This day in sports history: Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard fight to controversial split decision

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·9 min read

For the better part of the first half of the 1980s, newspaper sports sections were filled with stories about a potential bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

The seeds of the bout were first sown early in Leonard’s career, on Nov. 30, 1979, at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. That day, Hagler drew with Vito Antuofermo for the WBA-WBC middleweight titles on the undercard of a show headlined by Leonard against Wilfred Benitez. Leonard stopped Benitez in the 15th to win the WBC welterweight title.

By that point, Hagler was respected, but hadn’t gotten nearly the recognition or acclaim that his considerable talents deserved. After the draw with Antuofermo, which most believe Hagler won, Antuofermo declined a rematch. Three months later, Antuofermo lost the title at Caesars Palace to Alan Minter.

Hagler was the most avoided man in boxing, and his promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank, told Yahoo Sports that in order for him to get another title fight, it took intervention from Tip O’Neill, the then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts.

Leonard was just 23 years old and 25-0 when he met Benitez that night, but he was already a full-fledged star. He starred in commercials before he ever had a pro fight. His debut was on national television and his face was on magazine covers month after month.

Before getting to Hagler, though, Leonard had business to take care of. When he won the welterweight title, he sat atop a deep and talented division that included the likes of Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Pipino Cuevas and Benitez, all of whom would go on to be Hall of Famers.

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

By late 1982, though, Leonard had beaten Hearns, Duran and Benitez, and had won a super welterweight title when he defeated Ayub Kalule. He hosted a charity event on Nov. 9, 1982, at the Baltimore Civic Center, and invited scores of celebrities. Howard Cosell served as master of ceremonies. Boxers, including Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Matthew Saad Muhammad, got up and spoke about Leonard.

Hagler did, as well, fully expecting that Leonard would challenge him at the end of the event.

“Leonard and Hearns was ‘The Showdown,’” Hagler said. “We’ve got to be Fight of the Century.”

Leonard got up and acknowledged that a bout with Hagler “would be one of the greatest in the history of boxing.” As the crowd roared, he stunned everyone when he added, “Unfortunately, it will never happen.”

He proceeded to announce his retirement because of concerns about his vision as a result of a detached retina.

That left Hagler seething, and he remained bitter and angry at Leonard for years. When Hagler was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015, referee Richard Steele made it a point to bring the two together and posed with them. Hagler smiled uneasily, the painful memories of the past overcoming him.

Leonard unretired in 1984, defeated Kevin Howard and promptly retired again.

He was no longer an active boxer, but he was still a large part of the sport, calling fights for CBS and HBO. Hagler moved on and built a reputation as arguably the greatest middleweight who ever lived.

In 1985, he stopped Hearns in three fearsome rounds in one of the most frenetic and action-paced major fights in boxing history. He’d also beaten Duran and had finally escaped Leonard’s considerable shadow.

Leonard was a fierce competitor and never lost that urge to compete. When he watched Hagler fight John “The Beast” Mugabi in 1986, he picked up the phone and called his attorney, Mike Trainer.

Years later, Leonard explained it to Yahoo Sports.

“Marvin was just destroying everyone, but when I saw that fight, I just felt like there were things there that I could take advantage of,” Leonard said in 2016. “I always believed in myself, but when I saw that, it really motivated me to get in there and fight him and be the one [to end his lengthy streak].”

Leonard’s management gained him several significant advantages during negotiations. The fight was 12 rounds instead of 15. They wore 10-ounce gloves instead of eight-ounce gloves. And the fight was in a 22-foot by 22-foot ring instead of the standard 20x20.

Each of those points would ultimately play a role in Leonard’s favor.

By the time the fight was made, it was predictably massive. More than 1,100 media credentials were issued.

The late Hall of Famer, Irving Rudd, was embedded in Leonard’s training camp, with his partner, Lee Samuels, in Hagler’s camp. Rudd told the Los Angeles Times that interest in the fight was unprecedented.

