“If they cut my bald head open, they will find one big boxing glove.”
In a 67 fight career which included 52 knockouts, incredibly, one of the best middleweight champions had to wait until his fifty fourth fight before being crowned world champion. Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s untimely passing at 66 years old shocked us all, but the destructive southpaw left us with so many incredible memories to treasure for years to come.
Born on 23 May 1954, Marvin Nathaniel Hagler grew up in poverty stricken Central Ward, Newark. Eldest of six children, Hagler had four sisters and one brother, world title challenger, Robbie Sims (named after their father, Robert Sims, who abandoned the family when they were young children). The Hagler family backbone was Ida Mae, who continued to raise her children in Central Ward until 1967, by which time the Newark race riots were in full flow. The option was to either stay and risk life and limb, or to pack the cases and head to pastures new. The latter option proved to be more prudent and the next stop was Brockton, Massachusetts. It was here that young Marvin would discover the art of boxing.
In 1969, 15-year-old Hagler walked into his first amateur gym. At the time, brothers Pat and Goody Petronelli had planned on opening a boxing gym in Brockton with their good friend Rocky Marciano. It would have been called ‘The Marciano Gym,’ but unfortunately The Rock was killed in a plane crash on 31 August that same year. Instead, infamous The Petronelli Gym was born.
Hagler remained loyal to the brothers throughout his amateur and professional career, with Goody acting as trainer and Pat as his manager. The brothers also had a construction company which kept Hagler in employment for eight years, until his boxing cheques became fat enough to survive off.
Hagler had a very successful amateur career, losing only two of his 54 contests and boasting 43 knockouts. His two losses came against fellow Massachusetts resident, Wilbur Cameron, in the finals of the 1972 light middleweight New England Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament. The other was against Dale Grant in light middleweight National Golden Gloves in March 1973.
A matter of weeks later Hagler bounced back from the Grant loss with gusto, as he moved up to his spiritual home of middleweight, outpointing Terry Dobbs in the National AAU National championships. He was also named the most outstanding fighter of the tournament as the publication AAU headlined, ‘Young Talent Dominates Boxing Bouts in Boston.’
Fresh off his victory, Hagler, later that month on 18 May 1973 made his professional debut against fellow Massachusetts resident, Terry Ryan, at the Brockton High School Gymnasium. On a side note, this is where the ‘Brockton Blockbuster,’ Rocky Marciano was schooled, enjoying sports such as baseball and football before having a go at boxing. Rumour has it Marciano did okay as a professional. Back to Hagler. He knocked out fellow debutant Ryan in the second round and Ryan never fought again.
In his first 14 fights, Hagler claimed 13 stoppages, however, on 30 August 1974, he came up against undefeated Virgin Islands native, 1972 light welterweight Olympic gold medalist, Sugar Ray Seales. The Saint Croix southpaw towered more than three inches above Hagler and put up a solid performance over the 10 round contest, walking away with a points loss. The pair locked horns three months later and this time Seales put on an ever better performance, putting the first blemish on Hagler’s record by way of a draw. Marvelous would have to wait until 1979 to seal (bad pun intended) the trilogy in explosive fashion.
Undeterred by the Seales result, Hagler won his next eight fights, albeit against mediocre opposition, before hitting his first speed bump, against Pennsylvanian Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts, on 13 January 1976 at the Spectrum, Philadelphia. While Hagler was undefeated in 26 contests, Watts had three losses on his 31 fight resume. Not a mismatch by a very long distance, but Hagler was the betting favourite by stoppage going into the fight. Watts however had different plans.
Similar to Seales, Watts stood several inches taller than Hagler, was rangey, possessed quick hands with impressive power and displayed a lovely jab. Almost sounds like the description of a certain ‘Hitman’ down the line. Despite powering Watts and taking charge of a furiously paced fight, Hagler was the victim of a home decision, losing on two scorecards and drawing on the other. The crowd responded to the decision with disdain and even The Philadelphia Enquirer paid plaudits to Hagler’s performance, dedicating the headline to him the day after – ‘Welcome to Philadelphia, Marvin Hagler!’
