At close to midnight last Saturday, at Bailey's Hotel in London, Marvin Hagler, the new, undisputed middleweight champion of the world, grinned hugely and then pulled on a pint mug of English ale. "Putting some fluid back in my body," he explained. Which also seemed to be the undivided aim of the contingent of 20 or so of his townsfolk from Brockton, Mass., who had traveled to England to cheer him on.
That they all needed a bit of fluid with some potency was understandable. Only now, and slowly, were they beginning to relax from a frightening experience. Somewhat more than an hour earlier, just after Hagler had taken the title from England's Alan Minter in slightly less than nine blood-bespattered minutes of fighting, exultation had abruptly changed to terror as the ugliest crowd ever to show up at Wembley Arena—10,000 strong, many high on booze and crude chauvinism—viciously turned on the visiting Americans and their champion.
To set the scene: 1:45 into Round 3 Minter is bleeding from four terrible cuts, two near each eye, and there is no need to consult the ring doctor about stopping the bout. Minter's manager, Doug Bidwell, concedes the instant Referee Carlos Berrocal steps in to wave Hagler away and take a closer look at Minter's gory face. Hagler goes down on his knees in a Borg-style gesture of thanksgiving but he can barely rise again because beer bottles, many half full, start to rain down on the ring, and a horrifying ululation of howls and boos fills the arena.
"I went down low and my guys protected me," Hagler recalled over his ale at Bailey's. His handlers had done it by forming a human blanket. Goody Petronelli, Hagler's trainer and co-manager, was hit by a bottle. Quickly, helmeted bobbies moved in—"It was beautiful to see them," said Petronelli—and they, with the cornermen, formed a phalanx and herded Hagler safely through the ropes. They would never have made it all the way to the dressing room through that murderous crowd. Instead, they went into a tunnel under the north balcony and straight into police security headquarters.
Meanwhile, up in the south balcony Rita Kechejian, who is the wife of Nishan Kechejian, Hagler's personal physician, had made the mistake of holding up a modest banner that read BRING IT HOME TO BROCKTON, MARVIN! "They ripped our sign down and frightened us," she said, stunned. Bertha Hagler, Marvin's wife, was sitting beside Rita and had been equally shaken. She wisely kept the handkerchief-sized American flag she had planned to wave at the moment of victory tucked inside her pocket-book. Although, mercifully, none of the Brockton 20 in the stands had come to physical harm, each of them had a horror story to tell of how, apparently, Britain's endemic soccer violence had spilled over into boxing.
"I was scared, panicking," Petronelli said later. "I'd been warned that we'd hear a lot of noise, but I never expected the bottle throwing. Not in England. And then, when we finally got to the limo, they'd smashed the windshield. Thank God we weren't in it then." It was fortunate also that the besieged Hagler entourage didn't run into that part of the mob outside that was chanting the obscene racist slogans of the National Front, Britain's version of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a tainted night for Hagler, a disastrous one for Minter and a shameful one for England.
A crowd is a blunt weapon, though, and it has to be honed before it becomes as dangerous as this one was. Perhaps contributing a bit to the mob madness was the thought of Johnny Owen, the Welsh bantamweight, still lying in a coma in a Los Angeles hospital after being knocked out in the 12th round of his title match the week before against champion Lupe Pintor. British newspapers had widely reported how, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, Owen had been pelted by beer bottles as he lay in the ring.
But much of the ugliness at Wembley could be laid directly at the feet of Minter. In front of too many people with notebooks the champion had announced in early September, "I am not letting any black man take the title from me." He claimed to have been angered by Hagler's alleged refusal to shake hands as the two were introduced in the ring in Las Vegas last November when Hagler fought a controversial draw with then-champion Vito Antuofermo. Kevin Finnegan, a former European middleweight champion, said he had gotten the same treatment from Hagler at that fight, accompanied by the memorable words, "I don't touch white flesh."
In subsequent days, though, some fence-mending was done. Minter decided that what he actually said was "that black man," and Hagler, nattily outfitted in a three-piece pinstripe suit, presented himself to the British press and told reporters that his non-handshaking was non-racial: he never shakes hands with a fighter he might meet in the ring one day.
And the civil Hagler seems the true Hagler, outside the ring at least. He is gentle-spoken, articulate and quick-witted. Why does he shave his skull? Well, he had four sisters and they never let him get at the comb. How did he feel about fighting abroad? Why, he never fights broads; he has too much respect for them.
Hagler is more sensitive, too, than he was given credit for. All week he had asked for news of Owen; he had heard on Friday night that the Welshman had been operated on a second time to relieve intracranial pressure and that his vital signs were "unstable." Hagler constantly questioned his sport as he worked out in a gym located over a pub in the area of South London known as Lavender Hill, which had been made famous by that Alec Guinness movie. "What's wrong?" Hagler wanted to know. "Are we training boxers wrong? Putting them in the ring prepared wrong?"
Hagler also spoke of the uniquely undivided—none of this WBA-WBC stuff—middleweight title he had come so close to winning from Antuofermo in Las Vegas, a deed Minter had accomplished with a split-decision victory last March. "I could almost taste the title that time," Hagler said. "Watch the tape and see how I won it. Easy. Know what I did? I softened Antuofermo up. Minter just beat what was left of him." Hagler might have had a right to be bitter about that decision which left him with an uncrowned-champion label. Before meeting Antuofermo, Hagler had lost only twice in 53 bouts, both on decisions, both early in '76, both reversed in rematches.
