Hagler vs. Leonard: 20th Anniversary

When Peter Manfredo, Jr. steps on the scales April 6th in Cardiff, his chief strategist will be looking forward but thinking backward.

The next night Manfredo will try to implement a fight plan constructed for him by one of boxing's greatest champions, Sugar Ray Leonard, a plan designed to pull off what would be the upset of the year if successful, the defeat of long-time super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe at the Millennium Stadium in front of more than 30,000 of Calzaghe's Welsh countrymen. If the plan works it would surely shock the boxing world, which has seen Calzaghe successfully defend the title he holds 19 consecutive times and sees no reason for that streak not to continue. But it would not shock the plan's architect, for 20 years ago to the day that Manfredo will step on the sacle in Wales, Ray Leonard pulled off an even more stunning upset when he won a hotly disputed split decision from then middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

That victory remains Leonard's crowning moment and his greatest acheivement for it came so unexpectedly and against a man many felt was the finest fighting machine in the world. Hagler had not lost a fight in more than a decade. Leonard, meanwhile, had fought only once in the previous half decade. With those facts as background, the talk around ringside that night was not about how Ray Leonard might win. The talk was about how badly would Marvin Hagler hurt him. There seemed no other alternative, no way around what was about to happen, even for a fighter as great as Leonard once had been.

"I was the producer of that show," recalled HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. "Ray was already working broadcasts for us, so he was part of our family. I had always told him Hagler-Leonard would be my dream fight but by the time it was made everyone was very skeptical. I was concerned for him because all anyone was talking about or writing about was how badly Hagler would beat him. Not just beat him, but hurt him. Ray had been off for five years. He'd had a detatched retina. Hagler seemed unbeatable. So much stronger. Everyone had concerns.

"I went out to see Ray train a day or two before the fight with Barry Tompkins and Larry Merchant, who were broadcasting the fight. He looked okay but there was something about the tone of his answers to their questions. He was saying the right things but I wasn't sure he really felt that way. When we left I remember telling Barry and Larry, 'This is going to be a massacre.'"

But as Ray Leonard learned in his absence, the boxing jones is hard to shake, especially for men who have heard the crowd roar their name the way he had and the more he found himself at ringside but no longer boxing the more he wondered.

There was certainly ample reason to feel that way and the betting line reflected it. It had held steady in Las Vegas at 6-1 until late money, sentimental money the bookies said, came down on Leonard to lower the odds to 3-1. That was still a huge number, but one justified by the fact Leonard had fought only once in the previous five years after suffering a detatchd retina on Feb. 15, 1982 in a victory over journeyman Bruce Finch and not looked good when he did.

Leonard returned to boxing 27 months after that injury to face another journeyman, Kevin Howard, after having had retinal surgery on his left eye and postponing surgery for a potential retinal problem in his right eye. That night Leonard went down for the first time in his career before rallying to stop Howard in the ninth round and when the fight was over so was Leonard's career. Or so it seemed.

At the post-fight press conference Leonard admitted he was so unfocused in the ring before the fight that he found himself not only listening to the National Anthem but being more interested in the singer than in Howard. He had become, it seemed to him, a civilian in a war zone and he knew it. Disgusted by his performance, Leonard left boxing for the second time, insisting he would now make his way through life without the sport that had lifted him out of poverty into what became a golden career but one that now appeared would never include Hagler, a man many felt would be his greatest challenge.

But as Ray Leonard learned in his absence, the boxing jones is hard to shake, especially for men who have heard the crowd roar their name the way he had and the more he found himself at ringside but no longer boxing the more he wondered. The wondering stopped the night he watched Hagler struggle to defeat a hard man named John "The Beast'' Mugabi. Mugabi's nickname was well earned and that night Hagler needed all his considerable will and skill to survive the challenge. In the stands, sitting with his long time aide Ollie Dunlop and the actor Michael J. Fox, Leonard watched Hagler intently and then made what would become a historic pronouncement.

