It came as everybody knew it would: a bright, ragged blossoming of blood over Vito Antuofermo's brow that coursed down into his eye sockets and the fissures of his wrecked face. The only surprise was the speed with which it happened: barely 30 seconds into the first round of his challenge for Marvin Hagler's world middleweight title at Boston Garden on Saturday night. An elemental howl from the crowd signaled that the cutting had started and that once again there would be no chance in the world that Antuofermo would finish the fight.
A flurry of rights from Hagler had taken him to the ropes; then, as he straightened to escape, heads collided. An accidental butt, seemingly on Antuofermo's part. But suddenly the mask of blood was there again. Blindly he hung on as more of Hagler's rights pounded him and, with the bell, just as blindly he stared out at the crowd, oblivious of the necessity for speed in getting the cut attended to. In his corner, assistant trainer Panama Lewis was screaming incomprehensibly and Freddie Brown, Antuofermo's veteran trainer, a cut man of extraordinary skills, was in the middle of the ring, shouting at the referee. Brown contended that Hagler had butted Antuofermo and wanted Referee Davey Pearl to stop the fight and rule it a technical draw. Nearly three minutes passed before the fight was resumed, an extra two minutes that Antuofermo and Brown desperately needed.
And then, coldly, precisely, Hagler went to work on the cut again, opening it once more with a five-blow combination that started with a right uppercut. "I don't care how I did it," the champion said later. "That's the game of boxing." No one could contradict him on that score or blame him for cynicism. The sad thing was that the fight had to happen at all, that a fighter as skilled and as consummately professional as Hagler had to earn his money this way.
On Thursday, in the dank heat of Provincetown, on Cape Cod, where he was training, Hagler muttered, over and over: "Gonna swat that mosquito, Vito the Mosquito." He had moved into that semi-trance common to many fighters late in their training. That afternoon Hagler worked out for the last time in the ring with Goody Petronelli, his trainer and friend of 11 years, Petronelli simulating Autuofermo's whirl-away style and Hagler countering, coming in under the hooks, working on the combinations. "You got me where you want me," grunted Petronelli from the ropes, and the long preparation was over. But Hagler, it seemed, was far away indeed from where he wanted to be himself.
As a mark, maybe, of his increased self-confidence since he took the combined WBA/WBC middleweight title from Alan Minter in London last September, Hagler has trimmed his mustache down to a less ferocious length. But the head is still austerely shaved, and more than a touch of bitterness persists in him. "I've paid my dues, haven't I?" he asked. "Now I'm waiting for some big money."
To dismiss his attitude as avaricious would be unfair. Hagler is one of a handful of fighters of excellence around today, and he has indeed paid his dues in full, especially in the long, lean years when there seemed almost to be a conspiracy to keep the middleweight title out of his hands. And now that he has it, there seem no more worthwhile peaks to conquer and, more practically, no money-drawing names to fight. A little sardonically he will mention possible opponents: the undistinguished Syrian, Mustafa Hamsho; Dwight Davison, who is (they must have kept it pretty quiet) the WBC's No. 1 contender; Curtis Parker; Wilford Scypion.
Antuofermo, at least, was a better draw than any of these. Even so, Hagler expected to pick up no more than half a million dollars from Saturday's fight. "I'm a million-dollar fighter, aren't I?" he asked reasonably. And certainly he is accomplished enough to stand up in the company of such would-be middle-weights as Thomas Hearns and Wilfred Benitez. And yes, Sugar Ray Leonard.
On Leonard's glittering career Hagler casts a cold and envious eye, in particular the instant television contract, the fast title shot and the $16 million in purses that came with the Duran fights. Hagler has called Leonard "greedy," and said, "One day I will get what I am due. I am very patient."
Three months ago, in Syracuse, N.Y., at the Leonard-Larry Bonds fight, there had been talk of a Leonard-Hagler match. "But they took Hearns instead," said Petronelli. Meanwhile, though, if a convoluted set of circumstances comes about, Hagler might meet Sugar Ray next year. Hagler's title could be next on Leonard's list should Sugar Ray take the junior middleweight title from Ayub Kalule later this month.
