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Rest In Peace, Marvelous Marvin Hagler (1954-2021)

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It was November of 1979, and Boston sports fans were their typically surly selves.

The Red Sox last won a World Series in 1918, and this waiting had gotten old, made their rooters malcontents. An epic slide and playoff play-in loss to the despised Yankees in October ’78 still stung, the squad finished in third place in ’79, and that meant plenty of Sox fans would sip themselves into boozy hibernation that winter.

The Bruins hadn’t sipped from the Cup since 1972, and the Canadians owned our asses. It didn’t feel “right” being a Bs fan, with colorless Fred Creighton in charge after the GM jettisoned the engaging Don Cherry.

Celtics fans had reason to grin, because the Larry Bird era started in ’79. But some residual stink, as the Marvin Barnes era lingered painfully, had Cs fans not fully embracing optimism.

The Patriots weren’t impressing their fans that a Super Bowl win could come within a reasonable time frame. Steve Grogan was the Terry O’Reilly of QBs, more known for grit than technical excellence, and he led them to a 9-7 season.

There was a bright spot though, one you could point to as a reason for feeling at least a twinge of joy as the region looked toward the holidays. Marvin Hagler, at least we had “Mahvelous.”

It was “we” over there, that area’s population saw sports, professional sports, as a vital component of their identity. And back in 1979, there was less of a culture gap, between the superstar players, and the regular folks who went to see them compete. So Massachusetts, where I lived, got pretty enmeshed with the athletes, and rode the emotional wave of ups and downs with the teams and athletes.

Nope, we won’t go as far as saying that Hagler was the fifth franchise to Massholes, boxing existed as a scrappy minor league level component in the sports world at that time…but the badass baldie from Brockton stood out, then and now, as hero to a fair share of the masses in the Boston area, New England, and beyond.

This one stung different, when we learned on Saturday, March 13, that at age 66, the Marvelous one had died.

You simply didn’t think in terms of Hagler and dying.

Hagler, who forever holds a 62-3-2 mark, came on my radar on Nov. 30, 1979, when he fought Vito Antuofermo in Vegas at Caeasars. “Vito the Mosquito,” a NY guy, face possessing a wicked ratio of scar tissue to smooth epidermis, held the WBC and WBA belts. This bout unfolded before the main event, Ray Leonard versus Wilfred Benitez, and that right there helps explain why Hagler resonated as he did in the region. Marvin came up the hard way, starting out in Newark, NJ, the first child of Ida Mae Hagler and Robert Sims, who jetted from the family early on. Marvin and brother Robbie and their four sisters received state aid, and Marvin left school at 14 to start working, earning money to help feed the littler ones.

The crew moved from Jersey to Massachusetts, after Ida Mae had enough of race riots popping up. They moved to Brockton, where “The Rock” was raised. Rocky Marciano enjoyed deity status there, and that had something to do with Marvin starting to hit local gyms, at age 15, to check out the vibe. He liked what he saw and felt in the Petronelli brothers’ gym, so he latched on with Guerino and Pasquale and never left them.

After 50 something amateur fights, he hit the pro circuit, because, hello, might as well get paid for those bruises and lumps.

It wasn’t a meteoric rise, and that’s one reason that Marvin got those props in New England. Silver spooners are looked down on over there, and it was clear this wasn’t Hagler. The local promoter of note was Sam Silverman, aka Suitcase Sam, or Subway Sam, and he put cards on in sub-plush joints. Marvin debuted versus Terry Ryan on May 19, 1973, in the Brockton High School Gym. Eight of the predatory left-handers’ first 20 fights were in high school gyms, and two were placed in a TV studio, where a club-show TV series set up shop, in front of a handful of watchers.

His climb got applauded by locals who respected his stubbornness, and shows of emotion and soul, as when he spoke fight week before putting his 46-2-1 record on the line against Antuofermo. “Lots of times you get up in the morning and you feel like crying,” Hagler said to the AP. “No one knew my name. I’m finally getting the recognition I deserve.” Yes, that hit nerves, in the right way. Who among us is immune from feeling dismayed how few people know our name? And who of us hasn’t been frustrated and pulled out handfuls of our hair after butting up against yet another road-block. Silverman would share with people what he’d tell Marvin and the Petronellis when they’d get pissed that he was being avoided a version of what Joe Frazier told Hagler to his face: “You have three things going against you. You’re black. You’re a southpaw, and you’re good.”

And while it wasn’t always brought up, because New Englanders have a strange mix of pride and aversion to touching on touchy subjects, many also liked the positive message sent by the Hagler-Petronelli pairing.

On Sept. 27, 1980, Hagler received a portion of the respect he deserved. In Wembley Arena, the new Brockton blockbuster chewed up Alan Minter. The ref said that the left eye of Minter, holding the WBC and WBA middleweight titles, looked too severe, and he halted the bout.

Fans disagreed and showed their displeasure by throwing bottles and cups at the winner. Hagler still got Rodney Dangerfielded, even after triumphing.

While we’re at it, Haglers’ story is a race story, more than you’ll be reading about and hearing about in the coming days.

“I am not letting any black man take the title from me,” Minter had announced during fight week, and he paid for his stance in blood.

Race, and politics, too.

The push to get Hagler to a place where he’d get a title crack advanced to the point where local pols, like the Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, started working the phones. Get Hagler a shot, unless you want us to start investigating why he isn’t, Kennedy told Hagler promoter Bob Arum.

The shot was got, and Marvin proved that it had been wrong to sleep on him, and make him wait so long to try for a title. Wins against Fully Obel, who’d been skillfully managed to contender status, Antuofermo in a rematch, in a (Boston) Garden party, rugged Syrian Mustafa Hamsho, for his first million dollar purse, and Caveman Lee followed. No, the “Four Kings” era hadn’t started yet. But Hagler situated himself near front and center of the post Ali era. His look, the clean shaven head, meshed nicely with his intensity. “I remember everything they did to me. I’ll never forgive them,” Hagler would say, when referring to the WBA and WBC shenanigans enabling less talented but better connected boxers to hop over him in line. “I want to stay bitter. I use it; I feed on it. That’s why I put myself in jail like this to train for a fight. I want to be mean. All I want to think of is destruction. Then nobody can take from me what’s mine. The only way they’ll get the title from me is to kill me,” he’d tell Sports Illustrated before downing Obelmejias.

Marvin Hagler on the cover of RING.

Maybe you’d be pissed if you were Hagler. You know Antuofermo got the cover of RING before Hagler ?

He promoted in his own way, it worked, because you sensed he wasn’t really ever doing a put on. But wait, even when he changed his name, legally, from Marvin to “Marvelous,” on April 23, 1982?

It wasn’t held against him, he didn’t come off as stupid-cocky. It made sense, the way he’d been dissed on the way up, might as well do what you can to remind people of your superiority, so it doesn’t happen again.

Obel managed, or I should say, Obel’s manager, maneuvered the Venezuelan into a rematch with Marvin, and Hagler went 2-0 vs Fulgencio, in San Remo, Italy. That was Oct. 30, 1982. But getting crowns and meatier purses didn’t placate Hagler. See, that’s one reason why his legend is durable, and why older timers will shake their heads when young guns talk excessively about the prizes more than the fighting.

Talks going on between Team Hagler and Team Ray Leonard didn’t make Hagler less grumpy. Did Leonard really want Hagler to weigh 155 or less for a middleweight bout?

Hagler’s steerers looked instead to Thomas Hearns, and Arum announced that fight for May 1983. But fate giggled; a Hearns injury forced a postponement. And more tomfoolery–Leonard teased a fight with Hagler, and pulled the rug out, instead announcing his retirement, in November 1982.

But big bouts were to come–Marvelous blitzkrieged Wilford Scypion on May 27, 1983, in Rhode Island. Next foe: Roberto Duran. But, people forget, or don’t realize, this wasn’t ultra primo Duran. He’d lost to Ray Leonard, scored two wins, and then lost to Wilfredo Benitez and Kirkland Laing. Yes, Duran rebounded with a win over Jimmy Batten, Pipino Cuevas and then, a luster-restorer, in Davey Moore. But still, with Marvin being guaranteed $5M from Arum, and Duran only getting $1.5M guaranteed, this one had Hagler feeling like he’d arrived.

The fight didn’t detonate, after seven KO defenses, Hagler had to make do with a decision victory.

He’d have five more bouts before hanging up the gloves, and doing that majestic feat of will power, letting them stay there. On March 30, 1984, Hagler bested Argentine Juan Roldan, the WBA’s No. 1 contender, who by the way died from COVID on Nov. 18, 2020. The faceoff ran on HBO, Hagler’s platform home base, and viewers saw the loser shake his head and tell the ref he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of “destruct” and “destroy” anymore, in round ten.

In his fourth to last fight, Hagler beat Hamsho again, faster than the first time. He did it on Oct. 19, 1984 at Madison Square Garden, and none of the 16,000 on hand showed animus at Hagler for being a Masshole. Doing his business in the media capital of the world, that wasn’t a coincidence. Arum and Team Hagler hammered out a deal for Hagler to defend his crowns against Thomas Hearns. They both promoted the hell out of it, going to 22 cities in 14 days to hype the match which would play out at Caesars in Vegas.

To give you a full sense of how this one was received by the masses, know that the bout got tagged, “The Fight.” And did it ever live up to it.

Reporters heard the 30-year-old Hagler say, “I’ve brought my own judges,” and lift up his fists during fight week. Maybe they thought he’d have an extra measure of fire on fight night, but they didn’t foresee the typhoon of violence in round one on April 15, 1985.

The 26 year old Hearns had to try and keep a viciously motivated Hagler, switching stances and sometimes just squaring up, letting bombs go as he swiveled his hips, at bay. He did, in round one, with some rights that landed clean, but Hagler shrugged it off. He ignored the blood dripping down from his forehead, and followed Hearns back to his corner, with a death glare.

Hearns told trainer Emanuel Steward that he’d busted his hand after the first. Steward tried to divert his thoughts, and told him to try using distance to his advantage in round two. Righty Hagler had to stalk the Hitman, and that he did. He went lefty, waited out Hearns’ volume spray, and acted like a pitbull. He’d not be put off, with copious blood washing over his visage, Hagler kept flurrying, trying to end the night early.

He showed more urgency in round three, after ref Richard Steele put the action on hold to let the doctor look at the wounds. Good to go, the doc said, and Hagler went. A right mini-buzzed Hearns, then a long right caught Hearns pulling out, and his legs buckled. Hagler RAN at Hearns, eager to finish the Kronk assassin. Back to the ropes, Hearns caught a right hand, a strafing cross, and it was a finisher. Hearns beat the count of ten, but I doubt he could recall the moment. Steele saw his state, and halted the fight. The time: 1:52 of the third. The lasting takeaway–this fight is at the top of the list, regarding sheer level of violence crammed into a short period of time.

And that sort of violence takes parts of people that you can’t see.

Cutting in the Hearns fight, then rupturing a disc after he got back to work, and training…the end was sort of near for Hagler. He was now a one fight a year fighter.

Hagler versus John Mugabi, a 25-0 hitter from Uganda, would be next. Not everyone picked up on the fact that Hagler seemed more hittable than in previous fights. Goody Petronelli chided him for this after round six. Those watching at Caesars were buzzing, after a sizzling round. But Goody had seen Marvin content to go toe to toe, and didn’t like seeing those Mugabi grenades land almost clean.