"We were having a few beers during the fight and I turned and told them, 'I can beat this guy,''' Leonard recalled during a recent conversation. "They asked me how many beers I'd had. I said 'I'm going to have another one, but I can beat this guy.' Later that night I called my attorney, Mike Trainer, and I told him the same thing. He asked me how many beers I'd had. I told him a few but I could still beat Hagler.''

Thus began months of negotiating and cajoling by Trainer and Hagler's promoter, Bob Arum, who desperately wanted to stage the fight because he knew it would become one of the greatest events in boxing history. Leonard was anxious to make the match but Hagler was not. Mentally he already considered himself retired after the struggles with Mugabi andproblems pushing himself in training before that fight. Hagler wanted no more of the monastic life of denial his training camps always were, and he wanted no part of Leonard, who he felt had used him five years earlier when he invited him to Baltimore for a public press conference Hagler felt was to announce a fight between them.

'Go back and review the early press conferences,' Leonard recalled. 'I never said anything to piss Hagler off. Nothing to create that aggression he fed off of.'

Howard Cosell was the MC of what many considered to be the largest press conference in sports history, one attended by in excess of 10,000 people because it was open to the public. When it finally came time for Leonard to speak he talked of how great a fight between him and Hagler would be before saying words that still burned hot in Hagler's mind years later: "Unfortuantely, it will never happen,'' Leonard said, pointing directly at the tuxedoed Hagler as he spoke.

Hagler never forgave Leonard for that moment, one in which he felt used and humiliated. Now that Leonard wanted that fight, Marvin Hagler had little interest in accomodating him.

"There were a lot of disappointed people that day,'' recalled Charlie Brotman, Leonard's long-time publicist and the man who set up that retirement press conference. "Ray held it in Baltimore, where he'd had his first fight, and he invited Marvin there so Hagler felt he was going to announce he'd fight him. The most disappointed guy in the place was Hagler. He thought he'd been made a fool of.''

That memory remained incandescent as Arum kept trying to convince Hagler to accept one last challenge. To lure him back, Arum paid a then record $23 million in guaranteed purses, with $12 million going to Hagler. That marked the only time in his career that Leonard earned less than his opponent (an $11 million guarantee) and Hagler knew it. But he was not finished exacting a price from Leonard to meet him in the ring.

Trainer negotiated away a percentage of the profits from closed circuit and other sales in exchange for a 20-foot ring, a size that favored the quick-footed Leonard. Then he made the most brilliant negotiating manuver of all when he got Hagler to agree to a 12-round fight instead of the then customary 15 rounds. That cost Leonard more money but many believe it cost Marvin Hagler the fight.

"Marvin wanted 15 rounds and I swear to God 15 rounds is championship distance,'' Hagler's bombastic manager, Pat Petronelli, once recalled when asked about how those concessions had come about. "Leonard wouldn't go for it. If we insisted on 15 rounds, there wouldn't have been a fight. There was intense pressure on us for this fight. I told Marvin the situation and he made the decision. Even though he didn't like it, he didn't want to go down with people saying, 'Are you scared of Ray Leonard?'''

He was not but he was mighty tired of him by the end of what turned out to be months of publicity stops. Once Hagler refused to train or talk for a week. Another time Arum showed up at his Palm Springs training camp with 100 sportswriters and Hagler declined to speak to them, insisting he was under doctor's orders to remain quiet. Arum hollered, "I want a second opinion.''

It was a promotion like few others before it, one that led Arum to dub the show "The Super Fight.'' It sold out the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in a matter of days, jamming 15,400 people into the place. Millions more watched around the world at closed circuit locations and on a new fangled thing called pay-per-view that was available in only a relative handful of U.S. homes. The fight was so hyped that it even led to a battle between the staid Harvard Club of Boston and the local rights holder to the closed circuit feed. The Harvard Club wanted to stage a private showing of the fight at its facility in downtown Boston. The distributor refused. Even though Arum was a Harvard Law School graduate and Hagler's attorney a Harvard club member no dice. Also no private screening.

