing the news of Hagler, it hit me hard. We had just the utmost respect for each other! Marvin Hagler had every ingredient that it takes to be a great champion. Marvin, you are definitely gone too soon, but you will forever live on as one of the greats! Thoughts and prayers to the entire Hagler family. ❤️🙏🏾🥊” – Sugar Ray Leonard
Marvin Nathaniel Hagler was born in Newark, New Jersey on 23rd May 1954 and was the first of six children born to Ida Mae Hagler and Robert Sims. The couple weren’t married and when Sims left his family to fend on welfare, young Marvin dropped the name Sims to go forward as a Hagler.
Hagler was fourteen years old when he dropped out of high school to start work for a toy factory to make ends meet. After the 1967 and 1969 race riots tore through Newark, Ida Mae moved her brood for a safer life to Brockton, Massachusetts.
Hagler struggled to adapt to his new neighbourhood. “I felt out of place, going from an all-black society to a mixed society. The only place I’d run across whites was in stores. They were always behind the counter, taking the cash. School Principals. Police. The post office. I really didn’t trust them. If they were nice, I thought, ‘What do you want from me?’ I had to learn for myself how people really were. When I found out all white people weren’t bad, I started to relax around them. Goody and Pat had a lot to do with that.”
At the age of fifteen, Hagler visited some of Brockton’s boxing gyms. Vinnie Vecchione, who became famous for saving his charge Peter McNeely against the come-backing Mike Tyson in 1995, recalled the quiet adolescent would sit on the sidelines, resisting all attempts to join in. He was content just watching the fighters, including Angie Carlino, who would later become Hagler’s photographer, go through their paces.
There were two Italian brothers, Guerino (Goody) and Pasquale (Pat) Petronelli, who also ran a boxing gym. They were partners in a small construction company and both boxed as amateurs. The brothers were also close friends to the late local hero Rocky Marciano.
Goody left the US Navy after twenty-seven years of service in the medical corps. He was the divisions boxing coach and persuaded Pat to join him and help develop young fighters. Hagler found himself drawn back to the Petronelli brothers, quietly sitting and observing their fighters every move.
After a while, Goody approached the teenager and asked him if he wanted to learn to box. Goody, the recognised trainer of the two brothers, later recalled the reason why he didn’t approach the quiet young man sooner. “I recognised that it would take time to cement and mature a trust and friendship with him. Marvin seemed to have a deep distrust about white people and so I took my time.”
After Hagler’s first week of training the brothers recognised his fierce desire and eagerness to listen and learn. “His passion for boxing was intense,” recalled Goody. “He appeared fascinated with boxing and seemed to love everything about it from the smell of the liniment and the rich leather of the boxing gloves through to the different techniques he saw the other boxers practising.”
Soon Hagler became part of the furniture, turning up for training every day and eventually the Petronelli’s registered Hagler for an amateur card, unaware the boxer had added two years to his age, saying he was eighteen so he could compete. The brothers also gave him a job in their construction company.
Hagler, in his early amateur days, imitated Muhammad Ali’s theatrics by showboating, earning him the ‘Marvelous’ nickname, after a local reporter in Lowell, Massachusetts commented on his spectacular fighting style. As he became more seasoned, he abandoned the showboating and chose a more serious demeanour, using his natural strengths, balance, poise and accurate two-fisted punching power. He also adopted a southpaw stance; despite the fact he was a natural orthodox fighter.
His amateur ledger was a short 52-2 with forty-three stoppages, highlighted by winning the eighty-fifth National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in 1973. He defeated the tough and durable middleweight Terry Dobbs of the Marine Corps. Goody called it Hagler’s finest performance to date, comparing his fighter to a young Henry Armstrong. The officials also agreed, voting the Brockton resident as the tournament’s Outstanding Boxer.
The achievement was even more impressive when the championship consisted of high calibre technicians; Aaron Pryor, Leon Spinks and a young boxer named Randy Shields, who defeated someone called Ray Leonard. “Marvin showed that he had something special that night and for the first time, he made people sit up and take notice of him,” commented Goody Petronelli.
Hagler spoke to his trainers about turning pro, instead of waiting for the 1976 Olympics, “I had just become a father for the first time and realised that you can’t take a trophy and exchange it for a bag full of groceries,” he said at a later date.
Hagler made his professional debut on 18th May 1973, knocking out fellow debutant Terry Ryan in the second round. Hagler’s record remained unblemished until he drew with Sugar Ray Seales, the 1972 Olympic champion and fellow southpaw, in November 1974.
He picked up his first defeat in January 1976, in a close, dubious decision to Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts at the Philadelphia’s Spectrum. Question marks were raised of his world championship credentials when he was soundly beaten, again at the Spectrum, by Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe.