Minter's career has been far more patchy: 39 wins, five losses—all on cuts—and one no contest. In the last six years, though, Minter, a restaurateur in Crawley, some 30 miles south of London, had lost only twice and his fortunes had flourished after he won the title from Antuofermo and then demolished him in a June rematch at Wembley. Since then he had become a national hero in England. You can't take the subway in London without seeing him featured on a poster advertising sports clothes with the caption THE COOL TASTE OF MINT. Minter's purse for Saturday night was said to be $500,000—Hagler would get only a quarter of that—and a successful defense of his title would bring Minter such goodies as a $1 million contract for endorsements by Sasson, the leisure-wear company.
"Yeah, well," Minter said coldly of Hagler during one of his own training sessions, "he blew his big chance in Vegas, didn't 'e?" The champion's much-photographed blue eyes were cold, the expression that of a bank manager turning down a loan applicant. "I don't think the guy's all that genuine. He couldn't end Antuofermo. He's a gym fighter. He's unbelievable in the gym, but the moves he makes in the ring don't compare."
In London if one wants an unbiased opinion, one goes to the betting shops. By Saturday morning the bookies were giving 4-5 Minter and even money Hagler; one would need a very fine blade to slice that.
And on Saturday night at Wembley, the crowd began to chant Minter's name shortly after the start of the undercard. The spectators were hyped up enough as it was without the chauvinistic rabble-rousing that Promoters Harry (The Hoarse) Levene and Mickey Duff seemed to consider necessary for the occasion: the five Royal Marines in full ceremonial dress playing fanfares on silver bugles; the dramatic blacking out of the hall; the bathing of Minter in spotlights as he came out of his dressing room; the hugely oversized Union Jack and Banner of St. George of England that accompanied Minter to the ring; his attendants in Union Jack-patterned outfits.
It had a maddening effect on the crowd, maybe even some on Minter, but clearly none at all on Hagler, who simply turned into his corner and loosened up. Hagler, the pundits had declared, would carry the fight hard to Minter in the first five or six rounds, while the champion would hang in, box cautiously, contain Hagler, and then come forth in the second half of the fight when the American's alleged lack of staying power would let Minter go in for the kill.
It didn't happen at all like that. Minter had long ago learned not to crash in at the start, not to lose his temper the first time he was hit. That, at least, was what he and Bidwell kept saying. This was the new, ice-cool Mint, the planner, the strategist.
But Hagler had said in the Lavender Hill gym a couple of days before, "I see the way they've got Minter all hyped up. I wouldn't like that. My pace is medium pace."
And from the bell, a clever medium pace was all Hagler needed. In came Minter, wildly, throwing rights, only to encounter Hagler's left jab. Minter probably won that first round, but at the end of it his face was red and starting to swell. Ominously, there was a small cut alongside his left eye. Jackie McCoy, the cut man Bidwell had imported from Los Angeles, had to start work far sooner than expected.
In the second round, rushing in again, Minter had the crowd screaming as his jabs pushed Hagler back, but the challenger's counterpunching was steady. Now Minter's left eye and nose were bleeding, and there was a more pronounced desperation in his wildness. "I told Marvin," Petronelli said later, " 'Just keep that snapping speed going. He isn't going to last as long as we thought.' I just couldn't believe how Minter was trying to force the fight. Coming after Marvin, the damn fool. We did our damage and kept back."
The damage, by the end of the second round, was almost more than Minter's corner could handle in the one-minute break, and by the middle of the third, Hagler was hitting the champion at will. Minter was blinded by a reopened cut over his left eye, and a final, fearsome right uppercut brought the referee between them with about 75 seconds left in the round. Then came the tumult, and a new champion who wasn't proclaimed but smuggled out of the ring, leaving the dazed and defeated Minter with his handlers, who tried to stanch wounds that later would require 17 stitches.
At Bailey's, as the bad memories faded and the joy sank in, as Hagler in his best three-piece pinstripe moved around the room to shake hands, there was no one more happy than Promoter Bob Arum. "I finally got me a winner," he exulted. "Big John Tate, Marvin Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard, they all went down. But this is the end of the ignominy." Delighted, like a child with a box of chocolates, Arum began to pick through future opponents for Hagler: Fulgencio Obel, the No. 2 contender from Venezuela; Ruben Pardo from Argentina; Mustafa Hamsho, who fights out of New York. He thought for a while, and then, suddenly, said, "Antuofermo."
"That draw with Marvin," Arum said defensively. And, indeed, there across the room was Vito himself. Challenged, he replied, also defensively, "I'd like to. I'm having an operation on my eyes."
For Minter, though, nobody held out a chance. No rematch, said Arum. "Marvin would do this to him every time." It certainly looked like it. But even if he gets another shot, it seems quite likely that Minter's days of trumpets and banners are over.
Hagler dropped to his knees in celebration of stopping Minter in the third round to win the middleweight title, but before he could rise the bottles began whistling into the ring, and his seconds turned from celebrants to bodyguards as they hastily formed a protective cordon around him.
Minter's ill-advised charges resulted in his face turning into a bloody mask by the third round.
Even at the height of the London blitz, brave broadcasters carried on.