A Fan Remembers: Hagler vs. Hearns – Part 2
Read Part 1 here.
Like every other boxing fan, I counted down the days to April 15, 1985, the day when undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler would tangle with WBC super welterweight king Thomas Hearns. Although they were initially scheduled to meet in May 1982, I thought that the nearly three-year delay only enhanced the power of this pairing. Had they met on the original date, the 23-year-old Hearns would have been only eight months removed from his 14th-round TKO loss to Sugar Ray Leonard and would have been coming off an oddly received first-round KO of Marcos Geraldo, who looked nothing like the man who had pushed Leonard during their May 1979 fight and who had lost a competitive decision to Hagler in May 1980. Hagler would have re-entered the ring off his own first-round KO of William “Caveman” Lee, one of the briefest middleweight championship fights on record. While Hagler-Hearns in May 1982 would have been welcomed, something was off about their preamble.
By staging it in April 1985, however, the match benefited from the perfect lead-up. The revitalized “Hit Man” was now 26 and was at the absolute peak of his powers chronologically as well as at his zenith in terms of his boxing form thanks to his twin destructions of Roberto Duran and Fred Hutchings. Meanwhile, the nearly 31-year-old Hagler, who would have been a strong favorite over Hearns in 1982 due to Hearns’ recent defeat against Leonard, was seen as a still-excellent champion but one who may have already produced his very best performances. Hagler was razor-sharp in dismantling Tony Sibson in February 1983, but his closer-than-expected 15-round decision over Roberto Duran dropped his stock ever so slightly while his harder-than-expected March 1984 battle with Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Roldan drove home the reality that the magnificent fighting machine that was Hagler was showing signs of wear. In short, Hearns’ elevation and Hagler’s erosion made the 1985 version of this match a highly attractive – and highly lucrative – toss-up.
As a 20-year-old sophomore at Fairmont State College pursuing a major in English and minors in journalism and technical writing, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Columns, but I mostly chronicled the twists and turns of the college’s various sports teams and did not yet have the authority or the freedom to write about boxing. But if I did, I would have predicted that Hearns would win by TKO. I had my reasons: Not only was he younger and closer to his peak, Hearns possessed the height, reach and boxing ability to change range as well as the one-punch power to shatter any chin, even one as formidable as Hagler’s. He did just that to Duran last year, did he not? Yes, Hagler was the naturally heavier man and, at his best, he was (and remains) the most versatile fighter of my lifetime. But the Roldan fight told me that he was no longer invulnerable and I believed Hearns’ piston-like jab could slice open the champion’s scar tissue, giving the “Hit Man” yet another potential route to victory. As for Hagler, the difference in size dictated only one strategy: Go right at Hearns and hope that his middleweight power would take its toll on Hearns’ chin and relatively pipe stem legs.
The duo took part in a multi-city promotional tour, and the tension escalated with every successive stop. They also sought to twist the knife further by predicting third-round knockouts.
“Come April 15 – in three rounds – I will be the greatest,” Hearns boasted during the January 28 event in his adopted hometown of 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.”
The contrast in personalities extended to how they conducted their training camps. Hagler, as was his wont, sentenced himself to “jail” inside his Provincetown, Mass. facility before traveling to Palm Springs, Calif. to conduct workouts that were closed to the public. Hearns, who traditionally trained out of the Kronk Gym in Detroit, decided to switch up by starting his training cycle in Miami Beach before trekking to Las Vegas. Hearns, usually a stoic man of relatively few words, was relaxed and talkative, and one session was highlighted by a female dance troupe that entertained the fans during a break.
Although their training regimens offered contrasts, the final results were identical as the 60-2-2 (50) Hagler scaled a rock-hard 159¼ pounds while the 40-1 (34) Hearns tipped the scale at a surprisingly heavy 159¾. Despite a rush of late money on Hearns from the challenger’s Detroit devotees, Hagler remained a 7-to-5 favorite on fight night.
The historic nature of Hagler-Hearns could be seen at ringside as middleweight greats Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and Jake LaMotta were present. Al Michaels and Al Bernstein called the closed-circuit broadcast of the fight (with Curt Gowdy serving as host) while the HBO team of Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard worked the network’s delayed broadcast.
