After having rendered Doug Denning almost senseless last Friday night, Marvin Hagler, a bare-skulled and brutish figure, pushed across the ring at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and began shouting down at Gil Clancy, who was at ringside working as a CBS-TV color commentator. Clancy also is manager of Rodrigo Valdes, the middleweight world champion. Hagler shouted, "I want Valdes bad. Real bad."
Clancy is seldom at a loss for words, but now, staring up at Hagler, he was mute. The Toy Bull can do that to the managers of other middleweights. Hagler, only 5'9½" and 158¼ pounds, seems to have muscles on his muscles. He is small but frightening, like a stick of dynamite. No wonder no one wants to mess with him.
At last, Clancy said, "Oh, yeah."
"That's more than we get out of most managers," said Pat Petronelli, one of Hagler's co-manager-trainers. "Usually when we challenge somebody, they just turn away without even grunting. Guys run from Marvin so much they should be in track meets instead of fights."
April 17, 1978
"They're all a bunch of sissies," said Hagler.
Smart might be a better description. Hagler has a 39-2-1 record, with 33 knockouts, most recently Denning. And five of the victims went directly from Boston Garden, the Brockton, Mass. slugger's home arena, to Massachusetts General Hospital. A few others just went directly into retirement.
"He's retired more fighters than old age," says Pat Petronelli.
Hagler, 25, has been knocking people out of the picture since 1973, but only lately has his name begun to appear in the ratings. Last month Ring magazine listed him as the No. 1 challenger. The WBC has him No. 7, the WBA No. 9.
"Politics," growls Hagler, who has had to supplement his meager ring earnings with construction work. "There's a lot of politics in the WBA and the WBC. And righting in Massachusetts hasn't helped any either. Name me one black fighter who ever made it big out of that state. There aren't any. Joe Frazier once told me I had three strikes against me. I'm a southpaw. I'm black. And I can punch. Maybe I should have been born a right-handed white sissy."
Hagler was born in a Newark, N.J. slum, the eldest child in a fatherless family of seven. Crime came as naturally to him as breathing. When he was 16, his mother decided to move the family to Brockton, where her sister lived. "At first Brockton was just like Newark," says Hagler, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade. "I was running a lot, stealing a little. There wasn't much else to do. Then I thought about fighting. I tried one gym. Then I tried another."
The second gym belonged to the Petronelli brothers, Pat and Goode (pronounced Goody), two ex-fighters who grew up in Brockton with Rocky Marciano. After 40 amateur fights in the Navy, Goode turned pro. At the age of 23, in his 27th professional fight, he broke his right hand just below the wrist and was forced to retire. A year younger, Pat had 27 amateur fights. While both are Hagler's co-managers, Goode is his trainer, Pat is the assistant. Together they also own a construction company.
"Boxing is my game; I could never leave it," says Goode, who holds down still another job as the civilian chief recreation officer at South Weymouth Naval Station in Boston. "We grew up with Rocky. We were going to open a gym with him. When he went down in that plane crash we decided to do it on our own. Because I couldn't make it, my goal has been to develop a world champ. With Marvin I think I'm pretty close to that goal, and I'm damn proud."
Eight years ago Hagler walked into the Petronelli Gym over the Brockton Hardware and Supply Co. The room had two rings and a couple of punching bags. There was no room for anything else. After looking around, Hagler walked to a corner and simply sat down. He didn't say a word.
Noticing the youngster in the torn sneakers, Goode went over and asked him if he wanted to be a fighter.
"Yeah," said Hagler defiantly.
"I guess I can show you a few things," Goode said.
"Goode said I was a natural," Hagler says. "He taught me combinations, and I would go home and practice them in front of a mirror. A 'natural.' I guess he didn't know how much work I was doing by myself at home."
Within three years the strongboy southpaw was the AAU's national middleweight titleholder. He won the crown and a huge trophy the day before Mother's Day in 1973. He gave the trophy to his mother.
