Marvin Hagler’s Enduring Shortcoming

10.10.04 - By Matthew Hurley: Marvin Hagler is annoyed. Sitting at a table in the bar, away from the festivities during the dinner reception for the annual induction ceremony at the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in Canastota, New York, he glowers. Throughout the three day celebration Hagler is either a no-show or an aloof figure, bordering on arrogant. Boxing’s former “angry man” has metamorphosed into a personae of elitism. He does not mingle with old timers such as Carmen Basilio or Gene Fullmer or Emille Griffith, and he ignores fans at a place where fans and fighters are supposed to enjoy one another’s company.

While countless boxers embrace their fans on this hallowed ground, Hagler ignores them, preferring the company of his wife and his body guards. To so many in the crowd this moment, among many, personifies the disappointment they feel when confronted with the reality of Marvin’s true personality.

Marvin Hagler is a legendary figure in the boxing world – one of the greatest middleweights of all time. This is not meant to be a diatribe intended to rip into the man’s ring accomplishments (that would be ludicrous). Nor is it a missive attacking a very private man. It simply stems from observation over years of following the fighter and the man. Put bluntly, Hagler is not a very nice person and he seems to hold his fans in a strange form of contempt. His contempt for the media is understandable – we writers are arrogant and obnoxious in our own particular way. But it is his disregard for his fans that disappoints. And make no mistake, he’s not the first athlete to be found lacking.

Hagler’s reluctant approach to the media and his fans goes way back to the days before he became champion. His years of struggle, fighting for chump change against tough competition while he watched lesser talents rake in big bucks embittered him. That anger also emboldened him and sent him to Philadelphia where he took on some of the best middleweights in the world. Plying his trade against fighters like Bennie Briscoe and Willie Monroe, Marvin became the most feared middleweight in the division. His efforts resulted in a title shot against Vito Antofermo. Fighting on the under card of Sugar Ray Leonard’s first title shot against Wilfred Benitez (an insult to Hagler in itself) Marvin appeared to be the victor over fifteen tough rounds. The bout was declared a draw and Hagler seethed. His second shot came in England against Alan Mintor in front of a highly hostile crowd. Hagler bludgeoned the champion, knocking him out in the third round. Then, before he could be presented with the title belts he was bombarded with beer bottles from drunken, angry fans. The angry young man, who had channeled all his frustration into the formation of a perfect fighting machine, was now an angry young champion. He began a run of twelve successful title defenses, but never seemed particularly happy.

Before Marvin’s title defense against Ray Leonard in 1987 he opened a sporting goods store in Hanover, Massachusetts. On the day of the grand opening it was raining steadily but hundreds of fans turned out, waiting for Marvin who had announced that he would have a “meet and greet” session with his fans and sign autographs and give away merchandise from the store. Hagler arrived in a black, stretch limousine with Bo Derek in tow, nearly two hours late. He entered the store through the back entrance without so much as a wave to the crowd. As the rain continued to pour down, Hagler had pictures taken inside the store with Derek for the newspapers and signed a few black and white photographs. About twenty people were let into the store and then escorted out. Hagler hopped back into his limo and left. The store was then closed.

In the rain, stunned fans just stared after the limousine, incredulous. This was his home! These were his fans! How could he possibly treat them so callously? Then one man started chanting “Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray!” The chant spilled over into every mouth of every fan left behind. If the champion had been hoping for a great promotion for his career and store he had blown it. Of course everyone knows that Hagler lost a disputed decision to Leonard in that fight and many people believe Hagler won. But there were more than a few from Hagler’s hometown who couldn’t help but snicker when Marvin got his comeuppance.

Incidentally, his store went out of business shortly thereafter.

Hagler retired in bitterness but found new life and apparent happiness in Italy. Then he became a mainstay at the hall of fame induction ceremonies in Canastota. But a reluctant, surly participant when it came to the fans and other fighters.

The highlight of the three day event during induction weekend in June is the cocktail reception where fighters mingle with the fans over drinks and hors d’oeuvers. It isn’t uncommon to be sipping on a cold beer and having a jovial Aaron Pryor bump into you, or Tony Demarco drape his arm over your shoulder and ask you how you are doing. Hagler remains in a cordoned off section in a balcony – ignoring everyone. He drinks his beloved red wine and acts as though he is above everyone else – hence the balcony. Goody Petronelli, Hagler’s gentlemanly trainer, poses for pictures and greets fans warmly and considerately. He never leaves the floor. He knows this weekend isn’t just about the fighters, it’s about the fans as well and their love for their heroes. Hagler just doesn’t get it.

Finally, at the dinner reception (the night before the induction ceremony) while Hagler goes through another bottle of red wine with his cronies, a young boy manages to get a boxing glove and his magic marker to Hagler through a medium. Unfortunately, after dozens and dozens of signatures with the Sharpie it runs dry. Hagler shakes his head, tosses the glove and the marker back to the man who intruded upon his time and waves him off. The glove returns unsigned to the crestfallen boy.

When Marvin Hagler is introduced to the throng of fans and fighters before dinner is served in the banquet hall the applause is loud and long. But there are several members of the crowd, and a few fighters on the dais, who do not applaud. It goes mostly unnoticed, but it lingers as Hagler smiles for press photos.

Hagler once remarked that it’s hard to get up mentally to train when you are “sleeping on silk sheets.” Those very words seem to describe him perfectly now. He no longer needs the accolades of the blue collar fans from the very streets he came from because he is now sleeping comfortably on those very soft, slippery sheets. He is a very rich and successful man. He made it through hard work and through a complete respect for his profession. He doesn’t need to answer to anyone anymore, even to the people who helped get him there and the fans who stood behind him.

Every sports fan idealizes a sports figure. Usually a young boy or girl looks upon an athlete as some sort of god, but at some point that figure proves to be all too human and disappointment crushes that idealism. It happens in every aspect of life. You learn to accept the fact that no one can live up to the image you’ve created for them. Marvin Hagler the fighter was special. He was fearless, relentless and on his best nights a brilliant pugilist. For many fans of the fighter however, the man, or at least his public personae, leaves much to be desired.

Article posted on 10.10.2004

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