As “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen played the national anthem on his trumpet and an American flag billed as the world’s largest was unfurled from the top of Caesar Palace’s Fantasy Tower, the smoldering Hagler fixed an icy stare at his challenger while Hearns tried to melt Hagler’s steel with his own gaze during referee Richard Steele’s final instructions. When the pair retreated to their corners, the electricity that can only come from a top-level championship boxing match crackled inside those who were fortunate enough to be at ringside as well as inside those who wisely chose to purchase tickets at various closed-circuit outlets.
When a big fight is announced, those in charge of promoting the contest do their best to engender visions of violent, two-way combat in order to maximize ticket sales, but far more often than not, the actual fighting is quite tame – especially when the participants are as seasoned and as multi-dimensional as Hagler and Hearns. Because of the length of championship fights (12 and 15 rounds during this era) and because tens of millions of dollars in present and future earnings are at stake, elite fighters seldom choose to engage in all-or-nothing combat. The risks of doing so would be far too great.
But on April 15, 1985, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns tossed aside all peripheral concerns. They dared to be great and they succeeded beyond all measure.
With some minor changes, the following is the recap I wrote 10 years earlier, and I repost it here because I feel I can do no better in terms of describing the action that took place during those chaotic eight minutes.
Hagler bolted from his corner behind a sweeping right that whizzed over Hearns’ head and a short thumping left to the body as the challenger attempted to circle away. Hearns tried to keep Hagler at bay with jabs, but those jabs fell short of the target as Hagler attempted a southpaw left to the stomach. A robust right hook over the top nailed Hearns, who responded with a crackling cross to the chin that not only stunned Hagler for the briefest of moments but also lit the fuse to an all-time firefight.
With his back to the ropes, Hearns, seeing Hagler was hurt, whaled away with both hands as the champion tried to recover from the hammer he had just absorbed. A torrid right uppercut to the jaw forced Hagler to take a reluctant step back before slapping on a half-hearted clinch. Once Steele parted them, Hagler stepped in with a flush left cross to the chin that stung Hearns into action. Hearns missed with three power shots but connected with a right cross as Hagler landed a left to the belt line.
The punches came fast, furious and ferociously and the crowd roared with every landed blow. Hearns ripped a right-left to the body as Hagler whipped over two wicked hooks to the face. Then came a Hearns left uppercut that induced an overhand right from the champion.
In just 60 seconds the fight had already exceeded its lofty expectations because it is exceedingly rare for two elite fighters to tear into each other with such feral wrath. All of the weeks of pent-up fury came spilling out in a symphony of violence that escalated at a breathtaking pace:
“You’re going to knock me out in three rounds, Tommy?” Wham!
“You’re going to knock me out in three rounds, Marvin?” Boom!
“I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree, Tommy?” Blam!
“You’re going to chop me down and say ‘timber,’ Marvin?” Whoom!
“I’m a midget, Tommy?” Take this!
“I’m a freak, Marvin?” Taste that!
Each man was exacting his pound of flesh, much to the delight of the 15,141 at ringside and the 1.2 million jammed into closed-circuit outlets.
It didn’t matter that the fight was scheduled for 12 rounds and it looked like judges Harry Gibbs, Herb Santos and Dick Young were the most superfluous men in the building. Hagler and Hearns were their own judges, juries and, they hope, the other man’s executioner.
The frantic pace had already taken a frightful toll on Hearns’ anatomy, for his legs were already rubbery and his fearsome but fragile right hand was fractured after striking Hagler’s shaved dome. Hearns continued to land the right, but he could no longer invest his full weight behind it. Meanwhile, Hagler walked through those weakened rights with ease and was eager to seize every opportunity to unload.
Still, Hearns got in enough punches to raise a small swelling under Hagler’s eye and later opened a cut on the champion’s forehead that bled copiously. The angled gash added another plot twist to an already melodramatic opening act. Heartened by the sight of Hagler’s blood, Hearns shot in a pair of right uppercuts and a right cross that sent a spray of crimson several feet.
