There’s a generation of people who became boxing fans because of the Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns fight in 1985 — an eight-minute slugfest won by Hagler in a third-round knockout. Thirty-six years later, many recognize it as the greatest fight ever.
Hagler died in March after suffering a heart attack at home, and Sunday marked what would have been his 67th birthday. It provided an opportunity for a group of family, friends, fellow fighters and supporters to gather at the Rocky Marciano Stadium in Brockton, Massachusetts, to celebrate his life on Marvelous Marvin Hagler Day. It also allows us to recognize his legacy.
Hearns was present at the event, along with former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and boxing writer Ron Borges.
“I want to welcome you to the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts,” said Mayor Robert Sullivan in front of about 1,000 attendees, including Mae Lang, Hagler’s mother, who helped organized the event.
“There’s something very, very special about Marvin Hagler,” said Smith. “I grew up watching boxing. Basketball was my first love, boxing was my second. And to see the multitude of great fighters in this beautiful sport that we know as boxing, I consider Marvin Hagler to be one of the greatest fighters that we’ve ever seen. But the reason I had so much admiration for him, and I’d always maintained that level of admiration is because whatever he brought to the ring, 12 consecutive title defenses, dominating the sport from ’80 to ’87 and being a guy that was fighter of the year and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, whatever you want to say about him as a fighter, think about what he represented as a champion.”
Hopkins, who came into boxing just four months after Hagler retired, believes that wasn’t a coincidence.
“That has a connection to me, because in 1987, 1986, going back to ’85, I was in the State Correctional Institution Graterford, and I cut out pictures of Marvin Hagler. I still have that scrapbook,” said an emotional Hopkins. “I studied this man, this inspiration to me, it gave me hope.
“There will never be another Marvin Hagler, we know that, but there are seeds out here that are representing Marvin and you’re looking at one right now. Marvin Hagler physically is gone but because of him, you had me. But you have not only me as a person you have a strong fighter, ready to fight anytime, anywhere. That was Marvin Hagler, he never shied away from anyone.”
Hall of Fame boxing trainer and analyst Teddy Atlas described Hagler as “one of the greatest middleweights ever and one of the greatest southpaws of all time.” That much is clear with a look at his résumé — Hagler was the undisputed middleweight champion from 1980 to 1987, winning 11 straight fights, including 10 by knockout. Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and John Mugabi were among the unsuccessful challengers during that stretch.
ESPN spoke with friends and family who knew Hagler as a man and a fighter, in hopes of sharing a glimpse of the impact he left on boxing and the world. Here are their memories:
Marvin the man
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in a single-mother household, Hagler was drawn to boxing at an early age. Initially, his mother thought he would try to be a comedian or actor because he was funny and liked to dance. But Hagler wanted to box.
Those who know Hagler best stress that even though boxing was what made him famous, it didn’t tell the full picture of who he was as a man. Hagler was prideful, strong in his convictions, and whether he was in the ring or out, Hagler was known to fight for what he believed in. He traveled, learned Italian and was even cast in some action movies after he retired.
Mae Lang: From a little boy, his idol was Floyd Patterson. From 10 years old, he said I’m going to be like him. He told me, I’m going to be rich one day for you just like him, too. He proved it. Not the rich part, but he proved he could be just like him. We did a tribute to Marvin’s life in the late ’70s, early ’80s before he beat Alan Minter to become champion, and flew Patterson in. Marvin told Floyd how much he meant to him growing up and how it kept him out of a lot of trouble because he wanted to be like him.
Al Bernstein: Marvin was ingratiating. People might look at him and Ray Leonard side-by-side and say Leonard’s the charming one. But not so fast, Marvin Hagler was very charming. He was an everyday man. He’s the kind of person who can talk to literally anyone no matter how high or low they are in terms of power. There was an elegance about Marvin Hagler that I don’t think everybody got to see. I thought it was pretty cool. It was not part of his persona as a fighter or when he did interviews, but it existed in his life for sure.
Bob Arum, Hagler’s longtime promoter: Marvin was the most loyal, dedicated fighter I’ve ever promoted. If you asked me for one word to describe him, it would be loyalty. That was to me, my company and the people around him like the Petronelli brothers [his managers, Pasquale and Guerino].
