Idle for almost three years, Sugar Ray Leonard made a spectacular return to the ring by beating Marvin Hagler to win the middleweight title
April 12, 1987

At the very end, in his final moment of triumph and vindication, after the sound of the bell that signaled completion of his finest hour as a prizefighter, the instant came when sheer exhaustion finally did to Sugar Ray Leonard what Marvelous Marvin Hagler could not.

Moving across the middle of the ring Monday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, after 12 rounds in battle against a champion who had defended his middleweight title 12 times and who had not known defeat in 11 years, Leonard sagged and collapsed to his knees. He appeared about to swoon to the canvas when two of his seconds, Janks Morton and Ollie Dunlap, grabbed him by the arms, lifted him to his feet and helped him back to his corner. Leonard's face, drained of expression, reflected the will, effort and intensity that he had brought to, and expended on, this fight.

By all logic, in the face of all history, Leonard should never have been in that ring in the first place. Except for one sad, brief encounter with an unknown fighter in May 1984, he had not fought in five years and 50 days. And yet here he was, facing one of the most remorseless, murderous punchers in the history of the middleweight division, without a single tune-up to hone his boxing skills. What he was trying to do was unprecedented in the history of this consuming sport.

When the final round began, he was battling on will and instinct alone. There was nothing left. He had extended himself past his limit. But he had to survive one more round, three minutes of what turned out to be sustained fury. Desperate and sensing that he was in trouble, Hagler opened the 12th by lunging and missing with a right hand. Off a left hook, Leonard caught Hagler with a three-punch combination that brought the crowd of 15,336 roaring to its feet. Then Hagler nailed Leonard with a stiff right and suddenly the two men were talking to each other. They had been doing that all night.

"They were using certain words in the ring that I would not care to repeat," said referee Richard Steele. "They were going at each other verbally as well as physically."

After the chatter stopped, Hagler caught Leonard with a sweeping hook, but Leonard bobbed beneath another, escaping, and began moving laterally and then backward as the stalking champion bulled in and finally caught him in a neutral corner. Here Hagler banged him with a sharp left hook, but he missed another left as Leonard dipped, then missed again. But Hagler still had Leonard pinned to the ring post, and he belted him with lefts and rights.

Suddenly, when Hagler seemed to lave the tiring challenger where he wanted him, Leonard began throwing lard, flashing punches in a sustained burst that left Hagler bewildered and covering. It was the longest flurry of the fight, a dozen rapid-fire punches on Hagler's face and arms that ended with Leonard slipping free and now moving left and right. Once again Hagler advanced and trapped Leonard on the ropes, and once again Leonard summoned up a flurry, not only getting away but actually sticking out his chin and mugging at the champion, just as he had lone when he forced Roberto Duran to surrender in the "no màs" fight of 1980.

This had been a Hagler crowd from he outset—Leonard was even booed at the weigh-in that morning, when he showed up at 158 pounds and Hagler at 158½—but chanting had been heard for Leonard in the middle rounds, and now, as the end drew near, the chants grew louder and more sustained: "Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray!"

Hearing that, Leonard began dancing to the left, out of reach of Hagler, circling the ring while raising his right hand in the air. Hagler moved in, raising his right hand, too, and maneuvered Leonard onto the ropes again. He drilled Leonard to the body and then landed a crackling left that sagged the challenger. The bell then rang to end it.

That last round, in certain key particulars, reflected the ebb and flow of the bout. And if the outcome was a surprise to the legions who backed Hagler and gave Leonard no chance, the manner in which the two men went at each other was not. Leonard had said all along that he would box Hagler, move around him, give him more angles than he had ever seen, try to frustrate him, make him miss, tie him up. For himself, citing Joe Louis's old dictum—"He can run, but he can't hide"—Hagler insisted that he would stalk Leonard, cut off the ring on him and beat him inside.

As part of his psych game, Hagler waited for Leonard to appear first in the ring, and the challenger did so at 8:02 p.m., wearing white trunks with a red stripe, and red tassels on his white shoes. Leonard shadowboxed in the ring, spinning low and twisting quickly, and to that performance the crowd howled. Ray Charles Leonard was back.

"Go get him, Ray!" shouted Dunlap. "You got him!"

Three minutes later Hagler ascended the steps into the ring, dressed in a purple top with a hood pulled over his head. He threw punches at the cool night air. Symbolically, this is the way they fought much of this fight, Leonard with tassels flying freely in the wind as he boxed and Hagler moving robotlike beneath a hood that allowed him only tunnel vision.

Leonard came out dancing and moving and making Hagler lunge and miss. In the early rounds he was the consummate boxer, firing combinations as he kept from harm's way. Leonard put on a show, twisting and turning and popping Hagler—here an uppercut, there a jab, at one point grabbing the rope in his right hand and mugging at the champion, at another point delivering a low-blow bolo punch sure to further inflame an already frustrated opponent. Hagler was having a devil of a time connecting with anything close to a serious blow. Leonard was getting off more quickly, consistently stealing a march on Hagler. Looking off-balance and disoriented, Hagler missed frequently and often wildly.

Leonard won the first four rounds outright, but by the fifth and sixth, Hagler was beginning to find the range and Leonard was no longer moving with his early verve. In the seventh, a Hagler hook rocked Leonard and the challenger briefly sagged. Now, Hagler battled Leonard to the ropes, firing shots up and down. He had Leonard in trouble as the bell sounded.

But the champion was still behind in the scoring, and it was patently clear that, if his legs held up, Leonard would win. In the eighth round, an impatient Hagler snarled to Leonard, "Come on, slug!"

"No chance," said Leonard.

But Hagler was beginning to catch Leonard on the ropes, and the challenger was growing weary. In the ninth, surely the best round of the fight, Hagler pinned Leonard in the latter's corner and was whaling at him ferociously with both hands, rocking the challenger and looking to finish him.

