(Written March 2011 by MJ Law)

In 2007, British publication Boxing Monthly featured an article celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the classic showdown between middleweight champion Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, which had taken place on 6th April 1987. In the article, the views from a number of people in the fight game were garnered, including that of writer and broadcaster Steve Farhood. For anybody who has spent the last twenty-four years living on Mars, Leonard won a controversial split decision, a decision which continues to be questioned to this day. Mr Farhood himself had no argument with the decision, unlike many observers, and concluded his thoughts on the Hagler-Leonard fight with this statement: “Leonard haters, get over it.” Mr Farhood is just about as knowledgeable as anyone in boxing today but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his concluding statement was rather pompous and arrogant. Why, you may ask? Well, it’s because he makes both a rash presumption and a ridiculous request. His rash presumption is that he seems to think that anybody who disagrees with the result of the fight must hate Leonard. Of course, this is plain silly…and untrue. How do I know? Because I happen to be a big fan of Sugar Ray. I rate him as one of the greatest welterweights of all time and he possessed skills that are just as dazzling as those displayed by Floyd Mayweather Jr. And Sugar Ray hit harder and was way more exciting too. However, I don’t think he deserved the decision over Hagler. Mr Farhood’s ridiculous request is that he seemingly doesn’t want us to debate the decision, telling us to “get over it”. But why? Controversial decisions have always existed in boxing and fans of the sweet science love to debate them. It’s fun and thought-provoking. Mr Farhood should know that controversial decisions never die. Hell, people still talk about the dubious verdict in the second Max Schmeling-Jack Sharkey battle - and that fight was in 1932! Similar head-scratching decisions came in Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young, Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton II and III, Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez and numerous others, and they will be discussed, analysed, pondered over and drive fans crazy for all eternity. And so will the decision in Hagler-Leonard, whether Mr Farhood likes it or not.
A publicity poster for the Hagler-Leonard clash
So what happened on 6th April 1987? Marvin Hagler was making the thirteenth defence of the world middleweight title. The challenger was Sugar Ray Leonard, a former two-time world welterweight champion. Hagler had already established himself as one of the best middleweights ever and had reigned as the world champion for six and a half years. He had beaten all the top contenders around and had wins over big names such as Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi. At the time, believe it or not, there were only three alphabet belts to win; the WBC, WBA and IBF. There was no WBF, or IBC, or IBO, or any of these other phoney baloney sanctioning groups trying to suck the sport dry. There were no interim champions, or champions emeritus, or Silver belts, or Diamond belts or any other such pointless nonsense. Of course, there should only be one true champion per division, but given the utterly confusing mess boxing is in today with an absurd number of bogus belts to win, it all seemed so simple back in 1987 when there were only three. At the time, three seemed like two too many, but I’d sure take that over today’s complete chaos. Anyway, Hagler held the WBC, WBA and IBF titles……….only he didn’t by the day of the fight. In their infinite “wisdom” and despite the fact that Hagler was a truly great fighter who had defeated every noteworthy middleweight on the planet, the WBA and IBF saw an opportunity to flex their puny muscles. Give them credit for being astute. They had made plenty of money in sanctioning fees from Hagler’s previous defences, which had generated increasingly big bucks. However, Hagler was coming to the end of his long, glorious career and was talking seriously about retiring. Along with this, Sugar Ray had made it perfectly clear that he did not intend to fight on after his clash with Hagler. Therefore, no matter who won on 6th April, retirement loomed for both. So the WBA and IBF anticipated that their middleweight belts would become vacant in the near future and jumped at the chance to strip Hagler of his titles. They could then brag that not even a living legend like Marvelous Marvin was safe from their title-stripping shenanigans! Their “excuse” for stripping him was that they wanted him to defend against Herol Graham, a talented but dreadfully dull contender from the UK who had no public appeal. As a side note, Graham actually lost his next fight (to Sumbu Kalambay of Italy) and didn’t end up fighting for either the vacant WBA or IBF titles anyway. As another side note, Sugar Ray did in fact make a comeback the following year.

