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THE KINGS Episode Three: The Will to Win

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This is a poor boy’s sport.” 

That’s one of the first lines you hear in voiceover from episode three of the Showtime documentary The Kings, which showcases the remarkable (and simultaneous) careers of Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran. And how could it be anything else? Who else would choose to make a living at hitting and getting hit other than men and women who have no other choice?

As Teddy Atlas opines in the opening of episode three, you can come from nothing and become rich, you can be champion of the world. All you have to do is hit someone else more and harder than they hit you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is simple…if you can do it.

All four of these men grew up poor, even Ray Leonard, who would dig up half-eaten burgers out of trash cans near the Lincoln monument in DC. 

Leonard didn’t focus on it much as his star shone brighter, but yes, he didn’t live near the lap of luxury as a youth.

After the Hearns fight, Leonard took time off to heal. In the interim, Ronald Reagan used this poor boy, this former dumpster-diver, as a pawn to showcase a young black man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, even if he had to do so through sanctioned violence. All the while, Reagan cut programs for the poor, and Leonard was only too eager to be seen as the symbol of the sort of cowboy optimism that Reagan, a cowboy actor who ascended to the highest seat of power in America, epitomized. 

The government embraced an “you’re on your own” ethos and in no other sport are you more “on your own” than boxing. No wonder Reagan wanted to use Sugar Ray Leonard, who was clean cut, but also the sort of “rugged individualist” that Reagan harkened back to when white men moved west and forced the red man off their land. “Manifest Destiny” it’s called—taking that which you claim to be yours from whomever you wish through the concept of “might makes right.”

That’s also boxing. 

But the version Reagan was selling was the rich getting richer and the poor getting punch drunk. In the ring, it was somewhat similar, except those combatants, almost to a man, started out on equal footing—the footing of the worn out shoes of the poor. For all its violence, boxing was far more fair than politics, certainly more fair than the politics of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had talent–he could smear an entire race ranting against “welfare queens” and then switch on the charm, and meet n greet a massive African-American success story in Marvin Hagler.

Even so, a hometown hero could take it on the chin—literally and figuratively. Take Tommy Hearns…After his loss to Leonard, Hearns was no longer Detroit’s favorite son. “You lost me a lot of money,” people who have never risked their lives in the ring would tell him. As you listen to a present day Hearns speak in voiceover in speech so slurred that it makes you grateful that you have the subtitles on, it’s hard not to consider what he, the fighter in the ring, has lost over the years.

Hearns grew up during the race riots in Detroit. The backdrop of his life was burning buildings and brutal policing. For him, boxing was not “a way” out, but the only way. His natural gifts and fierce drive allowed him an escape from poverty. But after the loss to Leonard, Hearns needed to restore and redeem himself. Hearns went on a fierce tear after the loss to Leonard. As they were knocking down buildings in Detroit, “Hearns was knocking down opponents.” The visual juxtaposition of Hearns taking down fighters while structures made of concrete and steel are being felled (to the sounds of Detroit’s own Iggy Pop and the Stooges) in his hometown is remarkably cinematic. 

Thomas “Hitman” Hearns ascended to the title again, this time in the next weight class up, junior middleweight, and began to call after Leonard again.

While Leonard and Hearns danced around each other, Marvin Hagler was trying to gain the sort of appeal that came so naturally to “Sugar Ray” Leonard, “Hitman” Hearns, and even Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran. 

Hagler had to create his own nickname, calling himself “Marvelous Marvin,” a moniker that never seemed to fit his lunch-pail aesthetic. In fact, Hagler had to legally change his name to force the adjective to be used by sportscasters and sportswriters alike.

While Hagler was a powerful and extraordinarily skilled fighter, it was his indomitable will that made him great. He was as blue collar as a guy wearing a hard hat while walking across a steel beam of a construction site high rise. Hagler was more eloquent than he was given credit for, but his words did not sing—the rhythm of rhyme and verse eluded him. Despite his many physical gifts the bulk of his career went woefully unappreciated.

As a product of Newark, New Jersey, Hagler grew up in an area not so unlike that which Hearns came up through. But just like Hearns and Detroit, Hagler and Newark didn’t garner the same front page headlines, for better or worse, than the Hitman and the Motor City did. 

Hagler lived in New Jersey, and then trekked north, to Massachusetts, where he set up base in a town called Brockton. Ring a bell?

Newark burned just like Detroit, but Hagler burned hotter than Hearns. Hagler had to claw for recognition in a way that none of the other three kings, despite their own legitimate challenges, did. 

Hagler was the rarest of creatures, the truly great athlete that was somehow went under (if not un) appreciated.

Hagler resented Leonard greatly. And while much of that resentment was unfair (after all, Leonard was a truly great fighter from a difficult background), it was palpable. It’s not so much that Leonard was better than Hagler at boxing (that debate may rage on forever), it’s that he was better at “the game” of boxing.

And as Hearns and Hagler salivated at the opportunity to fight Leonard, a detached retina, likely suffered in the Hearns fight, sent Leonard into a period of stasis. The down time didn’t suit Ray. He began to indulge in drugs, alcohol, and women who were not his wife. In short, without boxing, Ray Leonard was adrift and abusive. While Ronald Reagan may have called to wish Leonard well after his eye surgery, Ray’s image hid the reality of his home life that was anything but the “family values” that Ronnie espoused.

Then in 1982, Leonard created a bizarre spectacle in his hometown of Baltimore, complete with celebrity appearances by the likes of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, in which it was expected he would announce a fight with Hagler, who was in attendance at the event. Instead, Leonard humiliated Hagler by teasing the fight and then announcing his retirement.

To watch The Kings is to have your memory jarred at just how deeply weird Leonard’s behavior could be. At no time were his actions stranger than on that night with all the boxing cognoscenti in attendance. It was beyond insulting to Hagler.

But it was perhaps Roberto Duran who suffered the greatest. Spurned by his countrymen, and toiling through a series of mediocre performances in the ring, Duran appeared to be done.

Of the four kings, Duran was the most political. His closeness to Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos was a great source of pride to him. When Torrijos’ plane went down in 1981, most of Latin America, including Duran, suspected that the crash which took Torrijos’ life was no accident, with many blaming the CIA. 

After a period of depression, Duran looked to restore his position in boxing with a title match against champion Davey Moore, who ascended to a title in near record time, winning the light middleweight crown in just his ninth professional fight. The 32- year-old, supposedly shot, Roberto Duran obliterated Moore and reclaimed a measure of greatness.

Off of his redemptive triumph, Duran became the first of the four kings to face Marvin Hagler on November 10 of 1983 in Las Vegas. 

Leonard and Hearns wanted none of Hagler, and while Duran fell short in his bid to topple Hagler, he asked everything of Hagler in losing a close 15 round decision. Duran made Hagler look human. Leonard called the fight from ringside and believed if he boxed Hagler, he could beat him.

After two years on the shelf, Leonard returned to boxing against the unheralded Kevin Howard. In a shocking turn of events, Howard dropped Leonard with a straight right hand, with Hagler laughing at ringside. Leonard picked himself up and won the fight, and then announced his retirement, second time, at the post-fight press conference.

After his close loss to Hagler, Duran signed on to fight Thomas Hearns, but his lack of personal discipline and love of the “good life” impacted his training. While he was “drinking and fucking,” Hearns was training. An out of shape Duran was brutally dropped in the second round by a vicious right hand from Hearns that I’m sure gives Duran nightmares to this day.

Coming off of his dominant victory over Duran, Hearns came after the man that struggled so greatly with the fighter he had easily decimated, Marvin Hagler. Finally, the two men would step outside of Leonard’s shadow and become the true main event. 

In the aftermath of Reagan’s re-election in the 1984 race, the two fighters would contend for the largest purse in boxing history. In the go-go “me first” ‘80s, there was a certain synergy to the confluence of those two events. What followed was the most extraordinary three round fight in boxing history.

In a country consumed by wealth and surface appearances, these two men represented the other, the downtrodden, the people on the margins. These two men represented burnt out buildings and abandoned cars. They were of potholed streets and graffiti-filled sidewalks, and they would go to war. Many who have seen round one will tell you it was the greatest round in boxing history. 

As Steve Farhood can be heard saying in voiceover, “It was pure Hell”—an exercise in relentless brutality where defense was a complete afterthought. These men came out swinging and didn’t stop until the bell sounded.

Hagler was bloodied, but unbowed. While his skin may have betrayed him as red fluid leaked from his face, his chin, his will, and his fists, would not be deterred. No man ever took Hearns’ vicious right hand without backing up. But Hagler knew only one direction—forward. It was as if he were made of iron. Farhood described the round as “one long scream,” and that’s not about right, it’s exactly right.

Hearns told his corner that his right hand was broke. And if ever there was a surface that could break the powerful right hand of Thomas Hearns, it was the head of Marvin Hagler. Despite the broken hand, Hearns made a bloody mess of Hagler’s face. The entirety of Hagler’s head was turning into a red mask, and still, this man was unswayed. 

Then, in the third round, with blood streaming from Hagler’s head like a geyser, referee Richard Steele paused the fight to have the doctor assess Hagler’s injury. 

Steele asked Hagler, “Marvin, can you see?” 

To which Hagler replied, “I’m hitting him, ain’t I?” 

Knowing that the cut had put the fight in jeopardy, Hagler did what a warrior does, he unloaded. In a three-punch statement of pure brutality, Hagler not only ended the fight, he ended the Thomas Hearns that everyone knew. It would be Hagler’s greatest moment in the ring and the end to Hearns’ greatness.

Episode three of The Kings ends in exhilarating fashion as Hagler finally earns the recognition he so richly deserved with Ray Leonard at ringside, looking on with envy. That used to be me, his look seems to say. And that expression clearly foreshadows what is to come in episode four.

No fair getting ahead of oneself. However, we know what’s next. One of the most confounding fights in boxing history: Leonard vs.Hagler. But before that, one must savor episode three of The Kings, which is so full of energy in its direction by Mat Whitecross that you almost feel like you are sent back in an HG Wells-made machine to a time that a fight really mattered. Because what these four men were battling for wasn’t so much championship belts, but the championship of each other.

I’ll be back to review the final installment of this stirring series tomorrow. Do give me a moment to soak in this scintillating episode three. I suggest you do the same.

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