Marvin Hagler

GQ, Nov 2001

Icon: The fighter who always punched above his weight, took on the world and won.

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In 1983 at the Boston Gardens, Massachusetts, when Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Tony Sibson were squaring up for the obligatory eyeball-to-eyeball poster shot, the tough British challenger tried to break the tension of the moment. “I know he was only glaring at me like that for hype and all that bullshit,” said Sibson, “so I tapped him in the stomach, playfully like, just to tell him, you know, ‘chill’.” Without blinking, Hagler growled: “Touch me again, and I’ll drop you right here.”

For most boxers, this kind of enmity is a psyche-out charade, a mind-game or feint to be deployed as and when. But Hagler’s hate ran deeper – it was real, he nurtured it. It seemed to feed from a bitter well that endured throughout his career. While others would brag and rile for the press, generally trying to fortify their will at their opponent’s expense, Marvin Hagler’s only psychic prelude was a private matter: in order to batter a fellow pro, he required the permission of his conscience to do so. So being a man of ferocious clarity, he made foes of his opponents and learned to hate them. They were a lot easier to beat up that way. “I hate my opponents,” he once said, and so he did – a stand-up guy, Marvin always did what he said.

For months before a fight he would chant his opponent’s name as he trained so that by the time of the press conference, his venom was up. The famous sportswriter AJ Liebling described fight training as “not only a conditioning process but a form of torture, designed to put iron in the soul and to spoil the temper”. And that’s pretty much how Hagler saw it. “I get mean before fight, I don’t want to talk to anyone, touch anyone,” he says. “I’m snapping at you in the gym and the smallest thing bothers me. Just give me a name. Tony Sibson – I hate him. Thomas Hearns – I hate him. John Mugabi – I hate him. You want to hurt me and take my title? I hate you. There’s no love among fighters.” Even those fighters Hagler respected were not spared – when Roberto Duran, the great lightweight from Panama, for example, joined him on a Bob Hope television special in 1983, he saw they were roughly the same height (about 5’9”) and told his manager “I almost tall like Marvin. I fight him.” Now that’s fighting talk. Hagler heard him and immediately turned his back on Duran, refusing to say another word.

Marvin Hagler stripped boxing to its stark and cruel purity, to its interpretation of the sporting contest as fistic Darwinism, mano a mano. For Hagler, a fight was a fight, not a show and certainly not a game. He abstained from playground slander before the first bell for the same reason that he showed no mercy after it – because it sullied the honest violence of his profession. However, just as his career reflected the sport’s purity within the ring, it was defined by the peerless corruption without. For years boxing’s crooked generals rewarded lesser fighters while denying him his rightful shot at the title – he was boxing’s outcast, the tough blue collar prospect that no one wanted to fight. No other route to the championship was harder than Hagler’s and no other reign was as difficult, which is why he is often described as an archetype or “the boxer’s boxer” – he embodied that quintessential boxing ying-yang of the righteous solitary battle amid a mire of machinations. Steve Collins was so smitten that he crossed the Atlantic to join his gym in Brockton, Massachusets.

It’s a dubious accolade, though – “boxer’s boxer” – like the comedian’s comedian and the writer’s writer, it’s as much a consolation prize for one who, despite his achievements, never quite won over the public. At the Boston Gardens arena, for example, on closed circuit-TV, a packed crowd of 14,000 watched his last ever fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987. He had fought many battles here over the years, and as a Brockton fighter, he was as close to a local hero as they’d had since Marciano. But as his career drew to a bitter close, with a fruitless 12 round pursuit of Leonard, the showman, the Gardens crowd cheered only for “Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray!”

The eighties were a glorious time for boxing, when the best fought the best and, with satellite TV scarcely a twinkle in the night sky, everyone watched them do it. Remember the Fabulous Four? Of course you do. Even now, ringsiders argue over who was the greatest. There was the rangy Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, a sensational knockout puncher with a huge following from Detroit; Roberto Duran, the brawler with a huge Latino following; Sugar Ray Leonard, the pretty-boy dancer and Olympic hero whose stardom transcended boxing altogether; and Marvin Hagler, the fighting machine, who never had a following as such. The loneliness of the ring seemed to shadow the boxer’s boxer.

