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The Kings Episode Four: A Champion Never Quits

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The brilliant finale of Showtime’s documentary series begins by cutting to each of the four kings working a speed bag. Ray Leonard, then Marvin Hagler, then Roberto Duran, and then Hitman Hearns. All of them look vital, yet vulnerable. You can see the premature aging that only boxing does to a young man’s face. It’s not just the wounds of war, but the knowledge that each of them must have pushed to the back of their minds:

“I’m closer to the end than I am the beginning.”

This final stage of their careers would have to be maximized to cement their legacies. The crowd won’t be there to roar for them forever. It’s now or never.

Director Mat Whitecross boldly cuts to the space shuttle Challenger explosion to orient us to the time of the mid-eighties and also as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and perhaps just as importantly, relevance.

Athletes peak early and decline quickly. And after the fall, they are left to wonder who they are without that which defined them. In the case of “the kings,” that definition was the boxing ring.

Hagler, who had waited the longest and took arguably the hardest road to superstardom, had finally arrived in full. It was finally his turn to be in commercials, to guest on television shows, to be invited to the Reagan White House. Having reached the pinnacle of his sport after his dynamic victory over Hearns, Hagler was ready to walk away. Instead he was talked into a fight with John “The Beast” Mugabi, a huge puncher who Hagler wore down and eventually knocked out, but not before showing some exposed thread on his own tires. Leonard saw it too, that night from his ringside seat—a slight, but consequential diminishment of skill. This version of Marvin Hagler could be beat.

The world was changing around them too. The optimism of Reagan’s first term diminished as the Iran/Contra scandal rocked his administration, and his economic policies exacerbated the gap between the haves and the have nots. As you hear in voiceover, Reagan’s slogan “It’s morning in America” had turned to mourning in America for far too many. As Reagan’s Teflon presidency began to wear, so did the bodies of the four kings.

But of the four, Leonard was the freshest. He had far fewer fights on his record than Hagler, Hearns, and Duran. He was retired and over two years removed from stepping into the ring. Having already defeated Duran and Hearns, Leonard—detached retina and all—wanted Marvin Hagler, and he saw a narrow window in which to crawl through to make the fight.

It seemed like a stunning choice at the time. Leonard was rich, healthy overall, and still in demand as a boxing commentator and a pitch man for various products. Remarkably, Leonard didn’t even take a warm up fight. He would come down off the shelf after nearly three years and take on one of the toughest and roughest fighters of his (or any other) generation. His decision to fight Hagler smacked of hubris, and some even questioned his sanity.

The anticipation for the fight was feverish. Both men had defeated Hearns and Duran. All that was left for them was each other. It would be the last great fight of their era.

Almost no one believed Leonard could win, but as The Kings reveals, while Hagler set the financial terms for the bout, Leonard established the competitive terms—most importantly, ring size. A larger ring favored a fighter who didn’t plan on getting up close and personal.

For 12 rounds, Leonard largely got to fight the way he wanted to. Moving from side to side, mugging and taunting Hagler while throwing occasional combinations that had more flash than power, but judges can get caught up in that. Leonard worked the room brilliantly, even if most of the meaningful punches were landed by Hagler.

The judges scorecards were read aloud–a split decision that will be argued over by boxing fans for as long as memory will allow.

It was a bitter loss for Hagler, a fighter who Teddy Atlas can be heard referring to as a man of “substance,” who was beaten by the bright light of a “meteor.” While many (including the writer of this piece) thought Hagler won the fight, Atlas correctly points out that Marvin went about the fight in the wrong way. He was too patient, too conservative, and he gave away the early rounds due to inactivity. As Atlas says, “He was a co-conspirator in his own demise.” That loss denied Hagler the thing he had earned, that he most deserved—acceptance.

Hagler felt shafted by the sport he had given his life to. And then he did the rarest of things when it comes to great boxers: he got out and he stayed out. Even when Leonard tried to convince Hagler to get back into the ring for what would have surely been a massive payday for both, Hagler’s response to Leonard was, “Get a life.” Of the four kings, Hagler was the one who finished boxing before boxing finished him.

As the back half of episode four shows, Leonard, Duran, and Hearns did not follow in Hagler’s footsteps, and they would all pay a price for that.

Leonard would retire again, but this time his departure would not last long.

With Hagler retired for good, and Leonard seemingly back on the shelf, Thomas Hearns had to seek redemption by moving up from weight class to weight class to weight class, becoming the first man to win world titles in four different divisions. Unfortunately, Hearns didn’t stop there and went on to suffer a devastating knockout loss at the fists of Iran Barkley. The footage of the blows that sent Hearns to the canvas and the glassy-eyed expression on his face that remained well after he was counted out by the referee is a stark reminder that in boxing, your skill and fortune dissipates a little at a time, and then…all at once.

Hearns kept going though, and as the great boxing writer Thomas Hauser can be heard saying, “Boxers are the first to know when it’s time to retire, and the last to admit it.” Sadly, Thomas Hearns epitomized that painfully eloquent statement. Even when he won, the damage piled up.

Eight years after their extraordinary fight, a fading Hearns and Leonard would fight again. While Leonard was only 32 at the time and Hearns just 30, both men’s reputations had already eclipsed their respective skill sets. The names at the top of the fight card promised more than their bodies would allow.

Hearns was a sweet man, who spent too much on friends, family, and of course himself. He didn’t know how to say no to a fight or to hangers-on. As Reagan’s war on drugs raged through Hearns’ beloved Detroit, he too would be invited to the White House to be used as a photo op by a president who was doing great damage to his community.

As if the second Leonard/Hearns fight needed any more sadness attached to it, Hearns younger brother was arrested for murdering his own girlfriend just a few days before the fight in Tommy’s house, with Tommy’s gun. Under this cloak of tragedy, Hearns took to the ring.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fight lived up to expectations. It was an all out war with Hearns sending Leonard to the canvas, Ray getting back up and regaining his senses. The fight ebbed and flowed with each fighter trading the advantage. And then Hearns put Leonard down again, and again Leonard came back closing the final round with Hearns staggering before him, but this time, Hearns did not go down.

Despite staying on his feet for the entire fight, and scoring two knockdowns against Leonard, the curious gods of boxing placed three blind mice at the judges’ table, who robbed Hearns of his redemption, scoring the fight a draw.

Ironically, what made the fight so great is the fact that Leonard and Hearns were no longer great. The loss of speed and movement made it easier for them to find each other. When once they were equals in their prime, so now were they equals in their decline. But on this night, the edge should have belonged to Hearns.

One might think that the second fight between Leonard and Hearns would be the close of The Kings, but in fascinating fashion, the last quarter of the series’ final episode turns its attention to Roberto Duran. After the death of the Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, a new strong man gripped the small Central American country in his hands—the notorious Manuel Noriega, a man the Reagan Administration had cozied up to in an effort to serve their own economic needs relating to the Panama Canal. Noriega was a bad piece of business, a drug lord, who once he became too infamous, Reagan turned his back on him.

Both the United States and Panama were troubled nations who quit on each other. Roberto Duran however, did not quit. Long past his prime, Duran took on the man who brutally vanquished Hearns less than one year earlier, and knocked him down twice, becoming an improbable champion in his 92nd fight.

Sadly for Duran, a time of triumph soon turned to strife. His manager Carlos Eleta and his promoter Don King allegedly drained his bank account and left his taxes unpaid. The IRS came calling, and so at the age of 38, Duran fought Leonard one more time. It was the last big fight of a decade they along with Hagler and Hearns defined, but like so many other boxers, they had stayed in the game too long, and the fight was more whimper than bang.

The fight ended in a unanimous decision victory that virtually no one talks about now. Then, two weeks later, Reagan’s successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, sent troops into Panama, in search of Manuel Noriega, leaving horrendous collateral damage in their wake. Noriega eventually surrendered to the United States, but it would be another nine years before Duran would surrender to boxing after 119 fights and just shy of his 50th birthday.

In what one could only call a star-crossed turn of events both Duran and Leonard saw their careers end in the ring in front of the same man—Hector Camacho, a man no one would consider their equal if they were to meet on level ground.

As much pain as Leonard and Duran may have put themselves through by sticking around too long, it was Hearns who suffered the most at the close of his career. One need only hear him speak now to understand what was taken from him.

It’s hard to encapsulate what this series about these four kings has accomplished. Director Mat Whitecross and team have delivered a deeply human retelling of a time when it may have been Ronald Reagan’s world, but these men were the fireworks.

You learn something about each of them that only those closest to them could understand. There is Leonard’s secret shame of child abuse that forced him to wrestle with his self-esteem while he ruled the world of boxing. You see beyond Roberto Duran’s enigmatic machismo to learn how he was driven by national pride. You learn of the excessive generosity that flowed from Thomas Hearns’ sweet, over-sized heart. And you go behind the gruff exterior of a proud man to find a boy named Marvin Hagler who just didn’t want to get hurt by anyone claiming to care for him.

The last image you see at the close of this magnificent series is a smiling Hagler and the words, “In memory of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, 1954-2021.”

Upon seeing those words and that image onscreen, I had to catch my breath. Because over these four glorious episodes, this show brought all four of these men into my home, and one of them, my favorite one, back to life, if only for a few hours.

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