Undaunted, Hagler landed scorching hooks to the head and body and worked in several fierce rights as Hearns swayed his torso along the ropes. Hearns tried to fight his way off the ropes but Hagler’s superior strength and lower center of gravity kept Hearns right where he was. Hearns missed with right after right as Hagler peppered him with short, crisp blows.
Finally, with 13 seconds to go, two hammering rights allowed Hearns to escape the ropes but another long right sent Hearns tottering several feet backward. However, his right-left to the face was the final salvo of a sensational opening round. At the bell each man looked over his shoulder and fired a glare at his rival as if neither one was quite ready to cease their war, however temporarily.
“That was an entire fight encompassed in three minutes,” Michaels declared.
“Perhaps one of the best in middleweight history,” Bernstein agreed.
The opening round’s shocking intensity served to electrify the crowd. Some yelled themselves hoarse while others jumped up and down as if they had received a vicarious infusion of energy. It was everything they could have hoped for and more than they had a right to expect.
The CompuBox duo of Bob Canobbio and Logan Hobson, working just their third fight for HBO, captured the fury of round one with the following stats: Hearns went 56 of 83 (68%) overall and 45 of 61 power (74%) while Hagler – who did not attempt a single jab the entire round – was 50 of 82 (61%). Their 95 combined power connects in the opening round remains the most ever recorded by CompuBox in a middleweight fight.
It was one of those incredibly special events that prompted a person’s brain to take an instant snapshot of their surroundings so that they could reflect back and savor it for years to come. Only the sound of the second-round bell had the power to interrupt that process, for no one could afford to miss even a single split-second of what was to come.
Hagler started the round with a jolting left to the face of Hearns, who was now doing what trainer Emanuel Steward called “leg boxing.” This was the strategy that allowed Hearns to build a late-rounds lead on Leonard after being pounded in rounds six and seven, and, by doing this, Hearns was conceding that Hagler, the natural middleweight, was indeed the stronger man.
Hearns picked his spots well as he dug hooks to the belly and pivoted to the side. A Hagler right hook to the top of the head brought a taunting smile – and a pelting left hook – from Hearns. Despite his show of strength, Hearns’ shaky legs revealed his true state to all – most of all Hagler. When he tried to pivot hard to his left he stutter-stepped halfway across the ring before he could manage to right himself.
Hagler walked through a right hand to land his own cuffing hook followed by a stiff right moments later. The difference in power and strength was graphically evident, for every punch Hearns landed merely bounced off Hagler’s anatomy while the champion’s every blow shook Hearns to his core. Hagler’s snappy, straight-from-the-shoulder punches shredded Hearns’ defense while Hearns’ offerings no longer had the power that had made him such a mortal threat to Hagler’s title.
As round two began its final minute, Hearns’ blows looked ragged and disorganized and his balance awkward and splay-legged. But he got in enough punches to spread the blood all over Hagler’s face, which only angered the beast even more.
With 30 seconds remaining, Hagler easily punched his way out of an attempted Hearns clinch with three sweeping hooks while a fourth crashed against the jaw seconds later. That punch sparked another torrent of power shots that only weakened Hearns further. Only Hearns’ instincts and giant fighting heart kept him upright and at the bell a smiling Hearns again stared ruefully at his tormentor as each walked toward his respective corner.
“Keep your hands up close,” Steward told Hearns. “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 as he landed a pair of light rights to the face that brought a counter right from Hagler. The challenger’s piercing jabs and right-lefts strafed Hagler’s face and aggravated the cut on the forehead to the point where Steele called a time out to have ringside physician Dr. Donald Romeo examine the cut.
The crowd howled in surprise at this turn of events because they sensed the possibility that the title could somehow change hands.
Following the briefest of examinations, Dr. Romeo put that speculation to rest.
“No, it’s not bothering his sight,” he said. “Let him go.”
Fearing his precious titles were in jeopardy, Hagler shifted into overdrive. A stiff jab and a booming right rocked Hearns to his very foundations and a snappy right jerked the challenger’s head. Following Steward’s instructions, Hearns wheeled off to his right and poked out a lazy jab.
At this, Hagler sprung up from a semi-crouch and blasted a wide-arcing overhand right to the temple that instantly turned Hearns’ legs to jelly. As Hearns loped away toward ring center Hagler gave chase, landed a second right, whiffed on a home run hook and unloaded a crushing right to the side of the face. The effects of Hagler’s punch acted like a time-release capsule; Hearns first fell onto Hagler’s shoulder, then slid down his body in slow motion before hitting the floor with a thud.
Lying flat on his back with unseeing eyes, Hearns looked all but out. Drawing on reserves only the great champions can access, the challenger stirred at Steele’s count of six and somehow lifted himself upright by nine. But Hearns couldn’t clear the final hurdle as his body weaved from side to side and his eyes had a semi-conscious glaze. Steele correctly waved off the fight and, just as he predicted, Hagler raised his arms as the winner.
This was the ultimate moment of triumph for Hagler and this time he was greeted with thunderous cheers instead of bottles of beer. For Hearns it was a shattering loss that would, along with the Leonard result, overshadow his many triumphs. The sight of Hearns being carried to his corner was evidence of the toll Hagler’s attack – and his own efforts to win the fight – had taken on his body.
“This is one of my toughest fights,” Hagler, the master of understatement, 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 about how the cut affected him, Hagler uttered a defining line: “Once I see the blood I turned into the bull. I had to get serious and get it done quicker.”
As for Hearns, a major point of contention was why he engaged Hagler in a slugfest. His answer: He had no other choice.
“The reason I started out punching was that Marvin started coming in and I had to show Marvin I deserved some respect,” Hearns said.
Ever the gentleman, Hearns gave the champion his due.
“A man doesn’t hold the title for (five) years for nothing,” he said. “He showed me he is a great champion.”
Both men were well compensated for their efforts. Hagler was guaranteed $5.6 million and 45 percent of the gross over $14 million, while Hearns was paid $5.4 million and 35 percent of the gross over $14 million. With the fight grossing $20 million – third all-time behind Holmes-Cooney’s $22 million and the $20.5 million tally that came with Leonard-Hearns I – that meant Hagler cleared $8.3 million to Hearns’ $7.5 million.
Those who staged the show also enjoyed a financial bonanza. The fight drew 15,141 and produced a live gate of $4,589,400. The 1.2 million closed-circuit customer total was second all-time to the 1.6 million who saw the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali bout.
At long last, Hagler had achieved the mainstream acclaim that he felt should have been his all along. He worked the talk show circuit and secured commercial endorsements from Gillette and, most notably, Pizza Hut, for which he did several commercials. In the most famous one, he takes a bite of pizza and said – obviously in reference to Hearns – “I wonder what what’s-his-name is having for dinner? Probably soup.”
The Ring named Hagler-Hearns 1985’s Fight of the Year and the opening frame as its Round of the Year. Years later, the publication would declare the first round the greatest single round ever fought.
A rematch was ostensibly set after Hagler stopped John Mugabi in 11 rounds and Hearns wiped out James Shuler in a single round during a shared March 1986 card, but that all went away the moment Sugar Ray Leonard told the world he wanted to come out of a nearly three-year retirement to challenge Hagler for his title. After Leonard won a split decision hailed by some and disputed by others, an embittered Hagler walked away from boxing for good.
Hearns got his chance at redemption opposite Leonard in June 1989 and many thought he got it after scoring knockdowns in rounds three and 11, but the judges thought differently and scored their magnificent second act a draw. Leonard conceded years later that Hearns deserved to win but that declaration did nothing to change the record book.
What the record book – and those who witnessed those eight Marvelous minutes – will say without reservation is that the night of April 15, 1985 will forever stand as a landmark day in boxing history.
The fight showed beyond doubt why the middleweight division is held in such high esteem by fans and historians alike. The speed of the lighter men and the punching power of the heavyweights converged in the most spectacular manner possible and the result was a gloriously violent monument to boxing’s greatness.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 18 writing honors, including first-place awards in 2011 and 2013. 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” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.