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Marvin Hagler memorial features glowing tributes for the middleweight great

Photo from The Ring archive
24
May

BROCKTON, MA. – The air was dripping with humidity. Gray clouds had begun to mass over a crowd assembled for a final send off for their native son. The sky looked the way Marvelous Marvin Hagler must have looked to the 67 men who made the mistake of stepping into the ring to face him. It looked ominous.

But this time it didn’t rain on Marvin Hagler’s last parade. His memory held those clouds at bay just as he’d once held off the challenges of all the fighters and all the outside forces that had tried to conspire against him to destroy his dreams.

Hagler passed away suddenly on March 13 at the age of 66; that news stunned the boxing world in much the same way he had once stunned the great Thomas Hearns in a three-round battle that ended with Hearns crumpled on the floor as Hagler stood over him, blood streaming down his face, thrusting his arms toward the sky. He had at last proven his point. He had done what he’d once promised his grandfather he would do. He had made the name Hagler great, and by doing so proved himself to be the greatest middleweight champion of his era and, some would argue, the best of all-time.

Hagler in London to challenge Alan Minter. At the sendoff memorial, though, most folks concentrated on traits like loyalty and work ethic. (Photo by Monte Fresco /Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

One measure of the respect Hagler won that night and never lost for the rest of his life was given to him by Hearns, who had traveled halfway across the country to sit under a white canopy to honor his conquerer and his friend. Now 62 himself and slowed by the ravages of age and a lifetime spent trading punches inside a boxing ring, Hearns sat quietly until the master of ceremonies called him out after a video had been played that included those three brutal rounds he’d shared with Hagler, three rounds that are considered the greatest in boxing history. 

With the aid of well-known referee Arthur Mercante, Jr., who had driven up from New York to honor Hagler, Hearns walked slowly into the sunlight and lifted his arms to a warm reception from a crowd that had long cheered Hagler’s rise from a shy 15-year-old who walked into a local gym in Brockton and said he wanted to be a boxer. He came much more than that. Marvin Hagler became an icon and the proof of that was the presence of Hearns, former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, present WBO champion Demetrius Andrade, long-time SHOWTIME fight commentator Al Bernstein, ESPN talk show host Stephen A. Smith and a large contingent of friends, family and fans who had made their way to Rocky Marciano Stadium to give Hagler one last day of cheers on the afternoon of what would have been his 67th birthday.

A host of local politicians were there too, including Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan, who is leading an effort to build a statue of Hagler near the one of Marciano that stood maybe 100 yards away. Brockton’s two great champions forever etched in stone.

Hopkins, who would set the record for successful defenses of the middleweight title at 20, spoke not only of what Hagler had accomplished but how he had inspired a teenager trapped in the abyss that was the Graterford State Correctional Institutions in Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s. That’s where Hopkins spent five years of his life after being convicted of nine violent felonies and receiving an 18 year sentence.

A man can make many decisions about what he is going to be in such a place. Hopkins decided he would be a fighter and as his inspiration he took Hagler, who at the time ruled the middleweight division with an iron fist. Two of them, actually.

“Marvin Hagler physically is gone but because of him, you had me,” Hopkins said.

He went on to explain how he had decorated his cell with photographs of Hagler clipped out of boxing magazines. To this day he has them in a scrap book, a reminder of not only how far he’s come but of the impact of a man he wouldn’t meet until Hagler was long retired had on his life.

“There will never be another Marvin Hagler,’’ Hopkins said. “We know that. But there are seeds out here that are representing Marvin and you’re looking at one right now. I studied this man, this inspiration to me. He gave me hope.”

September 1990 cover.

Hagler gave a lot of people hope, both in his sport and his adopted city. People in the crowd spoke of Hagler being their neighbor, their friend, a guy who mowed his own lawn and would see them when they were feeling down and tell them to persevere because if he could do what he had done they could do what needed to be done in their life.

Sugar Ray Leonard, long Hagler’s nemesis, sent a video for the celebration in which he admitted to at first not believing the news of Hagler’s passing and then shedding more than a few tears when he realized it was true. He said if giving back the championship belts he’d been awarded after winning a decision so hotly disputed it is still regularly debated 30 years later would bring Hagler back he would do it without a moment’s hesitation.

Leonard admitted the two had their disputes and a bitter rivalry but in the end, like everyone else inside that sweltering stadium, he too had come to love and admire Hagler for the boxer he had been and the man he’d become.

Hagler’s long-time promoter, Bob Arum, now 89, and having just staged a title fight the night before in Las Vegas, also sent a video filled with something you seldom see in boxing. It was a sentimental recollection of a fighter who had reminded him that even in the self-absorbed world of prize fighting he was different from the rest.

“If you asked me for one word to describe him, it would be loyalty,’’ Arum said.

That was one of three words that seemed to crop up in each of the eulogies that were given. Loyalty, reliability and perseverance. Considering how he was avoided for years before, in his 50th fight, he finally got a title shot only to have it stolen from him by what Bernstein called “the worst decision in the history of the sport,” only to come back three fights later and win a title he would then hold for seven years the latter seemed the most apt description of Hagler the boxer.

In what would become his final fight, Hagler “lost” two of his titles to Leonard by split decision, a decision the great British fight writer Hugh McIlvanney called in Sports Illustrated “an epic illusion…this shrewdest of fighters knew it was even more important to distort the picture for the judges…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.”

Hagler would believe to his final day that he had not lost to Leonard. Rather, he always said, boxing just got tired of him “and screwed me one last time.” Yet, when it was all over, it was Hagler who went on to a post-boxing life that was as supremely successful and satisfying as his boxing days had been.

As the crowd began to move away at the end of the day, Hagler’s mother, Ida Mae Lang, greeted everyone who came by. She was tired and sad but she shook every hand, accepted every condolence. She was what her son was. She was perseverant, strong and fighting to the end of a long, hot afternoon.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler would have been proud of her just as all the folks who had come to cheer his name one final time Sunday afternoon were of him. He was, as one speaker said, being remembered as much for who he was as for what he had accomplished.

To the end, Marvin Hagler was just Marvelous.