Boxing is not somuch a sweet science as a sweet contradiction. Fighters run four to eight milesa day preparing for an event that ropes them off in a 20-foot square. Theytrain for up to half a year for competitions that rarely exhaust an hour. Theyenter the ring hooded in lavish robes, but must fight nearly naked. Theysurround themselves with multitudes—managers and trainers, cooks and masseurs,bag-toters and towel-folders and door-holders, and, oddly, bodyguards—all ofwhom leave them deathly alone at their one hour of danger.
And so it wouldfigure that the most compelling fight in years is also the one we least wantedto materialize: Marvelous Marvin Hagler, 32 going on 35 some say, the bull, aman with a head so fierce hair is afraid to grow there, vs. Sugar Ray Leonard,30, the matador, with a face so childlike that his decision to put it in frontof fists again has caused public outrage. On April 6, they will contest therichest prizefight in history. Naturally it will be held in the backyard of aLas Vegas casino-hotel.
The fight's veryappeal is confusion. Leonard, who retired in 1982 after suffering a detachedretina in his left eye, has chosen to continue in the sport least suited tokeeping the human body intact. Worse, Hagler is the one man stalking the planetthat America does not want alone in the ring with Sugar. Yet Hagler is the onlyfighter great enough to bring Leonard back. The risks will hang so heavily inthe desert air that night that we will not want to watch. But, like boxersthemselves, we will not be able to help ourselves.
Nobody is goingto want Leonard when I get through with him. He probably won 't talk no more,might not see no more, and might not even walk no more. I like to mess uppretty faces.
March 30, 1987
Marvin's a sweetguy. He really is.
Hagler andLeonard seem to have been born to define each other's opposite. Hagler is thelong-suffering, steel-chinned relentless brawler. His face has stopped moreleather than Leonard has thrown. He is 62-2-2 and undefeated in the last 10years, yet he didn't win the middleweight title until his 54th fight. Leonardis, comparatively, a Boy Scout. He is 33-1-0, the former welterweight andjunior middleweight champion, twice retired, twice unretired. Hagler is alefthanded fighter, although sometimes in mid-round he will suddenly switch andbegin fighting righthanded. Leonard is strictly a righty. Hagler's body issculpted, drastic. Leonard's is smooth. Hagler bloodies men. Fighting MustafaHamsho in 1981, he opened up gaps in Hamsho's skin that required 55 stitches toclose. Leonard rarely chops up men, only frustrates them. Against Roberto Duranin November 1980, he confused and embarrassed the great Panamanian intoquitting, the unkindest cut of all.
Leonard's charmtranscends race and sex. At his training camp in Hilton Head, S.C., hisworkouts draw as many women and youngsters as they do men and many more whitesthan blacks, all of whom are let in free. Hagler's appeal is narrower. Hetrains before a crowd that is predominantly masculine, men who have willinglypaid $5 a head.
Leonard likescamp to be cozy, like home. He often brings in his wife and children. Hisfather is a cook. His brother and father share his suite. When all of themgather at his nightly supper table, he might as well be back at his childhoodhome in Palmer Park, Md.
Hagler does notallow his wife or children in camp and likes to hear only good news from home.Phone conversations are short. He does not like company. He prefers to think ofhis Palm Springs hotel as "prison." While the rest of his campentourage watched the Super Bowl together, Hagler watched it in the next room,by himself. The last six weeks before this fight, Hagler has come to the phoneonly for the most urgent calls from home.
Leonard is thefighter for the '80s, reputedly the most fiscally fit in history. His home inPotomac is sumptuous, with a wine cellar in the basement and a Rolls-Royce inthe garage. In seven years as an active pro, he made half again as much ($48million) as Hagler in 14 ($31 million). Hagler is the last of the clubfighters. He refuses to shake the hand of a man he may have to fight someday.He has been said to be so suspicious as to switch plates at dinner. He inciteshimself with slogans long on conviction if short on grammar. "Destructionand Destroy" is his favorite. Once, when he fought in Italy, he wrote it onhis shirts in Italian. Still wasn't right.
