Marvelous Marvin Hagler is an actor living in Milan, Italy. Right, you say, and I'm the Duke of Earl.
But here is Hagler, the boxing barbarian whose T-shirts used to read DESTRUCT AND DESTROY, now subdued and dignified, drinking mineral water at the sedate, book-lined London Bar in the Hilton Hotel in Milan's business district, discussing his new life, his new direction, his new avocation. He has been in Milan for almost a year now and has two action movies, Indio (now available in the U.S. on video-cassette) and Indio 2, under his belt. A third film, Nights of Fear, is set to go into production in the Soviet Union in September. At 36, Hagler is leading a quiet life away from booze, domestic trauma, the sweet science, rumors and, most of all, away from Sugar Ray Leonard.
You may have lost track of Hagler, but if you're a fight fan you must remember April 6, 1987. That was the night Hagler had his undisputed middleweight crown snatched from him by Leonard on a 12-round split decision that sucked the life-blood from the shaved-headed terror, turning one of the world's most savage fighters into a lost dog. Everybody said that Hagler needed boxing to remain sane, that he needed to be the champion of the world in order to keep his demons at bay and to sate his immense pride. Now he had lost his title of nearly seven years, the one he had defended a dozen times, to a dancing, back-pedaling little pretty-boy—a con artist, hardly a man at all, by Hagler's standards.
Leonard had never hurt Hagler, and hurting was what Hagler's game was about. Sugar Ray had skittered around and punched in harmless flurries, while an enraged, cursing Hagler had stalked and thrown one blow at a time at an elusive target. Two of the judges went for the flurries. Hagler was stunned at the decision. "He never hurt me," he said after the fight, again and again. But what was he going to do about it? What could he do now? There would be no return match. Leonard sure didn't need him. Who needs a wounded beast?
July 1, 1990
"Where does he go now?" Leonard asked after the bout. "I feel sad for him. I really do."
Indeed, Hagler went off the deep end for a while. He drank heavily—there were reports in the Boston press that he used cocaine, which he denied—and watched his marriage end and began sinking like a rudderless ship in high seas. But then, slowly, Hagler righted himself. He didn't return to the ring, but he got his life together, pursuing some business ventures, some commercials, some endorsements, some charity stuff. He and his wife, Bertha, are divorced, but they have made peace with each other. He tried to explain his needs to his five kids. Then he split to Italy, alone, to become an actor. That's how people lost track of him.
But now, suddenly, it is the pretty-boy who needs the killer for one more battle. The 34-year-old Leonard wants to fight Hagler again and then re-retire. Leonard wants everything to be clean, untainted by a split decision that has begun to haunt him, too. And, of course, Leonard wants the money that such a rematch would bring. Promoter Bob Arum has offered Hagler a minimum of $15 million for a re-turn bout, and Hagler's trainers, Goody and Pat Petronelli of Brockton, Mass., think he should take it.
Hagler came back to the U.S. in early June to attend his daughter Celeste's high school graduation, and he talked to the Petronellis during his stay. The threesome goes way back, back to when Hagler first arrived in Brockton from Newark after the 1969 riots in the New Jersey port city and walked into the Petronellis' gym as a mean, tough, raw 15-year-old ready to beat people up. The Petronellis are almost kin to Hagler now. What's their cut if Hagler were to take the fight? "A third," says Pat. "Hey, what can we say? We want it more than anything. But there's respect here. I said to Marvin, 'If you want it, it's there. Think about it.' He said something amazing: 'God, I wanted to beat him so bad—you know that, Pat. But now, for the first time in my life, I'm happy with myself. I'm retired.' "
Now as he walks down a sidewalk in Milan, Hagler has an almost beatific glow about him. Somehow, though, it doesn't quite compute. There is the 5'9½" body that is all shoulders, arms and fists, and, of course, that menacing, shining head that he still shaves daily. "My stand-in during the last movie had to shave his head, too, and he asked me how I get mine so smooth, with no bumps," says Hagler. "But it took years to learn the secret, and I didn't tell him."
Hagler laughs. His dark face is a mixture of statements. His eyes are placid, but his brow is furrowed. And there are those scars that reveal his former craft. Four of the stitches on his forehead came from the legendary Tommy Hearns brawl in 1985, the first round of which was perhaps the most brutal slugfest ever to start a title bout. "Hit Man, my ass," Hagler said before he beat Hearns into submission. The five stitches above his right eye came from Mustafa Hamsho in 1981; Hamsho himself needed 55 stitches. But now Hagler is a mellow man.
