Leonard-Hagler resonates 25 years later

It was just before 8 p.m. on April 6, 1987, when Sugar Ray Leonard started his walk to the outdoor ring at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to face his moment of truth against Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

As far as most observers were concerned, he might as well have been walking to the gallows. With Leonard having fought just once in five years and undergone eye surgery, logic dictated it was a fight he couldn't win.

That assumption might have been safe had it been anyone other than Leonard in the fight. Little more than an hour later, one of the most remarkable comebacks in boxing history had been executed, rather than, as feared, Leonard himself.

Leonard alternately danced and fought his way to a disputed 12-round split decision, capturing the middleweight championship and a place among the all-time greats.

Hagler already had his, but it no longer mattered. In his eyes, he had been robbed of the title by his polar opposite, a media darling who had been propelled to stardom on the back of Olympic glory while Hagler toiled for every morsel of recognition that came his way.

Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the fight that defined the sport's last golden era and the careers of both men.

Leonard carried on for another 10 years, but he never reached the same heights again, eventually bowing out at 40 years old. For Hagler, losing to Leonard was too much to bear. Hurt and disillusioned, he never fought again, retiring just over a year later.

Two years earlier, in April 1985, Hagler had prevailed in a three-round war with common rival Thomas Hearns in one of the most sensational bouts of the modern era. Despite its dramatic outcome, the Leonard fight never caught light in the same way, even though the frenzied prefight buildup had surpassed almost anything that had come before it.

"The event was built up to be gigantic, but I don't think the fight lived up to its expectations," said Richard Steele, who refereed the bout, as well as Hagler-Hearns. "There wasn't enough action."

That was because Leonard, the naturally smaller man, kept the fight at distance. He moved around and was rarely still long enough for Hagler to inflict any real damage. Every so often, Leonard stopped, planted his feet and engulfed Hagler with a flashy burst, catching the judges' eyes while the champion struggled to impose himself.

Hagler, a natural southpaw, mysteriously started from an orthodox stance and tried to outbox Leonard in the first four rounds. But Hagler fell behind on the scorecards and, despite coming on in the later stages, never seemed to look to get Leonard out of the fight.

"It was not what the crowd expected," said Steele, now a 68-year-old coach in North Las Vegas. "Hagler was trying to box.

"Instead of doing it the way that had got him there and using the style that gave him his reputation, he tried something new. That kinda messed it up.

"It was a close fight, but Leonard won. As I've stated on TV many times, and as I look at the fight [again], it gets closer and closer. But I gave it to Leonard. He did more than Hagler."

Two judges went opposite ways, with scores of 115-113, while the third, JoJo Guerra, had it an impossibly wide 118-110 for Leonard, giving Hagler only two of the 12 rounds. In a poll of U.S. newspaper reporters at ringside, six went for Leonard, four for Hagler and three scored the fight a draw.

"I thought Hagler would knock him out," Steele admitted. "Every time the bell rang [to end the rounds], I said to myself, 'I guess he's gonna do it the next round.' But the next round never happened. Leonard had him mesmerized. By the time he did turn [more aggressive] and he came [back] to himself, it was too late."

The bout was watched by a crowd of 15,336, with 12,379 paying customers generating a live gate of $6.2 million. Millions more watched on closed circuit, with Hagler earning $12 million and Leonard $11 million, according to figures supplied by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Veteran HBO analyst Larry Merchant, who worked on the U.S. closed-circuit broadcast, said the bout was "one of the signature fights of its time," referring to the 1980s, when Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Panamanian Roberto Duran all fought each other at least once in a seemingly endless series of classic fights.

"Hagler and Leonard, in the way it came to be and the way it was fought, was the climax of that amazing round robin of fights," Merchant said.

"The pressure on Hagler leading up to the fight is fascinating to me, largely because Hagler was so consumed by part confusion, part jealousy of Leonard, who was the much more popular fighter. It seemed that Hagler was always fighting the shadow of Leonard.

"Leonard had been the successor to [Muhammad] Ali, the best and most famous fighter on the planet. Hagler had often spoken about how he wanted to show that he was as much an artist in the ring as Leonard.

"He decided to outbox and outfox the boxer. He came out in the first few rounds fighting conventional, and it ended up probably costing him the fight."

A rematch might have been even more lucrative for both boxers, but it failed to materialize and Hagler walked away for good, signaling the end of one of the sport's greatest rivalries.