Leonard decoratesautographs with a happy face. Hagler writes, "I will knock him out."Leonard sets up a video-game room for his huge entourage. He reads biographies,plays tennis during camp, has a chow chow at home. Hagler's entourage is smalland is left to entertain itself. He eats most of his meals alone in his room,takes a lunchtime walk by himself and traipses the 300 yards from his hotel tohis training tent carrying his own equipment bag. Leonard rides 100 yards in avan that drops him at the entrance.
During workouts,Hagler plays music constantly, rock music for most routines, but when he ishitting the speed bag it is rap exclusively, some of it written in his honor."And I've heard it said/Hagler puts heads to bed." Leonard plays onlyan occasional tune, happy ditties like Sweet Georgia Brown, when he's jumpingrope.
Leonard is theboxer who says, "I'm the puncher in this fight." Hagler is the puncherwho says, "I could take Leonard in the gym and outbox him right now."Hagler loves the smell of the gym. Leonard endures it. "You hitMarvin," says one of his sparring partners, James Lucas, "and he justgets happier." Says Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney and financial adviser,"Ray's not a fighter who loves to fight. What he loves is the mountain.He's got to be challenged."
In the ring,Hagler huffs and snorts and reprimands his sparring partners: "C'mon! Let'sgo! Let's work!" Leonard says nothing. He is occasionally playful in thering, cognizant of the crowd. Hagler seems infuriated to have to share the ringwith anyone. Leonard seems to be inviting us to join him there.
Of course, therewas a time when Hagler would have gladly had things different. But eight yearsago he realized he couldn't be Sugar Ray Leonard, and it has clanked around inhis stomach ever since.
The occasion washis first shot at the middleweight title, in 1979. Leonard and Hagler were onthe same card, both challenging for titles, yet Leonard was making $1 millionto fight welterweight Wilfred Benitez in the main event while Hagler was making$40,000 to fight Vito Antuofermo. But that is the way it has always been.Leonard never fought as a lead-in in his life. Hagler made $50 for his firstfight. Leonard made $40,000. Leonard fought for a title in his 26th fight.Hagler had to cool his fists until his 50th.
And so, againstAntuofermo, Hagler was out to prove he could be Leonard; prove he was not abulky stagehand, but the dancer; that he could outbox anybody in the arena, theSugar-man included. "And I boxed Antuofermo's ears off," Hagler says.Bloody proof was furnished by Antuofermo's face, which required 25 stitches tofix.
As the judgeswere tabulating their cards, referee Mills Lane leaned over to Hagler and said,"Congratulations. Now stay facing this way until they announce the decisionand I raise your arm." Yet the judges ruled the bout a draw, and as Haglerclimbed wearily down from the ring, Joe Louis signaled him over, pulled himclose and whispered in his ear, "You got robbed."
That's whenHagler knew what was expected of him. "That taught me a lesson," Haglersays. "You know what they want, man. They only want blood and knockouts.That's all they want. Either you're going to be the bad guy or the good guy.And I ain't never been the good guy."
Bitterly, he hastrained for the role all his life. Born in Newark, N.J., Hagler learned earlynever to come home a loser. If he was beaten in a street fight, his motherwould not let him into the house. "You go right back out there and fighthim again," she would say. "Or else you'll run from all ofthem."
But it was IdaMae Hagler, single parent of six, who ended up running. In 1968, not long afterher family spent three days on its hands and knees in its own apartment forfear of stray bullets during the Newark race riots, Ida Mae moved the family tothe home shared by several of her relatives in Brockton, Mass. Unknowingly, shehad moved Marvin to the birthplace of Rocky Marciano.
At 16, Haglerbecame an unwed father, quit school and began working. He also tried his fistsat boxing in a gym owned by Goody and Pat Petronelli. They were formerconfidants of Marciano, but mostly they were construction businessmen trying tokeep a two-bit fight operation afloat after hours. They were the first whitemen Hagler can recall ever speaking to who weren't behind a cash register or abadge, and he grew terribly loyal to them. Hagler would work all day ("Iwas the best damn construction worker in Massachusetts," he likes to say,though an eight-inch chain-saw scar on his right foot seems to dispute thatfact), then come to the gym in his dusty clothes, his hands mortar-tough andhis heart set harder still on becoming a fighter.
