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Eight minutes of fury: Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns 30th anniversary

15
Apr

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Every time a superfight is announced, one can’t help but conjure visions of four-fisted ferocity that puts each fighter’s manhood to the ultimate test. It is a concept that is often promised, often paid for but rarely fulfilled, especially by the most elite fighters.

Thirty years ago today, undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and challenger Thomas Hearns not only met the extreme expectations created by promoters, fans and media but somehow managed to exceed them. Their eight minutes of fury was a savage symphony of violence that ended up lifting both victor and vanquished to legendary status. In victory Hagler had finally earned the right to have his name included in the roll call of 160-pound greats such as Ketchel, Greb, Robinson and Monzon while in defeat Hearns still managed to cover himself in glory because he lived up to the ideal of risking body and soul in pursuit of a dream.

Like next month’s showdown between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, the road to Hagler versus Hearns included a lengthy build-up that served to raise tensions to the breaking point. Originally scheduled for May 24, 1982 – two months after Hagler destroyed William “Caveman” Lee in 67 seconds and nearly three months after Hearns wiped out Marcos Geraldo in 108 seconds – an injury to Hearns’ vaunted right hand caused the fight to be rescheduled for July 12, then canceled altogether.

Hagler, hungry to cement his status against a universally recognized name as well as earn the biggest payday of his career thus far, couldn’t contain his rage and disappointment.

“He was going to make two million dollars and then he turned down two million dollars,” an exasperated Hagler stated. “He started complaining about his little baby pinkie. Do you know how many people would give a million dollars for that little baby pinkie? They’d cut that thing off.”

Although Hagler versus Hearns was delayed, time – as well as future accomplishments – would end up making this fight far more attractive, and far more lucrative, than it would have been in the spring of 1982.

Hearns’ path toward his date with destiny began with a name change that also affected his fighting style. At the request of Detroit’s mayor at the time “The Hit Man,” who began his career with 17 straight knockouts and who captured the WBA welterweight title by demolishing the iron-chinned Pipino Cuevas in two rounds, became a “Motor City Cobra” that placed more emphasis on boxing skill than concussive power. In July 1982 Hearns, weighing a career-high 159¾, disposed of the previously unbeaten Jeff McCraken in eight rounds but that performance drew criticism because his outclassed but determined 161-pound foe fell only after absorbing an extended beating, putting into question Hearns’ one-punch power at middleweight.

Following the McCracken win Hearns signed to fight WBC super welterweight champion Wilfred Benitez five months later at the Superdome in New Orleans. There, Hearns overcame an injured right hand to out-box the supreme boxer to earn a majority decision that should have been unanimous. He then tested the middleweight waters again against slimmed-down light heavyweight title challenger Murray Sutherland, and after winning a 10-round decision he successfully defended his 154-pound belt against never-been-floored Italian Luigi Minchillo via ho-hum decision.

Where had all the power gone? His last three fights had gone the distance and even Hearns began to doubt the force behind his fists.

“You have to understand Thomas,” Dr. Frederick Lewerenz, Hearns’ physician in Detroit said in Sports Illustrated. “His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.”

But by the time Hearns stepped into the ring at Caesars Palace to fight Roberto Duran on June 15, 1984, he had once again become “The Hit Man,” not just in terms of style but also in attitude. Not only did he boast that he would become the first man ever to knock out Duran – a 17-year, 82-fight veteran whose last knockdown had occurred more than a decade earlier – but he was bold enough to predict it would happen in round two. This was particularly surprising given that Duran had just gone 15 rounds with Hagler without suffering a knockdown. In fact, he had fought well enough – at least in the eyes of judges Ove Ovesen and Yusaku Yoshida – to be leading after 13 rounds while tied on Guy Jutras’ card.

Hearns would prove to the world that he knew exactly what he was doing.

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After shocking the world by scoring two knockdowns in round one, Hearns finished the fight in the next round with a massive right cross that caused a semi-conscious Duran to fall flat on his face. The annihilation of Duran breathed new life into Hearns’ career and he followed that spectacular effort with another one exactly three months later when he crushed Fred Hutchings in three rounds. Hearns couldn’t have asked for a better preamble to a showdown with Hagler, who, in addition to being the undisputed middleweight champion, was considered the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.

For Hagler, that distinction was earned the way the old-timers he admired had done it – by decimating an assembly line of title-fight challengers.

