For his next performance, Marvelous Marvin Hagler would be delighted to fight Sugar Ray Robinson. A young Robinson. Or a young Tony Zale. "Now Zale, there was one tough, rough fighter," the world middleweight champion was saying in a moment of reflection last Saturday night, five days after knocking out John Mugabi, an iron-chinned challenger who himself had KO'd 26 straight opponents before running afoul of Hagler.
Mugabi hit the deck and stuck at 1:29 of the 11th round in the night air of Caesars Palace arena in Las Vegas. That was Hagler's 12th straight title defense, a string stretching back to Jan. 17, 1981, and it left the 31-year-old champ just three shy of becoming the most successful 160-pound title-holder in history; between 1970 and 1977, Carlos Monzon made 14 successful defenses.
"Just three more," Hagler mused at his home in Hanover, Mass. "So far I'm on a great timetable. I don't think 31 is old. I'll be 32 in a couple of months [May 23], and I think I still have one good strong year left. The record, that is what I am looking for."
Next up won't be Robinson or Zale, but 27-year-old Thomas Hearns, whom Hagler knocked out in the third round last April. Hearns earned a second go-round this coming fall by rendering James Shuler senseless in 73 seconds, during a cold rain that quit just before Hagler went to work in the same outdoor arena.
March 24, 1986
Promoter Bob Arum had wanted a June 23 Hagler-Hearns date, but "we told him November," said Pat Petronelli, Hagler's manager. "Marvin needs some time off." Hagler wants to make his last two defenses next year, before his 33rd birthday. The closing act of his truly marvelous career is expected to be against welterweight champion Donald Curry, who will test himself at 154 pounds against WBA junior middleweight champ Mike McCallum on June 23.
"Hearns don't want this fight," Hagler scoffed. "He's still trying to bluff the public. He's saying, 'I'm still a tough guy, and I want Marvin Hagler again.' Then everybody is supposed to say, 'Oh, my, you got a lot of heart.' Bull. He don't want me. Hearns knew Shuler had no chin and couldn't punch. He wins one fight and he's right back in a championship fight. If I had lost to him, it would have been goodby Marvelous Marvin Hagler. They've been trying to get rid of me for years."
For the Mugabi fight, Hagler earned between $3 million and $5 million, depending upon the final closed-circuit and pay-per-view take. But riches and a measure of respect have not softened his bitter memory of the years when champions avoided his southpaw cannons and—most galling—of the title, seemingly won from Vito Antuofermo in 1979, that was whisked away by a controversial draw. Even when Hagler won the title, from Alan Minter in 1980, the London fans applauded him only with a barrage of epithets and beer bottles.
"Have I found peace? Not really," says Hagler, who has a 62-2-2 record, his last loss coming on March 9, 1976. Even that one, to Willie Monroe in Philadelphia, reeked of hometown accounting, and the following year Hagler knocked Monroe out twice to underline the injustice. "I'll put it this way: I'm happy but I'm not satisfied," says Hagler. "I believe they really won't give me credit until I am done with the game. Because every time there is another opponent, somebody is going to say, 'This guy is going to take you.' Now they are talking about Curry. It's like I haven't proved myself yet. What the hell do they want?"
In Hagler's 12 title defenses, only one man, Roberto Duran, has gone the distance against him. And that was because Hagler, for reasons even he can't fathom, fought the puffed-up Panamanian with unaccustomed and unneeded caution. No matter. Boxing being what it is, there is even talk of using a resurrected Duran, slimmed down from 200-plus pounds, as Hagler's opponent between Hearns and Curry.
"Nobody should want to fight Marvin a second time," said Goody Petronelli, Pat's brother and Marvin's trainer. "Look at the record: Marvin is devastating the second time around." In fact, of the 12 rematches he has fought, he has won all of them, 10 by KO.
There will be no second time for Mugabi, not if the Ugandan, now living in Tampa, has any input into decisions about his future. After his first professional loss, Mugabi has decided he is more suited to remaining a junior middleweight. "Marvin is very tough and very strong and a great champion," Mugabi said. "Now I want to fight Curry and Hearns. I knock them both out." He didn't even hint at a rematch with Hagler.