"I considered the $15 million, but it didn't come close to changing my mind," he says. "Financially, I'm in good shape. My health is good, my brain is good. One more fight and you never know what might happen. I'm not going to win an Oscar, but I'm getting better. In five years maybe I could be a world-known actor."
But this is Ray Leonard, your nemesis, the man who stole your crown, the man who will lurk beside you forever because he outfoxed you. Like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, you two are forever associated, movie career or not.
"A while ago, yeah, I wanted him so bad," says Hagler evenly. "But I'm over that. And the problems I had after the fight had nothing to do with Leonard. I was drinking a lot—I wasn't using cocaine—but it was because my wife and I were having problems, not the Leonard situation. Basically, I was just drinking with a lot of other men with the same problems. Plus, I was doing some things I hadn't been able to do in 17 years of training, taking some of the fruits of my labor. I realized I was hurting myself, and I snapped out of it. But it had to take time. You have to like yourself. I like me now. I love me. I think I'm a very nice guy carrying himself well."
He is as pleasant an ex-fighter as anyone could hope to meet, always writing more than just his name when fans ask for his autograph, opening doors for everybody, paying attention to the people around him. It's nice that he has gone through what might have been an early mid-life crisis and come out in good shape. Still, he is a fighter. And fighters fight. Even old ones, like George Foreman. Hagler doesn't like that, though. "I think he's setting a bad example," he says.
Hagler laughs again. "I'm laughing at Leonard," he says. "I used to be the old man, but now look at him—he's getting old. What goes around, comes around."
It does, and it is ironic now that Hagler can most readily punish Leonard by not fighting him. "People saw that fight," says Pat Petronelli. "They have to be saying, 'Give Hagler another chance.' Ray's a proud guy, and he wants to clear the air."
But if Hagler is really through as a fighter, why was he pounding a heavy bag in Manila last month during the filming of Indio 2? Why is he in rock-hard shape at 168 pounds, right where he should be before razoring down to a middleweight's 160?
"I was working out in the Philippines because Sergeant Iron has to be very strong," he replies. "That's my character. When my body's in top shape, my mind is, too. And the only way I know to get in shape is doing my regular routine. A fighter's routine."
Hagler explains that his movie characters see a lot of heavy action and that he has to pull punches in most of his scenes, something he has never done. "For a fighter, that's bad," he says. "If you do it outside the ring, you'll do it inside."
But when Petronelli recently asked him if he could still fight, Hagler said simply, "Yes."
But Hagler is retired now—for whatever that's worth. Leonard has retired twice himself.
"If I didn't understand what happened in that fight, then it would bother me," Hagler says. "But I understand they took the fight from me. I don't know if they paid anybody off, but I beat Leonard. I look at the film and think, 'What are these people talking about?' I almost had him out in the ninth, but the bell saved him. Hearns had him out twice, but didn't finish him. Hearns has never been the same since I finished him. None of my fighters are ever the same. And Leonard is not the same, either."
Hagler was conservative with the roughly $40 million in purses he earned. In Milan he lives in a two-bedroom apartment and gets by, he says, on "$10,000 a month for everything." He is embarrassed by the sad financial state in which so many former fighters have found themselves. "I saw Joe Louis at the door at Caesars Palace, just shaking hands, and that left a bad taste in my mouth," he says. "Then I saw Jersey Joe Walcott doing the same thing in Atlantic City. Great champions. That keeps me moving."
But why Italy?
"I like the country, the culture, the people," he says. "And I knew Milan had people who could help me get into movies. What happened was, I wanted to move. I needed a change in my life. People said I wouldn't last a week here, and, I'll tell you, this was a challenge. The first day I was here I got locked in my room because my landlady didn't speak English, and I had to jump off the balcony, and then I had nothing to eat and no lira, and I'm this black guy who doesn't speak Italian, and, you know, I stuck it out because I'm a survivor. Now I love it here."
Hagler speaks decent Italian, and he says that when he has mastered it, he may move to France and master that country's language as well. "I want to learn how other people live," he says. A ninth-grade dropout, Hagler has become the eager student. But isn't there a score to settle before he can be truly at peace?
"The boxing game is over," Hagler says almost gently. "Now is the time to shake hands with your opponents."
The Petronellis don't know exactly what to think of their old fighter these days.
"Once in a while Marvin sends us a postcard picturing him in the jungle, riding in a Jeep," says Pat Petronelli. "He looks happy."
Maybe he is.