A Boxing Memory: Hagler vs Sibson
Marvelous Marvin Hagler had many good nights in a boxing ring, most of them went underappreciated, at least until 8 minutes of mayhem with a ‘Hit Man’ in a shootout for the ages. Hagler was an angry man in 1985, he went to war for many reasons in Las Vegas, Tommy Hearns found a Hagler we hadn’t seen before. But Hagler was perhaps even more ‘Marvelous’ two years earlier.
The sold out Worcester Centrum in Massachusetts was surrounded by blizzards, inside it Tony Sibson was caught up in a different type of storm. Sibson had ventured from Leicester with hope, but he caught the undisputed world middleweight champion on perhaps his best ever night.
Sibson 24, had found success and plenty of it on the domestic front, British, Commonwealth and European middleweight titles were in his collection. He was ranked the number one middleweight contender in the world, Sibson looked a much tougher challenger than the merry-go-round of challengers Hagler had to endure in his search for acceptance and respect.
The fearsome middleweight champion always had a chip on his shoulder about how he was viewed in the sport. The big fights were still just a desire, he needed a dance partner that would elevate his own status. For Hagler, that wait would continue.
Sibson looked a far stronger challenger than some of Hagler’s recent opponents, he was a 7-2 outsider, but he came with real pedigree and his powerful left hook, at least this challenger had some intrigue.
A couple of early career defeats were soon forgotten when Sibson beat Frankie Lucas in a savage forgotten fight in 1979 for the vacant British middleweight title. It looked too soon for Sibson, in truth, it came too late for Lucas. After three more wins in 1979, Sibson surrendered his British title to Kevin Finnegan, Sibson recovered and remained unbeaten until his moment of truth against Hagler.
On the road to Hagler, Alan Minter passed the torch, and the good American Dwight Davison saw his world title hopes extinguished by the fists of Sibson. But Hagler would be a much more formidable foe.
Sibson’s trainer Ken Squires set in motion his plan to ready his charge for what lay ahead. With an axe in his hands, Sibson would do three minutes chopping down trees, an old school simulation aimed at building a fighter’s strength and stamina.
The specific boxing training began early in 1983 for the scheduled date in February. But when a large press party turned up to help promote the fight, disaster struck.
Sibson under the watchful eye of those with the mighty pens, sparred when he wasn’t fully warmed up and he paid the price. Cliff Gilpin caught Sibson with an uppercut. He said:
“He bruised my sinuses and enflamed my eyes. That was that. I got changed and walked out of the gym again.”
Sibson did no further sparring in the build-up to the Hagler fight.
Training carried on with fitness now the primary aim. Unable to spar, the usual bread and butter for fighters to sharpen their tools in readiness for battle, Sibson’s task was made even harder. Impossible even.
Hagler had ripped the world title from Minter on an unsavoury night in London in 1980. The evening had a rancid smell of racism in the air, hate and prejudice ruined Hagler’s moment. A seven-year and 30 fight unbeaten run, Hagler was some fighter but without the then retired Sugar Ray Leonard, Hagler was drifting without the recognition he craved. If ever a fighter deserved a big fight, it was Hagler.
Sibson was challenger number six, and despite the problems in camp, Sibson said he was fitter than ever and genuinely thought he could beat Hagler. The innocence of youth can blind even the best of us.
The British challenger was expected to offer far more resistance than the likes of Willian ‘Caveman’ Lee who had folded inside a round in a recent title defence by Hagler. But from the opening seconds of the fight, Hagler demonstrated the sheer spite and class in his work. Sibson was brave, but Hagler was on another level. The confidence pre-fight gave way to Sibson admitting that he believed no man could do what Hagler had just done to him. “He just knocked me all over the place,” the beaten challenger conceded after 6 largely one-sided rounds.
Hagler said: “I was just dipping into my toolbox. I was enjoying my work.”
Harry Mullan reporting for Boxing News said, “Hagler’s performance was quite flawless. It was cold, ruthless perfection.”
Sibson called Hagler an artist. Hagler’s fists certainly painted a not so pretty picture on Sibson’s face. Hagler was simply brilliant on that cold winters night, just maybe, the best version of Hagler that we ever saw.
Sibson had a nightmare trip to America. Catching Hagler at his peak was just part of the problem. He would be left to rue his lack of sparring, the bad weather hampered his preparations even further, there were problems with his protective cup, Sibson would later say, “Everything went wrong,” a painful night in many ways. Sibson believed in his heart he could beat Hagler. He found out the truth the hard way.
It would take a hotly-disputed decision in a fight that he badly wanted, which finally arrived in 1987, to relieve Hagler of his titles. Leonard caught Hagler at the right time. He picked his moment, both brilliant and calculated in equal measure.
Hagler was slipping and threatened retirement, Leonard saw his chance and executed a plan to tempt Hagler, who eventually took the bait and left the sport a bitter man courtesy of that loss to Leonard in Vegas that still splits the boxing world.
Sibson drifted in and out of the sport after the loss to Hagler. There were moments when the old fire returned, especially when he returned to America to blast out the unbeaten Irish-American John Collins in two rounds. But a defeat to the dangerous American Don Lee in an up and down thriller stopped the momentum gained from the Collins win.
A win over Mark Kaylor promised more than it delivered, he regained his old titles on his road back but Sibson never really got to where he wanted to go. Fights with domestic rivals Herol Graham and Errol Christie never happened for various reasons. A return was offered against Kaylor, it was good money but Sibson wasn’t interested. Sibson was semi-retired, out of shape, recovering from surgery on his elbow, he’d got married, boxing seemingly was in his past.
But a change in promoter to Frank Warren tempted Sibson back and offered him two further chances to win a world title. A move up to light-heavyweight to challenge Dennis Andries in 1986 came at the wrong time and at the wrong weight. Mentally he wasn’t there and admitted afterwards that he had underestimated Andries. Many others did the same.
Sibson did give us one last reminder of his talents when he beat Brian Anderson for the British middleweight title and securing the Lonsdale belt in the process.
A final attempt and indeed a final fight, to win the world title came against another American Frank Tate in 1988 for the IBF middleweight title. The IBF still had their title fights scheduled for 15 rounds, the British Board of Control stuck to their new 12 round rule on safety grounds, the fight was in serious doubt as fight night loomed. The day before the fight, they belatedly reached a solution to have the fight reduced to a 12 round title fight.
The fight with Tate was close until not for the first time, Sibson started to lose concentration, in the 10th round, the fight and his career was over. He said afterwards that he just melted away. There was talk of one last comeback, but thankfully, it never happened.
Even on his best night, Sibson wouldn’t have beaten Hagler, but in another era where the titles were splintered, Sibson could easily have won a world title. In the talk of the best British fighter never to win a world title, Sibson is more than worthy of a mention.
When he faced Hagler, Sibson was almost certainly the second-best middleweight on the planet. At his peak, he was just unlucky to be around at the same time as perhaps the greatest middleweight in boxing history.