"I was invited to be on a United States team going to Russia," Hagler says. "But I was married and had my first son. I didn't need medals; I needed money."
No sooner had he turned pro and won his first six fights and the middleweight championship of New England than Hagler found that no one wanted to fight him. The word was out on the lefthander from Brockton, the one who hit like a small Marciano.
"We tried everything," says Pat Petronelli. "He even fought as a righthander a couple of times. Nobody would fight us but ordinary kids. He was 15-0 and he couldn't get a bout. We'd wind up driving to Portland, Maine for $200 fights. The odds were stacked against us."
Finally in March of 1976 Hagler got a break, although it hardly looked like it at the time. He lost a close 10-round decision to highly rated Willie Monroe, whom Joe Frazier was grooming for a shot at Carlos Monzon, then the world champion. Hagler had taken the fight with less than two weeks' notice.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Hagler says. "It showed me how hard I had to train if I wanted to make it. And people started taking me seriously."
Thinking he should have had an easier time with Hagler, Monroe agreed to a rematch. That was a mistake. Hagler knocked him out in 12 rounds. Once more, said Monroe. This time he went out in two.
At about that time, Rip Valenti, a 76-year-old Boston promoter, stepped into Hagler's career. He began paying top names to fight the Toy Bull. Valenti gave Mike Colbert $17,500 to meet Hagler in Boston Garden last December. At the time Colbert was Ring's No. 1-ranked challenger. Hagler broke Colbert's jaw and stopped him in 12 rounds.
In February of this year, Valenti paid Kevin Finnegan, the former European champion, $10,500 to fight Hagler in Boston. Stopped in eight rounds, Finnegan went to Massachusetts General Hospital, where they put 40 stitches in his face.
"Marvin gives the hospital a lot of business," Pat Petronelli says. "Colbert and Finnegan have gone. So have Monroe and Sugar Ray Seales. And he did a number on the jaw of another kid, but none of us can remember his name."
No matter. Valenti says the important thing is to keep the lefty busy. "He can't sit and wait for Valdes," Valenti says. "But it's tough. No one wants to fight him, so I have to overpay all those guys to go up against him. I take a loss on each fight, but I'm gambling I'll make it all back and more on a title fight. My plan is to stick with Marvin. He'll lick Valdes. I've offered Valdes serious money to fight him anywhere in the world."
But first there was the TV fight with Denning in Los Angeles. Hagler would earn $7,500 for it, only the second time in his career he has made that much.
The evening before the fight, Hagler stretched out on his bed in a downtown hotel and said he had never become discouraged. Frustrated perhaps, but never discouraged. "The way I look at it," he said, "this is the big one I need. The TV exposure. That's the one thing I never had. Things are going to start happening now. I see a guy like Leon Spinks get a title shot after only seven fights, and I ask, why not me? But I've never taken any shortcuts. I'll fight anybody they put in front of me. Anybody. The one thing I'm not going to do is die in somebody's gym. I've seen it happen to other guys. Not me. I'm going to make it. I know it. I believe it." It was a little after 8 p.m. Within an hour Hagler would be sound asleep.
The next night Hagler took a big step toward making it. While still basically a southpaw, he has developed into a switch hitter. His style is punishing—and confusing, as one moment he leads from the left side, and the next he leads from the right, which he seems to prefer when he is fighting in tight. Despite his great strength, his punches are not explosive. He simply batters people into submission.
Denning, a tough kid out of Minneapolis with a 22-2 record, was game but no match for the Toy Bull. After the third round it was only a matter of time until Denning fell, which he did when Hagler connected with a right cross late in the eighth round. Up at the count of three, Denning was helpless, and Referee Larry Rozadilla called a halt with 38 seconds left in the round.
"Denning was smart, he was tough," Hagler said after the fight. "I didn't want to get careless with him. Not now. I like getting all this experience with these top guys. Every time I beat one I can taste the championship. I want Valdes. I told that to Clancy. He got a funny look on his face."