Why People Are Still Talking About The Hagler-Leonard Fight 30 Years Later
By: Sean Crose
In all honesty, I’m surprised the fight is still such a big deal. As the media of the time pointed out, it wasn’t the most thrilling affair. What’s more, the bout occurred just before the zenith of the Mike Tyson era. And while it’s true Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard were the two biggest names in boxing at the time, the magnificent age of pugilism they represented was clearly on the way out when the two men finally met in the ring on April 6th, 1987. Upon some retrospection, however, it makes sense that the Hagler-Leonard middleweight championship fight remains alive and well in the public consciousness to this day.
For those who don’t know, Sugar Ray Leonard was the darling of the boxing world, if not the entire sports world, from the late seventies, through the early eighties. A former Olympian with a winning smile and a skill set to burn, the man epitomized what it meant to be an all American success story. After winning the welterweight title back from the meanspirited Roberto Duran in classic stand up to the bully fashion, Leonard said he was happy to win the championship for America. He meant it. And in an era where patriotism wasn’t confused with xenophobia, that sort of thing meant something to the public.
Leonard’s polar opposite was Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The word Marvelous was actually part of his legal name. He put it in there himself (apparently Marvin Hagler simply wouldn’t do). A gritty product of Brockton, Massachusetts (which gave him a kinship with one Rocky Marciano) Hagler had to come up the hard way, through grueling affair after grueling affair. When the man finally won the middleweight title strap, the British audience who witnessed the fight live and in person tossed bottles into the ring. But Hagler wasn’t to be denied. He wasn’t showered with accolades, he earned them.
Yet it wasn’t until Hagler actually bested a rejuvenated Duran in a fifteen round war that attention was finally paid. And, after beating former Leonard nemesis and all time legend Tommy Hearns in what is still the greatest single sporting event I’ve ever seen, it was Hagler, not Leonard, who was on top of the boxing world. Where was Leonard? Well, eye problems had taken him out of the sport – at least for a while. For it’s said that after Leonard watched Hagler struggle against the valiant John Mugabi a year after the epic Hagler-Hearns bout, Leonard realized he could beat the man.
And beat Hagler Leonard did, in one of the biggest upsets in the history of boxing and also of sports in general. Yet that’s not why the fight is still such a hot topic all these years later. There’s a lot more to the story than just that.
For many people feel Hagler got robbed that night, that the 12 round decision victory went to the wrong man. Yet that’s still not why the fight is such a hot topic in 2017. The real reason Hagler-Leonard resonates as it does three decades later is because a golden child bested a working class Joe in a way many found to be unfair. And that sort of thing can hit home.
Had Leonard knocked Hagler out, the bout would remain a classic – but it wouldn’t be seen as the giant enigma it remains to this day. Look at it this way: If Hagler had been awarded the decision that night instead of Leonard, the fight would still have been controversial, but it wouldn’t have irked as many people as it does now.
The fact that the match consisted of Hagler chasing Leonard around the ring while Leonard fired off quick bursts naturally made it open to interpretation.
In a lot of ways, a person’s opinion of the contest could very well be based on his or her preferred style of fighting. Those who like aggression would be inclined to give the nod to Hagler.
Those who like stylists, on the other hand…
This is simply one of those cases where a real consensus will most likely never be reached. Hagler retired after the bout, denying Leonard the chance to erase any question marks. In a sense, both Hagler and Leonard will forever be seen as they are in still photos from that night – frozen in time, engaged in combat, equals in all ways, save for individual opinions, the golden child and his blue color nemesis. It wasn’t a great fight, but it was most certainly a memorable one, in large part because many feel it was emblematic of life itself, a thing where the golden child forever emerges victorious, deservedly or not.