With this, only the WBC were happy and willing to scoop up the considerable sanctioning fee the Hagler-Leonard bout would provide for them. Even though Leonard hadn’t technically earned this title shot in the traditional sense, this was one of those occasions when exceptions were made. He was Sugar Ray Leonard, the gold medalist from the 1976 Olympic Games. He had twice won the world welterweight title and beaten a trio of superstars; Wilfred Benitez, Duran and Hearns. This was the guy who had made Duran quit in the eighth round of their rematch in November 1980 and who had knocked out Hearns in the fourteenth round of a thriller in September 1981. Unfortunately, after suffering a detached retina, Leonard had announced his retirement in 1982.But the lure of the ring would prove too much.

It was interesting to note that during the build-up for Hagler-Leonard, much was made of Leonard’s inactivity going into this bout; only one fight in five years. After retiring in 1982, he had subsequently made a comeback in 1984, stopping Kevin Howard in nine rounds, but quickly retired again, having been dissatisfied with his performance. His challenge of Hagler would be his first ring appearance since then. However, Hagler had not been particularly active himself. On 15th April 1985 he had flattened Hearns in three rounds and did not fight again until 10th March 1986, when he beat Mugabi (this fight had been originally scheduled for November 1985 but had been postponed when Hagler was injured in training). Therefore, leading up to his showdown with Leonard, Hagler had only had one fight in two years, and in addition to that, his defences against Hearns and Mugabi were no walks in the park; he had to take his share of big shots each time before prevailing. Taking this into account, was Leonard’s inactivity really a disadvantage? It could actually have been turned into an advantage, as he would be the fresher of the two.


Another interesting point was the timing of the “Super Fight”, as it was billed. This fight had been talked about as early as 1981, but Leonard did not seriously pursue it until after Hagler’s war with Mugabi, by which time Hagler was showing clear signs of being past his peak. Perhaps Leonard was smart enough not to take on the champ when he was still in his prime? Needless to say, even a fading Hagler was an ominous proposition for anyone and he was still the best middleweight in the world. Rumours began to circulate during the summer of 1986 that Leonard wanted to make a return to the ring to take on Hagler. Coincidently, these rumours began at the same time that Hagler began to openly talk about retiring. Legend has it that he decided to take the Leonard fight while walking through a park late at night with his wife, Bertha, during the autumn of 1986. She said to him, “Why don’t you go for that b*****d Leonard and get him out of the way?” What was unknown at the time was that Marvin didn’t really want this fight; he had to be persuaded to take it by his promoter, Bob Arum, and his handlers, Goody and Pat Petronelli. Marvin wanted to retire and party like it was 1987.





Hagler catches Leonard with a left hook
As soon as the bout was announced, the excitement began. Who would win? Could Leonard really pull off a miracle comeback victory? Or would Hagler demolish him? Sports columns in newspapers and magazines covered the build-up extensively with previews and interviews. It was the kind of showdown that had people talking about it in barber shops and around office water coolers. Contemporary bantamweight contender Greg Richardson and Leonard’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, had both predicted that Leonard would stop Hagler inside the distance, but this was wholly unrealistic. A murderous puncher like Mugabi had not been able to come close to dropping Hagler, so how was a lighter hitter like Leonard supposed to bowl him over?  Hagler’s granite jaw was the stuff of myths. Leonard would have more luck trying to play pick-up sticks with his butt cheeks.

In the UK, the “Super Fight” was given a huge amount of coverage. The Sun newspaper ran full page articles in the final few days leading up to it, with columnist Colin Hart writing “I predict Leonard will slip and slide his way to a memorable points decision that will prove to be one of the greatest upsets in boxing history”. He also produced a chart featuring nine categories in which to compare them, marking each with a score out of ten, and his final totals were eighty-eight for Hagler and eighty-nine for Leonard. Here is a breakdown of his scores:-

· (1) For “Punching Power” he scored ten for Hagler which was too high (a sledgehammer hitter like Rocky Marciano would justify a ten); he scored nine for Leonard which was very generous as he was a fair but not fearsome puncher. More realistic scores would have been eight for Hagler and six for Leonard.

· (2) For “Experience” he scored ten for both of them which was spot on.