Three weeks later, Hagler knocked out Matt Donovan in two rounds, before taking on Willie ‘The Worm’ Munroe (32-3-1 at the time), back at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on 9 March 1976. Unlike the close cards of the Watts fight, Hagler lost a wide points decision on all three cards, albeit many questions the integrity of the judges scores. A fighter with less mental fortitude may have crumbled after experiencing their first two professional losses within two months of each other, but instead Hagler was already hatching his revenge plans.
Marvelous smashed his next four opponents in destructive fashion, before eagerly facing Munroe for their second instalment on 15 February 1977, on Hagler’s home turf at Hynes Convention Centre, Boston. With the vacant North American Middleweight title on the line, Hagler took great joy in avenging his loss with a twelfth round stoppage.
After disposing of his next two opponents in three rounds, which included Roy Jones (Sr), Marvelous and Munroe met for the final instalment of their trilogy on 23 August 1977, at the Spectrum Philadelphia. Winning on the ill-decisioned Pennsylvanian backyard was important to Hagler, but ensuring the judges played no part in the result was crucial. After only one minute and 46 seconds of the second session, Hagler brought down the curtains on Munroe.
On 4 April 1978, Hagler took on the former British and European middleweight champion, Kevin Finnegan. In the previous two years, the Buckinghamshire born brawler had fought rising star Alan Minter three times, taking the future world champion to the 15 round limit on each occasion and very narrowly missing victory. Hagler, once again was intent on an early shower, stopping Finnegan in the eighth round and then repeating the task in seven, a couple of months later. Finnegan was a well respected scalp and assisted Hagler with that all important promotional traction to move him closer to a world title challenge.
Three months later, Hagler was taken the 10 round distance by world title challenger, ‘Bad’ Bennie Briscoe. The wily Philadelphian had challenged Carlos Monzon back in 1972 for his WBA and WBC title and twice challenged Rodrigo Valdez for his straps, the most recent attempt being nine months before his clash with Hagler. The points victory was a solid addition to Hagler’s CV.
On 3 February 1979, Hagler took on the man who put the first blemish on his victory run – Sugar Ray Seales. The tally was one draw and one win for Hagler. Seales had plans to even up the scoreboard, but that pipe dream vanished after he was floored three times in the opening round and the fight was halted in less than a minute and a half.
After clocking up a further three stoppage victories, on 30 November 1979 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas Hagler took on reigning world middleweight champion, Vito Antuofermo, for his undisputed crown. Incredibly, this was Hagler’s fiftieth fight as a professional. Unfortunately, Hagler didn’t get the nod, walking away with a split decision draw against the Italian born Brooklyn resident. Despite the public crying out for the instant rematch, Antuofermo took what he believed to be an easier option, by way of accepting a challenge from Alan Minter four months later. The plan backfired. Minter boxed beautifully to a split decision victory over 15 rounds in Vegas, then three months later he dominated Antuofermo before stopping him in the eighth round at the Empire Pool, Wembley. Hagler in the meantime added three further victories to tally, including avenging the loss over Bobby Watts in two rounds.
The scene was now set. The world champion was to defend against the No1 challenger at Wembley Arena on 27 September 1980. Minter was a great technician who possessed height, a great jab and excellent ringcraft. Unfortunately for him, he crossed paths with the future of middleweight boxing. After opening up Minter’s face in the opening round with scathing hooks, Hagler continued to unload his explosive toolkit on Crawley’s favourite fighting son. By the third round Minter’s face was a mess and the contest was brought to a halt. It had been a long road, but finally Marvelous was world champion. Unfortunately, for both fighters, the contest was remembered more for the riot which erupted straight after the fight ended, as opposed to the performance.
The newly crowned champion’s celebrations were replaced with cans of beer and various other objects being thrown his way, with racial slurs also being hurled into the offensive. Thankfully, over the years, the pair struck up a close friendship and Minter, up to the day of his passing proudly displayed a large framed photo of himself at his home, which was signed, ‘To Alan, best wishes, in life and health, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.’
