La Dolce Vita! Based in Milan since retiring from the ring 16 years ago, the former middleweight champion is training his sights on leading-man status in Italian cinema

July 11, 2004

He looks marvelous. Marvin Hagler turned 50 earlier this year, but
he's doing a hell of a job parrying the assault of time. He is
all but indistinguishable from the man who ruled the middleweight
division with two iron fists for most of the 1980s. Still within
a few pounds of his fighting weight of 160, he has the same
muscles by Michelangelo, the same pencil-thin mustache, the same
wry smile-scowl combo and, of course, the same shaved head,
which, he is quick to point out, is "by choice, not because of
nature." After sizing up Hagler recently, Emile Griffith, the
great welterweight, exclaimed, "He looks like he could take a fight
tomorrow."

Which made Hagler an anomaly on a balmy Friday last month in
upstate New York. As it does every year, the induction ceremony
at the Boxing Hall of Fame outside Syracuse doubled as an alumni
weekend of sorts for the fistic fraternity. Former champs with
names like Duran and Pryor and LaMotta and Norton made the trip.
It was a happy affair at which the old fighters swapped stories,
posed for photos and delivered mock uppercuts. But there were
also abundant reminders of just how savage and unforgiving boxing
can be. Scar tissue, slurred speech and shaky movements were all
too visible. (And these were the guys who won.) As he observed
one former champ, still in his 40s, struggling up the stairs at
the Days Inn where the fighters were staying, Hagler raised an
eyebrow. "Glad I got out when I did," he said quietly.

As brilliantly as he fought, Hagler further distinguished himself
after boxing. His health and wealth intact (he had earned an
estimated $40 million in purses over his 15-year pro career), he
tendered his resignation from the sport in 1988. He was 34, with
a 62-3-2 record, near the peak of his powers, and he left of his
own accord. By choice, not because of nature. What are you going
to do now, Marvin? the guys at the gym asked. Pack up and go to
Italy to start an acting career, he shot back. Hagler still
recalls the laughter that response provoked: "They were like,
'Ha-ha-ha, I'll give you three months. They'll offer you money,
and you'll be back in the fight game.'"

The last 16 years have galloped by, and Hagler still has a base
in Milan, Italy--EE-tah-lee, as he pronounces it. More
remarkable, he never got back in the game. Oh, he heard the siren
song luring him to return. He plugged not only his ears but his
nose as well. "I didn't even want to smell a boxing ring," he
says. "Just getting that close, you start to get that feeling
again and start thinking crazy thoughts."

Hagler quit cold turkey because he threw himself into a new
arena: acting. In his first full-length feature, in 1989, he
played a Marine in the Italian movie Indio. He acted alongside
Brian Dennehy as well as Anthony Quinn's son Francesco, and while
the flick wasn't exactly Oscar-worthy--come si dice
"straight-to-video"?--it lit a flame in Hagler. He started taking
acting lessons, aggressively going after roles, and his oeuvre
has grown to include such other down-market Italian action flicks
as Virtual Weapon, Night of Fear and the obligatory Indio 2. He
usually plays bad guys. "But," he adds, "I'm always looking to
branch out."

Hagler is humble about his acting, analogizing his current
stature to that of a journeyman boxer. That elusive big role is
his championship fight. "If the call comes, I'm going to be
ready," he says. "I'm staying in shape, reading over scripts,
really analyzing movies when I watch them. I'm fighting a
stereotype that boxers can't talk, can't read, can't act. I want
to surprise everyone."

It's the same approach Hagler took with boxing. He trained with a
singular intensity and purpose--"Jail," he called his camps--and
was impeccably prepared and conditioned when he came to fight. A
southpaw with ball-peen hammers for hands, a chin of granite and
a significant mean streak, he didn't so much beat opponents as he
defaced them. Hagler lost two fights early in his career but
exacted revenge by winning the rematches. In 1980 he won the
middleweight belt when he knocked out Britain's Alan Minter at
Wembley Arena. He defended his title a dozen times over the
years, beating Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, among others, and
closing in on Carlos Monzon's then division record of 14
successful title defenses.

