There’s a relatively small list of athletes who everyone accepts as being great and yet to me, they still feel a bit undervalued. In baseball, it’s Hank Aaron. In basketball, it’s Moses Malone.
I think it’s because as extraordinary as they were, there was something workmanlike about them. A lack of flash and dash if you will.
Which brings me to the boxing equivalent of Aaron and Malone—Marvin Hagler.
Hagler toiled in the ring for more than six years and through an astonishing 49 fights before finally getting a title shot against middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo. This fight ended in a split draw and somehow required Hagler to fight three more times before getting his second title shot against Alan Minter, and to do it, he had to go into the Brit’s backyard of Wembley Stadium.
On that September night in 1980, Hagler left nothing to the judges as he scorched Minter in just three rounds to take the WBA and WBC middleweight belts from the British isles and home to America.
Hagler fought thirteen more times over the final seven years of his career, and while he was hardly unnoticed, he was always just a little underrated. Sure, he won fighter of the year twice, brutally avenged his draw against Vito Antuofermo, and won what was probably the most exciting three round fight in boxing history when he TKO’d Tommy Hearns on April 15 of 1985.
While the Hearns fight might have sealed Hagler’s legacy, it was his next fight that has always stayed with me.
His eleven round TKO victory over John “The Beast” Mugabi. While Mugabi was an A level fighter, he wasn’t an all-time great fighter. But on that March night at Caesar’s Palace in 1986, John Mugabi was the best version of himself he could possibly be. Mugabi was just 26 at the time, Hagler was a 33 year old man who had fought in the ring more than 60 times. The young lion gave one hell of an account of himself.
Mugabi hit Hagler with everything but a tire iron that night, and it didn’t matter. Hagler just kept coming (can you ever recall Hagler taking a backward step?), like a man willing to walk through the gates of hell with nothing but two fists to protect him. And that was all Hagler needed.
Of course, Hagler’s final fight is both his most famous and most disappointing. When Sugar Ray Leonard came into the ring on April 6, 1987, he had a brilliant game plan—he would win by not fighting. Leonard would stay on his bicycle for two and a half minutes and then slap Hagler’s shoulders at the end of each round with punches that couldn’t have knocked over a wino at closing time.
And the judges fell for it. They awarded a split decision victory to Sugar Ray Leonard despite his not landing one meaningful blow in the entire bout. Boxing is a funny sport. Those that run it are often corrupt and those that judge it are often blind.
Hagler deserved better. If he would have kept going, maybe coaxed Leonard into a rematch, added a few more notches on his belt, that sour final taste of the sport might not be how we remember him last or best. But the fates have their own design, and this was Hagler’s—to be seen as great, but not quite as great as he actually was.
I always thought Hagler’s nickname “Marvelous Marvin” sounded a bit silly. Marvelous is a word for pretty cars and wonderful weekends in the Hamptons. Marvin Hagler was not marvelous. He was a substantive, indomitable combination of skill, and more to the point, will.
I will contend until someone comes along and proves to me otherwise that while Hagler may not have been the greatest boxer ever (not quite), he was the greatest fighter ever.
Always moving forward, relentless, unbreakable—a true warrior in every sense of the word as it applies to the sport he excelled in.
To me, Hagler’s death is the most shocking of any sports figure since…well, I don’t even know when. How dare death come for Marvin Hagler? How dare death come for the proudest and boldest fighter I have ever laid eyes on.
Of course, that kind of thinking is nonsense, we are all on our way out from the first breath of life we take – that’s when the countdown begins. But when it comes to Marvin Hagler, it doesn’t feel right. He existed at a time when giants walked the earth, and he was as tall and as formidable as any of them. And when giants fall, the earth is supposed to shake.
And perhaps it did, but not enough.