|It was a fight that many believed would never happen. This was to be Leonard’s first bout in three years and as he said before the fight, this would not be a career but one fight. Born in May 1956, Sugar Ray Leonard first came to prominence when he won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1976|
in Montreal in the junior welterweight category. He won his first professional world title in 1979 when he stopped Wilfred Benitez in the fifteenth round in Las Vegas to capture the WBC welterweight crown in a classic encounter. He lost the title against lightweight legend Roberto Duran in June 1980 on points but regained it in November of the same year. After moving up to 154-pounds to win a version of the junior middleweight crown, he unified the world welterweight crown when he stopped Thomas Hearns in the fourteenth round of another all time great fight. After defending the title once against Bruce Finch, Leonard walked away from the sport with retina problems and his only fight since was against Kevin Howard in 1984 when he was floored before winning in the ninth. Leonard was so disgusted by his performance that he retired again.
At the time, Sugar Ray was the glamour star of boxing. With his good looks, charisma and Olympic Gold Medal he had everything. Meanwhile, Marvin Hagler was respected by the boxing fraternity as a blue-collar champion, a man who had always done things the hard way. While Leonard was earning $50,000 for his professional debut, Marvelous Marvin was fighting on the tough Philadelphia circuit against the likes of Bennie Briscoe, Willie Monroe and Eugene “Cyclone” Hart.
Hagler’s first world title opportunity came in November 1979, ironically at the same time as Leonard. Hagler fought the champion Vito Antuofermo, but was continually frustrated and was only given a fifteen-round draw. One year later, Marvin Hagler won the title by defeating Britain’s Alan Minter in three bloody rounds in London, England in front of a partisan crowd. Hagler was never officially announced as champion in the ring due to disgraceful scenes in which bottles were thrown into the ring. Again, Hagler was “doing it the hard way.” The Marvelous era had begun.
Hagler ruled the middleweight division and for six and a half years, he was the only middleweight champion. The list of challengers Hagler dispensed was like a who’s who of the middleweight division: Vito Antuofermo, Fulgencio Obelmijas twice, Mustapha Hamsho twice, William “Caveman” Lee, Tony Sibson, Roberto Duran, Wilford Scypion, Juan Roldan and John Mugabi. His most memorable defense came in April 1985 in a three-round war against “The Hitman” Thomas Hearns.
After Leonard’s second retirement in 1984 it looked likely that Hagler vs. Leonard would be one of the biggest fights never to happen, but in 1986, the fight was finally made. Hagler was the undisputed world middleweight champion but risked being stripped of the WBA version of the crown for not agreeing to fight the number one contender at the time, Britain’s undefeated Herol Graham. If the truth be told though, Hagler vs. Leonard didn’t need a title. The fight sold itself.
The fight was announced for April 6 1987 and would be held at the legendary Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada that, at the time, was the number one venue for the big fights. When the fight was made no-one gave Leonard a chance. Sugar Ray had slipped comfortably into the life of a retired boxer, becoming a ringside commentator for US cable network HBO. However, Leonard remarked that he had seen a sign of Hagler slowing in the Mugabi fight and planned to capitalize. At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, Hagler, the natural middleweight, only scaled half a pound heavier than his rival who seemed to have grown into the 160-pound limit comfortably. Leonard would have the legendary Angelo Dundee in his corner while Hagler as per usual would have the Petronelli Brothers.
With all the hype and talking over, the fight began and Leonard boxed exclusively on the retreat, scoring with flashy combinations. Hagler spent the fight plodding after his rival switching from southpaw to orthodox on a number of occasions. The pattern continued until the ninth round when Hagler connected with a strong left hand to Leonard’s jaw, forcing the man from Maryland into his own corner. Leonard, showing the grit that had made him such a great champion retaliated, scoring again with a fusillade of flashy punches to get himself out of the corner.
After twelve hard-fought rounds, the fight was in the hand of the judges. Leonard was given a split decision win with Hagler’s 115-13 verdict being overruled by scores of 118-110 and 115-113.
Marvelous Marvin bitterly disputed the verdict and never fought again. After being the first man in eleven years to defeat Hagler, Sugar Ray announced his retirement again but would come back eighteen months later to win his fourth and fifth world titles when stopping Canadian Donny Lalonde. Leonard then renewed acquaintances with old rivals Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, scoring a controversial draw and a wide point’s win respectively. Leonard retired for good after ill-advised bouts against Terry Norris and Hector Camacho. However, eighteen years after Leonard’s momentous win over Hagler the result is still argued by many to this very day.