It was 4:35 Sunday morning in San Remo, a late hour even for the Italian Riviera, but Marvelous Marvin Hagler was promenading jauntily along the sidewalk of the Corso Cavallotti toward the Hotel Méditerranée. With his leather cap on his shaved head and a tote bag in his left hand, he looked like a workman heading home after the lobster shift. Which, in a way, was what he was.
Almost an hour earlier, on the stage of a movie theater, the Teatro Ariston, before 2,000 spectators, Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, had knocked out Fulgencio Obelmejias of Venezuela at 2:25 of the fifth round, clouting him with a sweeping right hook that caught the challenger on the sweet spot of his jaw. The right hook is the lefthanded Hagler's most destructive punch, and this one had been as swift and decisive as any he'd ever thrown. The San Remo fight had been his first title defense since fracturing a rib in training June 22—his first, in fact, since he knocked out Caveman Lee in 67 seconds on March 7—and he felt a palpable sense of relief in getting it behind him. A small entourage, including Pat and Goody Petronelli, Hagler's manager and his trainer respectively, trailed behind him as the last of the late-night revelers roared past in their Fiats.
"Oh man, I feel good!" Hagler said. "Boy, this was an experience—fighting at 3:30 in the morning. Everything was on the money tonight. I showed Fully Obel what a professional fighter is. Everything was right. I felt like the real champion out there. Everything is looking up for me now."
Exactly how far up depends, in considerable measure, on what Sugar Ray Leonard, the undisputed welterweight champion, announces at a press conference in Baltimore on Nov. 9. Ever since Leonard suffered a detached retina while training for a fight last April, his future has been the subject of widespread speculation. But aside from Leonard himself, no one has a greater interest than Hagler in whether Leonard will fight again. If he decides to return, it will be to meet Hagler for the middleweight title in what would surely be the richest bout in the history of the sport.
Most boxing observers are convinced that Leonard will announce his retirement at the press conference, but he has been playing it very coy. A few minutes after Hagler dispatched Obelmejias, he said to Leonard, who was at ringside doing color commentary for HBO, "If we're such good friends, give me a payday!" To which Leonard replied, "Mike Trainer, sign me up." Trainer is Leonard's lawyer.
"Did you hear what I said to Ray?" Hagler asked as he strolled back to his hotel. "Right in front of everybody. I put him on the spot. But I don't think Leonard wants any part of me. He's giving everybody a mirage to look at." Moments after Hagler swept through the Méditerranée's lobby, Leonard materialized at a party in the hotel and whispered to Pat Petronelli, "Pat, after what I saw tonight, me and Marvin could make more money than anybody ever made in the history of boxing. I mean that."
Petronelli, who looked at Leonard and knew he wasn't seeing a mirage, felt a chill. "Right!" he said to Leonard. Earlier, Leonard had urged Petronelli to be in Baltimore for the big announcement, saying, "It's in your interest to be there." Now he was telling Petronelli about all the money that could be made from a Hagler-Leonard bout, and Petronelli thought: Could Leonard be planning to use his Baltimore forum to announce a return to fight Hagler? "I'll be there," Petronelli said.
Later, when asked about his intentions, Leonard said that his eye doctor, Ron Michels of Johns Hopkins Hospital, had examined him the week before and had given him an essentially clean bill of health. "My vision is 20-20," Leonard said. "Back to normal. Now it's a new thing. It was up to Dr. Michels. Now it's up to me. I have to start to reevaluate. I had made up my mind, but now that's changed.... If anything happens, it will be a one-shot deal."
Unless Leonard announces that he's returning to the ring, Hagler can only look forward to defending his title early next year against the WBC's leading contender, Tony Sibson, a stoutly built Englishman with a powerful left hook, and Frank (The Animal) Fletcher, a body puncher from Philadelphia who can absorb all kinds of punishment but isn't a notably hard hitter. Both fights would be million-dollar paydays for Hagler. Beyond them, of course, there's the winner of the Dec. 3 WBC junior middleweight championship fight between Wilfred Benitez and Thomas Hearns, and for Hagler a match with either would mean millions more. It was the prospect of these paydays, with the vision of Leonard hovering delectably above them all, that helped fuel Hagler's intensity when he stepped onto the stage of the Ariston Sunday morning. He had trained rigorously for this fight—for several weeks on the very tip of Cape Cod, for the last 10 days in San Remo—knowing how long a fall it would be if he ever slipped. He was getting $500,000 (to Obelmejias's $120,000), a pleasant taste of things to come.
"The way I look at it, this is putting money in the bank as well as keeping me active," Hagler said a few days before the fight. "There's no way I'm taking this guy lightly. I've had nine different sparring partners for this fight. I'm going to make sure I fight him even harder than I did the first time. I punished him then; this time I'm going to hurt him. I don't want this man back."