Four months later Hagler made his first of 12 explosive defences against future super middleweight world champion Venezuelan, Fulgencio Obelmejias. Despite being three inches taller and unbeaten in 30 outings, Obelmejias lost every round before being stopped in the eighth. Five months later Marvelous smashed former world champion Antuofermo in four rounds before stopping Syrian born New Yorker, Mustafa Hamsho in 11 rounds on 3 October 1981.
Hagler’s first outing in 1982 was against Detroit resident, Caveman Lee on 7 March at Ballys Park Place Hotel Casino, Atlantic City. The fight was far from memorable, with Lee lasting just over one minute, however, the bald headed assassin would remember the fight for other reasons.
Hagler was engaged in a minor conflict with the television channel filming his fight against Lee after noticing they only displayed his name on screen as ‘Marvin Hagler.’ He requested ‘Marvelous Marvin Hagler’ and they responded that it was too long and the only way that could happen is if that was actually his legal name, then they would be obliged. With other fighters having their monikers being broadcasted on television, such as ‘Sugar Ray’ Leonard and Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, sure enough, soon after the fight, Hagler legally changed his name to be officially recognised in a court of law as ‘Marvelous Marvin Hagler.’ His birth certificate, passport and drivers license were changed and his middle name, Nathaniel, was dropped.
Hagler granted Obelmejias a second shot at glory on 30 October 1982 at Teatro Ariston, San Remo, Italy, a country he would later fall in love with and become a resident of. Despite the Venezuelan being far more competitive this time round, Hagler stopped him towards the end of the fifth round.
Next up on 11 February 1983 was the European middleweight champion, Leicester’s Tony Sibson. With both men having previously worked as hod carriers, The New York Times named the fight, ‘Battle of Workmen.’ With only three losses in 51 fights, durable Sibson, in theory would be a good test for Hagler. The reality was that Hagler controlled every round before halting the Brit in round six. In a humble post fight interview in the ring with Harry Carpenter, Hagler said, ‘He’s (Sibson) not a bad fighter. You got any more over there in Britain?’ to which Harry replied, ‘I don’t think we have any good enough for you!’
Three months later, Hagler steamrolled Wilford Scypion in four rounds and in doing so added the newly formed IBF belt to his WBA and WBC straps. His next fight on 10 November 1983 would prove to be toughest to date as he took on Panamanian boxing legend, Roberto Duran.
Between 1980 – 1982, Duran incurred three losses. The first was the infamous ‘No Mas,’ against Sugar Ray Leonard and the other two against Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing. Straight after the shock loss to Laing, many wrote Duran off, claiming the 77 fight veteran was sliding. However, a fourth round knockout of Pipino Cuevas, followed by an eight round mauling of WBA super welterweight champion Davey Moore, gave him the required propulsion to land the fight against Hagler.
This was Hagler’s first tango with the most famous quartet in boxing and his only opponent in his 12 successful title defences who would last the distance. Despite being the shorter man, Duran was an incredibly smart, powerful fighter who possessed an immense toolkit and pushed Hagler to his limits. Despite walking away with a narrow points loss, Duran’s stock rose. Hagler in the meantime was being pronounced a demi-God as he continued his trail of success.
Four months later, on 30 March 1984 Hagler took on tough Argentinian, Juan Domingo Roldan. Despite touching the canvas in the first round, Hagler came back to halt Roldan in the tenth. The contentious knockdown would be the only one of Hagler’s 67 fight career. Later that year Marvelous smashed Mustafa Hamsho in three rounds.
Whilst Hagler was putting beatings on Roldan and Hamsho, fellow king Tommy Hearns annihilated Duran in two rounds, with an eye watering knockout. With Hagler struggling to dispose of Duran, the scene was set for Hagler versus Hearns.
Hearns was an enigma. Standing four inches taller than Hagler, he possessed freakish power, one of the best jabs in the business, yet incredibly, campaigned at welterweight for the first four years of his pro career. He knocked out Pipino Cuevas in two rounds in 1980 to became the WBA world welterweight champion and after incurring his first loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1981 in an epic 14 round battle, he moved up to 154lbs, beating Wilfred Benitez to claim the WBC super welterweight crown. After multiple defences, including icing Duran, the move up to middleweight against Hagler was a no brainer.
The Hagler versus Hearns fight was fuelled on high octane dislike, more for promotional purposes than personal beef. Hagler wore a red cap with ‘WAR’ emblazoned on the front and continued to reiterate his intentions to Hearns – ‘Destruct and destroy’. Either way, the pre-fight verbal exchanges were heated and when the first bell chimed on 15 April 1985 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas both fighters traded with insane ferocity.
Both men threw over 80 punches in that first round as defence and tactics became obsolete. By the end of the round Hagler was badly cut from what appeared to have been an accidental headbutt or elbow during their barbaric exchanges, whilst Hearns had broken his right hand. Round two was more of the same, but by round three Hearns seemed to be wobbling, whilst Hagler’s cut had become a concern for the doctor. Aware that the fight could be stopped, Hagler went for the knockout and found what he was looking for at one minute and 53 seconds into the third round. Search as you may, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a better first round in boxing history. During his post fight interview with Al Bernstein, Hearns walked over to Hagler to congratulate him. The pair embraced and smiled, as Hagler said to his nemesis, ‘They got their money’s worth. Good fight man.’
Next up on 10 March 1986 at Caesars Palace, Vegas was John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, who came with a fearsome reputation. Going into the fight, the 1980 welterweight Olympic silver medalist was ranked No1 contender by all three sanctioning bodies and had 25 stoppages in 25 fights. Hagler remained undeterred, claiming, ‘I will feast on the Beast.’ The fact is, Hagler was also a hard hitting knockout artist, but he also possessed great boxing skills. Despite losing a point for a low blow and taking some almighty shots to his granite chin, going into the final stages of the fight, Marvelous was comfortably ahead on all the scorecards, before stopping the rugged Ugandan in the eleventh round.
Hagler’s swansong was against Sugar Ray Leonard, who had only fought once in five years due and had retired to a detached retina. The silky smooth four weight world champion announced his comeback and called out Hagler. Of course, Marvelous accepted. Leonard however, aware of Hagler’s arsenal, negotiated terms into the fight contract which were in his favour. A bigger ring, heavier gloves and 12 rounds instead of 15.
At the time, Hagler had started taking acting lessons and even sparked up a friendship with Charlton Heston, who Hagler endearingly called ‘Chuck’. (Hagler would go on to make four films between 1989-1997.) Despite having a very serious side to him at press conferences, weigh-ins and let’s not forget in the ring, Hagler booted a great sense of humour. When on stage with Bob Hope and Leonard for pre-fight publicity, one of the journalists asked Hagler’s favourite actors and he calmly responded - ‘Bob Hope and Lassie.’
The fight itself was a real treat for the fans. Leonard didn’t hit with the force of Hagler, but he beat him to the punch on many occasions and according to CompuBox, landed 306 of his 629 punches thrown, compared to 291 of Hagler’s 792. The case for either fighter to have won by a round of two was very credible. Although one judge gave it to Leonard 115-113 and another 115-113 Hagler, the third judge produced an unforgiveable scorecard of 118-110.
Leonard never granted Hagler the rematch, instead he announced his (third) retirement. With the only fight of interest to Hagler now off the table, he announced his retirement in June 1988.
After the Willie Munroe loss, Hagler embarked on an epic 11 year, 38 fight winning streak, which included 13 undisputed middleweight world title fights in succession. In addition, he only ever once hit the canvas. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993 and in the 1980’s he was named as Fighter of The Decade by Boxing Illustrated. The best middleweight of all time? Very possibly.
Remaining a servant to the middleweight division throughout his professional career, Hagler continued to air that he wanted to be the best in his division and often expressed his concerns with the dilution of world titles due to the volume of sanctioning bodies. He once told the PA News Agency: ‘I hope that before I pass that they restore this game and bring it back to only one champion in the world.’ That would be marvelous.
Paul Zanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and was a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.