Twenty six years old today, the middleweight showdown between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard still retains that incandescent quality. The color oozes from the screen and the familiar shrieks from the commentators accompany every punch and counter punch.
On April 6, 1987, in a Las Vegas parking lot at Caesars Palace, two gladiators, fated to do battle, met within the four corners of a prize ring. Hagler, a super tough thrashing machine who had decimated an era of middleweights defended his crown against Leonard, the American hero who had replaced Ali as the world’s most famous fighter.
The bout had been a fantasy match up for almost six years because weight, career threatening injury and ego prevented it from going ahead. Leonard, who had prematurely retired following surgery to repair a detached retina in 1982, was having only his second bout in five years and his first as a middleweight against the undisputed champion of the division.
Hagler, arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, would have been a strong favorite regardless of Leonard’s inactivity and the consensus was that the ambitious and smaller challenger was in for a seriously rude awakening.
However, as British commentator, Reg Gutteridge, said during his live call; “You never write off quality” and the charismatic Leonard tore up the script in what was unarguably the most sensational and controversial boxing performance of the 1980s.
RingTV.com contacted Leonard to discuss his most famous victory.
RingTV.com: What did this fight mean to you?
Sugar Ray Leonard: “I always felt that this fight was the final chapter of my illustrious career. Even though I had fought (Wilfred) Benitez, (Roberto) Duran and (Thomas) Hearns, for me, Hagler was the missing link because he was the best and he proved that. I began to think that the fight wouldn’t come to fruition after my eye injury and the aborted comeback in 1984. My fight with Hagler makes me think of making history!”
RTV: You provided HBO commentary on almost every Hagler title defense. What advantages did that give you?
SRL: “I saw what he was made of and I saw how good he was. He destroyed his opponents and the fight with Hearns, in particular, was an astonishing victory over three non-stop rounds. He was the best and he proved that over and over again.”
RTV: You called out Hagler after the John Mugabi fight in 1986. When he knocked out Hearns, the year prior, were you as confident?
SRL: “Nobody has ever asked me that and it is very relevant. When I saw Hagler vs. Hearns the last thing on my mind was fighting Marvin Hagler (laughs). I probably had a beer that night. However, when I saw the Mugabi fight I saw a window of opportunity and if I didn’t take advantage of it then, it would never have happened.”
RTV: You spent time with Hagler, at a restaurant you owned, and he hinted at a lack of motivation. What were your thoughts?
SRL: “I asked him what was next and he said he was lacking motivation and that he was being cut too easily, which are things a fighter says when he is thinking of calling it quits. Now, trust me, both of us had quite a few drinks that night but the boxing part of my mind was saying this is it. This is the opening you need!”
RTV: During the build-up, you were almost too nice. Is that accurate and if so how did that benefit you?
SRL: “Hagler approached training camp with aggression and he always hated his opponents. I was being nice so that the aggression would be delayed. When fighters are inactive, as Hagler was then, they become civilized and get used to the good life. That was simply mind games.”
RTV: Did the previous issues with your eye affect you mentally?
SRL: “Sugar Ray Seales, who competed in the Olympics in 1972, had lost his sight and I had been aware of eye injuries in boxing. Having said that, I really didn’t know enough but when my ophthalmologist told me that my retina operation had been a success – I believed him.”
RTV: The boxing world sadly lost your great friend and trainer Angelo Dundee last year. What did Angelo bring to the Hagler fight?
SRL: “Angelo, Janks Morton, Dave Jacobs and I worked on a few things. I had been breaking down sparring partners with body shots and we considered going toe to toe, in an attempt to cut Hagler, because he had a lot of scar tissue. I felt strong in camp but after training sessions my weight would drop to as low as 148 pounds, which was a concern. I was confident but then I got dropped by Quincy Taylor, a sparring partner, who went on to become world champion and that woke me up. From that point on, Angelo felt that my hand speed and power would be enough.”
RTV: You trained for a year before the fight, conditioning yourself for combat. Could you break those 12 months down?
SRL: “The first thing I did was roadwork because you’ve got to get the wind pipes working, especially when you’re taking on Hagler. Next, I had to get used to being hit so I could experience the trauma that you must be accustomed to in the ring. Someone once asked me if you have to train your face and I said; “no, that’s silly” but there is an element of truth to it. When you’re young, you’re more durable but as we age, the punches start to hurt. I had sparring partners wear 8 oz. professional gloves, whilst I wore 14 oz. training gloves, to get the sensation, or the presence, of pain.”
RTV: So many people picked Hagler to destroy you. Were you let down by anyone in particular?
SRL: “Nobody, even my brothers, who I paid in training camp, gave me a chance (laughs). Nobody, except Angelo Dundee and my other trainers thought I was going to win. I had been experimenting with cocaine during my lay off, and drinking, which meant I was essentially being the opposite of what a champion should be. That’s why so many sport writers said I had no chance in the fight.”
RTV: Hagler boxed orthodox for four rounds, which was clearly a ploy to throw you off. What ratio of your sparring had been against orthodox fighters and who had you sparred with in camp?
SRL: “I would say forty or fifty percent. I had to expect the unexpected as Hagler was ambidextrous with power in both hands, so there is no ‘one way’ to fight him. What he really did was make an attempt to outbox me in the early rounds and that was a mistake.”
RTV: Hagler appeared to stun you briefly with an uppercut in round five. Could you compare Hagler’s power to that of the other great fighters you faced?
SRL: “The uppercut startled me but it didn’t leave me out of control. When Tommy Hearns hit me, he hurt me. Duran hit me, he hurt me. Marcus Geraldo hit me, he hurt me. Hagler hit me and knocked me off balance. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t feel good but certain punches hurt and, although Hagler was heavy handed, the uppercut only staggered me briefly.”
RTV: The ninth was a great round and both of you let it all hang out. Were you surprised by your own performance?
SRL: “I remember that round vividly. Hagler was on the attack and gaining momentum because I was moving backwards. I remember saying to myself; ‘Ray he’s throwing more than you’ and at that moment I just unleashed a series of combinations to even up the round.”
RTV: You showboated towards the end of the fight. Were you sure you had done enough and were your emotions already crystallising at that point?
SRL: “I knew at that point that I had made an impression. I felt I was winning, not by much, as he was the champ, but my heart, commitment and strategy won the fight. I was victorious simply by going the distance, forget the title – I proved people wrong.”
RTV: One of the judges, Jose Guerra, scored the fight 118-110 in your favour. Did you agree with that?
SRL: “I don’t know what he was watching. If anything – even if the decision had went Hagler’s way – it would have been by a one or two point deficit. It didn’t matter to me and it was totally irrelevant because when I finish – I finish. Did I want to win? Yes, I wanted to win! Did I want the decision? Yes, I wanted the decision! I won that fight, no matter what – forget the decision!”
RTV: How are relations between you both now?
SRL: “I saw him at a WBC convention and we hugged. I wanted to interview him for my website (www.sugarrayleonard.com) but he said he had a sore throat (laughs).”
Photos / Mike Powell-Getty Images, Andrew D. Bernstein-Getty Images, THE RING
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing