A quarter of a century later, debate still rages on whether Sugar Ray Leonard got lucky against Marvelous Marvin Hagler

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

Some things never change in boxing, and probably never will. Just like is happening now with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the public in the 1980s was clamoring for a fight that seemed as if it would never get made.

Boxing fans in those days were desperate to see Sugar Ray Leonard, the Olympic gold medalist and welterweight showman, take on the mean and nasty Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Leonard toyed with it several times and on Nov. 9, 1982, managed to get ABC to broadcast in prime time an announcement he was making at the Baltimore Civic Center about his plans.

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But with a tuxedoed Hagler beaming, expecting to get the biggest fight of his life, Leonard told the national television audience the fight was not to be.

A fight with this champion would be one of the greatest in boxing history. This is the only man that could make it possible, but, unfortunately, it will never happen.

Leonard, of course, made several comebacks and ultimately did fight Hagler 25 years ago on Friday in one of boxing's greatest nights.

The anticipation in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was thick. There were many who feared for Leonard's safety, who were concerned he'd be injured by the bigger and brutish Hagler.

Leonard, as was typical, used his speed and lateral movement to dictate the fight. Hagler, ever the killer, relentlessly plodded forward, looking for a fight. Too often, though, Leonard would use his fast hands and flurry at the end of rounds to win rounds that had seemingly been up for grabs.

He told Sports Illustrated's William Nack after the bout he was shocked by the advantage in speed he had over Hagler.

I was so fast, man!  He couldn't hit me for nothing! When he finally did hit me, it was like, 'This is it?' He was more of a pusher than a puncher. I couldn't believe he was that slow, that vulnerable, that susceptible to punches. It was my speed that upset him, my movement that threw him off. People said I lost the zip, but my hands are just as fast as they were when I was 20 years old!

When the bout ended, the crowd erupted and play-by-play man Barry Tompkins made perhaps the greatest call of his career, shouting, "How do you like it? How do you like it"

Hagler was angry at Leonard's refusal to stand and fight. In his autobiography, "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring," Leonard quoted Hagler as saying:

Fight like a man, [expletive]. Fight like a man.

The fight was viewed differently by just about everyone who saw it. Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times columnist and the greatest sports writer who ever lived, saw it as a Leonard blowout.

Murray wrote:

Leonard didn't just outpoint Hagler, he exposed him. He made him look like a guy chasing a bus. In snowshoes. Marvelous Marvin Hagler should have put stamps on his punches. He kept aiming them at places Sugar Ray had left much earlier in the evening.

As effective as Leonard's movement and his flurries were, it's undeniable that Hagler's body work was piling up points. And Hagler had plenty who felt he did more than enough not only to retain his title, but to clearly win the fight.

Hugh McIlvanney, writing in Sports Illustrated, didn't think Leonard's plan to try to steal rounds was effective and that Hagler deserved the bout. McIlvanney wrote:

But, however much the slick ploys blurred the perceptions of those on the fevered sidelines, they never broke Hagler. He has a different kind of spirit, but it is no less resolute than Leonard's. The hounding intensity that kept him unbeaten through 11 years from 1976 will soon be a memory, but he had enough left to press on through his early frustrations, throw the superior volume of hurtful punches. I'm convinced Hagler won the fight; a draw, and the retention of the title, was the very least he deserved.

The judges were all over the place. Jo Jo Guerra apparently wasn't watching the same fight everyone else was. He had it 118-110, or 10 rounds to 2, for Leonard. Lou Filippo, long a respected judge and referee in California, had it 115-113 for Hagler. Dave Moretti broke the tie, seeing it 115-113 for Leonard.

Author Steve Marantz, a former sports writer at the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, wrote a 2008 book on the bout, "Sorcery at Caesars." He spoke to Eddie Futch, the highly regarded trainer, who felt Hagler deserved the nod.

I thought Hagler had a slight edge, probably by a few points. He was the champion and he made the fight with his aggressiveness.

Former lightweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini also saw it for Hagler, according to Marantz.

Hagler definitely won the fight. Doesn't body punching count for anything any more? Leonard wasn't doing anything in there but showboating.

I've watched the fight dozens of times in the intervening years. Watching live, I scored it a draw. Each time I watched it again, I noticed something I hadn't seen before. I've scored it for Hagler, for Leonard and even, multiple times each.

It's hard to believe that, a quarter century later, the fight is still being debated as fiercely as it was on the night it happened.

The only thing harder to believe is that it's been 25 years.

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