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The Super Fight: Hagler vs Leonard


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(By Wheelchair)


When it comes to Superfights, the Leonard-Hagler fight makes the on-off Mayweather-Pacquiao fight look like an unimportant punch-up in a forgotten back street alley.


Back in 1987 the world was in a state of frenzied anticipation as the fight drew near. Hagler, the dangerous southpaw who'd been Middleweight champion for seven years, versus the darling of both the boxing world and the general public, Sugar Ray Leonard, who was making a very risky comeback indeed.


It captured the attention like no other fight before or since, and yes, there'd been mega fights before, but this seemed something else entirely. The boxing world was a simpler place back the mid 80's, there were less title belts, less TV networks fighting and a lot more free-to-air broadcasts. Everyone knew the two fighters and after the Hagler-Hearns war in '85, Marvin was seen as an unbeatable monster, just how could Sugar Ray avoid getting the beating of his life? People were foaming at the mouth for the fight the world over, boxing fans and casual fans alike.


Hagler's fearsome reputation was well deserved. Undefeated in eleven years before facing Leonard, he had won the WBA/WBC undisputed crown from Britain's Alan Minter with a third round TKO due to cuts. Marvin had reigned for seven years, and had never come remotely close to being dethroned. He was both a man and a fighter the polar opposite of Leonard, having come up the hard way, unnoticed and unwanted. His first tilt at the title against Vito Antuofermo ended in a controversial draw. Hagler bitterly resented Leonard's 'golden boy' image, and the fact that Ray was earning much bigger purses than he was. Marvin was salivating at the chance to give Leonard a beating, but no one at the time knew just how long it would take for the fight to be made.


The Super Fight was five years in the making. Originally it was hoped that the two fighters would meet for Hagler's undisputed middleweight crown back in 1982. Indeed, the match looked very close to fruition with Leonard calling a press conference to which Marvin was invited. There was to be a big surprise in store though...


At this point in his career, Leonard had won Olympic gold in '76, and as a pro had unified the World Welterweight title, as well gaining a further belt at 154lbs. His victories over Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns were the stuff of legend, revenging a fifteen round points loss to Duran by forcing the 'Hands of Stone' to quit in ignominous fashion in eight rounds. Unbeaten WBA champ Hearns was ahead on points in their unification clash, but Ray came from behind to stop him in the fourteenth round. Sugar Ray was on the crest of a wave, and a huge star, taking the baton from the recently retired Muhammad Ali.


A major upheaval for Leonard was to become apparant though, a problem with a detatched retina was to halt his progess. Although the retina was subsequently healed, and Leonard cleared to continue fighting, seemingly setting up a bout with Marvin, he was to drop the 160lbs ruler a massive bombshell.


With Marvin sitting in attendance at the hotly anticipated press conference, Leonard proceeded to tantalise by saying what a huge megafight him and Hagler would be, how much money it would make, and that it was what everyone wanted to see. Then came the surprise. Ray turned to Marvin and stated that the fight would never happen, and that he was to retire. Hagler was humiliated, having come all the way to hear Leonard dismiss him without a qualm. It was to annoy Marvin for many years to come.


Having been spurned by Leonard, Marvin got on with the business of defending his undisputed crown. Victories over Roberto Duran (W15) and Thomas Hearns (KO3) cemented his standing as a great middleweight, as well as the top pound-for-pound fighter at the time. He'd only been defeated twice, and both those defeats were avenged, Marvin was the all-conquering king of the middleweights. His final fight before facing Leonard was against the unbeaten powerpuncher John Mugabi. This was the fight that gave Ray the idea he could yet beat Hagler.


The Hearns fight had been a ferocious war, and the following Mugabi fight showed just how much it had taken out of Hagler. His punches were often off target and his defence was at times poor. It took a long time for Marvin to subdue Mugabi, eleven rounds in fact, and Leonard thought the time had come to face Marvin in the ring. Ray told a few close friends of his plan, and they all thought him crazy, but he'd seen something in Hagler that he thought he could exploit.


Since his initial retirement back in the autumn of 1982, Ray had been commentating on fights for TV and gradually been thinking about a return to the ring, and the acclaim he received as a fighter. A fight with Kevin Howard was eventually made for 1984, amid much hysteria about Leonard's sight. There were those who were convinced that Ray was putting his sight on the line, and could find himself going blind as a result of blows to the offending eye. Indeed, the fight with Howard was postponed a few months while Leonard underwent some corrective surgery to his damaged eye.


Once rescheduled, the fight itself was not a great one for Sugar Ray. He was dropped in the fourth round for the first time in his career, and could only force a contentious stoppage late in the fight. Afterward he announced he was retiring again, saying that he felt he didn't have what it takes anymore. That seemed to be it for Leonard.


Pride eats away at fighters however, and by 1986 Leonard was once again thinking of a return to the squared circle. He had but one objective, a fight with Marvin Hagler. No tune-ups, straight into the big one, and even though he'd not previously fought as a middleweight, Ray felt certain he could win.


Hagler, having been angered by Leonard's snubbing of him back in 1982, was not initially eager to take the fight. His career had been long and hard, and now a rich man, he was enjoying the rewards his hard work had bought him. The idea of a big payday for what was percieved as such an easy fight for Marvin eventually made him sign for the match, and the date of 6th April 1987 was set for the showdown.


Caesars Palace Las Vegas was to be the venue, and the fighters would both be earning in excess of $10 million. (Hagler $12m, Leonard $11m) The purses were a record at the time for a non-heavyweight bout, and in the end the fight grossed $70 million. Promotion of the fight was a huge success, the whole planet seemed captivated by the upcoming bout, which was billed rather aptly as 'The Super Fight'. It didn't seem to matter that both fighters were no longer in their prime's, the world had waited too long to see this bout take place.


The outcome of the fight was seen as a foregone conclusion. Hagler was fully expected to annihilate Leonard, and quickly too. Many thought Ray was crazy to be coming back. He'd had eye problems, was ring rusty, had no tune up, never fought at 160lbs, and he was facing the menacing and seemingly indestructable Hagler. Surely Leonard had gone potty?


To attempt to prepare himself for Hagler, Leonard fought a number of fights behind the closed doors of the gym. These were along the lines of an actual fight, with Leonard not always having things his own way. The outcome of these sessions was that Ray decided his best course of action was to try and befuddle, bemuse and outbox Hagler.


Leonard also managed to secure some concessions from Marvin that would help tip the balance in his favour. Ray wanted the fight to be over twelve rounds, and not the usual fifteen rounds that were used at the time. He also wanted a larger ring and bigger gloves. Hagler agreed to all these demands as he felt the fight would not go ahead if he didn't. Ray was winning the battle of the mind games that would continue in the ring itself.


Of course no fight would be complete without the governing bodies having a squabble, and it soon became apparent that only the WBC title would be on the line. Both the WBA and IBF stripped Marvin of their titles, due to him not facing their respective number one contenders. Not that anyone really cared, there was one belt still up for grabs, and Hagler was the lineal champion too. Who needs to pay more sanctioning fees anyway?


Once all the talking had been done, and the fighters were in the ring, Hagler gave Leonard yet another advantage. The first bell sounded and Marvin took up an orthodox stance, not his more effective southpaw one. This seemed odd. In training, Leonard was reported to have struggled with southpaws, and yet, here was Hagler giving Ray a great chance of taking an early lead in the fight.


Coming in at a career highest 158lbs, Leonard's handspeed was as fast as it was when he was a welterweight. Fast jabs and plenty of footwork kept Hagler bemused. Marvin just couldn't catch Ray, and he looked old and slow as he plodded after him. Those who thought Leonard would be KO'd in double quick time were amazed to see Ray initiate the exchanges, he was getting his shots off and Marvin couldn't get set to punch. Indeed, a fast right hand from Ray was the best punch of the round, and it made Hagler hold on.


Eventually, after just stalking Leonard and missing, Hagler finally landed a punch. Ray shook his head at Hagler in distain, and so the mind games started. Marvin was to get sucked in and blown out in bubbles, he was out-psyched by the smaller, faster and smarter Leonard.


The bell rang for the second, and the story was the same as the opener, but Ray was growing in confidence, and landed some solid right hands to the shaven head of Hagler. There was more holding by both fighters as Leonard danced less but Marvin just could not find the target. When he did try and let the punches go it was to no avail, Ray had seen the blows coming and danced away, mocking Hagler as he did so.


The third round was a repeat of the first two, fancy footwork and flashy combinations from Leonard, more stalking and missing from Hagler, who was now fighting as a southpaw. Marvin did manage to land his best punch of the fight so far, a southpaw left cross, but Sugar Ray was making the champion look a fool. Marvin needed to try something different to alter the pattern of the fight. Question was, could he?