"Oh, no," said Pat Petronelli, "not Curry, not as a junior middleweight. Hey, I warn both Hearns and Curry: Beware of this man at 154 pounds. As much as we like Curry, and we all think he is great, we all agree Mugabi is dangerous because he is so damn strong. Curry has got to stay away from him because we are looking for that last big payday. Mugabi could ruin everything."
Hearns, too, had that big payday in mind as he waded from his dressing room to meet Shuler. A bright canopy covered the ring, and banks of TV lights gave the fighters warm relief from the 40° temperature. Hearns was also heated by the thought of a $500,000 incentive bonus Arum had offered if he knocked out Shuler in six rounds or fewer. Cold reality said that anything less would make a rematch with Hagler a distant drumbeat.
Opening with several hooks to the rib cage, which Shuler endured with clear anguish, Hearns fired one big right hand to the jaw and Shuler was counted out after just 73 seconds. Hearns collected his bonus plus the $1 million guarantee for meeting the WBC's No. 1 middleweight contender. For reasons mysterious, Mugabi, who has always campaigned as a junior middleweight, was the WBA's No. 1 160-pound contender.
"Now I want to sit and watch Hagler win, because I have something to prove," Hearns said during the wait before the Hagler-Mugabi bout. "The next one will be a totally different fight. I'm a different man than when I fought him the last time. I didn't have any legs then. Everybody has seen Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3, but they haven't seen Round 4. And Round 4 will be just as exciting."
Even as Hearns talked of the rematch, Mickey Duff, Mugabi's manager, was busy in Hagler's dressing room doing his best to derail the champion. Duff was screaming that Hagler had exceeded the legal limits in almost everything, including the size of his protective cup.
"Duff had Marvin tighter than a drum," said Pat Petronelli. "He came in and made a big issue out of the protective cup just a half hour before the fight. He said the cup was too high and there would be no fight. He said the rules stated that the cup had to stop at the navel and that Marvin's was above that. It wasn't. Marvin was all taped, and here's Duff, screaming and ranting and raving."
Hagler looked at the Petronelli brothers. "Get him the hell out of here," he yelled. "I can't take this. I can't concentrate."
Duff departed only after the Petronellis promised that George Francis, Mugabi's trainer, could return with a Nevada State Athletic Commission inspector to check the cup. Francis came in five minutes later, took a look and said, "That's fine."
Hagler arrived in the ring late, hooded and angry. The rain had stopped just a few minutes earlier, and steam rose eerily from the champion's shaven skull. "He was so mad he tried to knock Mugabi's head off with every punch the first two rounds," said Pat Petronelli.
Fighting righthanded except for the last five seconds of the first round, Hagler, a natural southpaw, lost it to Mugabi, who dispelled the myth that he is as unfamiliar with the subtleties of boxing as he is with the written word. (He speaks three languages—Batoro, Swahili and English—but can't read or write.)
"I needed the work, anyway," said Hagler. "And it was great. I love a good fight. I could see why he had 26 knockouts, and he's a very gutsy warrior. I figured I had to wear him out; I could see that was the way I had to go, because he was kind of strong and I had to take some of that punching power out of him."
Coming out for Round 2 as a southpaw, Hagler quickly discovered that Mugabi couldn't handle his right jab, which is a devastating, head-snapping punch. And the champion was following his jab, moving to his right, causing Mugabi to reach in with his own right hands. "After that it was just a matter of time," Hagler said.
Mugabi's time almost came in the sixth, when he was rocked hard by right hands and almost out, only to be saved by referee Mills Lane, who stepped in and used eight seconds to warn Hagler for hitting low. The pause was enough to allow Mugabi to recover. "It's all starting to come together," Hagler told his furious cornermen at the end of the round.
Feeling that Mugabi was weakening, Hagler began manhandling him inside, and further sapped his strength with short, wicked shots. By the end of the 10th, the challenger was exhausted and without hope. Not even the pleadings of Father Anthony Clark, the priest who had baptized Mugabi a Catholic three weeks earlier and was working in his corner, helped. "We love you" were Father Tony's words as Mugabi went out to face Hagler in the 11th. But when the champion dropped him after a barrage of rights, he sat, arms on knees, and watched as Lane counted him out.
"What was so exciting about the fight was the way I done it," said Hagler. "I took the toughest opponent out there, a guy with all those knockouts, and I destroyed him. Him and Hearns, back-to-back. Now maybe all those doubters will shut up."