As the weeks of promotion dragged on, Hagler grew ever more short tempered while Leonard careful measured his words to avoid putting Hagler in a position where his ire might be raised. This was not out of fear. It was out of understanding what he was up against.

"Go back and review the early press conferences,'' Leonard recalled. "I never said anything to piss Hagler off. Nothing to create that aggression he fed off of.'' True enough but as Hagler grew more testy as the two of them went from city to city to hype the biggest non-heavyweight title fight in the sport's history, Leonard's charisma shone brightly. The more it did, the more surly Hagler became. Finally, the champion didn't show up for press conferences during a Midwestern swing through Detroit and Chicago, soLeonard conducted them by talking to an empty chair. It made headlines around the world while Hagler fumed.

The most shocked of all was Hagler, who stood in his corner with a look of disgust on his face for some time before saying, 'Come on. Anywhere else in the world I would have won but this is Vegas. This is a gambling city.'

Yet were it not for a sparring partner named Quincy Taylor, who knows what might have happened that night of April 6, 1987. According to Leonard, five days before the fight Taylor cracked him with a shot that buckled Leonard's knees and nearly floored him in sparring. Up to that point, he had planned to go toe-to-toe early in the fight with Hagler but during a silent bus ride back to the house he was staying at in Las Vegas, those plans changed.

"Up to them I planned to go toe-to-toe because Marvin had scar tissue around his eyes and I felt I could him,'' Leonard recalled. "It took Quincy Taylor to wake my ass up. On the way back on the bus, no one said a word. I was pissed.

"I called Mike Trainer and said 'These SOB's think I'm going to lose!' Rightfully so after what just happened. That changed my strategy for sure. Five days before the fight I changed everything.''

So had the arrival of his chief strategist, the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. In those days, Leonard was actually trained by Dave Jacobs, Janks Morton and Pepe Correa while Dundee would arrive with several weeks to go to come up with a plan of attack that bolstered Leonard's confidence in the same way his presence has given Manfredo reason to believe in himself. But when Dundee first heard talk of Leonard attacking Hagler, he blanched.

"I got to Hilton Head (Leonard's training camp site) two weeks before the fight,'' Dundee recalled, "and I stopped all that banging Hagler talk. You nuts? You can't go to a man's strength. Ray had plenty of agility. He had quickness. That's what was going to win it for him. But a fighter does what he feels comfortable with.

"Hagler was a right hander who had turned southpaw. He was a good right hand banger but he had to take a step before he punched. Step and punch. Step and punch. The key was to break that rhythm. I had Ollie yell from the corner to Ray whenever Hagler started to come forward, 'Take a dip! Take a dip!' Marvin would step and Ray would hit him. Pop! That broke Marvin's rhythm.

"Ray was such a great athlete I knew he could do that. I thought his speed would negate everything but matching strength? Forget about it. No one was stronger than Hagler but I felt confident with Ray on the stool.''

The Petronellis, who handled Hagler throughout his career, felt the same way. Yet when the fight began they were puzzled to see their champion come out in an orthodox, right handed style rather than in his trademark southpaw stance. Leonard, however, was not puzzled. He was relieved.

"I would have beat him lefthanded but when he came out orthodox it gave me a chance to get settled,'' Leonard said. "It let me get my feet wet and get set. That made a huge difference. I anticipated he'd come out the first round like a monster but he didn't and I started to move and I could see it was frustrating him. He kept saying, 'Fight like a man.'

"I felt all along I'd win in my heart but could I handle that pressure if he came after me? I didn't know for sure. That first round I was all nervous energy. But so was he. At one point in that round I waved my arms and he put his arms up to cover up. I thought, 'Shit, he's scared too.'''

