Skip to main content
Original Issue


After taking into account logic, history and the odds, the author punches out his selection for the Hagler vs. Leonard showdown

I look forward to a very strategic fight, to doing everything conceivable to win—to tying him up, to going behind him, to being cute—everything that's going to trigger him, to cross those wires. The key to Marvin Hagler is frustration. I've got to make him miss, force him to make mistakes. When he fought Roberto Duran, after one particular round he was shaking his head. He was frustrated. If I see that, then I've got him. I've got him!

Ask Leonard. What are you going to do different? Stand there and bang with Hagler? O.K. That's the only other thing he can do. Other than that he's going to run and do the same old stuff that Leonard's been doin'. I'll let him do the flurrying. But what happens when you stop and look at me and hit me with your best shot and I'm still there and I'm smiling in your face? Just what I did with Thomas Hearns. I realize Leonard's going to run; I'll cut the ring off. Put the pressure on him. Pressssurrrrrrre!

When he stops, here lam. Hello! I'm going to knock him silly.

No one can accuse them of speeding. In fact, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard will arrive for their showdown about five years late, and just that much older, roughly the time it took Leonard to decide he really wanted to fight the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, after all. Close boxing observers still debate who would have won this fight in 1982, the year Leonard, then the welterweight champion, killed prospects for such a match by announcing his retirement. Oh, Sugar Ray made a comeback on May 11, 1984, beating the obscure Kevin Howard, but he retired again immediately after that lackluster win.

Today the match fascinates more as an object of curiosity than as a historic showdown. Rather than a forum to settle their places in history it's a field exercise in dèjà vu. Though both men have surely seen their best days as fighters, they are commanding unprecedented guarantees for their efforts to recapture the past—Hagler $12 million, Leonard $11 million. Much of the event's appeal turns on questions that only the joust can answer:

1) Can the 30-year-old Leonard, who will step into the ring having fought only once in five years and 50 days, conceivably bring enough of his old skills to whip one of the most dangerous, tenacious middleweights of all time? The extraordinary length of the idleness notwithstanding, can he pull it off without even one tune-up bout?

2) Will Hagler, officially 32, who has not fought since he knocked out John Mugabi in their war of March 10, 1986, suffer from being idle more than a year himself? And what to make of the fact that Hagler's eyebrows are laced with scars and that he has shown increasing susceptibility to cuts?

3) Can Leonard weather the kind of fury and will that Hagler used to demolish Thomas Hearns, and can Hagler raise himself to such a transcendent level of exertion again?

Knowledgeable followers of the fight game consider the most tangible, telling fact of this bout to be Leonard's essential idleness for more than five years. If Leonard defeats a man who has held the middleweight title since Sept. 27, 1980, he will have pulled off the comeback of the century, staggering both memory and imagination.

"It goes against all my instincts," says Barney Nagler, the 74-year-old sports columnist and biographer. "The last time we saw Leonard, he was getting knocked down in Worcester, Mass., by a lad named Kevin Howard. Why should he be any better now? He thinks he is, but he isn't. There isn't an old fighter who doesn't sit there and say, I can do it better.' That's why they come back. It's the oldest delusion."

Ray Arcel, the 87-year-old retired fight trainer who handled 20 world champions in his career, can read off the top of his head the lamentable roll call of great fighters who tried to come back, beginning with Benny Leonard, who had reigned as lightweight champion from 1917 to '25 and asked Arcel to train him for his comeback in 1932. "He was one of the smartest fighters of all time and he couldn't move, couldn't feint, couldn't move a guy out of position," says Arcel. "I'd talk and talk to him: 'You are fooling around with mother nature. You've been idle too long. It's true in every field. If you don't use it, you lose it."

But at the same time, Arcel sees factors that could make the Hagler-Leonard bout not only competitive, but even. Like everyone else, Arcel saw how one of his own fighters, former lightweight, welterweight and junior middleweight champ Roberto Duran, almost beat Hagler in 1983 by outboxing him, showing Hagler every angle and feint in the book. Fighting with caution, Hagler nearly let that one slip away.

"Ordinarily, Hagler should win, but when you start to analyze the thing, it's a toss-up," says Arcel. "Hagler has to fight the fight. He's got to set the pace, keep punching and keep off-setting this fella. If he lets Leonard get started, Leonard will outbox him for all 12 rounds."

If Hagler learned anything in the Duran fight, it was not to lie back and let the rounds pass by. Pat and Goody Petronelli, Hagler's handlers, learned a lot that night, too. "Who would have thought that Duran could outbox a Marvin Hagler?" Pat Petronelli asks. "We told Marvin, 'Lay back and counter-punch.' He's going to come at you. Duran took us to school."

Interestingly, Leonard also received the most notable learning experience of his career at the University of Duran. In their first fight, in Montreal in 1980, Leonard took the attack to Duran, who had 55 knockouts in 74 fights, and in 15 wild rounds narrowly lost his title. In the infamous rematch, taunting, humiliating and outboxing Duran, he won back his crown by forcing Duran to plead "no màs."

So, the most obvious analysis is that Hagler will not fight Leonard as he fought Duran, lying back and allowing Leonard to dance and show-biz away his title, and Leonard will not fight Hagler as he fought Duran in Montreal, duking it out toe-to-toe. The Petronellis, and most everyone else, expect Leonard to put on a boxing show.