Of Hagler's first$50 purse, $10 went toward registration and the other $40 went to him. Foryears the Petronellis never took a dime. "We needed it," says Goody,"but he needed it worse." Later, when titleholders were ducking Hagler,it was his own stubborn loyalty to the Petronellis that held back his career.All Hagler had to do was sign away a piece of himself to one of the big-namepromoters who were courting him and he would have gotten a title fight "alot sooner," Pat has said. "But Marvin was willing to wait."
And while hewaited, he took club fights all along the Eastern seaboard. He climbed theladder with his chin and cashed paltry checks as his hatred grew for darlingOlympians like Ray Leonard, who fought with pictures of their girlfriends intheir socks.
"He's aphony," Hagler says. "When Ali left, they gave it all to Leonard. Theyguided Leonard. They gave him Ali's trainer [Angelo Dundee]. They gave himAli's style, strategies. They transferred everything to Leonard. He's acopycat. He's a built machine. He doesn't even have his own name. They gave himSugar Ray Robinson's name."
Hagler changedhis Christian name to Marvelous in the Massachusetts courts. Usually, historylets the sportswriters do that. But Hagler isn't so good at waiting onhistory—or sportswriters. "You people have never given me full credit forwhat I've done," he once said. "When I became champion, I said I'dfight every top-rated contender. I've done that, and I beat 'em all."
Hagler'sresentment is toward a world that, in his mind, would rather have a man smileor joke or dance his way to the top instead of punch his way—and thatresentment was always ready to bubble over. Hagler's first words afterdevastating Thomas Hearns in three rounds in 1985 were, "Maybe now I'll getsome commercials."
"Marvin'sinsecurity about himself is almost his own downfall towards people acceptinghim," says Leonard. "...It's Marvin's persona. People could like him.It's just that look of his. It's like, 'We don't want our kids running aroundwith a bald head.' It's tough enough now to keep kids from wearing those weirdhairstyles as it is." Leonard is amused by Hagler's shoulder chip. He knowsHagler is blind to the road he has really traveled.
Growing up inPalmer Park, Md., was not exactly the Georgetown Experience. Palmer Park is apoor, mixed neighborhood, with more than enough trouble to go around. Of thethree promising fighters who showed up around the same time in the recreationcenter where Janks Morton was a volunteer boxing instructor, two havesquandered their potential. Derrik Holmes, a junior featherweight, shot a man.The other, a 112-pound fighter, simply dropped out of sight, although Mortonheard that he, too, had shot a man.
Now Leonard'sname is at the top of every doorman's list in boxing, but he endured pain andrisk to get it there. "He was small for as much power as he had, so hishands would hurt so much after he fought that he'd cry," remembers Morton.Like Hagler, Leonard fathered as a teenager and worked to support the child.Yet, in the Olympics, "I fought for free, don't forget," and in theshadow of the real pre-Olympics star, Howard Davis, to boot. Had Leonard notwon the gold and, in the ensuing interviews delighted the nation, he might havegone the club-fight route, too.
But even uponwinning the gold, Leonard did not want to fight. "The journey isended," he said with the medal dangling off his neck. "My dream isfulfilled." He wanted to go to the University of Maryland more thananything, but, like Hagler, he fought for his family. Both his parents wereill—his father from spinal pneumonia, his mother from a heart attack. Leonardturned pro.
And Leonarddidn't exactly fight moonlighting bouncers to earn his cash. From June 1980 toSeptember 1981, he faced fighters with a combined record of 169-4: Duran, Duranagain, Larry Bonds, Ayub Kalule and Thomas Hearns. He lost in 15 rounds toDuran, then, in the rematch, confused Duran into quitting after eight rounds,which is even more devastating than knocking him out. He left Bonds crawling,KO'd Kalule and then slew the unslayable Hearns, who was until then undefeated,32-0. "Hagler should thank Ray for beating Duran and Hearns," saysDundee. "Ray took away their cloak of invincibility. They weren't the samewhen Hagler fought them."