Of the four, he was the least affected, a private, family man shorn of trappings. His motto to “destruct and destroy” suited his image as a battlehardened warrior with a chin of stone, but his brawn belied versatility. Although not the nimblest of men, he was a skilled reader of fighters and was able to switch instinctively between leftie and rightie (southpaw and orthodox), felling opponents with both hands. Typically he’d guage your style and soften you up from a distance, before moving in for the end game. He wouldn’t showboat or make you look a fool, like Leonard – but he’d hurt you. Emanuel Steward, the most successful trainer of modern times (now in the Lennox Lewis camp) considers him unassailable, the best middleweight ever and more than a match for Sugar Ray Robinson or Carlos Monzon. He should know – he was in Hearns’ corner when Hagler sent him crashing to the canvas in 1985.

There is also a linear aesthetic to Hagler’s career that the others lacked, a reflection of the sheer simplicity of his ambition. Hearns, Leonard and Duran all fought at several weights, picking up titles as they went, but Hagler remained a middleweight throughout his career, a tribute to his conditioning. He could easily have let the training slip a tad, eased up to light heavy and won honours there, but that wasn’t his style. He never went down and every blemish, bar Leonard, on his 62-3-2 (52) record was swiftly avenged, often by knockout – as his trainer said “second time round, Marvin used to destroy them.” He would have avenged Leonard too, but he was denied the opportunity, so as a matter of principle – it was always the principle with Hagler – he retired and never wore his gloves again. It’s virtually unheard of for a boxing champion not to make a comeback, particularly after the biggest payday of his life – Leonard made three, and Duran and Hearns are still fighting to this day. But when Hagler said he retired, he did. He always did what he said.

Perhaps the most telling consistency in his career however is his incorruptible loyalty to his first coach and management, the brothers Goody and Pat Petronelli. They were small fish who ran a modest gym in Brockton – Hagler remains the only champion they ever had – and even though it’s virtually the done thing for boxers to stepping-stone through managers, as actors do agents, Hagler was resolute. Even as Don King offered him the break he so desired, wrapped up in his serpentine rhetoric of black brotherhood – the kind that so seduced Tyson – he refused to succumb to dirty politics. To this day, he maintains a fighter-mentor relationship with Goody. “Anything on my mind, I know I can talk to Goody. Marriage problems, whatever,” he says.

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His upbringing might have been plucked from the pages of boxing folklore. He was born the eldest of seven fatherless kids from a poor family in Newark, New Jersey, and he ran the gauntlet of racist violence on a daily basis. “I hit you with a stick, brick and bottle, anything I could get my hands on,” he once said. “And then I kicked you when you were down. It was known as survival.” The race riots of 1967 found young Marvin hiding under the bed as bricks came flying through his window, so the Haglers moved to Brockton, home of Marciano, where Marvin determined to be a fighter. But race would never leave him throughout his career. Many Brocktonians believe that his struggle to win local support as a champion, stemmed from a racial resentment that he was stealing Marciano’s mantle.

“I remember when he came in, in his dungarees and sneakers – that was all the kit he had. I don’t think he was used to white people that much,” says Goody. “I remember we bought him lunch one day and he just couldn’t understand it. Why would a white guy buy him lunch?”

The Petronellis became a second family for Hagler. By day he worked for $3 an hour at their construction company, and at night, he trained at their gym. In 1973 he won his first major honours at the National Amateur Championship title, a star-studded event featuring the young Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard. Marvin won the “Outstanding fighter of the competition” award, and a month later he turned pro. The Olympics was 3 years away and although he’d probably have won gold, he couldn’t wait that long. There were mouths to feed.

So he began a gruelling run of 51 pro fights before his first title shot. Fifty-one is a huge number – Leonard had 25, Naseem had 24 and Leon Spinks, only eight, before he was given a shot at Ali. Yet while Hagler watched their easy ascents, he was schlepping from tank town to tank town, fighting anybody who’d let him – tall guys, short guys, tough guys that were way over the weight or way up in the rankings. “Marvin never asked ‘who am I going to fight?’, he just asked ‘when?’,” said Goody.

The trouble was that no prospect risked facing him and ruining their own chances of a title shot. Like Joe Frazier told him: “you’ve got 3 strikes against you, Marvin – you’re black, you’re a southpaw and you’re good.” The southpaw thing, incidentally, was what forced Marvin to learn to fight rightie in the first place – just to get a fight.

And then there was the politics, a four letter word in boxing, often spelt ‘King’ or ‘Arum’ (Bob Arum is second only to King among the sport’s predatory kingpins). There are countless examples of the sport’s corruption that dwarf the whole match-fixing brouhaha in cricket – imagine an international enquiry into boxing! In Hagler’s case, the most notorious was Don King’s 1977 tournament, in which the shock-haired shark had a signed a deal with ABC to, of all things, pit the best fighters against the best for a change and rescue boxing’s reputation. The event has since been exposed as a mess of fixed rankings, backhanders and lies. Hagler was known to be the world’s best middleweight at the time and would surely have been crowned had he agreed to sign with King. He refused and wasn’t even permitted to take part. “I never kissed ass to get an opportunity,” he says. “I always went the hard way.”

