Book review: The War
If there’s any positive news to take away from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it may be that we got Don Stradley’s book on the classic Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns bout, The War, out of it.
“The coronavirus helped because I was home,” said Stradley. “Everything was locked down, I had no place to go.”
Bad news for Stradley and the rest of us rendered homebound – good news for all of us when the book hit the universe in September, bringing us back to a time and place in boxing that we may never see again. And while we may be right in bringing up the reality that the best don’t fight the best on a regular basis like they did in the 1980s and that those big fights aren’t front page (or even back page) news anymore, what’s also key to point out is that we don’t have as many compelling characters outside the ring like we did then. That’s something made abundantly clear in The War, with everyone from the teams of Hagler and Hearns to those involved in the promotion, including longtime Top Rank publicist Irving Rudd, getting their place to shine in the latest offering from the boxing reader’s best friend in the publishing business, Hamilcar Publications.
Stradley doesn’t necessarily agree, believing that boxing will always have those characters, it’s just that they might not be in our backyard anymore as the sport’s hotbeds grow internationally.
“If we do get those characters, they’re probably going to be Mexican or Russian and we won’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a guy out there who’s just as funny as Irving Rudd, but he’s from the Philippines and we’re not going to be able to appreciate him because he’s not a New Yorker. For such a long time, there were New York characters at the center of boxing because New York was the boxing capital. Now, we’re just not getting a lot of American characters at all. They’re all Russian or Mexican or Asian, so who knows, there may be great characters out there – we just can’t understand them.”
What we can understand is that the ’80s were a special time in boxing, and the Hagler-Hearns bout was a big reason why. In a sport where everyone has an opinion, and few agree on anything, the seven minutes and 52 seconds the two fought on April 15, 1985, in Las Vegas is widely accepted to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, fights of all time.
For Stradley, author of Hamilcar Noir books on Carlos Monzon, Edwin Valero and the connection between the Boston mob and boxing, this fight was a natural for his next project.
“After those first few books, we decided, let’s write something big, and make it kind of commercial, in a way,” he said. “Something not so obscure and old as Carlos Monzon or the other book I did about the Boston mafia. I love those books, I’m really proud of them, but looking back, they were probably a little bit obscure, but that’s okay. Hagler and Hearns, that’s a pretty well-known commodity, so I thought it would have a natural audience.”
It does but given the place the fight and the fighters hold in the hearts and heads of boxing fans, the big question was whether Stradley would find anything new to reveal in those 246 pages.
He did, and that’s not surprising, given his tireless research and ability to find those stories that mean something and aren’t just there for filler. Then again, Stradley, one of the best scribes working today, and also one of the most underrated, has made a career out of doing just that. But oh, how that research must have been a killer.
“You only get one chance to write a book like this, so I kind of enjoyed it,” he laughs. “I kept telling myself, this is it, and in a few years, nobody will want this book because the window closes every few years on these things. Now is really the time to strike.”
With Hagler’s untimely passing in March and Showtime’s excellent documentary series, “The Kings,” the lives and fights of Hagler, Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran have been getting more attention than ever, so Stradley’s right when he says the time was right for his book. But where The War stands out is in the reality that a well-researched and well-written book will always stand out over the few hours of a video or documentary. There’s just not enough time in that genre to devote to all the behind the scenes stories in business meetings and in the gym that went into making a fight that lasted less than three rounds.
“I felt that this fight, in particular, deserved some coverage instead of just being part of a bigger story,” said Stradley, who also had his concerns that all the stories about the fight had already been told.
“I really thought, had people read enough about these guys?” he said. “But one of my goals was to sort of make people forget the whole Four Kings idea. I never liked the whole concept of the Four Kings because I thought each guy deserved his own credit. I never liked the idea that any time you mentioned Leonard, you had to mention the other guys. And every time you mentioned Hearns, you had to mention these other guys. That always kind of irritated me. And also, in the ’80s, nobody referred to them as the Four Kings. They were just the fighters that were the top names.”
Those four top names were elevated to royalty because of what they did in that magical decade. Hagler and Hearns in particular combined for a fight that will never be forgotten, with Hagler emerging victorious via third-round TKO using a hellacious attack that wasn’t prompted by a bad cut on his forehead, but a calculated plan modeled on the style of Joe Frazier.
“I had always bought into the cliché that was very popular, that the bell rang and Hagler lost his mind,” Stradley laughed. “That was what everybody wanted to think, or they wanted to think that it was all motivated by hate – that he hated Hearns so much after the press tour that he lost his mind. And no, he did that on purpose, he had trained that way to come out fast and keep Hearns moving backwards.”
It worked, even though Hagler had to walk through blood and Hearns’ right hand to get there. It was such a beautiful display of fighting that some wondered if it was a blessing or a curse that we never saw a rematch. The man who chronicled “The War” has his opinion.
“I think a rematch would have been anticlimactic, and a couple people say that in the book,” said Stradley. “The ironic thing is, I think Hearns had a chance to win a rematch if they did do it again, and I may be in the minority there. I think a lot of people think Hagler would have just killed him again, but I think if Tommy was a little bigger naturally, as he was in the next couple of years, he may have been a little more durable. Hagler would have just been a couple of years older, and you could see Hagler was fading just slightly. So I think Hearns had a good chance to win a rematch, but I don’t know if that would have made anyone happy outside of Detroit. So it was good as it was, one and done.”