The riddle all of last week in Boston was what does it take to be the undisputed No. 1 middleweight contender? Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the champion of all the world's 160-pounders, supplied the answer in that marvelous old relic, Boston Garden, Saturday night: not a hell of a lot.
The No. 1 challenger according to both the World Boxing Association and the World Boxing Council was Fulgencio Obelmejias, a 28-year-old Venezuelan with a thirst for American history, a hunger for clam chowder—which he called chipi chipi soup—and all the fighting ability of a quahog. He came to the U.S. with a 30-0 record, which included 28 knockouts, and went on to prove that while it might be possible to learn how to fight in a cemetery, it isn't possible if you only take on the residents.
"How did he get to be No. 1?" Hagler wondered aloud, along with everyone else, a few days before his first defense of the title he'd won with a third-round knockout of Alan Minter of England in September. The 28-year-old champion pondered that question before a blazing wood fire at the Provincetown Inn on the frozen tip of Cape Cod, 120 miles from Boston. It was there that he had trained for six weeks in preparation for a fight whose outcome would be obvious by the second round but wouldn't end until 20 seconds into the eighth round. Outside the cozy inn, a strong wind sent clouds of swirling snow whipping across the frozen seascape. Occasionally the forlorn call of a complaining seagull would pierce the whistle of the wind.
"When I was working my way up the ratings, Obelmejias wasn't behind me," Hagler said, staring into the fire. "Nobody was jumping me over anybody, from seventh to fourth, or fourth to No. 1. But all of a sudden I get to be champ, and here's a guy from nowhere right behind me. I've got to figure somebody in the WBA or the WBC said, 'Hey, I think this guy can beat Hagler,' and they jumped him up to No. 1. And when I knock him out they'll find somebody else they think can beat me and jump him into No. 1. If that's the way it is, why even have ratings?"
January 26, 1981
While Hagler's voice is soft, his words are hard, his demeanor chilling. The title hasn't thawed him a bit. He can't forget the many lean years when others got the title fights he thought he deserved. He smolders when he thinks of the fat purses, of the recognition that should have been his. Now he's the champion, but the hunger is still with him. That's why he sometimes screamed at the early morning sky, startling the gulls into flight, as he ran along the dunes.
"I remember everything they did to me. I'll never forgive them," says Hagler, referring to the WBA and WBC. With his shaven head and hairy lip and chin, the champion takes on a Mephistophelian look when angry. "I want to stay bitter. I use it; I feed on it. That's why I put myself in jail like this to train for a fight. I want to be mean. All I want to think of is destruction. Then nobody can take from me what's mine. The only way they'll get the title from me is to kill me."
In Boston, Obelmejias seemed to be training more for an exam in American history than for a fistfight. His first request upon arriving was to be taken to Plymouth Rock, and then he wanted to see the U.S.S. Constitution, which is moored to a pier in Charlestown.
The No. 1 contender also trained, but not very well. Mornings, heavily bundled against the bitter cold, he ran along the Charles, from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge and back. When he wasn't sightseeing or spooning up clam chowder, he usually stayed in his hotel room studying an English-Spanish dictionary or watching television. Sesame Street, with its Spanish/English lessons, was his favorite. On the Wednesday before the fight he caught a cold.
"Can he fight?" said Rodolfo Sabatini, an Italian promoter, smiling at the question. Sabatini had promoted Obelmejias' last three fights, all in Italy. "Yes, he can fight. He can punch and he can move his hands. The only thing I don't know about is his heart. I've never seen him in trouble because he never fought anybody who could get him in trouble."
The people Obelmejias fought to gain his ranking included George Lee, an American he knocked out in one round in November of 1979. From March 15, 1979 until that November, Lee had four bouts, losing all four. From Nov. 17, when Obelmejias fought him, until Jan. 27, 1980, a period of 71 days, Lee was knocked out five more times on three continents, in four countries and in five cities. Still, Obelmejias' victory over Lee earned the Venezuelan a jump from No. 5 to No. 4 in the WBC rankings.
