At the annual Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, New York, a few years ago, it seemed like “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler had graduated from cold to civil — maybe even friendly.
He sat at a table with his rival, Sugar Ray Leonard, and made small talk. There had been a time where he wouldn’t even be in the same room with Leonard.
Maybe Hagler had gotten past the bitterness of what happened in the 20-foot ring in Las Vegas the night of April 6, 1987, when he stood within punching distance of beating Leonard but came up short, losing a majority decision that became one of the most disputed results in boxing history.
“I went up to the Hall of Fame with Ray,” said J.D. Brown, Leonard’s friend and advisor. “He was cordial to Ray, spoke to me, shook hands and let bygones be bygones.”
This was a big step. Hagler had nursed a grudge for decades over the outcome of the fight — a fight that Brown had helped Leonard prepare for by wearing a disguise at Hagler’s training sessions and taking notes. There is a photo of Brown in his disguise with his arm around Hagler, who was taking pictures with fans after a training session.
“I saw Hagler in Atlantic City after that,” Brown said. “He was so mad he was ready to punch me in the mouth, and never spoke to me.”
Hagler and Leonard spoke in Canastota, though, and Leonard had a proposition for Hagler — a “Four Kings” tour around the country with him, Hagler, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns. A Hall of Fame foursome that defined boxing in the 1980s and who forever seemed linked together.
It seemed like a great idea to celebrate that era and each of those “kings” — Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Hagler.
It was too much for Hagler to stomach.
“Hagler wasn’t having that,” Brown said. “Hearns and Duran, they were all in for it. But not Hagler.”
The loss in 1987 ate at Hagler, even though, when you think about it, it did nothing to diminish his status or stature in boxing history. Half of the boxing world remains convinced Hagler won the Leonard fight. And a win would have meant what — that he beat a former welterweight champion who had not fought for 3½ years? That wouldn’t have even been icing on the cake of Hagler’s illustrious career as arguably the greatest middleweight champion in boxing history — a 62-3-2 record, with 52 knockouts.
YouTube has likely been under siege since the news of Hagler’s death, with repeated viewings of what may be the three greatest championship rounds ever — Hagler’s three-round war with Hearns on April 15, 1985. That fight was the consummate display of Hagler’s determination and capacity for destruction in the ring.
His workmanlike 14-year professional career began in 1973. He fought on undercards in Boston and Philadelphia with the goal of becoming a champion. He fought to a disputed draw with champion Vito Antuofermo in 1979 and then defeated champion Alan Minter a year later, stopping him in three rounds in front of Minter’s countrymen at Wembley Stadium.
He successfully defended his championship 12 times before his loss to Leonard — a career-ending loss, as it turned out, as Hagler walked away from boxing in disgust and wound up with a second life as a movie star in Italy.
Hagler may not have been able to get himself to go along with a “Four Kings” tour, but he will be forever linked to those fighters — his stunning knockout of Hearns, his close decision win over Duran (which led to the Leonard fight when Duran told Leonard that he could beat Hagler) and, yes, even the loss to Leonard.
The fights with each other helped give each of the four a legacy that sets them apart from fighters who lacked true rivals.
Great fighters are judged by great fights with great fighters. It is why 50 years later, Muhammad Ali’s fight with Joe Frazier was still celebrated last week.
It is why Marvelous Marvin Hagler is being mourned — the death of one of the kings of the ring.
Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.