Ray Leonard, too, enjoyed the sixth; sitting next to sitcom star Michael J. Fox up front, Ray saw a slightly diminished Hagler. Marvin was 31, he’d turn 32 on May 23, and the wear and tear had reached a negative accumulation point, to a sharp eye. Leonard had that.

So, when Team Hagler talked about how a rematch with Hearns was probably next, Ray knew he could circle back into the picture, and challenge Hagler, with time and timing more so on his side.

Oh, and let’s be up front about it.

It’s not at all like everyone watched the Mugabi fight, and came away thinking that Hagler was shot. Yes, his right eye got puffed up some. But the way he put his foot on the gas, and drove over Mugabi to finish him in round 11, that’s didn’t scream, or even whisper, really, “shot.”

Maybe, maybe there was a Sports Illustrated jinx in play. “O.K., NOW BRING ON THE NEXT VICTIM,” that was the headline to their story by Pat Putnam about the W over Mugabi.

Hagler still wasn’t satisfied, by the way. He hadn’t mellowed with age, decided to focus on positives, about how far he’d come.

He had a Pizza Hut commercial, he’d visit Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

One or none of you might recall he did a cameo on Punky Brewster (below left), helping the show star figure out how to deal with a school bully, in 1985.

Yet Hagler still drew strength from bathing in past indignities.

“Have I found peace? Not really,” Hagler told Sports Illustrated after beating the Ugandan. “I’ll put it this way: I’m happy but I’m not satisfied. I believe they really won’t give me credit until I am done with the game. Because every time there is another opponent, somebody is going to say, ‘This guy is going to take you.’ Now they are talking about Curry. It’s like I haven’t proved myself yet. What the hell do they want?”

“They” are pains in asses. We are pains in asses.

We ask about when the next painting will get started while the paint isn’t even dried on the current masterpiece. We fans demand they take stiff challenges, and we minimize their accomplishment when they do what we ask, but make it look easy.

On the cover the week SI put out a Hagler-Mugabi preview was Larry Bird. “The Living Legend,” the periodical anointed him. Did that make Marvin mad? I’d ask him if I could. But it would be within his bounds if it had.

It turns out, Hagler felt burned out mentally by this juncture. In fact, he admitted that to Leonard, when Ray invited him to the opening up of his restaurant, in Maryland. “I’m not motivated” and “I cut easily,” those words made Leonard’s heart leap, even as he nodded, with (mostly) legit empathy.

While Marvin enjoyed an uptick in his celebrity, his Right Guard commercials were in constant rotation (“Anything less would be uncivilized”), and his mind drifted to retirement. How seriously? Not sure; Hagler never did that autobiography to answer all the loose thread questions. We do know, though, that right after Hagler admitted his desire had lessened, Ray Leonard started in on serious workouts.

Terms were hashed out, over a span of months, and the Hagler did conceded in some areas to get more in other areas. For more guaranteed money, the Hagler side allowed a larger ring, and a 12 round max, rather than 15 rounds. How much of that had to do with Hagler’s gnawing sense that he’d had to battle excessive impediments on his road to prominence? He “won” by getting a $12 million guarantee, to $11 million for Ray, but he may have paid a toll on the back end that he didn’t foresee having to pony up.

On Nov. 3, 1986, the principals announced that another Fight of the Century would unfold, on April 6, 1987, in Las Vegas. Hagler had softened some on Ray over the years, for yanking his chain and teasing a fight…but now, in the lead up, he was fully in hating mode.

“He is a phony,” Hagler would say, while mocking SRL as an Ali wannabe.

You believed him in his “NO MERCY” hat when he’d say that he wanted to “rip his brains out.”

Marvin filed things away and wasn’t about doing mental purges, to expunge the list. Larry Merchant, Brooklyn guy, not scared, called Hagler on an HBO pre-fight hit, “The unhappiest man ever to just have made $15 million or so.”

Ray made $1 million to fight Benitez while Hagler made $40,000 to fight Vito Antuofermo on the undercard. Leonard made $40,000 for his first pro fight, Hagler got paid $50.