Then there was Carlos Marks of Trinidad, whom Obelmejias stopped in nine to win the Central American and Caribbean middleweight titles in 1978. It was Marks' eighth loss over a 13-fight span.
There wasn't a world-class fighter on the No. 1 contender's record. No matter. The No. 1 contender's manager is Rafito Cedeino, a force in Venezuelan boxing and a friend of both WBC President Josè Sulaimàn and WBA President Rodrigo Sanchez. In the past few months no fewer than six of Cedeino's fighters have been in title fights; five lost. The lone victor was Rafael Orono, the WBC superflyweight champion, who beat Jovito Regnifo, who is also in the Cedeino stable in Caracas. Cedeino not only had both fighters in that one, he was also the promoter. Nice guy to have in your corner if you're looking to be No. 1.
But against Hagler, all Obelmejias' status did was earn him $100,000 and get him semi-killed. In fact, Hagler came closer to losing his title in a driveway on the afternoon of the fight than he did in the ring that night.
The evening before, the champion had driven in from Cape Cod to Avon, a small town 20 miles south of Boston. Ten inches of snow fell overnight and the next morning, when Hagler went out to drive to the noon weigh-in, his rented limo was snowbound. It took six men to shovel the car free. At that, the champion was 47 minutes late. If he'd been two hours late he would have lost the title without a punch having been thrown.
Once the bell rang Obelmejias had no chance. The anger that helps make Hagler such a good fighter is kept under control in the ring. In winning 51 of 55 fights (two draws), he has had 42 knockouts, yet he isn't simply a puncher. He's the complete boxer operating with the knowledgeable detachment of a surgeon, graceful and flowing, unleashing punches in ever-changing patterns, hardly ever in bursts of fewer than three, mixing his jabs and crosses and hooks and upper-cuts until they become a blur.
If he gets a man in trouble, Hagler will work to take him out quickly. But should the man escape, Hagler will revert to methodically ripping his opponent apart piece by piece. Patience is his trademark.
In the first round against Obelmejias, Hagler did little, contenting himself with studying his unknown prey at close quarters. Then he put into play the strategy devised by his managers-trainers, the brothers Petronelli, Goody and Pat. "Pressure him," they'd ordered. "Stay on top of him and make him fight a full three minutes." Obelmejias didn't help his own cause by fighting a stupid fight. He's 6'1", with a 72-inch reach, yet instead of staying outside, where he presumably would've been more effective, he, too, elected to work close.
Badly battered from the second round on, Obelmejias, who could deliver nothing beyond a few uppercuts, fell in the sixth from a thunderous right to the head. Struggling up, he took an eight count and then survived a savage pounding to the end of the round. No one can ever again question his heart.
In the seventh, though Obelmejias tried desperately to pull the fight out with wild rights, he took more of the same. At the end, bleeding from the mouth and a small cut under his left eye, he returned to his corner on old legs. Early in the eighth round, Hagler drilled home a savage right to the head, and the No. 1 contender reeled back into the ropes. "That's it," said referee Octavio Meyran of Mexico, waving Hagler off.
In his dressing room, Obelmejias held an ice pack against his right hand. "I broke the thumb in the second round," he said, "and I couldn't breathe. The cold, it bothered me. I want to fight him again."
"Again?" said a surprised visitor. "Have you ever fought anyone as tough as that?"
"Oh, yes," said the No. 1 contender.
But Obelmejias will have to wait. Hagler, who was paid $500,000 for this fight, has planned a May defense against former champion Vito Antuofermo in Boston. There's also talk of a March fight against Chong-Pal Park in South Korea, should the money be right. And then there's the big two: the welterweight champions, Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, both of whom would like to move up.
"Which one, Hearns or Leonard?" Hagler was asked.
The champion grinned. "Either one. I want to make $5 million like everybody else."
Then, perhaps, the bitterness will be put to bed.