Though he stopped Monroe on two separate occasions and twice defeated Kevin Finnegan and outscored ‘Bad’ Bennie Briscoe, it wasn’t until he met Sugar Ray Seales for the third time in February 1979 and stopped him in the opening round that he was considered a threat to the middleweight title.
His chance came in November 1979, when he challenged the Italian born New Yorker, Vito Antuofermo. Hagler boxed well for the first half of the contest, but the war torn champion bit down on his gum shield and took the fight to the switch hitting challenger, to claw back Hagler’s points advantage.
Referee Mills Lane went to Hagler’s corner before the decision was announced, directing him towards the television cameras. “Congratulations,” he said. “Now stay facing this way until they announce the decision and I raise your arm.”
The judges couldn’t find a winner and the fight was declared a draw. Many observers, apart from the champion, believed Hagler was hard done by and an immediate rematch should be scheduled. Hagler got over his disappointment by marrying his long-time partner Bertha Washington in a small, intimate ceremony, before heading on their honeymoon.
Unfortunately for Hagler, boxing politics prevented him from a straight return as Antuofermo was forced to face the WBA and WBC’s top contender Alan Minter. The two met in March 1980, with Minter winning a split-decision at Caesars Palce, Las Vegas.
Hagler had to wait even further when Minter granted Antuofermo a straight return, retaining the undisputed middleweight title with an eighth round retirement three months later.
Finally Hagler got his chance in September 1980, taking on Minter at London’s Wembley Arena. The 12,000 spectators greeted the challenger with hostilities, shouting all kinds of profanities at him as he made his way to the ring.
The build-up was a nasty affair, with race playing a huge part. Minter said he hadn’t worked so hard to get to the top “to lose my title to a blackman” and he also brought up Hagler’s comments of “never touching white flesh,” when he refused to shake hands with him and Kevin Finnegan. Hagler defended himself by saying he never shook hands with a potential opponent, until after the fight.
The crowd, fuelled by alcohol and hatred, booed the American National Anthem and waited for their hero to send the challenger packing across the pond. Hagler wasn’t to be denied and landed the more accurate shots. Minter was sliced open within 60 seconds. By the time he returned to his stool his face was a bloody mask from a second cut inflicted by the challenger.
Both men traded freely in the second and Minter came off second best with blood streaming from his nose and a third laceration. The American continued to dominate the third, slicing the champion once more.
Minter’s injuries were too bad for him to continue and the referee waved the finish. This should have been Hagler’s defining moment, but it was ruined by the alcohol fuelled crowd, who realising their man had been defeated, threw beer bottles and cans into the ring.
Hagler had to be escorted out of the ring by police, for his own safety and wasn’t allowed the dignity of having the belts presented to him in the squared circle. He vowed never to fight in London again.
In April 1982 he legally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, as the American network ABC refused to call him Marvelous Marvin, unless he changed his name in court.
Hagler went on to successfully defend the undisputed title, the problem he faced was the lack of quality opposition in his division. The best fighter he faced up until that point as champion was Roberto Duran, the former lightweight, welterweight and current WBA light-middleweight champion.
‘Hands of Stone’ had been a professional fighter since 1968 and boxing had saved him from a life of poverty. In 1971 he defeated Ken Buchanan to lift the WBA lightweight title, making twelve successful defences and becoming undisputed champion in 1978.
He jumped to welterweight and dethroned boxing’s budding superstar, Sugar Ray Leonard in fifteen pulsating rounds, relieving him of his WBC title in June 1980. Partying and over-indulging on food and drink left an undisciplined champion drained in his attempt to make the weight limit in the November rematch.
Leonard humiliated the Panamanian hero and in the eighth round he quit, in the infamous ‘No Mas’ fight. Duran was ridiculed and could hardly show his face in Panama, until he found redemption, stopping Davey Moore for the WBA light-middleweight title in June 1983.
Five months later the Panamanian was challenging Hagler, in an attempt to become boxing’s first ever four-weight world champion. Hagler, a notoriously slow starter, boxed a safety first campaign, showing the tough Panamanian the respect he deserved. No challenger had gone more than eleven rounds up until that point, but Duran pushed him all the way through the scheduled fifteen rounder, with the champion winning a very close unanimous decision.
Where Duran’s stature grew even more after the fight, Hagler’s reputation took a hit, with many experts criticising the champion for not blowing away the smaller challenger, with Hagler saying: “It seemed everybody was disappointed that I didn’t knock him out. I felt that way myself. But he wasn’t that vulnerable to a knockout. It was hard to hit him with a solid punch,” conceded the champion, also admitting his cut eye had been an old wound from two contests ago. “You don’t barrel in there on a guy like Roberto Durán. Why take unnecessary punishment unless you have to? I’d been effective and was winning the fight, so it isn’t like I had to go in there and take punishment to bomb him out.”
Again Hagler didn’t find another meaningful opponent until he faced Thomas ‘Hit Man’ Hearns on 15th April 1985. The two were meant to face off in 1982, with Hearns damaging one of his fingers, the fight was scrapped.
