Golden ages – a subjective delusion; a cloying soup of over-cooked nostalgia seasoned with a strong sense that today…well, today things aren’t just not the same, they’re a whole lot worse.
Sport moves on relentlessly, gets quicker, more knowing and ruthless. Talent pools increase, records tumble and old heroes have their day placed in harsher contexts. They were good, great even. But only for their time, not for all-time.
And yet in one sport at least, things haven’t moved on at all.
Boxing really isn’t what it was, marred and scarred by joke belts from tin-pot organisations, health lobbies, fractured TV deals and the welter of alternatives available for desperately ambitious men and women with physical prowess their only social advantage.
So there was a golden age in boxing, a time when everything aligned – popularity, notoriety, ability. More precisely, there was a golden age in middleweight boxing.
The 1980s. Leonard, Duran, Hearns and Hagler. A fantastic four. The fantastic four. Golden boys.
Everyone loved Sugar Ray: the media; the public and, as it turned out, the judges. He was the razor sharp pretty boy as quick and smart outside the ring as in it.
Thomas ‘The Hit Man’ Hearns was Box Office, the gangly player who went up and down the divisions to knock out all-comers.
Roberto Duran was the immovable object, Hands of Stone, granite chin.
And Marvin Hagler? The runt of the litter. Bad boy brawler, unheralded and unloved, feared not revered.
They all fought each other and Sugar Ray beat them all. But then the judges loved him, especially when Hagler was his opponent.
Their fight, in 1987, marked the end of that golden age.
And it did so in a way only boxing manages – beautifully, brutally and bloodied by controversy.
Leonard won a split decision. He confounded Hagler with his speed, eye-catching flurries of punches and ring craft. Or Hagler stalked him for round after round, worked on the front foot, threw the most punches and was robbed.
Either way, it was a gloriously unsatisfying climax to a great era and a fitting last fight for Hagler.
This was a man, after all, who felt he should have been lauded but was perpetually cast as the pantomime villain – and it hurt him.
So desperate (or angry, or contemptuous) was he to the perceived slights and the lack of respect he endured that he even changed his name by deed poll.
More precisely, ABC refused to introduce him as ‘Marvelous Marvin’ before one fight: “If he wants to be called Marvelous Marvin at ABC, tell him to go to court and have his name changed,” was how ABC Sports executive producer Alex Wallau put it.
So that’s exactly what ‘Marvelous’ did.
By then, Hagler was already marked as the wrong ‘un.
For British fans, his three-round demolition of their boy, the WBA/WBC world middleweight champion Alan Minter, was unforgivable.
Minter was destroyed, his face cut inside two minutes, cut to ribbons after seven, in a war considerably briefer than the one waged with words pre-fight.
Accusations of racism flew back and forth between them as the standard promotional trash talk turned nasty.
The beating Hagler then dished out was nastier still, as was the reaction of the over-heated Wembley Arena crowd. They rioted, showering the ring with bottles, cans and crates. Hagler was ushered from the venue to find the windscreen of the car he had arrived in had been smashed.
His brilliance on the night – and the world titles it brought him – was totally upstaged.
Hagler fared little better when he beat Duran.
The first five rounds were close, the next five all Hagler. Duran rallied, Hagler survived and finished in style. The decision was unanimous, and rightly so, in Hagler’s favour and yet it was Duran who came out of it all with his reputation enhanced.
“Marvelous Marvin Hagler proved to be the better middleweight, but Roberto Duran was the greater fighter,” was how HBO’s Larry Merchant called it as America threw off its hard-wired disdain for the plucky loser and lauded Duran over his conqueror.
By then, Hagler must have known that he would never win hearts and minds.
History, fortunately, has a way of winning people over through sheer force of numbers:
* 12 straight world title defences
* A record of 13-1-1 (12 KOs) in world title fights
* 7-1-1 (6 KOs) against former world champions
* A career record 62-3-2 (52 Kos) during which he hit the canvas just the once (and insisted it was a slip)
And history will forever mark his finest hour – the three-round thriller with Tommy Hearns.
The hype was unbelievable, the pay-off beyond all expectation.
The pair came out fighting and just didn’t stop. Hearns had forged an entire career on the destructive power in his right hand.
Hitting Hagler, he broke a finger of that fabled fist only to discover that Marvelous Marvin was merely stung but not subdued.
Hagler was a counter-puncher at heart, accurate, obdurate and strong. Against Hearns, he came out swinging. His recklessness cost him – Hearns cut him severely and at the start of the third round, the referee took Hagler into a neutral corner for the doctor to examine him.
The fight went on, but Hagler knew his time was borrowed. His response was to smash a chopping right to the temple of his opponent. Hearns staggered, turned his back on the action. When he looked round again, Hagler was already on him. Two punches later and the fight was over, Hearns hauled up on Bambi legs after being counted out.
Hagler retired after the Sugar Ray loss. He moved to Italy and became, of all things, an action hero in the movies. It took a whole new career on a whole new continent for Marvin to finally grab the limelight and love all for himself.
Forget sweet, sweet Sugar or the Hit Man, the golden boy was Marvin Hagler.
He was rarely pretty, barely popular but truly Marvelous, and his legend will grow as the golden age recedes ever further into legend.
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