After the disappointment of having his fight with Hearns canceled, Hagler crushed repeat mandatory challenger Fulgencio Obelmejias with a right hook in round five. Then Hagler sliced and diced rugged Brit Tony Sibson before putting him away in round six. Three-and-a-half months later Hagler literally laid the brash Wilford Scypion at his feet in round four, “just the way I wanted him.”

But just as Hagler was being declared the best fighter of the post-Sugar Ray Leonard era, that reputation absorbed a pair of hits. Nearly four months after crunching Scypion, Hagler was heavily favored to do the same to Duran, whose greatest days were at lightweight and welterweight. For whatever reason, Hagler fought the legend instead of the man. The power that had destroyed seven previous foes inside the distance barely tickled Duran’s bearded chin and only a furious rally in the final two rounds cemented his decision victory, a far closer win than the action in the ring suggested. His next fight against Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Roldan was even more troublesome, especially in the early rounds. A slip in the opening seconds of round one was ruled a knockdown and Roldan’s looping punches landed with surprising regularity. The fight turned when either a right hand or a right thumb struck Roldan’s eye and it didn’t take long for the orb to swell shut. Roldan, with considerable prodding from his trainer, fought on but eventually the pain proved too much. The combination of Hagler’s fists and Roldan’s discouragement led to a 10th-round TKO – and a heavy case of “what might have been.”

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Hagler impressively put away previous victim Mustafa Hamsho in three rounds to restore some of the luster he lost against Duran and Roldan. To his critics, and to perhaps a piece of Hagler himself, the champion still had something to prove and when the fight with Hearns was finally signed he had the vehicle to show everyone he deserved to be called the greatest fighter of his time.

Boxing is a sport built on contrasts and Hagler-Hearns had plenty of them. One was physiological; though both sported fabulously muscled physiques, Hagler’s compact 5-foot-9¾ inch frame differed with Hearns’ willowy 6-foot-1 structure. Both had unusually long arms – Hagler’s reach was 75 inches while Hearns’ was a freakish 78 inches – and each man rightly took pride in the versatility, but the way they went about their business also set them apart. Yes, Hagler’s motto was “destruct and destroy” but in reality he was a cagey boxer-puncher that worked behind a spearing jab and tightly delivered combinations. His fundamentals and thoughtful approach were a pleasure to watch but when it came time to put the hammer down he had more than enough force behind his blows to get the job done. Conversely, Hearns’ calling card was his fast-twitch explosiveness. When Hearns was the “Hit Man,” everything he did was executed with blinding speed and power, whether it was his piston-like jabs, his thunderous right crosses or his thumping hooks to the body. When he needed to box, he did so with unexpected fluidity given his gangly look and everyone knew what he could do when he planted his feet and slugged.

Their weaknesses also were at odds. For Hearns it was his chin while for Hagler it was the tender scar tissue above his eyes. Each man promised to exploit those flaws during the fight.

A multi-city promotional tour only heightened the professional strain between the pair. They traded plenty of barbs, both face-to-face and in the media. They also annoyed each other by predicting early knockouts.

“Come April 15 – in three rounds – I will be the greatest,” Hearns declared at the Jan. 28 stop in Detroit.

“Tommy said I’m going to be laying down there and his hand is going to be raised,” Hagler said the next day in St. Louis. “I feel almost the same way but when the smoke clears – because I’m coming out smokin’ – it’ll be my hands that’s going to be raised.

Another difference between the pair was their choice of training camps. Hagler voluntarily imprisoned himself in the “jail” of Provincetown, Mass. before traveling to Palm Springs to conduct closed workouts. Hearns, who traditionally trained at the Kronk Gym in Detroit, instead began work in Miami Beach before shifting his operation to Las Vegas. His relaxed and joking demeanor during his public workouts was a surprise to some and one session included a female dance troupe that entertained spectators during breaks.

While their conditioning methods were diametrically opposed the results of their hard work were magnificently apparent at the weigh-in. The 30-year-old Hagler (60-2-2, 50), who hadn’t lost a fight in nine years, scaled a rock-hard 159¼ while the 26-year-old Hearns (40-1, 34) tipped the scale at a surprisingly heavy but still chiseled 159¾. The conventional wisdom was that Hagler-Hearns was to be a high-level boxing match with Hearns determined to keep his distance with the jab and Hagler steadily bobbing and weaving his way inside and working Hearns’ body.

