For Mills Lane, who refereed the brawling, bloody middleweight title fight which preceded the Leonard-Benitez bout at Caesars Palace, the outcome was as apparent as the many cuts on Vito Antuofermo's craggy face. Moving quickly to the corner of Marvin Hagler, Mills directed the challenger to turn and face the ABC-TV cameras. "Congratulations," Mills murmured. "Now stay facing this way until they announce the decision and I raise your arm."
Across the way, little Freddie Brown, the ancient cutman, was busily anointing Antuofermo's torn features with his magic wound solution. There were six cuts; 25 stitches would be required to close four of them.
"You win it in the last round," Brown rasped, working swiftly. He didn't want Vito—a 4-1 underdog in his first title defense—to be bleeding when they told him he was still champion.
But surely the referee and the bettors were right and Brown was not.
December 10, 1979
And then they read the astonishing decision:
Judge Dalby Shirley: 144-142 for Antuofermo.
Judge Duane Ford: 145-141 for Hagler.
And Judge Hal Miller: 143-143.
A draw. And draws go to the champion.
The champion's style is neo-caveman. Pressure is his game. He simply lowers his head and charges, and once inside he rains blows with unrelenting fury. It is a style that had won the 26-year-old ex-sausage grinder 45 of 49 fights (with one draw) and the WBC-WBA title (from Hugo Corro) last June. The Hagler bout brought him $190,000. His opponent was paid $40,000.
While basically a lefthander, Hagler is a switcher who prefers to fight from a distance, sharp and clean. He wears people down, taking them out with clusters of crushing, crisp combinations. While winning 46 of 49 bouts (one draw) he had knocked out 38 opponents.
Against Antuofermo, an Italian-born resident of Brooklyn who usually begins to bleed halfway through the national anthem, Hagler's slashing style promised to remind people of the Little Bighorn. But only "if we can keep Vito off us," said Pat Petronelli, who with his brother Goody manages and trains Hagler. "Vito is rough and tough, a street brawler with a lot of heart whose best punch is his head. We can't go inside with him. That would be crazy."
Hagler's strategy was to circle the wagons, to stay out of the corners and off the ropes and, whenever Antuofermo got inside, to tie him up until the referee gave him a pass out of the danger zone.
In the early going it was all Hagler. The 27-year-old challenger piled up points with a stinging clothesline jab and hooks from both sides. A jab opened a small cut in the outside corner of Antuofermo's left eye in the third; a left uppercut opened the other corner of the same eye in the fourth.
In the fifth, the champion began to apply more pressure, but he took still more punishment getting inside. He came out of that round bleeding from a small cut near the corner of the right eye. He was cut twice more in the sixth: over the right eye and on the right cheek, the latter a two-inch opening. In the ninth Hagler ripped him under the left eye.
"Help," said cutman Brown. In stepped Tony Carione, Antuofermo's manager, who worked on two of the cuts while Brown closed the other four.
"I'm getting old," sighed Brown, who is 72. "Once I could close six cuts in a minute and not even feel hurried."
If the cuts were troubling Brown, they seemed to have little, if any, effect on Antuofermo. Still playing the bull to Hagler's matador, he stepped up his attack, pouring in, punching without pause.
By the 14th round Antuofermo had what he wanted: a gang rumble in a Brooklyn back alley. Abandoning artistry, Hagler met him head to head.
The challenger was cut in the outer corner of his right eye and blood streamed down his cheek. Antuofermo was having trouble breathing because of a lingering cold; his body was splattered with blood.
As the last round began, both men rushed across the ring, meeting halfway, and began swinging. Three minutes later they were still swinging. It was a cruel, bloody combat, and it was awesome.
Hardly had the decision been announced when Bob Arum, the Top Rank promoter, standing at ringside, shouted that there would be an immediate rematch, much to the dismay of the WBC and the WBA—and of Alan Minter, the English southpaw who had been promised the next title fight no matter who won in Las Vegas.
"The WBC will not be led by promoters," countered Josè Sulaimàn, the WBC president. "We will have our convention in a week, and we will talk about it. There is no doubt Hagler deserves another chance. But after Minter."
At first, Dr. Elias Cordoba, the WBA ratings chairman and the power behind the scenes, agreed. But later, after reflection and a conference with Arum, he changed his mind and said the WBA would order an immediate rematch.
Which leaves Antuofermo as the man in the middle. He'll have to make a choice: fight Minter for the WBC or Hagler for the WBA. He'll make one group happy; the other group will strip him of its version of the title.
Through no fault of his own, Antuofermo soon will be half a world champion. That is the unkindest cut of all.