At 10 p.m. last Saturday evening, Vito Antuofermo was still in the way. "He's been on my mind a long time," said the champion. Since, indeed, that curious draw the two had fought in Las Vegas in November 1979, a fight Hagler had dominated until the seventh round. Then he had lost pace and allowed Antuofermo to catch up. This time, after Antuofermo's two bloody defeats by Minter—who then had been beaten by Hagler—you couldn't get working odds anywhere around Boston that Marvelous Marvin the Brockton Blackbuster (that's what it says on Petronelli's T shirt) would fail to put Antuofermo away.
In the days before the fight, the craggy-faced Antuofermo sat much of the time in his Boston hotel room, playing solitaire and waiting for the next reporter to walk in and ask him about his supraorbital ridges.
Advance ticket sales for the fight hadn't been great, but the promoters might have hoped for a late lift from lovers of a bloodletting despite the fact that Antuofermo had had his supraorbitals fixed. They are the bony ridges behind the eyebrows—in his case prominent and sharp—that caused the worst of the many cuts he has suffered in the ring. The supraorbitals broke the skin from behind when he took a punch, causing blood to stream into his eyes.
And few who saw the fearful, bloody mask that he wore at the end of the eighth round when he failed to regain the title from Minter in London a year ago would have believed Antuofermo would ever fight again. A proven bleeder, Antuofermo was, with a face of paper. Forget him, everybody said. But a few months later, there he was at Hagler's victory party in London, talking about the new doctor he had found.
A surgeon, more precisely, and a neighbor of Antuofermo's on New York's Long Island, Dr. Jerld Acker, who took a look at those supraorbitals, decided they were the cause of all the trouble and planed them down so that they wouldn't cut through so easily. And so, $4,000 lighter and three days in the hospital later, the new-model Antuofermo emerged, one perhaps without the automatic blood-donor features.
In April he went 10 rounds with Mauricio Aldana, and though he won the decision, he was cut four times—but not on the brows, where the most incapacitating wounds, the blinding kind, used to occur. (If they had, Antuofermo was heard to declare, not altogether jokingly, he would be wanting his $4,000 back.)
Antuofermo's scarred visage was the focus of all the prefight battling between the rival camps, symbolized by Freddie Brown's little black bag, which, Petronelli believed, contained all sorts of arcane and illegal substances meant to stanch wounds swiftly. "He's not going to use that hokey-pokey stuff, that axle grease of his, on cuts," said Petronelli. "It's illegal. I have a copy of the rule book, and it says a [1/1000] solution of Adrenalin only. Freddie Brown's been around maybe a hundred years—it's hard for him to climb in the ring between rounds—but that don't mean nuthin'."
The jockeying went on: Even the certification of the weigh-in scale was disputed for a time by Antuofermo's camp. In the end the cut stuff in Brown's bag was cleared, but it would be unavailing. Still, no one could have forecast how swiftly the ax would fall.
The patched-up Antuofermo came out for the third, and Hagler put him down briefly with a straight left. And then that tormented, flailing courage of Antuofermo's was seen for a moment or two as he pressed forward. Effortlessly, Hagler kept him at bay with steady rights. There was more patching by Brown before the fourth, and then a hard right opened a new cut under the right eye. Finally an apparent butt by Hagler made the worst split of all—just above the same eye. Arms waving, his mouth full of cotton, Brown was in midring again to protest at the bell, but in Antuofermo's corner Tony Carione, Antuofermo's co-manager, had already conceded.
It was called a TKO in the fifth, and for Vito Antuofermo, it should be a TKO to a career. But when asked, inevitably, if he would fight again, a huge grin spread over his face.
As for Hagler, the hard man, what were his plans? "I'm not fighting in Massachusetts again," he said, having given the question some serious thought, "unless I get a tax break." Sticking to essentials, as usual. That's our Marvin.
At the start of each round, Antuofermo's face was unbloody. Then heads or fists would reopen cuts.
Heads crashed once again during a rare clinch.
Thirty seconds into the first, an accidental butt had Antuofermo bleeding badly enough to blur his vision. After that, even his expert cut man had no chance.
Antuofermo leaves the ring. Would he fight again? His wordless answer was a grotesque smile.
Hagler would jump at the chance to fight again. His problem is finding foes to give him a big payday.