The fourth was another good round for Leonard, Hagler was being beaten to the punch, and Leonard mocked him with a bolo punch to the delight of the crowd. Ray just seemed to be able to read Hagler like a book, and Marvin just kept missing by a mile for the most part, even if he did get through with the odd punch here and there.


Round five was Hagler's best so far, he finally caught up with Ray in the second half of the round, and began to unload. A great right uppercut from Hagler staggered Ray, and he retreated to the ropes where he took a lot of hard shots from Marvin. Was the tide about to turn?


Leonard was looking a little more weary as he came out for the sixth, but he got on his bike and tried to keep out of range. Marvin was starting to land more frequently, but he was still missing a lot, and Leonard was still firing back. It was looking like Leonard may have shot his bolt, but Hagler was still being made to look very slow indeed.


Marvin's harder punching looked to be paying dividends in the seventh, but the challenger would not give in. Ray was still dodging and ducking many of Hagler's shots, but it was not a great round for the challenger. They traded blows at the end of the round, and the champion came off best. Would Leonard get his second wind and get back to his fast moving style?


Leonard was moving around the ring more in the eighth round, but the champion was giving him a good going over. Vicious hooks and bodyshots came winging in from Marvin, he was beginning to land more frequently now, but Leonard was still trying to fire back. The difference in the power of Hagler's punching seemed very evident, could he rock Leonard again?


The ninth was a big one for Hagler, he chased down the challenger and punished him against the ropes. Leonard bravely tried to come back with combinations, but he was taking a lot of punishment from the champion. Marvin was really letting his punches go and Leonard was forced to suck it up, it did look at the end of the round that Leonard was almost completely exhausted, but there was to be a surprise in the tenth.


The champion came out for round ten looking to finish Ray, but he couldn't find him. Leonard had got his second wind and got back on his bike, fustrating and bemusing Hagler as he did in the earlier rounds. Leonard continually beat Hagler to the punch, and held when the champion got close. It seemed that the champion's best chance to finish off the challenger had passed.


Round eleven was a quiet one, lots of stalking from Hagler, less flurries from Leonard. Both fighters seemed to be weary, would the challenger actually make it the full distance? That wasn't thought possible before the fight.


As the bell rang for the last round, the crowd were going nuts. Ray's amazing antics coupled with the fact that he'd got this far in the fight had got everyone behind him. Leonard was exhausted, but he somehow danced his way through the round, stopping only to throw bursts of quick fire punches into Hagler's head, and to showboat to the crowd and watching millions. Hagler did land some good bodypunches, he needed a very big round, but he didn't get it.


The bell sounded to end the fight and Leonard was out on his feet, it was all he could do to stand. The question now was, who would get the verdict? Did Ray's flashy flurries convince the judges, or did Hagler's steady aggression do enough? Marvin was the constant agressor, but his blows were not so forthcoming, even if they were heavier than Leonard's. On the other hand, Ray controlled the tempo of the fight, and seemed to be able to do as he pleased. After all, the name of the game is to hit and not be hit, something Sugar Ray managed to pull off with consummate skill and smarts.


Tension mounted as the announcer Chuck Hall took the microphone to read the scores, and it was a split verdict. Judge Lou Flippo scored it 115-113 Hagler, Jo Jo Guerra scored it 118-110 for Leonard. The final card would decide it, Judge Dave Moretti 115-113 for..... Leonard!


The crowd erupted with joy, they had been won over by Ray's miraculous victory, Hagler and his camp though were far from pleased, protesting the verdict, saying Ray had fought like a woman. Marvin seemed to think that Leonard should have met him head on, but boxing isn't like that, there's much more to the game than standing toe-to-toe and trading. Having said that, the eight rounds that Leonard won by on one judge's card was way too excessive to be correct.


Unfortunately for Hagler, although some observers believed he'd won the fight, his protestations came across as sour grapes. Afterall, why should Leonard fight to Marvin's strengths? And what possessed Hagler to give away the early rounds by passively chasing Ray, and fighting from an orthodox stance? What on earth was Hagler doing in there? Where was the monster that had obliterated Hearns?


Marvin believed he was robbed, and does so to this day, but the real reason for his defeat is two-fold. Hagler had been at the top a long time, he was older and his reflexes and desire were not what they once were. Second, and most cruicially of all, Hagler had fallen into the trap of Leonard's mind games, and allowed himself to be dazzled by the flashy punching and fast footwork of Leonard. Instead of thinking rationally and cutting Ray off, Marvin had fallen into the trap of following Leonard around the ring, and thinking that as he was the rougher, tougher man, he deserved the verdict. But brawn only carries a fighter so far, a good boxing brain, immune to mind games, is also required.


