There was a strong wind blowing through Las Vegas Monday night, but it could not sweep away the smell of raw violence as Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns hammered at each other with a fury that spent itself only after Hearns had been saved by the protecting arms of referee Richard Steele. The fight in a ring set up on the tennis courts at Caesars Palace lasted only a second longer than eight minutes, but for those who saw it, the memory of its nonstop savagery will remain forever.
Hagler's undisputed middleweight championship was at stake, and for the first time since he won it from Alan Minter in 1980, people had been questioning his ability to retain it. In the weeks leading up to the fight, Hagler fumed as the odds tilted back and forth before settling on the champion by the narrowest of margins. Hagler's pride was sorely stung, and a deep burning anger wrote his battle plan.
It was a simple strategy, one that could have been designed by Attila: Keep the swords swinging until there are no more heads to roll, give no quarter, take no prisoners. There would be only one pace, all-out; only one direction, forward.
It was a gamble, for Hagler would be exposing his 30-year-old body to the cannons that had knocked out 34 of the 41 men his 26-year-old challenger had faced and had earned Hearns the nickname Hit Man. "But he ain't never hit Marvin Hagler," the champion sneered. "I've taken the best shots of the biggest hitters in the middleweight division, and I've never been off my feet [Hagler considers his knockdown by Juan Roldan a slip]. And this guy isn't even a middleweight. Hit Man, my ass."
Hearns, as the challenger, came into the ring first—tall and strikingly muscular at 159¾ pounds—wearing a red robe with yellow trim. He jumped up and down to limber up his leg muscles, and then he strolled around the ring smiling. Hagler followed, in a royal-blue robe over trunks of the same color. Most champions keep challengers waiting alone in the ring as long as possible, but Hagler had warmed up well in his dressing room and he wanted to make his appearance while the sweat was still oiling his body. Entering the ring, he fixed Hearns with a scowl that never wavered, not even during Doc Severinsen's trumpet version of the National Anthem.
When the bell rang, the war was immediately on. "I think Marvin may come out so fired up that we'll just have Tommy stick and move," Emanuel Steward, the challenger's manager, had said. "Hagler will be so juiced up, after seven or eight rounds it'll rob his strength. Then we'll go for the late knockout."
But Steward underestimated just how juiced up the champ would be. Hagler never gave Hearns a chance to do anything but fight for his life. The 5'9½" champion swept over his 6'2" opponent like a 159-pound tidal wave. There were no knockdowns in the first round, but only because both men were superbly conditioned and courageous athletes. Surely each hit the other with plenty of blows powerful enough to drop lesser mortals. In all, 165 punches (by computer count) were thrown by both fighters: 82 by Hagler, 83 by the challenger.
Startled by the intensity of Hagler's assault, Hearns replied in kind. He's normally a sharpshooter from the outside, but only 22 of his 83 punches were jabs. Hagler, attacking Hearns's slender middle with his first volley, threw none. "I started slugging because I had to," Hearns admitted later. "Marvin started running in, and I had to protect myself."
It was a sensational opening round. Both fighters were rocked during the violent toe-to-toe exchanges, and midway through the round the champion's forehead over his right eye was ripped open either by a Hearns right hand or elbow. With Hagler not bothering with defense, Hearns went for the quick kill. His gloves became a red blur as he rained punch after punch on the champion's head—and it would prove his undoing.
"He fought 12 rounds in one," Steward said later.
Returning to his corner, Hearns wore the drained expression of a man who had already fought for 36 minutes.
"What are you doing?" Steward screamed. "You've got to stick and move. Jab. Don't fight with him."
In the champ's corner, Dr. Donald Romeo, the chief physician of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, was examining the cut on Hagler's forehead. Another abrasion had begun to form under the eye. Satisfied that the cut on the forehead was harmless, Romeo returned to his seat.
"Don't change," Hagler's trainer, Goody Petronelli, told the champion. "Just keep your hands up a little higher. Don't worry about the cut. Just keep charging and keep the pressure up."
"O.K.," said Hagler. "I won't worry about the cut. If you go to war, you're going to get wounded."
Hagler's pace in the second round was only slightly less relentless. "When I see blood," said the champion, "I become a bull." He came out ready to gore whatever was in his path, and although Hearns rocked him midway through the round with a strong right cross, Hagler never for an instant eased the pressure. "All that right hand did," said Hagler, "was make me even madder."
A veteran of 64 professional fights (all but two of them victories), Hagler could sense the strength seeping away from Hearns's body. As he went back to his corner after the second round, the champion knew the fight was just about over.
"This cut isn't bad, but it's bleeding a lot," said Petronelli, as he worked on Hagler's forehead. "Let's not take any chances. Take him out this round."
"He's ready to go," said Hagler, spitting a mouthful of water into a pail. "He's not going to hurt me with that right hand. I took his best, and now I'm going to knock him out."
As in the first two rounds, Hagler came out at full fury. Forcing himself up on his toes, Hearns tried to hold him off with jabs, but he had little left. Hagler waded through the challenger's jabs, pressing forward, always punching. Hearns was not backing down, but he was backing up. One of Hearns's jabs widened the cut on Hagler's forehead, and as blood came roaring down the champion's face, Steele signaled time-out and stepped in. He led Hagler back to his corner to be reexamined by Romeo.
"Can you see all right?" the physician asked over the screams of 15,088 outraged fans.
"No problem," said Hagler. "I ain't missing him, am I?"
Romeo again motioned to Steele that the fight could continue.
Deciding that he didn't want the outcome determined by anyone but himself, Hagler moved in, first firing a short left and then a smashing right to the side of Hearns's head. Dazed, the challenger floundered backward across the ring.
The pursuing Hagler unloaded a right and a left, and then leaped in with an overhand right that thundered against Hearns's head. On instinct alone, the challenger tried to clinch, but then he went down.
As Steele picked up the count, Hearns lay on his back, arms outstretched, eyes open but unseeing. With great will, Hearns rolled over and brought himself to his feet at the count of nine. But Steele, after studying the challenger's glazed eyes, wisely signaled a cease-fire. The time was 2:01 of the third round.
With blood still streaming down his face and onto his chest, Hagler leaped into the air, at least $5.7 million richer. It was his 11th title defense, leaving him on track in his drive to surpass Carlos Monzon's middleweight record of 14.
Hearns had to be carried back to his corner, and it was several minutes before he could stand on his own two feet. Later, Hearns, who is still WBC junior middleweight champ and who stands to bank at least $5.4 million from the fight, went into Hagler's dressing room. "We made a lot of money, but we gave them a good show," Hearns said. "Tell you what. You move up and fight the light heavies, and I'll take care of the middleweights."
Hagler laughed. "You move up," he said.
After receiving four stitches for the cut in his forehead, Hagler went to a party in the Augustus Room at Caesars. He spoke briefly to the celebrators. Then, with his wife, Bertha, he watched a video replay of the fight. After seeing the knockout for the fourth time, Hagler smiled and applauded. He looked at his watch. It was midnight. "Let's go," he said to Bertha. His work was done.