Hagler vs Hearns: It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

By Matthew Hurley: It’s almost hard to believe that it was twenty years ago when Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns stepped into the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and waged war on one another. Their epic battle redefined boxing for a new generation of fans. Boxing had survived the end of Muhammad Ali’s career because a crop of brilliant young fighters burst onto the scene and forced the public to look down at the lighter weight ranks. Suddenly it was the lightweights and, particularly, the welterweights who dominated the sport. It was out of that welterweight division that Thomas Hearns emerged. A devastating puncher with a boxer’s grace Hearns tore through opponents with a surgeon’s precision. One loss, in his first super fight to Sugar Ray Leonard, only seemed to fuel his desire for fistic greatness. He moved up in weight with the ultimate goal being middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. Hagler seethed as his welterweight counterparts commanded the public’s attention and the money. His anger would eventually be unleashed on April 15, 1985..

The hype surrounding a big fight often overshadows the fight itself. When expectations are so high disappointment is almost inevitable. In the case of Hagler and Hearns it’s strange that not much is remembered of the pre-fight build up. Despite the fact that both were in their primes and deemed the best in the business neither man was much of a talker and the fight seemed to slowly come to a simmer rather than a boil. There were the intense stare downs – these two guys did not like each other – and the inevitable war cry, “destruction and destroy” which Hagler hissed, but it wasn’t until the opening bell that every boxing fan realized how special this event was.

The build up for the fight had actually started in 1982. With the retirement of Sugar Ray Leonard, because of a detached retina, Hearns became Hagler’s most likely big name opponent. But injuries and bad timing delayed the fight. Also, Tommy was just getting used to the junior middleweight division and he was not looking like the “Hit Man” of old. In fact he had reverted to a jab and dance man – beating Wilfred Benitez for the title over fifteen mostly sedate rounds. Meanwhile Hagler bullied his way through several defenses of his title with methodical, workmanlike expertise. As good as he was, and in the retrospective glow of his fight with Hearns it's a little hard to believe, Hagler was actually not a huge draw in boxing. He was basically looked upon by the public as a really good professional fighter, but not a superstar. It would take something spectacular to elevate him to mythic status.

It was in 1984 that everything changed and the potential showdown became the most talked about fight of the year. In two brutal rounds Hearns destroyed Roberto Duran in what should have been a unification bout for the junior middleweight title. Duran had been stripped of his WBA belt so the fight was only for Hearns’ WBC title. In one amazing performance of unbridled power Tommy knocked Duran unconscious and set up the fight with Hagler. An interim three round knockout of contender Fred Hutchings furthered Hearns’ cause and suddenly boxing was all about Hagler vs. Hearns. And yet, because of the quiet demeanors of both fighters it built slowly into a super fight because of the boxer’s ability rather than their respective personalities.

Who you liked going in was summed up perfectly by HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant – “Hagler is the strongest fighter Hearns has ever fought. Hearns is the best fighter Hagler has ever fought. We’re here to get the answers.” The odds catered much to that sentiment. Hagler opened as a slight favorite but by fight time it was a pick ‘em.

As Hagler loosened up in his dressing room Tommy’s entourage, in the next room, banged on the walls. Hagler, focused like never before, bobbed and weaved, reciting his mantra of “destruction and destroy” over and over again. The banging on the walls and the cheers of Hearns’ posse was unrelenting. Hagler shook his head. “He can’t take them in there with him,” he said. “It’s just me and him.” As he continued to loosen up the hushed tones of “destruction and destroy” chilled the dressing room.

Meanwhile in Hearns’ dressing room the “Hit Man” danced back and forth, his followers chanting his name and pumping their fists in the air. His trainer, Emanuel Steward, looked on with concern as a member of Tommy’s entourage rubbed his muscled chest with baby oil. “I was nervous,” Steward said later. “Before we went to the dressing room one of the hangers on had rubbed Tommy’s legs down. A massage leaves the body spent and Tommy’s legs began giving out on him even before we made the walk to the ring. I was nervous.”

Hearns, on the other hand, thought nothing of it at the time. Such was his belief in his power that he truly felt he would knock Hagler out early. “My whole plan was to take the fight to him,” he said. “I was going to knock him out in three. There was no doubt in my mind.”

And then, the bell rang. Everything stopped, for just a moment, before all hell broke loose. A wicked right from Tommy buckled Hagler’s knees as Hearns backed into the ropes. Sensing his moment Tommy flailed away with both hands. Hagler tied his challenger up, weathered the storm and then fired back. And it went on… and on and on. The two best fighters in the world threw caution to the wind and wailed away on one another with reckless abandon. When the round ended both fighters glared at each other as the crowd at Caesars Palace leapt out of their seats. Reporters sat back trying to gather their thoughts but found themselves lacking. The words of announcer Barry Tompkins resonated on the HBO satellite feed. “This may be the most brutal, even round you’ve ever seen in boxing.”

For the most part, those three minutes decided the fight. Hearns hurt Hagler but he didn’t knock him out. Not only that, he shattered his right hand. Without his best weapon and with his legs feeling like rubber he was lost. “When I think of the shape he was in after that first round,” said Emanuel Steward, “and to think, with his legs all fucked up and his right hand broke, the courage he showed was unbelievable.”

Hagler, bloodied but unbowed, continued his pursuit. He clubbed Hearns with overhand rights and a few well placed low blows. But a cut on his forehead would add another dimension of tension to the proceedings. As the blood flowed down his face referee Richard Steele called time out for the doctor to check on its severity.

“It’s not bothering his sight… let him go.”

Wiping the blood from his brow Hagler charged after Hearns and took him out with a lunging right hook that caught Tommy behind the ear. He followed up with a final right cross to the cheek and Tommy toppled to the canvas. Somehow he struggled to his feet, but there was no fight left in him. The greatest bout of the decade was over at 2:01 of the third round.

There is an image that is both exhilarating and heart breaking at the same time. As Hagler is paraded around the ring on the shoulders of his handlers, Hearns, broken and weary, is carried back to his corner by a member of his entourage. The image, captured in several photographs that were published worldwide in the aftermath of the fight illuminates what both fighters sacrificed that night. Hagler, bloodied and battered but victorious; Hearns broken and exhausted, carried out on his shield. What they accomplished together set a standard that has never quite been reached since. The two best fighters in the world set aim at one another and simply fired until one went down.

In the wake of it all Larry Merchant, years later, captured the bout’s significance with a restrained eloquence. “For great stars to do that… to take all those risks… it has a timeless, epic quality.” Twenty years later, boxing fans still marvel at the fistic heroics displayed by Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns that Monday night, April 15th in Las Vegas. They rewrote the book on what a true super fight is all about. It has yet to be rewritten.

Article posted on 12.04.2005

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