Whatever he was, he was not Marvin Hagler that night. Although he was the aggressor most of the evening, Hagler was not as effective as he had been in past fights while Leonard was executing a cute game plan in which he would dip as Hagler stepped to punch and often beat him to it with a soft jab. Then he would react when he heard Dunlop's voice holler as Dundee hit the mat with 30 seconds to go. Brotman in particular remembers those moments at the end of each round because he played a little known but central part on them.

"I remember the first time Ray fought (Roberto) Duran he went flat-footed to try and beat him at his own game,'' Brotman recalled. "Seven months later, I asked him how he was going to fight Duran in the rematch and Ray said, 'Not flat-footed.'

"Well for Hagler all the talk was that he was bigger and stronger than Ray. I wasn't sure what would happen but I knew Hagler wanted to beat the shit out of Ray and I was afraid it was something he might be able to do.

"Then Ray told me before the fight, 'I'm going to win. It ain't going to look good but I'm going to beat Marvin Hagler.' What he meant was he wasn't going to be pretty. He was going to jab, hug, pull away after a flurry. Pile up points while Hagler waited for that one punch to turn the tide. He never landed it.

"Hagler kept trying to impress Ray. What Ray was doing was impressing the judges. Part of the plan was that he'd flurry at the end of every round because he knew that's what the judges would remember. So I was in the corner with a stopwatch that worked backwards. Angelo didn't want to take his eyes off Ray so he kept shouting ' How much time?' When I'd tell him there were 30 seconds to go he'd hit the mat. When there was 10 seconds to go Ollie would holler to him. Ray knew with less than 10 seconds to go he couldn't get knocked out so that's when he'd put on a display to impress the judges. It worked every time.''

It worked so well that when the fight ended the normally stoic Hagler did an uncharacteristic dance step that many, including Leonard, still believe was a sign he was unsure of how the result had come out. Hagler insisted it was merely a sign of how easy things had gone for him. Whatever he was thinking, as he dacned Leonard fell to his knees, mentally and physicall spent.

As the cards were read the arena grew stone silent. Lou Filippo saw it 115-113 for Hagler. Dave Moretti had the same score, 115-113, but the other way. Then the card of Mexican judge Jo Jo Guerra was read and the house exploded at his score of 118-110 "for the new...'' Sugar Ray Leonard had done the impossible. He had won on a night where dire consequences had been forcast for him.

He had won, Hagler's trainer felt, not because he had out fought a man who hadnb't lost a fight in 11 years but because he had outsmarted the fighter's negotiators and the judges at ringside.

"Marvin won the fight,'' Goody Petronelli says flatly 20 years later. "We know he won but when we decided to fight 12 rounds we took away Marvin's edge. Who collapsed on the floor (at the end of Round 12)? Leonard wouldn't have survived another round.

"It wasn't a real exciting fight. Pitter-patter. Pitter-patter. That was Leonard. If we had it to do over again, we would ahve jumped on him at the start like we did (Tommy) Hearns but we definitely didn't think we'd lost the fight. Marvin was the aggressor the whole night and he didn't have a scratch on him. Ray Leonard didn't win nothing. He tried to steal rounds and I don't blame him for that or the decision but Ray knows he didn't win that fight. When they made the announcement it was a shock to all of us. Even to this day.''

The most shocked of all was Hagler, who stood in his corner with a look of disgust on his face for some time before saying, "Come on. Anywhere else in the world I would have won but this is Vegas. This is a gambling city.''

It is and on April 6, 1987 Sugar Ray Leonard had gambled on himself. And won.

"I didn't know I'd get the decision but I knew going 12 rounds with Marvin Hagler was a victory,'' Leonard said. "Later Marvin kept saying I told him he won before we heard the decision. That's bullshit. Even if I knew I lost I wouldn't say that. Fighters don't say that. I said, 'Marvin, you're still a champion.' He was but he didn't beat me. We were good friends prior to that fight but it's different now. We treat each other respectfully when we see each other but it still bothers him. All these years and it still bothers him. He couldn't take that he lost to me, of all people. He couldn't accept that he lost to me. Some of the public still thinks he won. Who cares? Whose hand did they raise?''