Hagler vs Leonard: The Night Leonard Defied Boxing Logic

Hagler vs Leonard: The Night Leonard Defied Boxing Logic

By Garry White

It was perhaps inevitable that Leonard would win. The bookmakers may have made him the outsider, but they should have known that athletes like ‘Sugar’ Ray have always been impervious to their mathematical logic.

It is a minimum requirement to be made of more than flesh and bone if you wish to take Ray Robinson’s nickname and use it in vain. ‘Sugar’ like ‘pride’ is destined to come before a fall in all but the most outrageously talented hands. Leonard had it all in glorious technicolour. The quicksilver moves, the elusiveness to be gone one moment and then suddenly back like Banquo’s ghost the next, spitting jabs into the faces of bemused opponents. The outrageous arm-swing, like a fast bowler trying to get loose, that he’d throw to the gallery when he was truly on top, was one all us kids would copy in the front room or the playground. Leonard was flash, he was glamour, he was Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to be him?

He was mostly unbeatable too. Sure, Duran muscled him and outpointed him, but, boy, did he make him suffer in the ‘No Mas’ rematch. The unbreakable ‘Hands of Stone’ crumbled to dust on the Bayou. The matador outthinking and outmanoeuvring the bull; finally breaking his composure and fatally piercing his pride. Duran charged he snorted, exploded with fury but he couldn’t get near him; the bully condemned to flounce off like a petulant little boy who had been told to go to bed for the fourth time. 

But time had moved on. Leonard had been retired for the best part of five years, returning only once for a listless ninth-round TKO of Kevin Howard, a victory so underwhelming that he immediately hung up the gloves again afterwards. Legend has it that he was later sat ringside sipping a beer with Michael J Fox as Hagler defended his belts against John Mugabi in 1986. The keys to victory over the granite tough Hagler allegedly presented themselves to him there and then, in what is a story of pure Leonard canon. It couldn’t be devoid of celebrity. It had to contain movie stars and glamour.

And how in some ways this must have irked Hagler. Leonard had love and respect.

The man who changed his name to ‘Marvelous’ in a desperate bid for acknowledgement was only ever interested in the latter. Despite a later movie career, that bald head and unsettling stare were never leading man attributes, instead, he looked like the kind of ‘tough’ the local loan shark would send round to put the frighteners on a reluctant payer. He was menacing, perhaps your worst nightmare, if you stood between him and the thing he coveted most.

Hagler was the opposite of flamboyance. He was remorseless efficiency, a prototype version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘The Terminator. He kept coming for you round after round, throwing those punches sharp and clean, until he picked you apart and ultimately overwhelmed you. As Tommy Hearns discovered, you could bring a whole arsenal of weapons to face him down with, but it made no difference. Hagler just kept on hunting until his prey was snared, punches just hit him and bounced off again like golf balls thrown at a corrugated iron roof.

Yet there was nothing animalistic about him. He was technically proficient, defensively adept, the rage harnessed and calculated to ultimate effect. And even when he lost it was rarely on his terms. Local boy Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts was carried over the line by the judges in Philly in what was the first defeat of the Brockton man’s career. “He didn’t take a round from me. All he did was hold… like a girl,” spat a disgruntled Hagler in a post-fight interview.

He’d get his revenge four years later. Whereas Leonard upset and ultimately humiliated Duran with silver-heeled trickery, Hagler exacted his revenge in a way that was wholly consistent with his character; pulverising his foe in two short rounds.

He did the same to Willie Monroe (twice), who was the only fighter that Hagler ever accepted as beating him fairly and squarely. He later cut and slashed huge swathes of skin from the beaten face of Italian Vito Antuofermo for the middleweight championship, but still, the judges at ringside only saw fit to award him an unsatisfactory draw. He took out his frustration a year later, against Antuofermo’s conqueror Alan Minter, chopping the Englishman down in three rounds of harnessed aggression. His long-overdue coronation was not to be met with applause but instead an avalanche of crushed beer cans and boos. They may have hated him but at least he knew they had to respect him. A couple of fights later he silenced Antuofermo in four rounds.

Hagler always caught up with them in the end…

Even Leonard, on that April evening at Caesars Palace in 1987, got caught eventually. Yet throughout the first four rounds of their fight all the attributes that made him ‘Sugar’ Ray were once more brought to the fore. The old magic wilfully summoned from the hard code of muscle memory. He was still only 30, but many experts doubted that he could shake off the years of inactivity and unsheathe these bounteous gifts from the past. But here they were, and how the crowd gloried in it. He danced, he flaunted, taunted, hit, and evaded. Ever the maverick, like a wisecracking Bugs Bunny he quickly recast the uncompromising, intimidating champion into a frustrated Elmer Fudd.

But those legs that had become accustomed to the soft comforts of retirement. Surely, they would eventually falter and fail? In the 5th, Leonard performed one little crowd-pleasing dance step too many and Hagler landed one straight on the button. It seemed that Hagler was now finally going to overwhelm him in the same way that he had done to so many others. As the rounds progressed, he frequently pinned ‘Sugar’ Ray on the ropes and unloaded the full arsenal. Often Leonard would cover-up, some shots hitting their target, others were worn uncomfortably on the arms.

Sometimes Leonard would opt to meet fire with fire. Standing with his back to the ring post and throwing furious combinations at an attacking Hagler, trying to force on him the indignity of taking a backward step. The assembled crowd chanted “’ Sugar’ Ray” lending further despair to the champion. Frequently the two fighters didn’t hear the bell, and the hard-wired combinations would continue to play out as the referee was forced to intervene. The judges gave it to Leonard by split decision. Two cards were respectable. One outrageous. Hagler shook his head as the MC announced it, then waved the back of his hand at the sport that he felt had cheated him one last time. It was one slight too many for this man of uncompromising conviction, and this small act, brought with it the certainty that he was never coming back.

But in a present that has visited upon us near-weekly abominations from ringside judges, this verdict wouldn’t even have raised a blip. On another day it is tempting to think that the dice could have fallen in Hagler’s favour. But, I think, like us, he knew that such an eventuality could never be. And somewhere lurking at the heart of that considered truth was the source of his frustration. Hagler had marshalled fear, he’d corralled respect, but he could never lay a hand on ‘love’.

From the cheap seats to ringside they all, perhaps unfairly, loved the showman Leonard in a way that was never accessible to Hagler. In any case, I am not sure he would have wanted it. But as we all know: Love conquers all.

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