The historic nature of “The Fight” could be seen at ringside as middleweight greats Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and Jake LaMotta were among the dignitaries. Legendary sportscaster Curt Gowdy manned the host position on the pay-per-view telecast while a pair of Als – Michaels and Bernstein – called the bout. Meanwhile, the team of Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard worked HBO’s telecast that would be shown a week later. Despite a late flood of bets on Hearns from his Detroit devotees, the champion remained a 7-to-5 favorite.

As “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen played the national anthem on his trumpet and an American flag that was billed as the world’s largest was draped from the top of the Caesars Palace hotel building, Hagler fixed an ominous glare on Hearns while the challenger returned the favor – and then some – during referee Richard Steele’s final instructions. When the pair retreated to their respective corners, everyone knew that the moment for which they have been waiting nearly three years was finally at hand.

Even before the echo of the opening bell had faded Hagler bolted from his corner behind a sweeping right that whizzed over Hearns’ head and a short left to the body as the challenger circled away. Hearns’ first jabs fell short of the target as Hagler fired another southpaw left to the stomach. A heavy right hook over the top nailed Hearns and an instant later Hearns retaliated with a crackling right to the chin that not only stunned Hagler for the briefest of moments but also ignited what would become one of history’s most intense firefights.

With his back to the ropes, Hearns, realizing he had just hurt the un-hurtable, whaled away with both hands as Hagler tried to recover from the missile he had just eaten. A scorching right uppercut to the jaw forced Hagler to take a reluctant step back before slapping on a half-hearted clinch. Once Steele pulled them apart Hagler stepped in with a flush left cross that stung Hearns, then prompted him to fire back in kind. Hearns missed three power shots but connected with a right cross as Hagler landed a left to the belt line.

The punches were unleashed at a tremendous pace and the crowd, instantly electrified by the unexpected shooting war they were seeing, roared with every landed punch. Hearns ripped a right-left to the body the moment Hagler whipped in two wicked hooks to the face. A Hearns left uppercut drew an overhand right from the champion.

In just 60 seconds the fight had already become a classic. It is exceedingly rare for two elite fighters to tear into each other in this manner because they have far more strategic options at their disposal. The explosive beginning appeared to be a catharsis for the pair. It was as if the pent-up fury from the last three years came spilling out in a thrilling display of animalistic rage, and both eagerly ignored the fact that they were scheduled to fight for 35 more minutes. But what Hagler and Hearns were doing wasn’t a mere message-sender; it was a torrential storm whose intensity escalated with every passing second. It was as if every punch were an answer for every insult they spewed during the build-up. Hagler made Hearns pay for saying the champion was “shaking life a leaf on a tree” following his knockout of Duran and for calling him a “midget” while Hearns punished the champion for declaring he would chop the “freak” down and say “timber.”

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As the fighters sought to exact their 159-plus pounds of flesh in one fell swoop, the 15,141 at ringside and the 1.2 million jammed into closed-circuit outlets yelled in wild delight. Judges Harry Gibbs, Herb Santos and Dick Young appeared to be the most unnecessary men in the world because there was no earthly way their services would be needed to determine the final result. Their actions suggested that Hagler and Hearns each wanted to be his tormentor’s judge, jury and executioner.

Despite the short time frame, the effects of the punishing first round on both men were piling up. Hearns’ legs were rubbery and the force of hitting Hagler’s shaven skull had already broken the challenger’s right hand. Hearns continued to throw – and land – the right but he no longer was able to put full weight behind the punch. Meanwhile, Hearns got in enough punches to raise a small swelling under Hagler’s eye as well as a cut on the forehead that bled throughout the remainder of the fight. The injured Hearns took heart in Hagler’s plight as he landed a pair of right uppercuts and a right cross that sprayed crimson several feet. Hagler responded with scything hooks to the head and body and connected with several rights as Hearns tried to sway his upper body along the ropes. His best efforts to fight his way back to ring center proved futile given Hagler’s strength, lower center of gravity and crisp blows.

Finally, with 13 seconds remaining in a pulsating first round, Hearns landed a pair of rights that allowed him to escape the ropes but another long right sent a rocky Hearns backward. A Hearns right-left closed out what some declared the greatest round they had ever seen — or ever will see.

“That was an entire fight encompassed in three minutes,” Michaels said.

“Perhaps one of the best in middleweight history,” Bernstein concurred.