‘It is what it is’ wasn’t Hagler’s way, he saw rampant iniquity. And it’s a good time to mention that Hagler actually could have headed off plenty of those slights if he’d not been so loyal. If he’d transferred allegiance away from Goody and Pat, and aligned with a bigger promoter around 1977-78, his path would have been smoother. But his conscience didn’t allow that, to his credit.

The 32 year old Hagler owned a 62-2-2 mark as he looked at Ray, while the 30 year old Leonard boasted a 33-1 record as he waited for the bell to kick off the festivity at Caesars’ outdoor facility.

You would be best served to watch the fight yourself. That will be helpful when tomorrow, next month, next year or ten years from now you are asked, “Who do you think won Leonard-Hagler?”

Did you see Ray’s lateral movement in round one as “ring generalship” or “running?” Your answer probably determines who you think won.

“Keep it up, I want ya smooth, baby,” Angelo Dundee told SRL after the second. Leonard started and stayed strong, his round three showed his ring generalship, and his street savvy. Hagler went low, and Ray went lower, then went upstairs with a head shot after aiming for the jewelry section.

Hagler fans liked their man’s work to the body, and thought Ray spent more energy avoiding punches than trying to land them in the fourth. Hagler stalked, perpetually, and his right hand found purchase near the end of the fifth. Leonard was connecting on 50% of his punches, to 34% for Hagler, after six rounds. What stance, lefty or righty, suited Hagler best against the type of fight Ray was fighting? You wondered more as Roy looked more and more confident.

Dundee sounded a bit worried when he said to Leonard, “I want you off the ropes,” after the seventh. In other words, find that third gear, kid, don’t make me have to tell you you’re blowin’ it, son.

Leonard would flurry, pitter-patter, pot-shot, then slide, smoothly, while Hagler patiently followed. Against a lesser man, the consistency of the pressure would’ve paid sharper dividends later in round eight.

Hagler tightened the gap, closed distance more often in the ninth. Hagler fans saw a Leonard more ripe for the picking, and hoped his energy would dip more, from being in with that natural middleweight.

After ten rounds, the late Harold Lederman had it 96-94 for the slicker practitioner. Leonard looked like the more fatigued fighter in round 11.

To the 12th, it’s Dundee yelling, “New champion, new champion,” and asking Leonard to move in and out as the round began.

Leonard moved, to avoid contact, and held when he had to. Ray’s back to the ropes shoeshiner flurry had his fans ecstatic at the 2:00 mark. He danced like he was at Studio 54 with Mick and Bianca and Liza Minelli had just come out on a horse, and his body language told you he knew he won. “I’m leaving with Cherylllll Tiegggggs!

Does it matter that Hagler threw more (792 to 629) and Leonard landed more (306 to 291)? Not to me.

The soft side of me considered for a quarter second that maybe Hagler won this, as I re-watched the fight on Saturday, but right away, by round two, I reverted to the same stance I’ve held since 1987. Ray Leonard won that fight, he was the superior ring general on April 6, 1987.

“I did win the fight, there’s no doubt about it,” Hagler told Larry Merchant in the ring post-fight. Vegas roots for Leonard, he asserted. Leonard came over to Hagler, to give respect, bury that hatchet. “Good fight,” Ray said. “We’re in Vegas,” Hagler said, making clear that he thought Leonard received too much benefit of the doubt from the judges. Brother Robbie gave his back to Ray, and he gently pushed on Hagler to move from Ray, not give him any more time.

The actual tallies: Lou Filippo liked how Hagler worked, 115-113. But Lou got out-voted by Dave Moretti, 115-113, for Leonard. And JoJo Guerra, who scored it 118-110 for Leonard, can probably still hear Bob Arum lacing into him for his work that night. The more years pass, the more big fights get reduced to their utter essence. With that in mind, the name “JoJo” will I think make the 2037 look-back writeups of Hagler-Leonard.

