The Showtime documentary series The Kings, about the grand era of the 80s when the giants of their sport, boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran, all lived not only at the same time, but within their division, is a program that no one could say is lacking for ambition. It’s not enough for the series to focus on these four great fighters and their differences, The Kings connects them to the backdrop of the times. The passage of the sport from Ali to a new crop of fighters is matched by the turning over of the country from Carter to Reagan.
The mid to late 70s were a difficult time for America. A painful recession, high gas prices, and the Iran hostage crisis gave way to the “me first” 80s and Ronald Reagan’s era of small government. Whereas Carter was attempting to get the country to tighten its belt and eat its peas, Reagan was all about loosening the belt and taking back what he believed to be ours. “Make America great again” is actually heard loud and clear in episode one of The Kings. However much “many people are saying” believes that slogan started with him, it didn’t.
Into this void, walked Sugar Ray Leonard. A charismatic and magically talented boxer who wanted to take Ali’s mantle minus any controversy. Leonard was educated, unthreatening, and he had a great smile. Everyone in the media loved him, and the corporations came calling to have him pitch their products. Leonard was a star-spangled black man, an Olympic gold medalist, who courted the mainstream and could be the white man’s champion just as easily as Ali could be the black man’s champ.
It was one hell of a neat trick. Leonard played the white man’s game and was so good at it that he engendered a great amount of resentment from Hagler and Duran in particular.
Those two men were not golden boys. Hagler was a hard-scrabble southpaw from New Jersey, then Brockton, Massachusetts, who no one wanted to fight. It nearly took an act of Congress (or at least harshly worded letters from Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, threatening to haul promoter Bob Arum into DC to face questioning on the fairness of the sport) for Hagler to get his shot against then welterweight champion Vito Antuofermo.
And then when Hagler got his shot (after nearly 50 fights), he was robbed by the judges when the fight ended in a draw. The “worst screwing in the history of boxing” you hear at one point in the voiceover. Nothing for Hagler ever came easy.
Hearns was the youngest of the four and wanted to follow in Leonard’s shoes to become an Olympic champion.
From the beaten down city of Detroit, Hearns had to abandon his dream after losing to Aaron Pryor in the 1976 Olympic trials, and go pro. When he did, under the masterful tutelage of Emanuel Steward at the Kronk Gym in the Motor City, he converted from a stick and move boxer to a punishing knockout artist.
For his part, Duran was probably the angriest of them all. Born and raised on the tough streets of Panama, Duran grew up throwing rocks at American soldiers as they were stationed on the Panama Canal—a fixture that may have been the most significant landmark in the country, but was controlled by the United States. When Duran and Leonard kicked off this era of greatness by being the first two of the foursome to fight one another, it was Duran’s seething anger towards Leonard, America, and the USA’s occupation of the canal that drove him to nastily go after Leonard’s wife, following her out of the hotel and telling her that after he beat her husband, he was going to, shall we say, show her what a real man is.
These tactics worked. Duran got into Leonard’s head (Leonard admits as much in voiceover), and scored a majority decision over the golden boy of boxing just as the Panama Canal was returned to his country by President Carter as candidate Reagan seethed—speaking of the canal as if it were the United States’ manifest destiny to control it always.
This is really heady stuff for a sports documentary to take on. And while in the early going, episode one of The Kings feels a bit like a “feeling out” round, it soon picks up steam as the cultural shift in the United States parallels a comparable shift in boxing.
Hagler, Hearns, and Duran were seen as the challengers from rugged backgrounds, which was certainly true. Leonard was seen as the flashy, substance-free chosen one who had everything handed to him, which was largely reductive if not flat out untrue.
The revelations peppered out in episode one are abundant and tasty. Leonard intended to quit boxing after the Olympics and get a degree from the University of Maryland. Then, his mother had a mild heart attack and his father was hospitalized with meningitis, forcing Leonard to go pro.
All four men had difficult roads to travel, but Leonard, with his good looks and education was more equipped to work the system.
Arum was the college educated wheeler dealer and King the flamboyant circus act whose outward jocularity hid the fact that the man was a true stone-cold killer (with two dead bodies on his resume to prove it).
Together with the four fighters the series focuses on, The Kings argues that these six men didn’t just change the sport, they changed the country. Or, at least at minimum, were reflections of the country we lived in at the time. Leonard was the “have”and the other three men were the “have nots” (a gap that Reagan would go on to exacerbate among the American population with his “trickle down” economics theory).
Leonard would, fairly or not, represent Reagan’s America as the capitalist who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. It’s fair to say that while most Americans loved him for that, many a boxer hated him for it.
The first episode of The Kings closes with Duran’s victory over Leonard.
Just like in real life, Hearns and Hagler were made to wait in the wings, as Leonard, the most popular boxer of his era (even after his loss to Duran), held all the cards, thanks to being the greatest box office draw of his time.
In our current day, when the biggest fight in boxing is made by a gifted half-retired fighter taking on a (god help us) YouTube personality, Kings is a reminder of a time when it was the fight and the fighters that mattered. Quality over spectacle. Substance over show. And that’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of show back then—certainly there was. But what followed the show mattered.
Watching the first episode of The Kings will remind you, that for all that was wrong with it then. Boxing was a real sport—not the exhibition it often is today. This is a series about great fighters who – eventually – all fought one another. Jesus, it’s almost quaint.
But what it also is for the first 57 minutes of its running time, is a statement about what boxing once was, and I’d like to believe, what it could be again.
The phrase “the sport of kings” is typically applied to horse racing. But I’ve always found that to be a misnomer. The true sport of kings used to be boxing. Because the kings of this series weren’t equine, they were men, who walked into the ring trying to find a way to get to each other. To be the greatest of their era. To be champions.
God, what a blast it is to see the real thing, even if it’s only a memory.
Showtime will be airing Kings every Sunday night throughout the month of June. I’ll be back next week to break down episode two.