Marvin Hagler, who has died aged 66, is recognised as one of boxing’s greatest champions, holding the world middleweight title from 1980 to 1987, but his fabled status is assured because of one never-to-be-forgotten night in the old open-air arena at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, in 1985, when he fought and defeated his great rival Thomas Hearns in one of the most thrilling contests the sport has ever produced.
Their meeting was marketed simply by the promoter Bob Arum as The Fight, though this astonishing contest became known as The War in the years thereafter. With both men casting caution to the wind, the normally slow-starting Hagler elected to meet the big-punching “Hitman” Hearns head-on in an opening round of frightening ferocity.
Both men were landing huge punches, but when Hagler sustained a deep cut on his forehead in the third round it was clear the contest could not conceivably last the full 15 rounds. As blood gushed into Hagler’s eyes, the referee Richard Steele was forced to call the ringside doctor to examine the wound. When asked if he could see, Hagler replied: “I ain’t missing him, am I?” and this has become one of the great quotes of boxing folklore.
Realising he could lose his title because of the injury, Hagler detonated a massive right-hand punch on Hearns’s chin only seconds later, leaving the Detroit man face down on the canvas. Although Hearns somehow staggered to his feet, the referee ended the most dramatic three rounds of boxing most fans had ever witnessed.
Hagler was born in the poorest area of Newark, New Jersey, where he lived with his brother, Robbie, who also became a professional boxer, and four sisters. His father, Robert Sims, had walked out on the family, leaving his mother, Ida Mae Hagler, to raise the children. Caught up in the terrifying race riots that left 26 dead in Newark in 1967, and their tenement home all but destroyed, the Haglers relocated to Brockton, Massachusetts, where Marvin soon developed a love for boxing.
He told how he had walked into a gym run by Pat and Goody Petronelli in 1969, after being roughed up on the street by a young hard man who was a local boxer. His mission was to learn to fight, and soon his aptitude was clear as he won the US amateur national title in 1973, before turning professional later in the year.
Learning the hard way, taking fights against tough opponents for small financial reward, Hagler became something of an avoided man. As a southpaw, leading with the right hand instead of the normal left, he had an awkward style as well as a near freakish ability to take punches without them having any discernible effect. Two early defeats, on points, hardened his resolve.
One was against Willie Monroe, a fighter trained by the great heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Hagler maintained he had been robbed and went on to win a rematch and then knock Monroe out in a third meeting. Hagler said Frazier had told him: “You have three strikes against you: you’re black, you’re southpaw and you’re good.”
Hagler kept winning, and two victories over the highly rated Englishman Kevin Finnegan, and another over the big punching Philadelphia favourite “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, earned him a contract with Arum, the top Las Vegas-based promoter.
His first challenge for a world title was in 1979 against the New York-based Italian Vito Antuofermo, which he believed he won but was given a divided decision draw. His next chance came the following year against Britain’s Alan Minter at Wembley. A hostile atmosphere had been stoked by Minter, by then the champion, saying he would never lose his title to a black man.
Minter was given a savage beating. The referee Carlos Berrocal halted the contest in the third round with Minter horribly cut around his eyes. Fleeing the ring, Hagler had to be shielded from bottles and glasses as he was pelted with missiles on one of British boxing’s most shameful nights.
He went on to successfully defend the title 12 times through one of the great eras for boxing and, more especially, the middleweight division. Among the defences were epic wins against the Panamanian Roberto Durán, the feared Ugandan puncher John Mugabi and Leicester’s Tony Sibson. But his run of success came to an end in 1987, against Sugar Ray Leonard. After 15 rounds, once again at Caesars Palace, Leonard was awarded the judges’ verdict in a split decision.
Hagler never accepted that he lost the fight and he never returned to the ring. Experts are still split over whether or not Hagler should have won. Effectively, the smaller and quicker Leonard fought in eye-catching flurries, while Hagler landed the more telling blows. He was the aggressor throughout and dominated the latter stages of the contest.
His first marriage, to Bertha, with whom he had five children, Charelle, Celeste, James, Marvin Jr and Gentry, ended in 1990. He married again in 2000, to an Italian woman, Kay Guarrera, and they kept homes in Milan, where he had some success working in Italian films, and New Hampshire in the US.
Hagler had become irritated that ring announcers were not introducing him to the crowd using his nickname “Marvelous”, so he officially changed his name to Marvelous Marvin in 1982.
Although the Marvelous one was asked to return, amid much speculation that there would be a money-spinning rematch with Leonard, his retirement proved to be permanent. Never the chosen one, and not given to colourful pre-fight hyperbole, he preferred to speak though his performances.
Perhaps, to quote another of his famous observations about earning millions of dollars after being born into poverty, life had become too comfortable. “It’s difficult to get up to do roadwork at five in the morning when you are sleeping in silk pyjamas.”
Hagler is survived by Kay.