On a cool Las Vegas night in April 1987, Hagler took on Sugar Ray
Leonard, who had emerged from a five-year retirement for the
fight. It was an electrifying 12-rounder that lived up to the
considerable hype and spawned a mythology that grows with the
years. Leonard won a split decision that was, at best,
controversial. "He never hurt me," Hagler said after the bout.
"He never hurt me."

The psychic wounds, however, were searing. And clearly they
remain unhealed nearly two decades later. Even today Hagler
refers obliquely to the fight as "the thing that happened with
the Sugar Ray Leonard situation." It isn't just that Hagler got
the short end of the decision. It's that Leonard won by fighting
pretty, a cardinal sin when you're a blue-collar fighter. ("Come
on, little bitch, hit me!" Hagler shouted repeatedly throughout
the fight.) Polish and glibness and artifice had trumped grit and
authenticity. Hagler's faith was shaken.

Humiliated, he returned home to Brockton, Mass., outside Boston
and endured a rocky few months--what he now euphemistically calls
"enjoying the fruits of my labor." He drank heavily. His 10-year
marriage to his wife, Bertha, with whom he has five kids,
dissolved. Three times he watched a tape of the fight. Three
times, he claims, he ended up smashing the television. He stayed
in shape, hoping to hell that Leonard would grant him a rematch.
He waited a year, to no avail. Then he left the country.

Time has salved some of the hurt. "I'm still not happy with the
decision, but I don't dwell on it," he says. "If the roles had
been reversed, and he thought he got a raw deal, naturally, I
would have given him a rematch. That's what true champions do. I
saw the way he acted [in ducking Hagler], and that's not a true
champion. There was nothing for me to prove, and I said, 'Why sit
around and get old?'"

By the time Leonard finally came calling in 1990, figuring that
he and Hagler could dwarf the $25 million the two had shared the
first time they fought, Hagler was firmly ensconced in la dolce
vita. The prospect of a $15 million payday was not enough. No
grazie.

The move to Milan was impetuous. He arrived not knowing a word of
Italian. "I found out fast that if you don't talk, you don't
eat," Hagler says. He enrolled at Berlitz, started socializing
with the locals, rode his bike into town for cappuccino and
learned to discriminate among olive oils when he cooks. In 2000
Hagler married an Italian woman, Kay Guarino, an indomitable
blonde who had never heard of him until he started courting her.
Today he is not only in Italy; but he is also of Italy. "I've
just fallen in love with the whole country, the whole culture,"
he says. "You know something? The other day I was riding my bike
and I saw an 80-year-old woman helping her husband put on a
cashmere coat. He's not going anywhere, but he wants to look nice
and elegant. That's Italy right there."

In truth he's only a part-time resident. Bobbing and weaving to
maintain his U.S. citizenship and tax status, Hagler is never in
Milan for more than 180 days a year. He still has a place in
Brockton as well as a retreat in Conway, N.H., to which he and
Kay will repair this summer. He'll do some corporate appearances
here, a charity event there. He might fly back to Europe to be a
guest commentator for a BBC card. But mostly Hagler will be by
the phone, waiting for his Boston lawyer to contact him about
another acting role. "He really wants [his big-screen career] to
work," says Kay. "He identifies himself more as an actor than a
boxer now."

It's true, Hagler nods. Part of it, he concedes, is a low-grade
addiction to the spotlight--"You know, keeping my face out there,
letting my fans know I'm doing great"--but there's also the
challenge. As with his fights, no two roles are the same, each
requiring a different skill set. "Even when you think it's easy,"
he says, "it's hard."

Hagler tells the story of shooting his last scene in Night of
Fear. He had traveled to Russia for the filming, and his
character, after getting ventilated by bullets, was supposed to
die. "The director says, 'Die,'" Hagler recalls. "Believe it or
not, it was the hardest scene for me. I mean, how exactly do you
die? Hey, I've never died. I've only lived."

B/W PHOTO: JOHN IACONO (INSET) PUNCH LINE Friends joked that Hagler (right, after defeating Vito Antuofermo in 1981) would last three months in Italy. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE PUNCH LINE Friends joked that Hagler (right, after defeating VitoAntuofermo in 1981) would last three months in Italy. COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO (HAGLER COVER) TOUGH ACT The champ defended his title 12 times.
COLOR PHOTO: LIONEL CIRONNEAU/AP (HAGLER) STAR TURN Good guy Hagler usually plays a bad guy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)