Cast his career against the parallel rise of Sugar Ray Leonard and his bitterness is understandable. “Mr Middle Class” as Marvin scornfully called him, personified the show of boxing, the money and the glamour. You could tell by his easy manner that life was painless for Sugar Ray – his Olympic Gold gave him a flying start as a pro, and under Arum’s wing he was making good money from the start. For example, both Leonard and Hagler appeared on the same card in 1975, both winning by quick KO. But it was Hagler’s 36th fight of his career and his fee was $1,500. Leonard, for his 3rd fight, received $40,000.

Eventually, exasperated at his exclusion – he’d been the best fighter in his division for almost three years without getting a title shot – the Petronellis took the unprecedented step of writing to one of the most powerful politicians in the country, Thomas (Tipp) O’Neil, the speaker of the house of representatives. O’Neill pressured Arum, and Arum finally caved in – Hagler got his shot against Vito Antuofermo, in Vegas.

And it was a stick-up. “Vito the Mosquito, I’m going to swat him like a fly” Hagler had said, but even as the referee, the late Mills Lane, prepared to raise his hand after 15 rounds – it was obvious he’d won – the fight was declared a draw and Antuofermo retained his title. (Years later, in 1992, an enquiry would reveal that Antuofermo’s career had been controlled by organised crime). Typically the injustice only fuelled Hagler’s conviction that nothing would come easy for him and he left the arena convinced that in order to unseat a champion, you had to knock him out, no less. But in Vegas, again, years later, he would be stripped of his title by Leonard who had barely tried to hurt Hagler with his pitter patter flurries. Vegas never liked Marvin – too honest, by half.

When he finally won the belt, his victory was tainted by racism. It was an ugly affair. The British boxer, Alan Minter, was champion at the time, and he made the mistake of telling the press “I ain’t going to give my title away to no black man.” Hagler’s response was unruffled: “He’s not going to give me anything, I’m going to take it from him.” And he did, cutting him to pieces at Wembley over 3 rounds until, as Marvin now recalls with a chuckle, “the only colour he saw in the ring was red.” He had fascist sympathies, Minter, and his support were a thuggish bunch, so when their man was stopped, they rioted, hurling missiles and abuse at the new champion, even smashing up his limo. From hiding under his bed in Newark, he was now shielded by his corner from lobbed beer cans. There was no moment of glory – instead of the customary “and NEW… CHAMPION OF THE WOOOORLD!!”, he was scuttled out of the ring with cries of “black bastard” ringing in his ears. Nonetheless his dream had come true. “The day I won the championship was the best day of my life,” he says. “I went down on my knees to thank God, and it was the best thing I ever did because the beer bottles went over my head.”

Even as champion, however, Hagler never reached the heights of fame that he felt was his due. The outcast’s resentment still burned. While most big-money fights took place in Vegas, he continued to fight for small crowds at the Boston Gardens, and even though he never ducked anyone, the way they had ducked him – Mustafa Hamcho, Juan Roldan, Duran were all hard defences – critics would still quibble over his all-time stature. It wasn’t the money so much as the respect that Marvin craved – and his time finally arrived on April 15th 1985 when he destroyed Thomas Hearns in a tremendous unleashing. It was one of the most breathtaking displays of precision ferocity that boxing has ever seen. When asked whom Hagler should fight next, one wit said “Russia.”

Round one is a legend. Both fighters exploded out of their corners. Hearns was the big puncher, aiming for a fast knockout as always, and Marvin, losing out in reach and height to the challenger, planned simply to “jump on him, close the gap and go to war.” “War” was the word on his baseball cap before the fight.  ‘War’ was the motto. But by the end of round two, Marvin’s face was streaming with blood from a deep gash in the head. Blinking the blood out of his eyes, he faced the referee Richard Steele, leaning over him in his corner. “He was asking, ‘can you see? Can you see?’ So I’m thinking he might want to stop the fight. I just told him: ‘I ain’t missing him am I?” In the next round he knocked Hearns out. It’s a great picture – the bloodied Hagler, his gloves touching the sky, walking away from a semi-conscious Hitman, his eyes rolling back in his head.

