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La Dolce Vita!
L. Jon Wertheim
July 12, 2004
Based in Milan since retiring from the ring 16 years ago, the former middleweight champion is training his sights on leading-man status in Italian cinema
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July 12, 2004

La Dolce Vita!

Based in Milan since retiring from the ring 16 years ago, the former middleweight champion is training his sights on leading-man status in Italian cinema

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He looks marvelous. Marvin Hagler turned 50 earlier this year, but he's doing a hell of a job parrying the assault of time. He is all but indistinguishable from the man who ruled the middleweight division with two iron fists for most of the 1980s. Still within a few pounds of his fighting weight of 160, he has the same muscles by Michelangelo, the same pencil-thin mustache, the same wry smile-scowl combo and, of course, the same shaved head, which, he is quick to point out, is "by choice, not because of nature." After sizing up Hagler recently, Emile Griffith, the great welterweight, exclaimed, "He looks like he could take a fight tomorrow."

Which made Hagler an anomaly on a balmy Friday last month in upstate New York. As it does every year, the induction ceremony at the Boxing Hall of Fame outside Syracuse doubled as an alumni weekend of sorts for the fistic fraternity. Former champs with names like Duran and Pryor and LaMotta and Norton made the trip. It was a happy affair at which the old fighters swapped stories, posed for photos and delivered mock uppercuts. But there were also abundant reminders of just how savage and unforgiving boxing can be. Scar tissue, slurred speech and shaky movements were all too visible. (And these were the guys who won.) As he observed one former champ, still in his 40s, struggling up the stairs at the Days Inn where the fighters were staying, Hagler raised an eyebrow. "Glad I got out when I did," he said quietly.

As brilliantly as he fought, Hagler further distinguished himself after boxing. His health and wealth intact (he had earned an estimated $40 million in purses over his 15-year pro career), he tendered his resignation from the sport in 1988. He was 34, with a 62-3-2 record, near the peak of his powers, and he left of his own accord. By choice, not because of nature. What are you going to do now, Marvin? the guys at the gym asked. Pack up and go to Italy to start an acting career, he shot back. Hagler still recalls the laughter that response provoked: "They were like, 'Ha-ha-ha, I'll give you three months. They'll offer you money, and you'll be back in the fight game.' "

The last 16 years have galloped by, and Hagler still has a base in Milan, Italy—EE-tah-lee, as he pronounces it. More remarkable, he never got back in the game. Oh, he heard the siren song luring him to return. He plugged not only his ears but his nose as well. "I didn't even want to smell a boxing ring," he says. "Just getting that close, you start to get that feeling again and start thinking crazy thoughts."

Hagler quit cold turkey because he threw himself into a new arena: acting. In his first full-length feature, in 1989, he played a Marine in the Italian movie Indio. He acted alongside Brian Dennehy as well as Anthony Quinn's son Francesco, and while the flick wasn't exactly Oscar-worthy—come si dice "straight-to-video"?—it lit a flame in Hagler. He started taking acting lessons, aggressively going after roles, and his oeuvre has grown to include such other down-market Italian action flicks as Virtual Weapon, Night of Fear and the obligatory Indio 2. He usually plays bad guys. "But," he adds, "I'm always looking to branch out."

Hagler is humble about his acting, analogizing his current stature to that of a journeyman boxer. That elusive big role is his championship fight. "If the call comes, I'm going to be ready," he says. "I'm staying in shape, reading over scripts, really analyzing movies when I watch them. I'm fighting a stereotype that boxers can't talk, can't read, can't act. I want to surprise everyone."

It's the same approach Hagler took with boxing. He trained with a singular intensity and purpose—"Jail," he called his camps—and was impeccably prepared and conditioned when he came to fight. A southpaw with ball-peen hammers for hands, a chin of granite and a significant mean streak, he didn't so much beat opponents as he defaced them. Hagler lost two fights early in his career but exacted revenge by winning the rematches. In 1980 he won the middleweight belt when he knocked out Britain's Alan Minter at Wembley Arena. He defended his title a dozen times over the years, beating Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, among others, and closing in on Carlos Monzon's then division record of 14 successful title defenses.

On a cool Las Vegas night in April 1987, Hagler took on Sugar Ray Leonard, who had emerged from a five-year retirement for the fight. It was an electrifying 12-rounder that lived up to the considerable hype and spawned a mythology that grows with the years. Leonard won a split decision that was, at best, controversial. "He never hurt me," Hagler said after the bout. "He never hurt me."

The psychic wounds, however, were searing. And clearly they remain unhealed nearly two decades later. Even today Hagler refers obliquely to the fight as "the thing that happened with the Sugar Ray Leonard situation." It isn't just that Hagler got the short end of the decision. It's that Leonard won by fighting pretty, a cardinal sin when you're a blue-collar fighter. ("Come on, little bitch, hit me!" Hagler shouted repeatedly throughout the fight.) Polish and glib-ness and artifice had trumped grit and authenticity. Hagler's faith was shaken.

Humiliated, he returned home to Brockton, Mass., outside Boston and endured a rocky few months—what he now euphemistically calls "enjoying the fruits of my labor." He drank heavily. His 10-year marriage to his wife, Bertha, with whom he has five kids, dissolved. Three times he watched a tape of the fight. Three times, he claims, he ended up smashing the television. He stayed in shape, hoping to hell that Leonard would grant him a rematch. He waited a year, to no avail. Then he left the country.

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