Teddy Atlas: What do you want in a friend? You want somebody who is reliable. You want somebody who is dependable. You want somebody when you call at 3 in the morning, they don’t ask, “Why did you wake me up?” You want somebody who will be there in 10 minutes. You want somebody who will always be there. That was Marvin Hagler. He was a solid, steady man and friend. That’s what matters in life. That’s what I recognize most of all.
Lang: Marvin loved people. He did a bunch for people, but he didn’t talk about it much. He was private. He was big on people getting their education, so he was hoping to push his Marvin Hagler Massasoit Community College scholarship in Brockton for 15 years [two years’ tuition/fees upward of $14,000 each]. There’s so many people who got help or went to school because of him. He said you can’t get ahead of education. He went back to school too. I did too. Maybe my favorite thing about it is he never got big headed.
Hagler vs. Hearns
If there’s one fight that defines Hagler, it’s certainly his April 1985 bout with Hearns at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for the undisputed middleweight championship. Hearns was longer, taller and perceived to be the more powerful fighter, but Hagler was the big, bad boxer that night.
The bout lasted only eight minutes and one second before an aggressive Hagler landed an overhand right that severely hurt a shaky-legged Hearns. He followed with a few hooks that sent Hearns to the canvas. Hearns was clearly dazed and unfit as he got to his feet, so referee Richard Steele called a stop to the bout. Hagler remained the undisputed middleweight champion.
Arum: Hagler-Hearns was the best fight I’ve ever seen, bar none. I had the crazy idea to do a tour of the U.S. for two weeks — 23 cities, two or three press conferences a day, they got on each other’s nerves. Marvin’s psyche before the fight was to always dislike his opponent and make his opponent the enemy. Tommy Hearns was the greatest guy in the world and he said something pretty innocuous. Then Marvin jumped over the table and went after it. The hate between the two came because of the closeness, and it wasn’t about boxing. It was about beating the s— out of [Hearns].
Larry Merchant, former HBO boxing analyst: What’s interesting to me is when [Hagler] stood in his corner before the first bell, he began to pound his chest in a way that I have never seen before. It was a signal that he was going to war and that he could outpunch the puncher, which was not his style. He went to war with one of the most dangerous punchers in Hearns. The first minute of the fight Hearns hit Hagler with the hardest punch he had and he didn’t move. I knew that fight was going to be over soon after that.
For some reason [Hagler] had been shortchanged by the media, crowds, judges, and he had to do it the hard way. The casual fan was looking for lightning, explosion, and that wasn’t Marvin’s thing. But it was clear that people accepted him for being Marvelous after his win over Hearns. He made them pay attention at Hagler-Hearns.
Bernstein: Everything you need to know about Hagler was encapsulated in Round 1 of the Hearns fight. Hearns hit him with a really good right hand with as much as he had and Hagler walked through it. He had to get through the terrible cut [over his right eye] and persevere through that adversity. Lesser men would have failed. He was extremely vulnerable in that fight multiple times and he got through it. To me, that’s the true measure of Hagler.
Jimmy Resnick, fight supervisor for Hagler-Hearns: I walked into Hagler’s locker room right after the fight. The dressing rooms were in trailers. Hagler was getting his cut tended to when Hearns walked in. We all looked at him eyes wide because we had never seen that before. He goes up to Hagler and says, “Did you get your wire?” Hagler says yes, I got my money. Then they hugged each other.
Atlas: The day of the fight, Marvin had a hat on that said WAR. He was a blue-collar guy with blue-collar virtues. He came to do work everyday. He never wore anything flashy and was never very extravagant in promotion of fights. But I saw him with the WAR hat and for him that was as much of a statement as he could make. Then after the fight, I realized he wasn’t kidding.
The Four Kings
Hagler was part of a quartet of middleweights — including Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran — who represented arguably the last great era in boxing. What made this era so special is they all fought each other. This group combined for nine fights and each fighter won and lost without worrying about protecting the “zero” in the loss column.
