When Marvin Hagler and the Petronelli brothers sat down at Sugar Ray Leonard’s press conference at the Baltimore Civic Centre in 1982, the world was waiting for the biggest fight in boxing to be made.
Leonard, who had just beaten Thomas Hearns to become undisputed welterweight champion of the world, promised ‘an historic announcement’ with 10,000 tickets sold to the public and a further 2,000 for special guests.
Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, was sat next to Guerino (Goody) Petronelli and his brother Pasquale (Pat) as they waited to confirm a truly momentous bout.
After all, shortly after his demolition of Fulgencio Obelmejias, Hagler had all-but confirmed a bout with 1976 Olympian Leonard.
“Let’s go for the big one,” the late Hagler said. “The people want to see you Lenny. They don’t want you to retire.”
“I’ll think about it,” Leonard had cheekily grinned.
And so, with promoter Bob Arum declaring he could take the fight to South Africa and make ‘a trillion dollars’, it seemed perfectly set on that November morning.
However, having suffered a detached retina in his left eye, Leonard instead took to the podium and announced his retirement from boxing.
The Petronellis stormed out of the building, furious their student had been used like a stage prop for Sugar Ray’s extravagant games.
By 1987, Hagler had established himself as the best middleweight on the planet and potentially in history.
Having defeated both Roberto Duran and Tommy ‘The ‘Hitman’ Hearns, ‘Marvelous’ Marvin stood alone as the king of the 160lbs division.
He had made 12 defences of his middleweight championship, which he claimed with a third-round destruction of Alan Minter in London in 1980. In fact, the New Jersey-native had not lost a fight since 1976 when he lost a decision against Willie Monroe. He proceeded to defeat Monroe twice in 1977, in 12 rounds and then in just two.
Although Leonard did come out of his life of leisure and teased a fight against Hagler, his victory over Kevin Howard in 1984 sent him straight back to retirement. After being dropped for the first time in his career, the pugilist specialist rallied to win in nine but was so disappointed he quit the sport once again.
John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi earned his right to face Hagler for the undisputed middleweight championship after establishing a 25-0 record since moving from Uganda to the United States. Few gave the brawler much of a chance, yet the 10 February, 1986, would prove to be the last time Hagler won a fight.
Leonard predicted a sixth-round stoppage for the champion, but what he saw would change the course of boxing history as we know it.
It took until the 11th round for a bloodied and bruised Hagler to finish the fight, with boxing scribes suggesting the wars against the likes of Hearns and Duran had taken their toll on the middleweight great.
Former Boston Herald reporter George Kimball wrote in the aftermath: “Against Mugabi, for the first time in history, Marvin Hagler found himself unable to accomplish things he wanted to do in the ring.”
With the fight on Showtime and not HBO, Leonard had watched the fight as a spectator and seen the same deficiencies and holes which Kimball had spotted.
Whilst drinking beer with the actor Michael J. Fox at an after-party containing Whoopi Goldberg, Leonard mulled the fight over in his head and plotted.
He told Fox he could beat Hagler, to which the ‘Back to the Future’ star asked if he wanted another beer. “Yes I do, but I can beat Hagler’ was the response from the former undisputed welterweight king.
Mike Trainer, Sugar Ray’s adviser, woke up bleary-eyed to take a call from his client that evening, who told him he was nuts and promised to talk the fight over again in the morning. But with the lager out of his system, Leonard quietly made plans to return to the gym.
Hagler was on his holiday on his private yacht in the Caribbean when on May 1, 1986 he heard Leonard announce he wanted to fight him. Having waited like a fool in Baltimore and then again after the Howard fight, the champion remained unconvinced.
It took a total of 109 days before Hagler finally accepted the challenge and decided to announce on August 18 he would return to face Leonard, with the fight being officially announced at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan in November.
Billed as ‘The Super Fight’, the numbers behind it were truly astonishing for the times. Leonard agreed to a smaller chunk of the purse, but was then allowed to choose the gloves (10-ounce Reyes), the number of rounds (12) and the size of the ring (20-foot).
Despite his credentials as a former 147lbs champion, Leonard had never fought at middleweight before in his career. Furthermore, he had not fought in three years and just once in the past five.
Many considered Hagler the pound-for-pound boxer in the world after his knockout of Hearns in 1985, with bookmakers installing him as a clear favourite.
It was not just the inactivity which worried fans, Leonard’s reason for quitting was because of the detached retina. Dr Ferdie Pacheco, who looked after Muhammad Ali during his career, was stunned the fight was allowed to go ahead by medics.
He stated: “This match endangers the eyesight of Leonard, as well as his life, and makes a mockery of the credibility of any boxing commission that sanctions it.”