Leonard for his part was ecstatic, he'd done what nobody had said he could do, and after such a long layoff too. It was to go down as possibly the greatest comeback in sports history, an achivement beyond compare. Who cares if there was some controversy about the verdict, it just adds more drama to the fairytale return.


Between boxing fans and observers, the scoring arguements would rage on and on. Everyone scores a fight differently, sees things from alternative angles, and favours a particular style of fighting. Many feel that Leonard 'stole' the fight, using flashy flurries in the final thirty seconds of rounds, as instucted by his corner. Ray himself has confirmed this part of his plan, but in reality there is much more to the fight than Leonard's so called pitty-pat punching.


At certain points in the fight, Hagler has Leonard trapped in a corner and is unloading, but Ray comes back with fast, flashy combinations. If these punches were merely 'arm' punches, why is Hagler often driven back? Surely Leonard's punches must have something on them to get Marvin to retreat?


Hagler's fans point to Leonard's backpedalling and defensive tactics, saying that a fighter must be aggressive to win. Nonsense. What Ray did to Hagler is outbox him, it's what the sport is about. If a fighter hits another and escapes the reply, and controls the tempo of the fight, they deserve to win. This was the formula used by Suger Ray with great success, Hagler looked like a puppet who's strings were being controlled by Leonard, and he looked old, slow and impotent in the process.


Feeling he'd had enough of boxing politics, Hagler moved to Milan to retire, never to set foot in the ring again. Leonard of course, fought on for a few years longer, but never repeated the high of the Hagler victory. It was a fight that for the world of boxing, has yet to be topped. Big fights come and go, but nothing has yet surpassed the magical night when Leonard defeated Hagler.


Marvin Hagler vs Sugar Ray Leonard

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Marvin Hagler vs Sugar Ray Leonard


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That was a good read James, it take you long?


I didn't realize they made that amount of money for the fight back in those days. How many were at the fight? Did Caesars Palace hold many in 1987?


judges scorecards are a bit wild especially the 8 card mlol/


going to watch this 2night when shes at bingo , and leave my scorecard.


well done james :-) whats next?

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Glad you enjoyed it Bud, it took me around three days. Next up will be my in depth previews of Haye-Harrison and Pacquiao-Margarito.


Caesars was packed, everyone wanted to be there, the general public were really hooked on the fight.


how about a look back at the long, glittering, gutsy career of a certain Mr Amir Khan?

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Glad you enjoyed it Bud, it took me around three days. Next up will be my in depth previews of Haye-Harrison and Pacquiao-Margarito.


Caesars was packed, everyone wanted to be there, the general public were really hooked on the fight.


how about a look back at the long, glittering, gutsy career of a certain Mr Amir Khan?


LOL, somehow I can't see that one coming!

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Great article,enjoyed reading it.Though I must point out that quite a few of Hagler's fights towards the end of his career were scheduled for 12 rounds rather than the old 15.I believe the WBC began sanctioning 12 round fights for all of it's title fights after the Mancini-Kim tragedy.




This fight along with the Tommy Hearns fight created alot of myths about Hagler's style.Rather than mobile,counter puncher,who gradually broke opponents down using sharp,heavy combinations,these fights showed him to be this strong,relentless pressure fighter that seeks to drag his opponent into a brawl.



Also,this,along with the Duran rematch,forever defined Leonard as some dancing,flashy type boxer that looked to move and box rather than trade - when in actual fact Leonard was a fairly aggressive,versatile boxer-puncher - that generally fought flat foted and was a ruthless finisher when he had an opponent hurt.





If anyone ever gets the chance,watch Hagler's fight with Marcos Geraldo,and then watch his fight with Leonard right after it - the similarity between Geraldo's style(that he used that night) and what Leonard used are very striking.

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Great article,enjoyed reading it.Though I must point out that quite a few of Hagler's fights towards the end of his career were scheduled for 12 rounds rather than the old 15.I believe the WBC began sanctioning 12 round fights for all of it's title fights after the Mancini-Kim tragedy.


Hagler's fights with Hearns, Mugabi and Leonard were all scheduled for twelve rounds, those earlier in his reign were for fifteen. The Hagler camp wanted fifteen rounds for the Leonard fight, at the point of the discussions about the fight, Marvin still held the WBA and IBF belts, so a fifteen round distance would have fitted in fine with those sanctioning bodies.


Of course, it was academic in the end as only the WBC title was on the line.

