The Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Duran & Hearns
It was an almost mythical time, perhaps only now do we truly appreciate what we had. They were called the four kings for a reason. They fought in an era where avoidance was a crime. They didn’t build their reputations on avoiding each other. They built it on fighting each other.
There were notable ‘outsiders’ who contributed to the halo the main four finished their careers with. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns served up some of the greatest fights of any era, with more than a little controversy thrown in for good measure.
Four fighters that were joined together forever by their considerable talents. They were different on the outside, but the same on the inside.
Sugar Ray Leonard the Golden Boy of the quartet. The 1976 Olympic champion with a smile that matched his multi-million dollar ring earnings. Many resented him for being different, but he was some fighter. Maybe the best there ever was.
Leonard could be cold and calculated. The endless retirements and comebacks became predictable and tiresome and he more than outstayed his welcome.
But even in defeat, Leonard showed his greatness. Duran was the only fighter to beat Leonard in his prime. The ‘Brawl in Montreal’ was one of the great fights in boxing history. Leonard got it wrong tactically and lost his unbeaten record in 1980 as a result but he proved far more even in defeat.
Leonard beat Hearns in another classic the following year. A tough night at the office against Wilfred Benitez is often forgotten. It deserves to be remembered.
The win over Hagler in 1987 despite the never-ending scoring controversy, was a masterpiece of many things. I travelled to Manchester to watch it on the big screen. A closed-circuit experience I never had again. The world soon changed. I thought Leonard won, many disagreed, it was a special night.
Leonard had many demons and kept fighting past the point of no return because of them. As good as he was and for everything he achieved, because of his retirement in the early 80s we never got to see Leonard at his absolute peak. In many ways, the lost years.
Duran could without much argument lay claim to be one of the best lightweights that ever lived. But the legendary Panamanian did plenty out of his comfort zone to be considered one of the best fighters period. World titles up to middleweight when arguably he was past his prime testify to how great he was.
But like Leonard, we could have had more. Periods in the wilderness for varying reasons left Duran facing the abyss in his boxing career many times. The win over Davey Moore in that red-hot atmosphere inside the iconic Madison Square Garden in 1983 was one of those nights you don’t easily forget. It certainly made many finally forget his ‘No Mas’ surrender. Duran had many nights like that where you forgot the bad nights.
Hagler unlike his contemporaries stayed at the one weight. There were talks he would move up to light-heavyweight to face Michael Spinks, sadly a fight lost somewhere in a smoked filled room. But Hagler had some resume.
When Hagler brutalised Alan Minter on that night of much hate in 1980, he dominated and cleaned out his entire division over the next 7 years. In 12 defences he beat everyone that was available, sometimes twice, but he was often judged by fighters that were not available.
Hagler toiled away before he became the middleweight champion of the world, waiting for his opportunity. Even as a champion, his wait continued in different ways. Hagler had to fight many things in his life. He wanted acceptance and appreciation for what his skills deserved. The chip on his shoulder never really left him. He had good reason.
It took 8 minutes to wipe out everything that came before. The war with Hearns changed everything. Time hasn’t and will never dim the memory of those opening 3 minutes.
The loss to Leonard in 1987 left Hagler complaining about his treatment by the Las Vegas judges. He had previous. Hagler never fought again, the only one of the four kings who left the sport at somewhere near the right time.
Hearns perhaps unfairly is viewed as the weaker link of the four. A fighter remembered for the defeats to Leonard and Hagler rather than his many wins. Trust me, Hearns was better than that. Much better.
The right hand he landed flush on Duran was one of the hardest punches ever thrown inside a boxing ring. The win over Pipino Cuevas is another fight that gets missed when we reminiscence. There are others.
The lives and careers of each fighter have been captured quite brilliantly by a new documentary that is now available to watch on Discovery+ in the UK.
The Kings is directed by Mat Whitecross. The director by his own admission is a casual boxing fan at best. But Whitecross has gone from Oasis to boxing in a seamless way. With his love for politics, which is highlighted constantly during the course of each of the 4 episodes, Whitecross brings something new to the stories of each fighter. The documentary was originally supposed to be just 3 hours in length, we eventually got 4. We could easily have had more. The cutting room floor will tell many an untold story.
I watched it in one sitting, many will do the same. It’s riveting and a must-watch. The casual fan has done well with a delicate and treasured subject.