THE NUMBERS BEHIND ‘THE SUPER FIGHT’
The 1987 bout for the WBC middleweight championship of the world will be forever remembered in history
- Hagler was guaranteed $12 million plus a percentage of the revenue. Leonard was guaranteed $11 million plus 50% of the closed circuit television rights in the Baltimore-Washington area.
- Hagler ended up with about $20m and Leonard $12m.
- The fight was available on pay-per-view to about three million homes in the United States, and there were between 1,500 and 1,600 closed circuit locations, with about three million seats, in the United States and Canada. The fight was also televised in about 75 foreign countries.
- The fight took place in a 15,336-seat outdoor arena at Caesars Palace. Ticket prices were $700, $600, $500, $400, $200 and $100.
- The fight sold out in 16 days, a paying crowd 12,379 generated a live gate of $6.2 million.
- HBO paid $3.1 million for the delayed rights and showed the fight five times between April 11 and April 18.
- According to Bob Arum, the fight grossed $78m.
These fears were exacerbated during a public workout at the Golden Gloves Gym when sparring partner Quincy Taylor rocked Leonard with an overhand left.
The former champion was hurt badly and shaken by the shot and it ended up altering his game plan drastically. Hagler had accumulated a large amount of scar tissue around his eyebrows and Leonard planned to exploit this.
Yet the plan to come out swinging and potentially get an early stoppage was changed by Taylor’s punch.
“I thought; if this guy can hurt me, Hagler will kill me,” Leonard told Tim Dahlberg.
Leonard’s legendary trainer Angelo Dundee had called Hagler ‘a monster’ in the build-up, but predicted his man would be the puncher in the fight in the same way he had against Hearns.
“Ray is the puncher because he hits you with shots that you can’t see. Those are the ones that hurt. Those are the ones that get you out of there.”
Dundee’s words rang true for the opening four stanzas on 6 April, 1987, as Leonard turned the champion inside and out whilst cracking off uppercuts and hooks at will. Yet his ring rust began to become more and more evident as the fight wore on.
Sensing a stoppage victory which would have undoubtedly cemented his legacy, Marvelous Marvin went in for the kill in the second half of the fight.
But the champion was behind on the scoring and needed his fleet-footed opponent to engage in a brawl if he was to turn the tide.
And impatient Hagler snarled to Leonard in the eighth, “Come on, slug!”
“No chance,” said Leonard. The ninth round is perhaps the best stanza in middleweight history, with both men rocking one another repeatedly with wicked shots as Leonard’s style continued to cause problems.
As the 12th round ended, Leonard attempted to perform the same celebratory backflip he had pulled out when Roberto Duran uttered ‘No Mas’ in Montreal in 1980. Yet he was so exhausted, he miscalculated and ended up on his back and had to be carried back to his corner.
Before the result was declared, there was a scuffle between long-time rivals Bob Arum and Don King.
Arum was looking after the interests of Hagler and, although King had no allegiance officially to the bout, began to climb the steps to join the Sugar Ray corner.
Arum tried to haul his rival back, but only succeeded in tearing his expensive dinner jacket and the two men were separated by a Caesar’s Palace security guard before blows could be traded.
In the face of his layoff and the incredibly tough opponent, Leonard had earned respect regardless of the outcome.
The split decision victory in his favour caused outcry from all four corners of the globe; Judge Jose Guerra’s score of 118-110 in favour of Leonard was heavily criticised.
Pat Petronelli said: “He [Guerra] deserves to be put in jail. Ask Leonard if he thought Marvin Hagler only won two rounds!”
The irony was that it was Hagler’s camp who insisted on having a Mexican judge scoring the fight. Englishman Harry Gibbs was originally selected, but the Petronelli brothers objected as they felt Englishmen preferred boxers to brawlers – giving Leonard an advantage.
After the tribunal by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Gibbs flew home and watched the fight on television. He scored it to Hagler.
Despite calls for a rematch to end the controversy, a disconsolate Hagler had secretly given up the dreams of fighting again.
As the man himself once confessed, ‘It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pyjamas’.
Sugar Ray would go on to face both Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran as the Four Kings who had ruled the boxing world in the 1980’s ended their respective journeys in the squared circle. Each of the nine bouts were sensational viewing and became more and more lucrative with each toll of the ringside bell.
Yet none have divided opinions more unambiguously as ‘The Super Fight’ at Caesar’s Palace.
And there’s no doubt news of Hagler’s passing, at the age of 66, will rekindle memories of that night, a night in which Leonard felt the full force of his opponent.
Recounting his memories to talkSPORT years later, Leonard said with one uppercut, Hagler managed to lift him up off the ground.
“He was that strong,” he recalled. “It woke me up and made me appreciate the power he had. He’s very heavy handed.”