"It's no secret," says Pat. "I'm going to tell you here, right out straight. Leonard is going to do what he does best, and that is showboat, flash, be a young Ali. Jab, flurry, counter, clinch, jab, and let those rounds go by—five, six, seven, eight—and taunt Marvin, talk to Marvin, try to make fun of him, give him a funny face, try to get Marvin to blow his cool, to get him lunging and leaping at him."

As Hagler says with such sibilant menace, what he must do to win is exert pressssurrrrrrre. "If you're going to tell me that Leonard's going to hit any harder or be any faster than Thomas Hearns, I don't know what to expect," says Hagler. "That was a very fast fight. Hearns was throwing very hard and very fast punches. There's no way, with the time Leonard's been off, that he can bounce back into that frame of mind. He's going to run. I basically just have to be patient."

But not too patient, lest the rounds slip away and Hagler ultimately finds himself in too much trouble too late. "He's probably anticipating stopping me on cuts," Hagler says. "I realize that I'm going to have to take some punches to get inside.... He don't like to be hit. He don't like pain. But I can absorb pain, I can absorb punches."

Each camp, of course, has been serving its man sparring partners instructed in his opponent's style. "I've been told to box Marvin," says James Lucas, a quick 152-pounder. "Try to do things Sugar Ray would do. Fake him, try to throw Marvin off his rhythm, try to keep him moving, tie him up." There were moments in his training camp when Hagler's swift sparring partners did indeed throw him off his rhythm. Hagler would end up chasing them and lunging with looping rights or lefts that missed badly.

As Hagler plays with lateral movers and dancers, so Leonard has populated his training camp with stalkers and bullers. They have been instructed to pump the jab and, when they catch Leonard on the ropes, to throw uppercuts, a la Hagler. "We are to keep pressure on him," says 160-pound Charles Ingram. "Keep Ray moving. Keep him working. Push him around, throw him around. Stay on top of him."

Leonard has fought some long, grueling rounds in the gym to prepare for this fight—some of them lasting seven minutes—absorbing whatever punishment his Hagler fight-alikes could offer, and he feels they have given him enough to be ready. "The key to this fight is composure," he says. "Not necessarily to run in and try to swing and throw the biggest and hardest and most damaging blow. It's just to land the punch.

"If Hagler races at me, I'm just going to move around, like I did with Hearns. [Leonard knocked out Hearns in the 14th round of their welterweight title fight on Sept. 16, 1981.] Five rounds, if it takes that long, to loosen him up. When Hearns did run in, I'd just tie him up. And get a punch in. And run, and leave little memos behind."

To be sure, Leonard will be aiming to win each round, all the while sniping at the scars over Hagler's eyes, which could be Leonard's two little road maps to victory. "A key is to cut him," Leonard says. Get a trickle of blood and keep moving. When Hagler is cut, he gets desperate.

"I have to counterpunch. See, Hagler is not your everyday guy because of what he brings to the ring. That aggression magnifies his ability. Because he comes into the ring and hates you so much, his strength becomes incredible." Hagler has the more fearsome reputation as a knockout artist, having flattened 52 of his 66 opponents. But Leonard, the cutie, the mover and dancer, has KO'd 24 of 34.

"I have the stamina that I need," says Leonard. "My mind is clean, it's clear. I get up in the morning and I see this man. It's so vivid, and that's why I know I'm going to win. It's a vision."

For Leonard, the vision is this: In the fourth round, grown tired of chasing, Hagler wades in ever more aggressively and carelessly, and Leonard catches the lunging, off-balance champion with a stinging combination—a stiff left jab, followed by a flashing left hook that opens a gash above Hagler's right eye, and then a right hand over the top that staggers him. Hagler bobs up and moves in again. Leonard, confident, lands a double jab, ducks a savage right hook, counters with one of his own, and comes up inside, tying Hagler up. As the bell rings, with the crowd on its feet, roaring, he walks to his corner with his hands raised in the air, while a frustrated Hagler shakes his head and blinks at the blood.

Psychologically, it is now Leonard's fight, and the rest of the way he makes a target of that cut, moving and dancing, until the referee stops it in the 10th round, when the half-blind champion cannot go on.

For Hagler, the vision is less complex. "I can't tell you how the fight will go," Hagler says. "I just know the outcome: It's me that's going to be standing, my hand that's going to be raised."

Picking it up in the same fourth round, this scenario has Leonard opening that cut, and as Hagler did when cut against Hearns, he abandons all caution, entering a dimension known only to himself. Relentlessly cutting off the ring, Hagler pursues Leonard, finally trapping him on the ropes. Once inside he bangs hard to the body, lefts and rights that bring down Leonard's hands. As Leonard tries to spin away, to his right, Hagler wings a left hook that catches him on the button, then a right that lands on the jaw. When Leonard reaches to tie him up, Hagler throws a right uppercut, buckling Leonard's legs.

Setting himself, with an immobile Leonard covering and bobbing before him, Hagler lets fire all the artillery, a furious combination that ends with a right hook to the head, dropping Leonard to a knee and bringing in the referee to wave the fight to a stop.

All history and logic point to such an end, but those twin supports of correct thought have been violated before. Hagler opened in the Vegas books as the 4 to 1 favorite, but since then the odds have settled to a more realistic 3 to 1, and by fight time they should be closer still. For some, such as Shelly Finkel, the manager of WBA welterweight champ Mark Breland, the odds are out of whack. "I think Hagler has slipped tremendously," Finkel says. "He got hit plenty by Mugabi. If Ray has his legs under him, I don't think Hagler has a chance."

The guess here is that Leonard has both his legs beneath him, and in defiance of history and logic, he will win.