· (3) For “Stamina” he scored ten for both of them which was again spot on.

· (4) For “Fitness” he scored ten for both of them which was once again spot on.

· (5) For “Ability” he scored ten for both of them which was a little too high (a supremely masterful boxer like Willie Pep would earn a ten). A more realistic score would have been nine for both.

· (6) For “Mobility” he scored nine for Hagler which was slightly too much; he scored ten for Leonard which was also slightly too much (the fancy footwork of Muhammad Ali would require a ten and Leonard is just below that level). Realistic scores would have been eight for Hagler and nine for Leonard.

· (7) For “Durability” he scored ten for Hagler and this was accurate (Juan Roldan had supposedly floored him in their March 1984 bout but this had clearly been a slip); he scored ten for Leonard which was another example of being rather generous (Jake LaMotta would merit a ten because - like Hagler - he had an almost-inhuman capability to absorb punishment without being fazed whereas Leonard (who had been staggered in his first bout with Roberto Duran and dropped by Kevin Howard) had not gained a similar reputation). A more realistic score for Leonard would have been eight out of ten.

· (8) For “Ferocity” he scored ten for both of them which was a bit extravagant (a menacing brawler like Mike Tyson would deserve a ten and neither Hagler nor Leonard (principally Leonard) had that kind of ferociousness). Realistic scores would have been eight for Hagler and six for Leonard.

· (9) For “Jab” he scored nine for Hagler which was right; he scored ten for Leonard which was yet again too generous (Larry Holmes’s excellent jab would need a ten and Leonard’s jab was not superior to Hagler’s). Leonard should have been scored a nine here.

Overall, some of Colin Hart’s scores were on target, or close to being on target, others were off-base, usually with a bias towards the challenger. The more realistic scores quoted above would equate to a total of eighty-two for Hagler and seventy-seven for Leonard. The fight itself, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, was on a Monday night. During one of the pre-fight interviews, Leonard’s wife, Juanita, commented on how nice she thought Hagler and his wife, Bertha, were. Leonard, seemingly surprised by this, retorted, “Honey, this guy wants to knock my head off!”

Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was the venue for Hagler v Leonard
The media had a tendency to view Leonard in a more favourable light, but this should not have been surprising because the outgoing, fun-loving challenger was more appealing to them than the all-business, brooding champion. There was certainly a contrast in their personalities. Hagler was down-to-earth, more serious and a blue collar guy, the kind of guy you could go for a beer with at your local watering hole and watch a football game. Whereas Leonard was a charmer with an easy smile, the kind of guy you would go to an uptown nightclub with where you would only be allowed in if your tailor-made suit boasted a designer label. He was Mr Showbiz and shined like a star. As for the fight itself, what about this controversial decision? Did Leonard genuinely do enough to win? Was Hagler robbed? Here is how it unfolded:-

Round 1
The first round was actually close and somewhat uneventful. Both landed with a couple of harmless shots, including a body blow by Hagler late in the round. Although Leonard threw a few more punches, most of them either missed or were blocked and there is a case to score this round even. Basically, not much happened. However, Leonard probably did enough to edge it.
Score;
Hagler - 9
Leonard - 10

Round 2
Leonard was demonstrating fluid footwork and not yet showing any signs of ring rust. He was an elusive target and boxed like he was having fun. Hagler didn’t really do too much here, merely following the challenger around. He remained rather composed and didn’t seem overly concerned. Towards the end of the round Sugar Ray showboated, probably feeling he needed to establish a psychological advantage.
Score;
Hagler - 9
Leonard - 10

Round 3
This was an interesting round in that it became apparent that Leonard’s performance was quite theatrical. It was as if he wanted to appear grand by exaggerating everything he did; big movements, big motions, big gestures, even though his punches really had nothing on them. But close analysis of this round indicates that Hagler actually had more success. He landed all the heavier and more effective blows. One of the ringside judges, Lou Filippo, scored this round for Hagler and he was right; Hagler did deserve to win it.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Round 4
Leonard was flashy and scored well here. Hagler had some success, particularly during the first half of the round. Leonard launched a flamboyant bolo punch and this was quite symbolic of the fight as a whole. On the surface, the bolo punch was eye-catching and brought a whoop of delight from the crowd. But when considering the punch further, it should be noted that it had no effect on Hagler and actually landed low, so it was a foul. This symbolized what Leonard wanted; he only wanted the judges to see the flamboyance of what he was doing without considering it further. Nevertheless, he had certainly done enough to win this round.
Score;
Hagler - 9
Leonard - 10

