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Promoter Bob Arum Reflects On Leonard vs Hagler, 30 Years On

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On April 6, 1987, a true, real-deal, extra-special Super Fight took place.

Sugar Ray Leonard, sidelines since 1984, about to give way to ceding the ownership of an era to Mike Tyson, signed on to the underdog role against Marvin Hagler, bald badass from Brockton, Mass., unbeaten in 11 years.

They collided, in a pugilistic chess match at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and the event and decision rendered by judges can still spur hearty–and occasionally heated–debate decades later.

Here, the promoter of the scrap, Bob Arum, offers his recollection, as the anniversary looms: 

Top Rank promoted that fight, which took place on April 6 — thirty years ago before any of these men (taking part in an April 22 Top Rank ppv) were born and it was a momentous event in the world of boxing.

I want to set the scene for that event particularly for the younger people who may not be aware.  The scene was very important.  Marvelous Marvin Hagler had come up the hard way in boxing.  He had never been to the Olympics and he fought any fighter that would step in the ring with him.  He’d have to go from Boston to Philadelphia and other places to find opponents who would fight him.

Through intervention of the Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neil and Senator Ted Kennedy who sent letters to various people, including myself at Top Rank, they forced everyone to give Marvelous Marvin Hagler a shot at the middleweight title.  His first shot, I thought he clearly won the fight against Vito Antuofermo, but the judges scored it a draw.

A year later he fought Alan Minter over in London and stopped Minter in the early rounds — bloodying him so much that the fight had to be stopped.  Marvin was greeted by the great sportsmen in England by a barrage of bottles and cans so that everybody had to hide under the ring until the police were ready to restore order.  But came back to the United States a real hero then he embarked on a streak of defending his middleweight title.

His first big fight was in 1983 against Roberto Duran and then in ’85 in a major, major event he and Thomas Hearns fought a great middleweight championship battle and Marvin knocked Tommy out in the third round.  Marvin wanted to retire from boxing at that point but his managers and myself as the promoter convinced him to carry on and in 1986 he fought John “The Beast” Mugabi and Mugabi was a tough hard-punching guy — they went toe-to-toe and in the eleventh round, Marvin knocked Mugabi out.

Ray Leonard had been retired for a number of years and he had been watching that fight and he saw what very few people saw – that Marvin was aging, he was slowing up and Ray, even though he was retired, felt he could come back and take on Hagler.  When he announced that he was coming out of retirement, people were incredulous.  Hagler went off as a 6:1 or 7:1 favorite in the fight because Leonard was retired and Hagler was this dominant champion – nobody gave Leonard a chance.  To put it in perspective, remember the media frenzy when Manny Pacquiao fought Oscar De La Hoya?  All of the media people were saying what a mismatch it was and De La Hoya was an overwhelming favorite.  We remember, because it was fairly recent, what happened in that fight, Pacquiao dominated and won that fight, but the feeling was the same going into the Hagler-Leonard fight.  Ray Leonard was a great fighter, retired, and then coming out of retirement against this dominant middleweight, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

The country was mesmerized.  Ray Leonard was extremely popular – he was the poster boy for boxing.  I hope that young Shakur Stevenson will follow in the footsteps of Ray Leonard because he has that kind of personality, but Ray was the darling of America and the darling of boxing.  Marvin was respected – everybody realized what a workman-like fighter he was.  To sell that fight I called it ‘The Yuppie’ being Leonard who came out of the Olympics with a Gold Medal and had big television exposure from the beginning against the blue collar guy Marvin Hagler who had worked himself up and become the dominant middleweight of his time.

The closed circuit locations were filled.  This was the first fight that really touched/started into pay-per-view in various parts of the country.  It was a massive, massive event.  The fight was sold out in one day and everyone was gathered for this terrific event.  (NYF NOTE: The NY Times on March 22, 1987 recalled selling out took a bit longer: It is an engagement that promises to be as much of an ”event” as the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King. When the 15,336 tickets for the 12-round showdown between the two great champions were put on sale in November by Caesars, they sold out within a month.) I’ll tell you I haven’t seen that fight in 30 years but I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

(END NOTE FROM PUBLISHER MICHAEL WOODS: Interesting to note that this fight was announced to the masses in November 1986, and that meant they had about five months to hype the face off. Some things have not changed, some have, but the bottom line is this: that fight will engender another 30 years of debate on who won. Me, I say, contrary to territorial leaning, I had Leonard’s ring generalship taking the W for him. Hagler advanced, but in too plodding a fashion too often to get the win. Sorry, Marvin.)

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About Michael Woods

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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