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Great article about what has to be one of the most hotly debated fights in Ring History. I've viewed it at last 50 times over the last 23 Years and I ALWAYS come up with a Draw. The key to scoring it is how you view the 6th and the 10th Rounds, which were very close.


I think the fight was lost for Hagler at the Negotiations. In return for the much larger share of the money (Hagler was so confident that he gave in on ALL these points), Leonard got: The 12 Round Distance, Thumbless Gloves (which he'd used against Kevin Howard but Hagler had never used), and a Ring the size of the Grand Canyon, and also setting the fight more than six months after the announcement of it, so that Hagler would've then been off for over a Year himself (which kind of negated the advantage he had over the idle Leonard) . All these things ended up biting Hagler in the Ass, and then they made the ultimate Error the week of the Fight. Because he'd had a hard time in England after his win over Minter, his Team rejected the idea of English Judge

Harry Gibbs, who despite being English was known to favor a Brawler over a Boxer. In return for replacing Gibbs, the Hagler Team wanted a Mexican Judge. What they got was Jo Jo Guerrera's 118-110 Card for Leonard.......Gibbs watched the fight and had it unofficially scored for Hagler. That anti-Brit thinking cost him a win.

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  • 2 weeks later...
I have not changed my opinion on this fight from when i see it the first time all them years ago,Leonard won on points and won by two rounds.But it was a great fight,and i can understand fans being split in there opinions.



It was a really hard fight to judge and several rounds were close, in particular the 4th, 6th, and 10th. I always score it a draw, but I've been perplexed over the years by people that have Hagler actually winning. I was a HUGE Hagler fan, I guess the Avatar kind of gives it away, and with Marvin pissing away the first 3 rounds trying to fight righthanded and swinging like a rusty gate then it's hard to fathom someone giving him 7 of the next 9.

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Dave,Like all judges on fights its the way you score rounds some see aggression or perhaps a couple of real big punches thrown by one of the contestants winning that round.I go by punches landed on the target area not power or aggression,you can be the aggresser for ten rounds but if your opponent is landing the more shots surely he wins the round.In agreement with your take on the fight it was very close,but i would say Leonard landed the more shots.But Dave its just opinions if we all thought the same it would be a dull old world,and that is why us addicts of the sport get so involved.By the way Dave your wrong LOL
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  • 3 weeks later...

Wheelchair's write-up was an excellent trip into the past.


I remember the period well and the hoopla afforded it. Leonard's voodoo got the better of Hagler, a man desperate for the final cash-out, that being the admiration and riches afforded Leonard after a career of dark shadows, dank gyms, humble paychecks, paid dues and wavering levels of respect. Leonard watched Hagler the way a young male would watch protracted foreplay between ideal physical specimens. He knew Hagler had let go mentally and had all but retired after Hearns. The Mugabli interlude told him the moment had come, and that it was time to dust off the tails, black hat and trick playing cards before Marvin moved on. The games began, Hagler took the bait and was lured into concession via riches and the promise of glory. The early days of camp told the tale which was communicated by Bob Arum, who believed that Hagler had mentally retired, who was given to ask if Leonard could still fight.....even a little bit. Hagler had slipped greatly. He was no longer Marvelous. The fraction that had remained of "Marvelous" was left for all time in the waning moments of that telling March 1986 encounter. The real Hagler of 1980-1983 no longer existed......and the one man that knew this was Ray Leonard.


It's popular to state today that Hagler deserved the decision in April 1987, but the reality is that he let ego and pride get the better of himself. He made the wrong decisions in the fight as he had leading up to it. His corner was impotent and he underestimated what an impassioned Ray Leonard would be able to bring to the equation on that night. There can be no doubt, Leonard won the fight....by alternating as showman, fighter, and magician, as dictated by the moment. Over the course of rounds you could see the momentum of the event being taken from Hagler with Leonard's every move. By round 9 it was all over but the shouting....something, BTW, which was by that point needed in Hagler's corner, but was not forthcoming.


Hagler's out of the gate approach and his refusal to wisely play to his own strengths over the first third of the match underlines these assertions. It could be said that he lost the fight having taken that route, but that wouldn't be fair to Leonard, for it was The Sugar Man who first suckered Hagler into trying to outdo him by fighting the wrong fight...and thereafter playing folly to the scripted magic act that would mesmerize the crowd, the critics and the judges. Breathing space as it were. By falling for it, in a bout which actually started in May 1986 and lasted up until the final bell to end the 12th some eleven months later, Hagler ensured Leonard's victory.

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