Sugar Ray Leonard/Marvin Hagler: The Fight That Never Gets Old (nor does arguing about it ever get old)

The most memorable and talked about fight of the last forty years took place 32 years ago today. It was of course on this day in April, 1987, when all-time greats Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler put it all on the line in Las Vegas; creating at the time the biggest-money fight of the pay-per-view era.

And all these years later fans and experts remain as firmly split down the middle as can be when it comes to who really won the fight that went down at Caesars Palace in Vegas. Arguably the biggest of the round robin of epic super-fights ‘The Fabulous Four:’ Leonard, Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran – lit up the sporting world with in the 1980s, Leonard-Hagler became even bigger after the final bell. And the fight’s legendary status has continued to grow and grow, right up to the present day.

30 year old Leonard, inactive and having undergone career threatening retinal surgery, had never before boxed as a middleweight. 32 year old Hagler was unbeaten in 11 long years and he was finally getting the fight he had craved, even obsessed with, for around half that time. What’s more, Hagler had recently crushed the man who had given Leonard his toughest (arguably at least) fight; winning ‘The War’ with Hearns. Leonard had his supporters bu almost everyone felt Hagler would beat him. Instead, stunning the boxing world, 4-1 underdog Sugar Ray boxed a near masterpiece as he frustrated Hagler, made him lunge and miss and generally wormed his way right into the shaven-skulled southpaw’s head.

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The mind games had of course started years earlier and, as the biggest fight of his life arrived, Hagler was ready to be taken by Leonard and his cunning tactics. This is not to suggest the fight wasn’t close, as it definitely was. But Leonard, somehow, got into Hagler’s head to the point where Marvelous didn’t come out blazing the way he had in so many of his other famous fights. Instead, Hagler came out orthodox and tried to box with the master boxer. Big mistake. Hagler and his millions of fans can continue to complain about the split verdict that went Sugar’s way for another 32 years, but it will not change the fact that Hagler fought a dumb fight early on and pretty much gave away the first four rounds.

Had Hagler not fallen for any of Leonard’s mind games, instead fighting his usual, hugely effective fight, Leonard’s confidence perhaps wouldn’t have reached the heights it did in the epic fight. Hagler was showing the signs of having become a slower, older fighter who had been through a long and hard career, even before the Leonard fight (most noticeably, certainly to Leonard, in the John Mugabi fight that took place 13 months earlier) but this made the champ’s decision to try and box, instead of coming out blazing in an effort to get the win, all the more perplexing, even irritating.

If Hagler was a somewhat tired fighter who was growing more and more fatigued, then why not try and get the fight over with as quickly as possible; by KO? To this day, there are plenty of people who think that Leonard, had he not been met by that strangely passive Hagler in the early going, instead being met by the onrushing southpaw monster who had blasted Hearns, would not have been able to cope with the heat. Yet Hagler, in facing a fighter who had been inactive for the best part of half a decade and, the thinking went, would be rusty early on in the Super-Fight as a result, allowed his challenger to ease his way into the fight, he allowed Leonard to box and find his feet, along with his confidence. And then it was too late.

The later rounds did see Hagler pour it on, his big ninth-round being his highlight of the fight, and Leonard had nothing left in the final round, losing this session also. But had Hagler done enough? It was extremely close, and plenty of the later rounds were hard to score. But Leonard, with his tactic of throwing eye-catching flurries in the last 30-seconds of the rounds, had, as one writer put it, “stole it fair and square.” The man who became the new middleweight king would not have been allowed to get away with half of the tricks he got away with had Hagler not been so compliant; in those early, crucial rounds especially.

The scoring of one judge aside, who infamously scored the fight for Leonard by a whopping 118-110, the official scoring reflected a close fight that Hagler should never have allowed to have been so close. Hagler blew the fight, it’s that simple. And maybe the reason he is still so mad about the loss he suffered is because deep down he knows he blew it.

What about you: has your opinion on who really won changed over the course of time?

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Even if you do think Leonard lost, it cannot be denied how he put on a marvellous show of skill, guts and, mostly evident in this fight, brains. Maybe a draw would have been the fair result? Even then, we would all still be arguing over three decades on from the fight!