“When I was doing New York and New Jersey fight shows in the 1930s, $1,500 bucks was a huge gate,” he said. “For this fight, for the eight weeks I spent in Hilton Head (at Leonard’s South Carolina training camp) and the last two weeks here — just returning writers’ phone calls — my phone bill alone will be $1,500 bucks.”

The Times’ Earl Gutskey polled 50 people, a group of which included prominent trainers, fighters and reporters, and 46 picked Hagler to win. Four had Leonard, and one, Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post, seemed to have tongue-in-cheek when he picked Leonard by KO in the second.

The legendary New York sports columnist Dick Young seemed to speak for the masses when he chose Hagler.

“Hagler, quickly,” he told Gutskey. “It’s a mismatch. One guy hasn’t fought for years and has what I consider to be a physical impairment . . . and if it isn’t a physical impairment, it’s a mental impairment.”

Those, though, who expected Leonard to be blown away were shocked when the bell sounded. Leonard had long since proven his toughness in bouts with Duran and Hearns, among many others, and didn’t try to make any needless points.

Instead, he did what he needed to do to win. He used his hand speed and lateral movement and would flurry at the end of each round, as if it were a sign to the judges about who was doing more.

Hagler was a southpaw who could go conventional at times, but for some reason, he fought much of the fight against Leonard from a conventional stance.

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 6: Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler fight for the WBC and Ring Middleweight titles on April 6, 1987 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Leonard won the fight in 12 rounds on a split decision. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler fight for the WBC and Ring middleweight titles on April 6, 1987 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Leonard won the fight in 12 rounds on a split decision. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Leonard leaped out to an early lead, and did just enough in the second half of the fight to pull out the win. Judge Lou Filippo had it 115-113, or seven rounds to five, for Hagler. Dave Moretti had it 115-113 for Leonard. Either of those two scores was acceptable.

But the reason controversy remains 33 years later is because JoJo Guerra gave 10 of the 12 rounds to Leonard and had the fight 118-110. Not even Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s lifelong trainer, believed Leonard had won 10 of the 12 rounds.

Jim Murray, the late legendary sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, came away impressed by Leonard. He wrote:

“He 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. Sometimes, you expected Hagler to tap the referee on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, did you see a little fellow, about 5 foot 10 with dark hair and a nice smile go by here tonight? I was supposed to fight him but I guess he couldn’t make it.”

Hugh McIlvanney, another exceptional sports columnist who long wrote about boxing, thought Leonard pulled a fast one on the judges. In his book, “The Hardest Game,” he wrote:

“What Ray Leonard pulled off in his split decision over Hagler was an epic illusion. He had said beforehand that the way to beat Hagler was to give him a distorted picture. But this shrewdest of fighters knew it was even more important to distort the picture for the judges. His plan was to ‘steal’ rounds with a few flashy and carefully timed flurries and to make the rest of each three-minute session as unproductive as possible for Hagler by circling briskly away from the latter's persistent pursuit. When he made his sporadic attacking flourishes, he was happy to exaggerate hand speed at the expense of power, and neither he nor two of the scorers seemed bothered by the fact that many of the punches landed on the champion's gloves and arms.”

The outcome remains as controversial today during a global pandemic as it was 33 years ago on that nice spring night in the parking lot at Caesars Palace. A lot of highly respected, fair boxing people felt Leonard had done enough to win. Just as many of the same type of people felt Hagler deserved to win.

It was the final fight of Hagler’s career. A rematch wasn’t immediately forthcoming, and when talks started up a few years later, Hagler shot them down. He was in the middle of an acting career and had lost the desire.

Leonard would go on to win versions of the super middleweight and light heavyweight titles — on the same night, by beating Donny Lalonde — but was never nearly as good as he was on that night against Hagler when he had to be, and was, marvelous.

Leonard never looked very good in a fight again and retired for good after being stopped by Hector Camacho Sr. in an ill-advised comeback bout in 1997.

The win over Hagler was the high point of his career, which he noted to Yahoo Sports in 2016.

“You beat a guy like Marvin, and you know you’ve done something significant,” Leonard said. “There weren’t ever many better than that guy.”

They both were among the best to ever live.

It’s why even to this day, their 1987 bout still engenders so much emotion and controversy.

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