All four fighters had different personalities, but Hagler had to prove more than any of them to show that he belonged. He came up fighting in Philadelphia against a tough group of fighters, while Leonard and Hearns were virtually stars from the moment they finished up in the amateurs.
Hagler’s legacy can’t be written without Hearns, but it also can’t be written without making his status in the Four Kings era clear.
Merchant: Marvin came in at a time in boxing when Muhammad Ali used his showmanship and TV to keep himself in a public spotlight. When Leonard came along, he had a certain look, style, personality and the fighting style that communicated to the boxing community. He was what they had known as a star. Hearns was a brilliant knockout artist with his own stature as the comeback of Detroit fighters. And Marvin resented the fact that these fighters didn’t have to prove themselves in the ring as he had, that there was something about these fighters that caught the public eye. There were no frills about Marvin. He came up the hard way in Philadelphia. The reason he changed his name legally was to counteract that.
Arum: I did seven of the nine fights of the Four Kings era. These were absolutely great fighters — all four of them — and great human beings. Ray had the great charm. Tommy was a Detroit guy who really relied on his knockout power. Duran was a street urchin, never grew up, worked hard, but you had to kill him to beat him. Marvin was the steady rock of Gibraltar. He was always prepared and virtually always consistent.
Bernstein: Marvin was a man that we needed more of in boxing. He was a stabilizing champion — always ready, always wanting the big fights, always showed up. Of course he defined a generation with the other four kings. But he was a man who was underappreciated by the sport he served. Sometimes by the fans, sometimes by the hierarchy of boxing, and frequently by the boxing judges. He never felt like the home guy, the guy who got the edge. He didn’t fret about it, he just said, “I have to right those wrongs with my fists.”
Atlas: He didn’t answer to nobody. He answered to himself. He didn’t make deals. He didn’t try to be someone he wasn’t. He was true to himself. At the end of his career, when he felt like he was done wrong, he just retired.
It bothered Hagler that boxing announcers, reporters and TV graphics writers wouldn’t consistently put “Marvelous” in front of his name, so in 1982 he decided to legally have his name changed to Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
“He came back and said, ‘I didn’t change my name, I just added to it,'” Lang said.
It was a sign of Hagler being a man of principle and consistency. He fought his whole career at the same weight class — middleweight — and never shifted away from his managers, promoter or trainers. He approached everything the same way, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of Marvelous memories.
Arum: When we were talking about doing the Leonard fight, he wanted to retire. We did the John Mugabi fight, and he wanted to retire. He had a lot of money. He was frugal. He was done. But me, Pat Petronelli and my wife drove to Massachusetts overnight. Pat went to go talk to him. Marvin was banging his hand down on the table outside the house. Five, 10 minutes later, the conversation was over. I told him, if he did the Leonard fight, Goody [Petronelli] and I would take half of what we normally get. They were normally getting one-third of his purse combined. He said, “I don’t know if I’m going to fight this p—y, but if I fight him, you’re going to take the full amount and not a cent less.”
Merchant: Marvin has never got full credit for his importance in the early stages of HBO boxing. He got a three-fight contract for about $1 million total. And HBO rode him and found an audience for boxing when the networks had simmered down to a near-halt. Marvin carried the early parts of what we were doing and in a sense blazed a trail. He was very important in the start of HBO boxing.
Atlas: For all his greatness, he was a sensitive, gracious man. I remember he was [at the ESPN headquarters] in Bristol. We brought him in as a guest. Then they brought us live on location and the first thing he did with that big smile was saying, “I love you too, Teddy.” He had all the accolades in the world and he still appreciated that someone appreciated him for what he was. He was a prideful, gracious, sensitive, decent man — the complete contrast of how vicious and tough he was as a [fighter].
Lang: He came to visit me in the hospital and he took his WBC replica bracelet off and tried to give it to me. He said he wanted me to have it and he put it on my arm. He said you’re as strong as I am. He said, “Goodbye Ma,” and kissed me on my forehead. Then a week later he had the heart attack. I felt like he knew it was time. Even though he’s gone, he’s not really gone. He’ll live on through other people. That makes me so proud.