Of course, ifHagler were here to hear that, he might utter his trademark slogan, the one heused in his lean years and still uses as a reminder after many of his workoutstoday.
"What do Ihave to do?" he'll yell, glistening from his own hard work. "Killsomebody?"
There isn'tenough money in the world for me to risk my eyesight. You can't put a price tagon that.
—SUGAR RAY LEONARD
"Fightersfight," A.J. Liebling wrote in The Sweet Science, and that is an inexorablelaw of boxing which Leonard, unlike Hagler, did not believe applied to him.Ultimately, he learned.
After Leonardstopped Hearns in a glorious 14th-round knockout, the refrigerator was empty."There was nobody left to fight," he recalls. So nobody is exactly whohe fought, and his name was Bruce Finch. "I went out trying to sell thefight, telling everybody what a great fighter Finch was," Leonard says."I realized I was mostly just trying to convince myself. After I beat him,I felt sorry for him. I saw him afterwards. His wife's crying. His kids arecrying. I told 'em, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry.' I knew I was losing somethingthen."
Still, Leonardbeat on against the current, signing to face the No. 3 contender, RogerStafford. But during training he felt pain in his left eye. A few days later,surgeons repaired the detached retina. The fight was canceled. At a dinner sixmonths later, a tuxedoed Hagler panted in anticipation of a historic fight withLeonard, only to have Leonard announce his retirement. He was leaving the fightgame for a world of HBO stand-ups and life as a human cummerbund.
The world, muchrelieved, sang hosannas at Leonard's feet. "People have a certain love foryou and respect for your intelligence both inside and outside of the ring,"he said during retirement. "And I believe that if you tarnish that, they'llhold it against you. I don't want that. Not for any price."
But, for all hisperception, Leonard couldn't see into his own future. He had, in effect, diedyoung as a boxer, at 26, not by knockout but by a tiny sliver of tissue. Hefelt as though he had cheated himself.
"To retire at26, that was the biggest burden in my life," he says now. "For fouryears, I dealt with that. Twenty-six years old and I was through with mycareer.... It burned inside. It ate at me every single day. Jeez, I'm notfinished yet."
Leonard talks asif his first unretirement never happened, which, for its limited impact, neverdid. In April of 1984, he laced on his gloves again and trained six weeks tofight un-ranked Kevin Howard, with the idea of fighting Hagler next. Howardintroduced Leonard to the canvas for the first time in his career in the fourthround, then tasted it himself five rounds later. Still, Howard's unlikely righthand persuaded Leonard to go back whence he came.
Of course, thatdidn't change the truth. Hagler, the one great fighter he had not beaten, wasstill out there. "I haunted him," says Hagler. And Leonard still felttoo young to die.
"I'd go tothe club with the fellas, and we'd get bombed all the time. It was like, 'Ahh,I'm not doing anything anymore.' But something deep inside me was saying, 'Ray,where's your vanity? Where's your respect for yourself?'...I'd go on businesstrips, and first thing you do on a business trip is somebody says, 'Let's goget some booze, let's celebrate our deal.' You close a half-million-dollardeal, you're going to celebrate."
Then one daySugar Ray saw Ray Leonard in the mirror.
"I saw nodefinition. Nothing. I said, 'Where are the arms I used to have? Where are theripples I used to have in my stomach?' My wife laughed at me. The way shelaughed, it hurt my feelings. It made me aware."
Never undersellthe importance of ego in a champion prizefighter. By way of explaining hiscomeback to USA Weekend, Leonard said that when a man is a champion, he is"so proud. You want people to say, 'Hey, champ, way to go.' You can sitthere and listen to it over and over again. But it's always good to hear adifferent person tell you—that's why you walk across the street to anotherhotel.... You want to fight the monsters. In doing that, your persona becomesgreater. You become bigger. There are more lucrative contracts and phenomenaldeals."
Leonard beganrunning, returning to the gym, sparring with 1984 Olympic light middleweightsilver medalist Shawn O'Sullivan. He put up a punching bag in his house. Boughta stationary bike. "I saw a metamorphosis." Thus fortified, he preparedfor his toughest fight—with his wife, Juanita.