The viciousness of Hagler’s attack could be seen in the CompuBox numbers, which were being used for just the third time. Hagler threw 82 punches in round one and landed 50 of them – all power shots. Hearns, for his part, landed 56 of his 83 punches but the damage he wrought on Hagler wasn’t nearly as severe.

With 11 rounds remaining – and with a badly compromised energy tank – Hearns began round two with what chief second Emanuel Steward called “leg boxing.” It was the tactic that helped him survive the battering Leonard inflicted in rounds six and seven of their September 1981 fight and forge a lead on the scorecards through 13 rounds. Though Hearns held his own against Hagler he couldn’t hide the fact that his pins were unsteady. When Hearns attempted to pivot hard to his left, he instead stuttered halfway across the ring. His punches no longer had the force of his opening salvo while Hagler, though bleeding, remained strong and committed to his cause. Hagler surged in the round’s final 30 seconds and only Hearns’ courage enabled him to keep his feet and make it back to the corner.

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“Keep your hands up close,” Steward said. “You’re out-boxing the man out there. Try on working on letting him miss with the left and going over here on the incoming and then land with the right. Just box him, stay away and box him. Just get your second wind and relax like Milton (McCrory) did against Colin Jones. When you get through with your shots, just move off to one side or the other (because) you’re getting hit on the tail end of punches.”

Hearns started the third well and his piercing punches were enough to further damage Hagler’s cut. Blood was smeared all over the champion’s face when Steele called time-out and summoned the ring doctor, a move that shocked Michaels and enraged Hagler. Following the briefest of examinations, Dr. Donald Romeo declared, “it’s not bothering his sight; let him go.”

Given his negative experiences in Las Vegas – the disputed draw in his first fight with Vito Antuofermo and the closer-than-reality points win over Duran – Hagler feared that outside forces would conspire to take away his precious championship belts. That fear caused him to shift into overdrive and the effects were nothing short of devastating. A stiff jab and a booming right cross to the face staggered Hearns and a snappy right hand deepened the crisis. Hearns tried to move out of the way but his failing legs no longer had the strength to carry him to where he needed to go with sufficient strength.

After Hearns poked out a lazy jab Hagler sprang up from his crouch and blasted an arcing right to the temple that turned the challenger’s legs into boiled spaghetti. As Hearns loped toward ring center Hagler cut off the escape route, landed a second right, fanned on a big hook and delivered a final right to the side of Hearns’ face. The punch separated Hearns from his consciousness and after sliding down Hagler’s body he hit the floor with inert heaviness.

When he struck the canvas Hearns looked to be out but drawing on a prodigious inner strength the challenger somehow managed to totter to his feet by Steele’s count of nine. But Hearns was unable to clear the final hurdle – bright-eyed, steady-legged alertness – and thus Steele correctly halted the fight at the 2:01 mark of round three.

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This sensational victory over the best opponent of his career vaulted Hagler into the stratosphere, both in terms of his historic standing and his commercial appeal. It erased all memories of his sub-par performances against Duran and Roldan and in its place was the image of a shaven-skulled knockout machine capable of destroying anything that dared to stand in his way.

“This is one of my toughest fights,” Hagler told Bernstein. “I told you I was going to eat him up like Pac Man. I figured once I got through the right hand that he was all mine. I wanted to show the world I am the greatest. I figured I had to take punches in order to give some but I told you he was going to get some too.”

Later, when he was asked how the cut affected him, Hagler uttered one of the defining lines of his career: “Once I see the blood I turned into the bull.”

Hearns was questioned about why he opted to brawl against the brawler. The answer: He had no other alternative.

“The reason I started out punching was that Marvin started coming in and I had to show Marvin I deserved some respect,” he said. “A man doesn’t hold the title for (nearly five) years for nothing. He showed me he is a great champion.”

THE RING named Hagler-Hearns its 1985 Fight of the Year and the opening three minutes its Round of the Year. Years later, the publication declared the first round the best of the 20th century.

Thirty years after the fact, Hagler-Hearns is still the gold standard for what is excellent about boxing – strength, power, courage, combativeness and composure under fire. Countless rounds have been fought since that fateful night in Las Vegas and some of them have even approached the fury that was unleashed in that legendary first round. But when one combines the level of action with the pedigrees of the men involved, few, if any, can measure up to the standard that was established three decades ago today.

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

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