They would not do it again, even though they were asked to, year after year after year, etc. Hagler at first got his hopes up that he could get another shot, then accepted Leonard’s decision to quit while he was ahead. On Sunday, June 12, 1988, Marvin spoke to NBC sports and Marv Albert, after his brother Robbie fought and lost to Sumbu Kalambay in Ravenna, Italy. He said that he was hanging up the gloves. “My heart says yes but my brain says no,” said Hagler, who entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. He suspected that Leonard would take too long in agreeing to a sequel. “I feel fortunate to get out of the ring with my faculties and my health.”

Hagler moved to Italy in 1989, and tried his hand at acting. Have you seen “Indio?” Hagler won’t go into the Hall of Fame for that. Excuse that flippancy, please. He deserves credit for navigating the choppy waters that bubble up when you are used to getting massive applause and checks doing the thing you’ve done well for 20 years, and retire from it. He drank and divorced and then found himself.

“I considered the $15 million,” he said to SI in 1990, when asked about an Arum offer to re-match Ray, “but it didn’t come close to changing my mind. Financially, I’m in good shape. My health is good, my brain is good. One more fight and you never know what might happen. I’m not going to win an Oscar, but I’m getting better. In five years maybe I could be a world-known actor.”

That didn’t happen and neither did he back off from his belief that he deserved to have his hand raised on April 6, 1987. “If I didn’t understand what happened in that fight, then it would bother me,” Hagler said to SI in ’90. “But I understand they took the fight from me. I don’t know if they paid anybody off, but I beat Leonard. I look at the film and think, ‘What are these people talking about?’ He told people that he wrecked three TVs by throwing them after watching his fight with Leonard.

Time passed and juicy parts didn’t come his way. Years would pass, I’d not hear anything about him. Sometimes I’d see one of his quotes. “If they cut my bald head open, they will find one big boxing glove. That’s all I am. I live it,” he’d once said.

Marvin Hagler on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Here’s Marvin, with Johnny.

A 2014 check-in video shows that yep, he still felt some sort of thing versus Leonard, for not granting him a rematch. He noted that it’s a strange age, some guys get title shots after 15 fights, and it took him 49 fights before he got a crack. Maybe guys aren’t as hungry now, he theorized. “When I left, the money became more greater, and the fighters became more less,” he told Sportsvibe.

In February of 2019, Hagler was asked about the state of the sport.

“I hope that before I pass that they restore this game and bring it back to only one champion in the world,” he told Press Association Sport. “They have these three or four belts, I was only looking for one. Years ago, guys like Carlos Monzon, Bennie Briscoe, Emile Griffith, all of us were fighting for one belt.”

Hagler gave a good amount of time to Boston Herald reporter Mark Murphy for a story which ran in September 2020. In it, Hagler remained the same creature. He told Murphy he wasn’t keen on a “Four Kings” reunion, with Leonard, Duran, Hearns and him, unless he got paid. And he admitted he still hungered for a juicy movie role, even though his last film came out in 1997.

Word dropped Saturday afternoon that Hagler had died. No word on the circumstances.

So, we are left with video footage, and stories, and quotes. “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas,” I had wanted to reach out to Hagler and figure out when he first said that, because I couldn’t track down the origin.

I’m happy to report, though, that I did get a chance to talk to Hagler for a decent stretch a couple years ago. He attended the WBC convention in Las Vegas, in December 2016. I attended, doing work for the Everlast “Talkbox” podcast.

I hesitated to approach him, because I’d heard that he sometimes turned down chats with reporters if he wasn’t being paid. But I pressed on, off the record, just to say hello.

“Thank you for the memories,” I said to Hagler, who was plenty warm and friendly. “I lived in Massachusetts while you were climbing the ranks and enjoyed following your progress in the newspapers,” I continued, shifting into a Boston-flavored accent that I no longer have, having been in NYC since 1999. “It’s great to meet you, Mahvelous.”

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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