"What wouldyou say if I wanted to fight Hagler?" he asked.
"I'd killyou," she said.
Friends tried totalk him out of it. Even Hagler tried, modestly. "If I had to fightme," he said, "I wouldn't do it."
Leonard's fansare having a hard time remembering that. Though all of Leonard's doctors havepronounced his eye fit, there remains the gnawing possibility that the retinacould break away again.
That makes manypeople at first afraid, then angry. If you are blinded, we will feel bad. Andwe don't like to feel bad. In Leonard, the public had a rarity: a boxer who hadretired with his faculties intact, his nose and eyes in all the right placesand his bank balance more gorgeous still. Not Ali, nor Louis, nor Robinson, norHolmes was willing to let his boxing self die. They had to see the deathcertificate first.
"It'sinexplicable. People don't understand what I'm doing," Leonard says. "Iam the American Dream: financially independent, living in an exclusive, wealthyarea, two kids, a dog. That should be it, that's all Americans need, or thinkyou should need. But I say, I want more.' "
Leonard finallygave up trying to keep the whole world proud of him and started working on hisown happiness. "I've always done things because I was sensitive to issues.People say, 'He's not a normal fighter. He's not Joe Palooka with a pug nose.He's going to go on to Hollywood, going to retire early.' That's the way thebook is written. And it took me years to come to the conclusion that I have tolive my own life to be content. When I'm 45 and not a competitive athlete, Ihave to listen to myself."
Now that he hasthe fight he wants, he breathes it. "I go to bed, I see Hagler. I wake upin the morning, I see Hagler. I put my head down at night, I see his face. I goto sleep, I see him. That's why I know I'm going to win. 'Cause I seehim."
So Leonard'svision is better than ever. The question is: Is his ambition blind?
Marvin, tell me,will you be going for the eyes?
—A CHICAGO SPORTSWRITER, 1987
Hagler took 109days to decide whether to fight Leonard, and it's easy to understand why."What happens if you lose, Marvin?" Leonard asks an absent Hagler."To lose to me goes against all logic. People are saying the odds areinsurmountable. Ray Leonard, 154 pounds soaking wet, comes back after fiveyears of inactivity and beats the baddest guy out there. For him to lose wouldbe so devastating."
Hagler has a longway to fall and no net. The American public defines Marvelous Marvin as anunvanquished fighter. If he loses that, he has lost everything. "I knowwhat got me here," he told The Boston Globe. "My boxing. If I lose afight, nobody will want me."
For Hagler,ducking Leonard is even more unacceptable than risking a lifetime as the ManWho Blinded Sugar Ray. After all, what else does he know? As Hagler has said,"If they cut my bald head open, they will find one big boxing glove. That'sall I am. I live it."
And that, beneathit all, is what galls Hagler about Leonard. Since the fight was first mentionedin 1981, he has been the patient costar, showing up for work every day,enduring the fits and piques of the temperamental lead, waiting year in andyear out while Sugar Ray decides what he wants to be. Boxer or broadcaster?Pitchman or puncher?
"He's usingboxing to carry him," Hagler says. "While I am still boxing. Boxing isstill me.... People look and say, 'Oh, look, he's still here. Still lookinggood.' I fought all these people, and listen to me, listen to my faculties,everything is still intact. My speed is still there. Man, I'm stillhere."
And so to needLeonard—someone so untrue to boxing, someone so willing to jilt it for thefirst shiny object—to need him to arrive at his biggest day, is in Hagler'smind one more injustice. So what's new? Every time Hagler has come to hisself-described "glory day," he believes, it has been snatched from him,whisked out from under his eyes like a tablecloth from under crystal. "Whyis it with me?" he says. "Why does it seem like there's always somebodytrying to step in?"
Even when Haglerwon the title in the fall of 1980 by putting Britain's Alan Minter through atwo-fisted Cuisinart, the glory escaped him. The London crowd christened thenew champion with beer and whisky bottles, hundreds of them, forcing Hagler torun like a thief before the referee could hoist his hand in victory.
