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Modern Classics: Hagler-Leonard

By: Sean Crose

Boxing has always gone hand in hand with controversy. Whether it’s the sport’s brutality, the unfair treatment of fighters, fixed fights, poor matchups, or media bias, there’s always something not to like about the sweet science. Fortunately, there’s so much more to love about what may well be the purest sport on earth. Still, it’s hard to shy away from the sport’s controversial nature – and few events have been as controversial as the 1987 Marvelous Marvin Hagler – Ray Leonard middleweight battle. Although there was no long count, or fan man, no loaded gloves, or officials on the take, the judges’ decision on April 6th of that year is still the source of hot debate all these decades later.

Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler decision still a topic of debate 30 years  later

First, the facts: defending middleweight champion Hagler stepped into the ring at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas that night to face the world’s most popular fighter, Leonard. The individual known as “Sugar Ray” not only came out of retirement, but moved up in weight for the match. Hagler was understandably favored, but it’s said that Leonard waited until he saw Hagler start to show some wear and tear in the ring before he took the fight. Perhaps even more interestingly, it’s said Leonard had planned to fight aggressively in order to stop Hagler within the distance, but a cut in training forced him to alter the plan.

No matter what the truth may be, Leonard and longtime trainer Angelo Dundee had a brilliant strategy leading into the bout – outbox and avoid the feared Hagler, enter the ring in the kind of condition that can maintain a slick performance and and turn the would be fight into a chess match. The only problem was that Hagler, famous for his huge stoppages against the likes of Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi, was as much a boxer as he was a brawler. And so the match billed as The Superfight ended up being a very high end contest, with Hagler perpetually pursuing the slick Leonard, who retreated and fired away at his man in impressive flashes.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Middleweight Champion of the 1980s, Dies at 66 -  The New York Times

The question ended being simple on the surface of things: Was Hagler better at pursuing his man, or was Leonard better at flustering his pursuer? That question is still being argued today…because the fight really was that close. Ultimately, however, the judges saw it for Leonard. It was a shining moment for the new middleweight champion, marred only by one judge, who ruled in Leonard’s favor by an eye raisingly wide score of 118-110.

Perhaps the most unspoken of aspect of Hagler-Leonard is the fact it would probably still be controversial if the judges had ruled in favor of Hagler. Again, it was that close. And so the debate rages on…

*cover photo by Getty Images

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