Round 5
A big round for Hagler. He hit the challenger with a series of heavy shots and stunned him with a right uppercut. He also switched from orthodox to southpaw quite often, and this may have been part of a strategy to confuse his opponent. Leonard kept clinching and was warned by the referee.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Round 6
This round is just about impossible to score. Both missed regularly and Leonard seemed to be tiring. He was also warned by the referee for holding and hitting. The pace slowed, with Hagler being the harder puncher and always pressing forward, and Leonard being elusive and throwing more, though his shots were less powerful. This is the most difficult round of the fight to score thus far and it is a brain-numbing exercise to try to separate them. It’s only appropriate to score it even.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 10

Round 7
This was clearly Hagler’s round. Leonard continued to backpedal and was still throwing occasional flurries, but Hagler blocked most of them with his gloves and elbows. There seemed to be nothing on Leonard’s punches at all. The solid shots were from the champion.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Round 8
Another clear round for the champion. He once again scored with the stronger punches and was always moving forward. Leonard was offering spirited resistance but he was warned again by the referee, this time for hitting after the bell. It was noticeable by this stage that Hagler had trapped Leonard on the ropes or in a corner on several occasions, yet Leonard had never been able to do the same to the champ.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Round 9
The most exciting round of the bout. Hagler pinned Leonard in his own corner and pounded him, but Leonard fought back with some sizzling combinations. The challenger was nailed with the more telling punches and was yet again warned by the referee for clinching. The momentum swung back and forth during this round, but overall Hagler had the best of it.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Round 10
The pace slowed drastically here, which was understandable following the hectic 9th round. Hagler landed with a lunging right cross in the closing seconds, but other than that he didn’t do much. Leonard definitely took this round, perhaps suspecting that the judges may have it close as they reached the last quarter of the fight. It was interesting to note that commentator Tim Ryan had Hagler winning 5-4-1 in rounds at this stage.
Score;
Hagler - 9
Leonard - 10

Round 11
Along with the 6th round, this was the most difficult round of the bout to score and it was a mind-boggling task to try to separate them. Hagler scored with an impressive bombardment during the middle of the round as he again had Leonard trapped on the ropes. But he couldn’t keep him there and Leonard unleashed his own impressive bombardment near the end of the round. They both had their moments of success and again like the 6th round, it is simply appropriate to score it even.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 10

Round 12
Leonard cut loose with a blinding combination and looked set for a big finish, but he then proceeded to circle away to a crazy extent, blatantly wasting time as the clock wound down. It wasn’t really a case of Hagler winning this round, it was more a case of Leonard losing it through his negative tactics. It cannot be scored for the challenger when his undeniable intention was to avoid any possible contact. Hagler surprisingly indulged in a brief spell of showboating himself - a rare sight! - and had Leonard trapped in his own corner as the fight ended.
Score;
Hagler - 10
Leonard - 9