With interest in these two warriors facing off still very high, the fight was announced in December 1984. In early 1985 the two combatants went on a multiple city promotional tour, which Hagler branded “the magical mystery tour.”
The genuine disdain both men had for each other was confirmed by veteran fight publicist Irvin Rudd, who handled PR for promoter Bob Arum. “I went on a twelve-city, twenty-four-day tour with Hagler and Hearns, drumming up interest in the fight, and the biggest problem I had was keeping them from tearing each other apart.”
Hagler had prepared for war, having the word emblazoned in capital letters on his cap. He was quietly seething as he watched the fight odds sway one way and then the other, until they tilted ever so slightly in his favour.
At the bell the champion uncharacteristically charged at Hearns, initiating an all out attack on the Detroit Hit Man. Both men swapped blows and it was Hagler who was momentarily wobbled by a right hand.
First blood also went to the challenger as Hagler, who in his eagerness to get to Hearns, smashed his right eye into Hearns’s shoulder, cutting it in the process. He wiped the blood angrily away and continued to pursue the taller man, looking to detonate that knockout blow. He had Hearns trapped on the ropes, blood pouring from the vertical gash on his forehead, as the challenger fired off a couple of spiteful rights. Hagler stunned the ‘Hit Man’ with a right of his own as the bell ended a frantic three minutes.
Hagler came out aggressively in the second as Hearns, who broke his right hand in the previous round, boxed on the backfoot. They landed big punches and Hagler, unlike in the opening seconds of the fight, was withstanding the hard punching challenger’s punches. Things looked ominous for the champion as he sustained another cut, this time under his right eye.
Hearns used his skills in the third round, as Hagler was intent on ending matters with his bombs. With the facial damage worsening, referee Richard Steele stopped the action and sent Hagler to the corner to get checked by the ringside physician. The “I ain’t missing him am I?” line was added by Hagler during the post-fight conference for comedy purposes, as Hagler didn’t have enough time during the inspection by Dr. Romeo to deliver that sentence.
Hagler knew there wouldn’t be a fourth round and his titles were in danger of changing hands if he couldn’t finish the fight now. Hearns also knew he only had to negate the remaining 120 seconds to become a three-weight champion.
The champion charged at Hearns, finally nailing him with a fight-changing overhand right. Hearns’s legs were rubbery as Hagler fired in some wild shots, putting the Detroit man spread-eagled on the canvas.
Remarkably Hearns’s fighting instincts got him to his feet, but Steele, an ex pro himself, knew the ‘Hit Man’ was spent and stopped the fight. The win put Marvelous Marvin Hagler among the middleweight greats of the past. ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer Disease, sat in quiet appreciation of the newest member of the middleweight elite club.
Eleven months later Hagler defeated the hard-punching Ugandan, John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, who boasted a 25-0 (25 KOs) record. The champion had to absorb heavy artillery before stopping the weary challenger in the eleventh.
A mooted rematch with Hearns was on the cards, but Hagler had his thoughts on retirement, unless he could tempt ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard out of his own three year exile. Leonard was convinced he had the beating of Hagler and after the champion’s performance against Mugabi, Leonard was super confident.
The pair met on 6th April 1987, with the challenger dictating most of the terms in his favour. Leonard wanted bigger gloves, the largest ring and more importantly of all wanted the contest to be twelve rounds and not the fifteen Hagler wanted.
Hagler fought the first five rounds in the orthodox stance as he looked to out box the boxer. Leonard fought exclusively on the backfoot, swapping blows with the bigger champion only when needed. He would fire in eye-catching punches in the final 30 seconds of each round in an attempt to leave a lasting impression on the judges.
After twelve rounds a split decision was announced in favour of ‘Sugar’ Ray. Hagler was convinced he should have won and if the contest had taken place anywhere other than Las Vegas, then he would have retired as the undisputed middleweight champion. “They wanted to split the titles up. They wanted to take away my titles for business reasons and they did. There’s nothing you can do about that. That’s boxing. So you go on with your life.”
Hagler waited for a rematch, but when he realised one wasn’t coming, he retired in June 1988. “My heart says yes but my brain says no,” Hagler told NBC. “I feel fortunate to get out of the ring with my faculties and my health. “I’m going to say goodbye to boxing. I’m going to retire and go into the movies.”
Hagler kept his word, leaving the sport for good with a record of 62-3-2 (52 KOs). He and Berha divorced and he moved to Milan, Italy, to start his career as an actor, starring in action movies Virtual Weapon, Night of Fear and Indio 2.
Hagler was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in June 1993. He met Kay Guarino and the pair married in 2000, living happily in Milan, Brockton and Conway in New Hampshire, until the former champion’s untimely death on 13th March 2021.
Rest in peace champ!
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