Hagler vs Hearns: An Unforgettable 8 Minutes
By Garry White
The trunks were blue: Oxford with a thin Cambridge stripe.
The shades fully appropriate for a professor of pugilism. Menacingly he stared out, his shoulders rolling but his eyes never blinking, across the ring as a trumpeter in a sequined Phoenix Nights jacket carefully blew out the Star Bangled Banner to a respectfully silent arena.
The man in the other corner bobbed and loosened his arms. Either his veins ran on pure ice or he was carefully working out the nerves and gently shaking them from his body. This was no time for glitches, everything had to be booted and ready. His shorts were bright yellow, his name emblazoned across their waistband in thick red letters.
It’s funny how these insignificant details can in time become unforgettable.
At any rate, the bookmakers saw no reason for the taller man in the canary shorts to be nervous. The commentators at ringside talked about how the badass-looking fighter facing him had only one hope: to get on the inside and smother the taller man’s loose-limbed power punches. It was ‘The Hitman’ versus the fighter that had changed his name to ‘Marvelous’ in a final bid to find the respect that he felt his talent and sacrifice deserved. Two men with an imperious 100 wins and 84 knockouts between them – did it ever get better than this?
It could have been Marsellus Wallace vs Jules Winnfield, long before Pulp Fiction was even a flicker in the cluttered, brilliant mind of Quentin Tarantino. One all big hair and soul-train swagger, the other bald, silent, and brooding. Someone should have told a cocky, insolent-looking Hearns that no matter the stakes, and the amount of heat you are packing, the boss always wins.
But this was no shootout with elegant, fatal handguns, in the stillness of shadows on the seamier side of town. It was big and bold and out there; two sets of fists amidst the screaming neon of the Las Vegas strip; their exploits overseen by the false idols of Ceasar’s Palace. It was the ultimate: giant, billboard primetime! One of those moments where you wish you could stop time and fall into it at any moment of your choosing.
It was April 1985 and I was seven, going on eight, living a world away from the Vegas strip in a small Dorset town. Exactly 20 years later I would finally get there and suck in the last fading old school glamour of the place before they tore down the Sahara, Riviera, and the New Frontier. Getting the chance to watch fights under the stars at Caesars Palace, whilst well-fed Americans chugged on ludicrous cigars and stood solemnly for the same anthem. ‘Sugar’ Shane Moseley even topped the bill, but he wasn’t Marvin or Tommy, and the 80s were long dead. But oh, how those of us who weren’t there would have loved the opportunity to breathe in the last of its vapours first-hand. Especially one whose only recollection of it is through flickering, unreliable infant memories.
I don’t know when exactly it was that I watched it. There is not even the faintest possibility that it could have been live. But around the same time, I recall watching Mike Tyson fights early on Sunday mornings. Maybe they showed it on ITV a few hours after it was transmitted live elsewhere? Reliable, grandfatherly Reg Gutteridge beaming his way into our living rooms from ringside. Perhaps it was a week later, even months, or years. The beauty of being primary school-aged is that everything is fresh, new, and removed from context. Our memory is later able to recalibrate the tangled strands and burnish them into any pattern that suits its will.
The usually slow-starting, technically proficient, and measured Hagler, confounded them all by catapulting out of his corner at the first bell like a man-possessed; smashing his foe with relentless jackhammer right-hands. The Hitman, from Detroit’s ‘Motor City’ frantically weathered them only to land a coruscating right-hand of his own flush onto the bald man’s jaw. For a nano-second, it seemed to reverberate to his ring boots and bounced like static across the stretched canvass. Hagler momentarily shook, moved forward into a clinch, and as they parted Hearns must have assumed he could now punish him for his early, reckless impudence.
He unloaded, but so did the undisputed middleweight champion, as they stood and traded blows, like two artillery pieces on a nineteenth-century battlefield. Hearns was used to witnessing the knees of his opponent’s sag and their eyes turn vacant, with 34 of his 40 wins inside the distance, yet his punches left the Brockton man untroubled.
It was vicious, primeval, a form of beautiful violence as they smashed holes into each other for the remainder of the round. The otherworldly tempo of the 1st round commemorated by The Ring as the greatest ever in the history of pugilism- had to retreat marginally in the second. As the round progressed Hearns searched for answers, trying to cool the pace behind his long jab, but by the end, Hagler hunted him down and pummelled him on the ropes. Even as a child it was clear that the once undimmable light in Hearns was beginning to fade to darkness.
Looking back, I can’t remember who it was that I wanted to win, but I think it was Hagler. Not in a pot-chasing kind of a way, but because it felt like he was the underdog. All the experts at ringside seemed to think so, and so backing him seemed the right thing to do. Over the next few years, I followed a similar, but doomed, pattern with Trevor Berbick, ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno, and multiple others. Until such a time that Tyson was no longer invulnerable, and with his flaws made public and obvious, I suddenly began to like him for his imperfectness.
The ending came two minutes into the third round. A big right-hand from Hagler snapped Hearns head back and forced him unsteadily to turn his back as he sought to evade the oncoming predator. Hagler appeared to lope after him in the same way that a confident lion pursues a stricken wildebeest. Bundling him into the ropes Hagler steamed forward and began what was to be his final assault. A flurry of punches, including a fierce right-hand to the chin, sapped every ounce of spirit out of The Hitman as he crumpled slowly forward onto the canvass.
By some miracle of inner-will and human endurance, Hearns rose on nine, but as referee Richard Steele cradled him, he looked like someone whose very identity had been pummelled out of him. Bent and vacant, the soul train swagger had been derailed to that of a beggar from the darkest depths of skid row.
What a fight! The rest is history, and you already know it. It doesn’t need recording again here. It’s there whenever you want it, always ready and available on YouTube. Less than nine minutes of mayhem where you can pretend that it’s still 1985 and boxing still owns the front page: big, gaudy, and immovable.
Look upon ye mighty and despair…