For men who reached such summits of violence in the ring, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns were in a jovial, chuckly mood last February at the opening of the new Kronk gym, in north London. Posing for the cameras in oversized cartoon gloves, Hagler said “Tommy’s a friend, I respect Tommy because at least he came to fight. Not like somebody else I know.” He’s laughing, but any mention of Leonard, or “the Brain”, is tinged. They still don’t get along. The reason, according to Goody Petronelli, is that Leonard told Hagler at the final bell “you won, you won the fight”, but since winning the decision, has never admitted it. “Marvin won’t forgive him till he does,” he says. “He says one day the truth about that fight will come out and people will realise why the judges gave his life to Leonard that day.”

Hagler/Leonard in 1987 was the superfight of its day. The purses were record-breaking – Hagler got a guaranteed $19m and Leonard $11m – but its grandeur lay less in the sums as the battle itself, an epic on many levels. Blue collar versus white collar, the socialite versus the outcast, the dancer versus the warrior. The public were already seduced by the sheer brass of Leonard’s challenge. Imagine the arrogance of a fighter who hadn’t worn gloves for five years owing to a damaged retina, but still wouldn’t bother with a warm-up before challenging the most dominant champion in the sport. With insouciant flair, Leonard politely announced that having commentated on Hagler’s reign for the TV networks, he’d respectfully figured out how to beat him.

The champion was stung – after a brief hiatus following the Hearns fight, his hate returned. He pulled out of the promotional tour, sick of Leonard’s charm school manner, all that sweet-talking about respect for ‘my opponent, a great champion’. “At least Hearns said he was going to knock my block off,” grumbled Hagler. He returned to his training camp in Palm Springs, where, with all the breathless anticipation surrounding the fight, he hung out with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Bob Hope. Goody recalls approaching a curious Sly. “I said ‘hey Rocky, we need some more meat up there, you want to put some gloves on?’ Sly’s like ‘**** no!’”.

The court is out on whether Hagler was robbed against Leonard. It is possible that he was marginally outpointed, but the punches didn’t hurt, they registered only with the judges. He was unscathed after 12 rounds, and ready for another 12, but his title had been snatched by one who came not to fight but to spoil, flurry and flee. It was a battle between image and substance and image won. “Thirty seconds out of every round, he’d throw a bing bing bing with nothing on them, like little-girl punches,” said Hagler. “Then he’d run away, like a rabbit. I just couldn’t catch him. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Except every time I see his face, I want to whack it.” He laughs. “Just kidding.”

In the immediate aftermath, Hagler’s life took a tumble. Yet again he found himself on the sidelines of the game, thirsting for a title shot and being denied. For over a year Leonard refused to set a date for the rematch and he became suspicious that the Brain was waiting for him to age and slow down. So rather than play into his trap, Hagler retired, bitter and damaged. It was a heartbreaking decision. Without the anchor of fighting, his life crumbled like a country and western record – he took to drink, his marriage broke up and, amid rumours of cocaine, he had to leave town.

He fled to Milan, where he still lives, with a new wife, in a new house, pursuing a new career as a movie actor. It all rather happened by accident in the year following his retirement, but with trademark tenacity, he’s seen it through, making him one of very few champions who didn’t squander his wealth or health but who instead emerged a gentleman, with his faculties intact. He seems happier for it too. Admittedly he has a thing for clowns – he keeps hundreds of them in both houses in Italy and the US, and at Christmas he likes to wind up the musical ones to see them all in action – but he puts on a far jollier front than his fighting days. “Call me Marvelous, that’s my name. Ever since I saw that ESPN Wide World of Sport, when they put Sugar Ray Leonard up there in the hall of fame but they wouldn’t put Marvelous Marvin Hagler because they said it was too long – so I got a court order, got it all changed on my passport, driving licence, everything. Everything is Marvelous now!” To see him chuckling away at ringside, at the few boxing engagements he still keeps, one wonders where all that anger went.

As a child, he kept a poster of the heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on his wall, a fighter whose goal in boxing might be the maxim for Hagler’s life: “to be 100% of myself”. Like Patterson, Hagler improved throughout his career, getting up to maybe 80%, 90% in his eyes. But he won’t stop trying. An exile again, his career has come full circle – where he once struggled to get title fights, now he struggles to get film roles. So far he’s played a killer Marine, a Cuban terrorist and a tough-guy detective in fodder action flicks. “It’s like the early days,” he says. “Nothing comes easy, I got to work hard for everything. I got to keep knocking at the door.”