Hagler was the aggressor throughout
Adding up these round-by-round figures makes the final result 116-114 (or 6-4 in rounds with two even) in favour of Hagler. The results from the actual judges went like this: Lou Filippo scored 115-113 for Hagler, Jose Guerra scored 118-110 for Leonard, and Dave Moretti scored 115-113 for Leonard, giving the middleweight championship to him on a split decision. Guerra’s score equated to 10-2 in rounds, a truly inaccurate conclusion. This result was completely off the mark and by no means mirrored the fight that had just finished. What was Guerra thinking? Had he actually been paying any attention to what had occurred in the ring before his eyes? It seemed not. Later, Guerra tried to justify his score by claiming that Leonard had “dictated” the fight. Really? Hmmm…………that was difficult to accept. Leonard had done too much backpedaling and clinching to have dictated the fight in the actual sense of the term. It was Hagler who had continuously forced the fight and had been the aggressor throughout. If he had been forcing Leonard to mostly retreat, how could Leonard have dictated the fight? Punch stat figures revealed that Leonard had landed a total of 306 punches and Hagler had landed a total of 291, a difference of just fifteen. This minor difference could be further minimized or even voided when considering that Hagler had landed the more solid and effective punches. These figures were certainly not reflected in Guerra’s score. In addition, nobody else had Leonard winning so handily. Even those who thought Leonard had done enough to win still had the fight close. For example, consider these verdicts from the media: the Associated Press had it 117-112 for Hagler, the Houston Chronicle had it 115-114 for Leonard, the Boston Herald had it 116-113 for Leonard and Newsday had it 115-114 for Hagler. The New York Times and the New York Post both had it even at 114-114. None of these tallies coincided with Guerra's lopsided conclusion. It seemed that he stood alone.
Leonard covers up as Hagler forces the action
Much was made of Sugar Ray’s ability to frustrate the champion. But how successful had he been at this? Not as much as he made out. Hagler kept pretty much composed during the fight and never openly lost his cool or became reckless. He simply went about his business in a methodical, workmanlike manner. However, praise should be awarded to Leonard for his stirring effort, which, as previously mentioned, was quite theatrical. He knew his aim was to impress the judges, or more accurately, to fool them. It was the impression that was important and in that sense he was brilliant. But scrutinize more deeply and you can see that many of his punches were actually blocked by Hagler, landing on his gloves and elbows, which of course are not scoring punches. Also, the antics of Leonard’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, were quite amusing. You’ve gotta love this guy. If I was a fighter I would definitely have wanted Angelo as my trainer. He’s just terrific. He knows the fight game inside out and was a fantastic cheerleader too. He had a reputation for using any possible ploy to establish an advantage for his fighter. Against Hagler, Dundee tried to create the impression that the challenger was winning, using his mannerisms (acting like he was in the corner of the winner) and a booming voice (shouting to anyone within earshot). It was an Oscar-worthy performance, just as theatrical as Sugar Ray’s.

Angelo Dundee was Leonard's trainer
But remember, it was only window dressing. After all, Angelo was hardly going to be yelling out to those at ringside “It’s a close fight that could go either way!” or “My guy’s having a tough time!” during the fight. Regardless, it did the trick because it had more impact than Goody Petronelli’s stoic, low-key manner in Hagler's corner. The Ring magazine revealed afterwards that they had received a large amount of letters about the fight from boxing fans across the world, and they had three times as many letters picking Hagler as the winner than those that opted for Leonard.

It later came to light that during his training, Leonard had actually engaged in simulated boxing matches. These were conducted with his sparring partners behind closed doors and were kept secret. They were as realistic as possible, lasting twelve rounds, each of three minutes’ duration. One of his sparring partners, fringe contender Quincy Taylor, had allegedly knocked him down during one of these “fights”. It was the equivalent of having three actual tune-up fights and was almost certainly the reason why Leonard did not appear ring-rusty.

Should Marvin be dejected about being unfairly deprived of the decision? Not really. Think about it like this: the decision will always be hotly disputed. The label of controversy is attached to it and Leonard knows it will never go away. The questions, the debates, the arguments will rage on and on and on. Marvin should take consolation from that.
Richard Steele was the third man in the ring (he is seen here with Jackie Smith - who owns a promotion and TV production company called Sunshine Boxing Incorporated)
  So Marvin Hagler’s reign as the middleweight champion was over and he was understandably bitter about it. Obviously, the ideal way for a reign to end is to retire as an undefeated champ without ever losing the crown in the ring. But the next best thing is to lose it on a highly controversial decision to a fellow legend. Imagine if Hagler’s reign had ended with him being stopped in six or seven rounds by someone like Doug DeWitt or James Kinchen? Okay, he would never have lost to those guys unless he was blindfolded, but you know what I mean. In this respect, it was great the way his reign ended!
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Hagler with Goody Petronelli
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