But no, double no! In an instant, Leonard retaliated with a flurry that had Hagler's head snapping left and right. Leonard then spun away and escaped. Hagler pursued, thinking he still had Leonard in trouble. But when Hagler caught up, Leonard flurried again, drawing upon reserves he had no right to have. Throughout the fight, even with Leonard right in front of him, Hagler had problems solving his foe's rich boxing style. He couldn't seem to put combinations together, and whenever he seemed to have Leonard in trouble, he couldn't muster the savvy to put him away.

The 12th round underscored that failing as well as any other, and Leonard's spent condition at the end was testimony to the strength of character it had taken to score this upset of upsets. In the face of his long layoff and the odds against him—five to two in Vegas betting parlors—Leonard had fought magnificently and displayed great courage and resolve.

The fight was close and a difficult one to judge, but there were scattered boos from the crowd when ring announcer Chuck Hull declared that it was a split decision. After revealing that judge Lou Filippo had scored it 115 to 113 for Hagler and that judge Jo Jo Guerra had it 118 to 110 for Leonard (what fight could he possibly have been watching?), Hull then intoned that judge Dave Moretti had scored it 115 to 113.

Hull's next line made history and brought down the house: "The winner, by a split decision, and new [WBC] middleweight champion of the world. Sugar Ray Leonard!"

Ecstatic, Leonard leaped up on the bottom ring rope, just as he had when he won his first world title on Nov. 30, 1979, defeating Wilfred Benitez for the welterweight championship. Moments later, in the dressing room, Leonard's wife, Juanita, was sobbing when their son, 13-year-old Ray Jr., went to his father's side.

"Son, your daddy was tough tonight," Leonard said to the boy. "You can go to school tomorrow with your head up."

When Leonard saw his manager and adviser, Mike Trainer, he walked up to him and kissed him, the first time in their 11-year association that Leonard had ever done that. "You're a tough little s——," Trainer said to him. "I'm so proud of you, it scares me."

"What should I say to the press?" Ray asked.

"Let's have some fun," Trainer said. "Let's not do the Kevin Howard thing again." After Leonard won that lackluster fight with Howard in 1984, he had promptly announced his retirement.

As they left the dressing room, Leonard said to Trainer, "You know, Mike, I am a tough little s——."

In the walkway outside the dressing room, Leonard's brother, Kenny, was saying, "He wanted it so bad. That's what kept him going."

At the press conference as he prepared to address the media, some old animosities surfaced. Leonard refused to sit next to Bob Arum, the promoter of the fight. Trainer and Arum dislike each other intensely. "I don't want to sit next to that man," Leonard said. So, 20 feet away from Arum, he thanked Hagler for giving him "the chance to make history."

"I was never interested in his title," Leonard said. "Just in beating him. I still think he's the undisputed middleweight champion of the world.... Marvin never hurt me, but he shook me up. I felt his punching power late, but by then he'd given away six or seven rounds so he had to come on strong. My strategy was stick and move, hit and run, taunt and frustrate. I knew it would be a tough fight, but I beat him to the punch. He was calling me a sissy."

Then, abruptly, Leonard left. "I have no more to say," he said, and he was gone.

When Hagler appeared, he complained bitterly about the scoring, calling to mind the day in Vegas in 1979 when he drew with then champion Vito Antuofermo and thus lost his first chance at a title. He was not gracious in defeat. "I feel in my heart that I am still the champion," Hagler said. "I hate the fact that they took it from me and gave it to Sugar Ray Leonard, of all people.... I can't believe I have to go to sleep and wake up and have to believe all this again. The bell saved him three times. Leonard fought like a girl sometimes. His flurries meant nothing.... I think he should have to beat me more decisively to take the title."

But, in the end, Leonard had justified the characteristic prefight optimism of his trainer, Angelo Dundee. "My guy is not supposed to be fighting, but that's what gets you juiced up," Dundee had said. "This has never been done before. It's unheard of. We're rewriting the boxing record book. My guy is going to outbox him and outthink him. Believe me. Ray Leonard can't lose."

When it was all over, Ray Leonard hadn't. And now Trainer was recalling, with particularly keen relish, his own crucial role in the fight's outcome. During contract negotiations, Trainer had insisted that the bout go 12 rounds, not 15. He yielded to Hagler's people on their demands for Las Vegas as the site, Arum as the promoter and the majority share of the money to Hagler as the champion. (Hagler will earn at least $13.5 million, Leonard perhaps $12 million.) But he was determined that the fight be a 12-rounder. After all, he argued, Leonard had been out of the ring a long time and surely it was not too much to ask to give Leonard the three rounds. Ultimately, it was the Hagler camp that relented.

"We bought three rounds," Trainer says. "I gave them the money and they gave me the rounds. They wanted the money. We wanted the win. Ray retired Hagler tonight."

As the night wound down, Trainer met quietly and alone with Leonard in the fighter's room at Caesars. "You know what," Leonard said, "I don't really realize what I just did."

"Tiger, don't worry about it," Trainer told him. "The rest of the world does."

PHOTOWILL HART/HBO PHOTOJOHN IACONOLeonard's sharp punches kept Hagler from getting in close where he could do damage. PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA 5[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOEver the showman, Sugar Ray stuck out his chin to taunt Hagler and wound up for a bolo, all the while keeping his face out of range. PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.] PHOTOWILL HART/HBO[See caption above.] PHOTOMANNY MILLANBoth fighters exultantly claimed victory at the bell, after which Leonard dropped to his knees in exhaustion and not-so-Marvelous Marvin was left to fret over the verdict. PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.] PHOTOWILL HART/HBO[See caption above.]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)