Now, he was theuncelebrated, unwanted champion. As Joe Frazier told him, "You have threestrikes against you. One, you're black. Two, you're southpaw. Three, you canfight." He beat Hearns, a man they said had a right hand to knock God out,and Duran. But Leonard had beaten them, too. He beat the 26-0 John (the Beast)Mugabi, but Mugabi was unexpectedly tough even though he had agreed to fight asa middleweight, instead of junior middleweight. And though Hagler has defendedhis title 12 consecutive times, approaching Carlos Monzon's middleweight recordof 14, there was always the shadow of Marciano. That's the story of Hagler'slife, not even the main man in his own hometown.
And now this. Thefight of his life, yet a fight with no historical payoff waiting at the end.After all, how much credit does a man get for beating up a pixilatedwelterweight with more rust than a '58 Impala? Then again, the alternative isworse. Should he lose, what is he the rest of his days but a bum?
"This isMarvin's Olympics," says Hagler's brother, middleweight Robbie Sims."This is his moment."
Knowing it to beso, Hagler has convinced himself that beating Leonard is everything. In camp hewears a hat that reads NO MERCY, as if he needs to further remind himself tohate Leonard. Mr. Bad Guy.
"If he'sfoolish enough to step in the ring with me," Hagler told The New YorkTimes, "I'm foolish enough to rip his eye out."
That straight inhis mind, he sets on the mantel what is his to win. To Hagler, Leonard iseverybody's hero, white and black. Therefore, Hagler believes that the bootythat goes with defeating Leonard includes Leonard's fans. Hagler will pulverizehis way to their hearts.
"Look whathappened when I beat Duran," Hagler says. "Look, now, I've got all theHispanics. 'You great champ-ee-own. Champ-ee-own. You beat my man. You betterthan my man.... 'Now, with Leonard, the press is down on me. 'Marvin, you'renot colorful. Ray is what we need. Ray is sellable. Ray is marketable....' Now,I'm going to take all the people that were Leonard-generated and I'm going totake them all away from him. Then he's going to go right away. He'll justdisappear.
"That's myreward. I [will have] knocked out a person they think could never be knockedout. I knocked out their American hero. Their Olympic sweetheart. Then I walkaway from the game of boxing, and still retire as middleweight champion.
"I haven'tachieved what I wanted yet. I Still haven't got that satisfaction. I'm happy,but I still haven't got that glory.... I'm still looking for my satisfaction.It's this: Knock Leonard out and you've done it. Now you can go on and liveyour life."
We were meant tobe in the ring together. It's a bond.
—SUGAR RAY LEONARD
Here are two verydifferent fighters and very different men who need each other in the worst way.Without Leonard, Hagler is left with such forgettable opponents as Tony Sibsonand Juan Roldan, hardly the tools for constructing history. Without Hagler,Leonard was left with the Bruce Finches of the world. They elevate eachother.
Together, one ofthem will become whole. With a win over Hagler, Leonard is legend. One realfight in five years and still good enough to beat the middleweight of the ages.With a victory, Leonard is back where he is most comfortable, the best inboxing, the best fighter pound-for-pound. No gray areas. That is all Leonardwants. To beat Hagler. "I don't care about the title," says Leonard."I don't even care if it's sanctioned. [The WBA has stripped Hagler of histitle, citing the fact that he has not defended his title in six months, andthe IBF is contemplating similar action.] You can call it the Sugar Ray-MarvinHagler middleweight crown. I just want the fight."
With a"safe" win over Leonard—that is, one that puts Leonard away, but to nograve consequence—the nation lets out a massive sigh of relief. Hagler"turns Sugar Ray sugarless," as he likes to put it, and MarvelousMarvin is still there. Even history must hush up now. There can be no furtherchallenges. "I think he deserves to be ranked among the greatestboxers," Leonard once said of Hagler. "But for his own satisfaction,it's me that's going to give it to him."
This fightdoesn't need America's blessing. This fight was as inevitable as nightfall.Leonard has love, but fights for respect. Hagler has respect, but fights forlove.
They have beencircling each other all their lives.