Many theories have circulated over the years as to the origin of Sugar Ray Leonard’s decision to challenge — and ultimately dethrone — undisputed middleweight champion Marvin Hagler by improbable split-decision victory on April 6, 1987.
Leonard’s incredible move to take the fight represented a career-high in weight, ended a three-year retirement and led to a verdict that continues to be debated to this today.
Leonard spoke to RingTV.com on Friday, the 25th anniversary of his achievement, clarifying exactly what led him to return to the ring to face the man nicknamed “Marvelous.”
Although many have pointed to Hagler’s previous matchup, an 11th-round knockout against then-unbeaten John “The Beast” Mugabi in March of 1986, Leonard said he made up his mind to challenge the middleweight champ four years earlier on the night of November 10, 1983.
That’s when Hagler earned a unanimous decision over Roberto Duran, against whom Leonard split two bouts with at the time, including an eighth-round TKO in the rematch, the infamous “No Mas” fight.
It was Duran who first expressed Hagler’s vulnerability to Leonard, convincing him that he was the better fighter of the two.
“Duran had told me that if I boxed Marvin Hagler, then I would beat him,” said Leonard. “Right after his fight with Hagler. I was there working with HBO. After the fight, he came over to my table and he leaned toward the ropes, and he told me, ‘Ray, you box him, you beat him…’
“The Mugabi fight had a bearing on my decision to fight Hagler. But it was when Duran said that, that’s what kind of secured me in my thinking that I could beat Hagler.”
RingTV.com: Have you had any conversations with anyone about the Hagler fight recently if not today?
Sugar Ray Leonard: You know what? It’s amazing how the reactions and one’s analogy of the fight comes to me. It invariably comes to me. You know, I do a lot of traveling now, and it’s great. I hear from people from all walks of life.
RingTV.com: What sorts of things?
SRL: Well, I’ve heard people say, “You know what? I think Hagler won the fight.” I’ve heard that more than once a day. Or, I might hear them say, “Well, Ray, you were so great in that fight.” It’s been that way.
What happens is that after all of these years, some of those same people who were so blown away by my whole performance in that fight, now, they might say, “You know, looking back on that fight, I think that Hagler should have gotten the decision.”
I mean, these are people who are sometimes friends of mine. They’re in the industry. I mean, they’ll say that “Man, it looks like the fight was closer and closer every time that I watch it.”
Maybe there were a lot of people who felt close to me personally or who were sympathetic to me because people were leaning my way because they didn’t want me to get hurt, first of all.
RingTV.com: How do you mean?
SRL: I mean there were people who cared about me, period. But then, there were those among them who now say that Hagler should have won the fight. But you know what? I think that I’ve told you this before: I won the fight, no matter who got the decision.
I’m at the point where, what I accomplished on that day, April 6, 1987, was that I won that fight. I know what I did.
RingTV.com: And that is?
SRL: Something that most people couldn’t do. Something that the majority of people thought that I couldn’t do. Ninety-nine percent of people couldn’t do what I did if they were in my position. I won that fight. I did that.
RingTV.com: Did you do that by accomplishing all of the elements you said that you would — stealing the rounds, winning the crowd, winning the judges, etc.?
SRL: Didn’t I make that public? Maybe I was being a little too [forthcoming], but I think I said that that was how I would beat Hagler. You know?
But the fact that it came to fruition, and the fact that Hagler didn’t look the same as the Hagler who fought Tommy Hearns or whomever else, that may have been the difference.
But even Duran had told me that if I boxed Marvin Hagler, then I would beat him.
RingTV.com: When did Duran tell you that?
SRL: Right after his fight with Hagler. I was there working with HBO. After the fight, he came over to my table. After Hagler-Duran.
Duran came over and he leaned toward the ropes, and he told me, at my table: “Ray, you box him, you beat him.” Whatever year that was that he fought Duran, when was it? In 1983?
The Mugabi fight had a bearing on my decision to fight Hagler. But it was when Duran said that, that’s what kind of secured me in my thinking that I could beat Hagler.
RingTV.com: Do you think that you sort of painted a portrait by saying what you were going to do before the fight and that people were just surprised that you prognosticated what you actually accomplished?
SRL: Prognosticated? That’s an understatement. I told people that I would do this and that. But when it all happened, then they said, “Well, Hagler’s shot.” Then they said, “Well, he was all of these other things.” But I have tough skin, too.
I’m not saying that to further my feats or my fight or my accomplishment against Hagler. I want them to still respect Hagler. Hagler was not shot by any means. But was he taken aback and in awe of the fight in its entirety?
I mean, it was a huge promotion, and it was bigger than anything that he had ever been involved in before. I hate to say that, because I don’t want to seem like I’m just patting myself on the back. But it was a big fight. It was huge.
The same thing happened when he fought Duran. He was fighting a legend. I think that he even stated that, that he was fighting a legend and gave him too much respect.
RingTV.com: Do you think that he was intimidated by the atmosphere?
SRL: Not intimidated, but kind of in awe of Roberto Duran in and that he was in awe. It was a big fight and it was a big money fight.
RingTV.com: In conclusion, what would you say to your fans convincing them of what happened that night on April 6, 1987?
SRL: I mean, Marvin Hagler was supposed to annihilate me, and he was supposed to destroy me. He was supposed to have done what everybody else expected him to do to me. But me. You know?
But that didn’t happen. I won the fight. So what would my closing statement be? You know what? Hell, I should change my name to Magic, because it was magic that night. That’s exactly what it was. Magic.
Photo by Jeff Julian, Fightwireimages.com
Photo by Chris Cozzone, Fightwireimages.com
Lem Satterfield can be reached at [email protected]