Hagler had whipped Obelmejias in Boston on Jan. 17, 1981 in his first title defense; he indeed battered Obelmejias around and wore him down before winning on an eighth-round TKO. Going into that bout, Obelmejias was an undefeated mystery—30-0, with 28 KOs—a politically well-connected fighter who had risen to No. 1 in the WBC and WBA by crushing tomato cans. When Hagler whipped him, Obelmejias automatically dropped to No. 4 in the WBA rankings, but he climbed back to No. 1 in the WBA this year by remaining undefeated while two contenders above him lost and the other moved up to light heavyweight. The WBA mandated that Hagler defend against Obelmejias, but the prospect of a rematch was so unattractive that Bob Arum, the promoter, couldn't get a network to buy it. He finally sold the fight to HBO, but only as the first of a three-fight package that is expected to include Hagler's defenses against Sibson and Fletcher.
Obelmejias complained that he had been suffering from a severe cold during his first fight with Hagler (although he never mentioned anything about his illness until after Hagler had won), and so he came to the balmy Mediterranean coast of Italy predicting victory. "It has been more than three months since I began training for this fight," Obelmejias said from his camp in Genoa. "I'm sure it will go completely different this time. If I hadn't been sick in Boston, things wouldn't have gone the way they did and I would have won and been champion. I'd never been in a climate like that. Now everything is O.K."
Hagler seemed unconcerned about his recent inactivity. Goody Petronelli expected Hagler to expose Obelmejias as an artificial contender once again. "He's ready to tear him apart," Goody said. "He has been sparring a lot, his timing is nice, and he has no aches and pains. If Obel wants to come at Marvin, fine; he did that last time and ended up on the short end. If he wants to box, fine. We are ready for anything he wants to do." For years Hagler has trained by the motto "Destruction and destroy," so for the San Remo crowd he added an Italian twist, wearing a shirt that said: DISTRUZIONE E DISTRUTTORE.
Few things infuriate Hagler more than an opponent displaying disdain or contempt for him, and he simply can't abide snickering. It violates the Haglerian canon of proper behavior for what he regards as a very serious enterprise between two men, one that can be settled only in the ring. So Obelmejias made his first mistake about 11 hours before the fight, when he kept smiling at Hagler at the weigh-in, raising his arms above his head and saying, "El campeon [the champion], el campeon. I fix Hagler, I fix." As they left the theater Pat Petronelli said, "He's a punk." Hagler squinted, his eyes like beads. "That's how I like 'em," he said. "I'm gonna hurt him, Pat." Whatever Obelmejias' plan was, it never really got off the ground. Hagler appeared cold in the first two rounds, losing both, but in the third he began to pick up the tempo and take the fight to Obelmejias, who was trying to catch Hagler with uppercuts whenever the champion came in. "As soon as Marvin threw the left, Obel threw the right uppercut to the ribs," Goody said. "We trained for that. He was trying to catch Marvin when he was lunging in."
Hagler intensified the pressure in the fourth round, when he began to find a comfortable distance to fight from. Pat kept urging from the corner, "It's just a matter of time, Marvin. Keep pumpin'. Keep pumpin'."
Now in the fifth, Hagler began to tag his man—jabs, hooks, left hands. Suddenly, at the close of one exchange, Hagler reached back and let fly with that right hook. Obelmejias crumpled to the canvas. He rolled on his back, his mouth open, and stared blankly in the air as if studying the murals depicting medieval scenes painted on the ceiling of the theater. At one point he struggled vainly to gain his legs, only to topple over again.
"Wasn't that a sweetheart of a punch?" Pat said.
"Beautiful," Goody said.
"I feel good, like a little boy in a candy store," Hagler said.
In this candy store, to be sure, there are Sibson and Fletcher, Benitez or Hearns, but there is no sugar sweeter than Ray. Whatever Leonard decides next week, he is making no end of mischief. One day last week in San Remo he approached Pat and teased him about the difference between his 147-pound welterweight limit and Hagler's 160-pound middleweight maximum. "I can fight beautiful at 155!" Leonard said.
All of this gives Pat reason for hope. "Oh, we are conservatively looking for something around $10 or $12 million to fight Leonard," he says. "We can struggle with those numbers. Sugar Ray will receive $20 million."
At the party following the fight, Pat reported that Leonard leaned over to him a final time and said, "I wasn't going to fight again, but my eyes are perfect. I want that one big fight with Marvin Hagler. Be there on the ninth."
"I love it," said Pat.
Obelmejias may have political clout, but it was Hagler who made the real connections.
As Pat Petronelli predicted, Obel threw uppercuts to counter Hagler's left.
A right hook in the fifth put Obel down and out and sent Hagler up and in heaven.
In San Remo, Hagler's shirt spoke louder than words.
Sibson is next up on Hagler's agenda...
...which Leonard's decision could alter.