Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

3. Sugar Ray Leonard W 12 Marvelous Marvin Hagler – April 6, 1987, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Like Tyson vs. Holyfield, Leonard vs. Hagler had long been the stuff of fantasy for fight fans. At his best, Leonard was a beastly blend of sonic speed, flashy footwork, professorial boxing intelligence and fantastic finishing instincts. On the other glove the magnificently muscled Hagler was the epitome of supreme discipline, wondrous skills, dogged determination, peerless versatility and working class professionalism. Both men were brilliant boxers who could slug at the drop of a dime and the thought of them meeting at their positive peaks was a prospect so tantalizing that it transcended adequate description.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Leonard, it did not happen.

As Leonard prepared for a May 1982 fight against mandatory challenger Roger Stafford, the undisputed welterweight champion saw “floaters” that prompted a visit to the eye doctor. The cause: A detached retina. Leonard daleyed a retirement decision until a charity event in Baltimore on November 9, 1982. With Hagler in the audience Leonard pulled the plug on a potential 1983 superfight by declaring he would remain retired.

Circumstances, of course, changed. Prompted by Hagler’s struggles against Roberto Duran in November 1983, Leonard announced a May 11,1984 comeback fight against Philadelphia fringe contender Kevin Howard — in Hagler’s adopted back yard of Worcester, Massachusetts. Embarrassed by a fourth round knockdown courtesy of “The Spoiler’s” thunderbolt right hand, Leonard again announced his retirement following his ninth round TKO victory.

“The Super Fight” finally began to take shape when ringside patron Leonard watched Hagler labor to get past John “The Beast” Mugabi in March 1986. Immediately after Hagler’s 11th round TKO win, Leonard called lawyer Mike Trainer and declared “I can beat him. Get me Hagler. I can beat him.” On May 1, 1986 Leonard announced on a Washington, D.C. talk show that he was willing to come out of retirement to fight Hagler on a “one fight, and one-fight-only” basis. Hagler, stung by previous Leonard teases, left Leonard twisting in the wind for a few months before ultimately saying yes.

Leonard was attempting to do something many thought was preposterous: Emerge from a lengthy retirement to fight boxing’s reigning pound-for-pound king in a weight class higher than that of his prime – all without the benefit of a warm-up fight. The closest parallel to what Leonard was trying took place nearly 77 years before when James J. Jeffries shed 100 pounds and fought heavyweight champion Jack Johnson following a five-year retirement. Though he was a 10-to-7 choice to beat Johnson, Jeffries was dominated before being crushed in round 15.

The building blocks of Leonard’s eventual upset was laid at the negotiating table. Hagler was hungry to get the bigger share of the huge payday and Leonard let him have it – for a price. In exchange for the extra dollars, Hagler accepted Leonard’s demands of a 12-round fight instead of the traditional 15 and a ring spacious enough for him to fully implement his fight plan.

From Leonard’s perspective, the first four rounds couldn’t have gone better. The 3-to-1 underdog moved, danced, jabbed and fired combinations through Hagler’s guard while Hagler, borrowing a page from the play book he used against Mugabi, began the fight from the right-handed stance. Instead of using his extraordinary strength advantage, Hagler tried to out-box the boxer and because he essentially gave Leonard the first four rounds, he ended up giving away the fight.

It wasn’t until the fifth that Hagler got untracked as a massive right uppercut buckled Leonard’s legs. Hagler continued to gain momentum in the middle rounds while Leonard’s gas tank began to run low. The fight’s most memorable action unfolded in the ninth when Hagler stunned Leonard with a sharp left cross and bombarded the challenger with heavy shots along the ropes. Just when it appeared Leonard would crumble, he summoned a spectacular 13-punch burst to free himself from the corner and out of immediate danger.

Hagler’s surge continued in the 10th as his more consistent work trumped Leonard’s occasional pot shots, but in the 11th Leonard found a second wind as his flurries sliced through Hagler’s defenses. With the finish line in sight, Leonard spent the 12th on his toes, freed himself from a dangerous encounter along the ropes, and waved his glove in the air as the crowd chanted “Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray!”

Rounds five through 12 were hotly contested and the judges were deeply divided in their interpretations. Lou Filippo’s 115-113 card granted heavy weight on Hagler’s aggression and harder punching while Jose Guerra’s 118-110 score wildly favored Leonard’s flashy movement and even flashier punches. The deciding vote fell on Dave Moretti, whose 115-113 score for Leonard cemented an upset — and for many an outrage — for all time.

The reaction to Leonard’s victory was as split as the judges’ opinions. One side was convinced Hagler was robbed by a smoke-and-mirrors illusion while the other side said that Hagler’s ineffective aggression wasn’t enough to win the seven of eight rounds required to secure a decision after surrendering the first four.

No matter what side of the scoring fence one occupies, all can agree that April 6, 1987 was a landmark night in boxing’s historic fabric. 

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