A conversation with the Marvelous One
By Anthony Evans: With his intimidating stare, body seemingly composed of twisted steel and head shaved to a black bullet finish Marvelous Marvin Hagler was a terror in the ring. Today, nearing age 50, the former Undisputed Middleweight Champion and Hall of Famer is a contented ambassador for the sport.
Even though he is still very much involved with the sport through autograph sessions and various work such as TV punditry, Marvelous Marvin Hagler still misses the ring.
"I still train every day," he began. "But I have to stay out of boxing gyms. I know if I get near that smell, that sweat, that dirty stink of a boxing gymnasium I’ll want to get back into it. I’m happy to do road work and jump rope and other exercises - but I don’t trust myself to visit gyms or hit the bags."
However, the 80s icon is still keenly interested in the fight game, especially his old division, which was unified in 2001 for the first time since Hagler’s era by Bernard Hopkins. Some believed the wins over WBC champ Keith Holmes and WBA title-holder Felix Trinidad confirmed Hopkins’s greatness, however, the Philadelphian warrior has yet to convince the last great middleweight.
While Hagler is modest enough not to separate himself from 160lbs legends like Carlos Monzon and Sugar Ray Robinson, he does make a distinction between himself and the current pretender. Hagler believes Hopkins isn’t in that class.
At least, not yet; as the icon explained to SecondsOut: "What you have to understand is that I was the undisputed champion throughout my career as middleweight champion while Hopkins was only the WBC champion until quite recently (2001) in his career. So I don’t understand how he claims to have beaten my record (12 successful defences) and Carlos Monzon’s record (14 successful defences) for the most defences of the middleweight title."
Hagler continued: "I defended my title as undisputed champion 13 times (including controversial loss to Ray Leonard), now, for Bernard Hopkins to break any records he has to defend his undisputed middleweight title 13, 14, 15 times. But he hasn’t done that - for years and years he was just the champion of one organisation. He also hasn’t fought the level of opponents I did in my era."
Yet the icon then added: "I’m not taking anything away from Hopkins, he’s a terrific fighter. He had to claw his way up the rankings and he’s brought excitement back to my old division. I’m very happy for him. He represents the line of great fighters in the middleweight division very well and he has achieved a lot. But, for me, Carlos Monzon’s record for the most middleweight title defences stands and after that my record of title defences stands."
Boxing has never been a sport for statistics, and even the most straightforward of comparisons are dangerous. Monzon, like Hopkins, also defended something less than the unified world middleweight title from 1974 to 1976 when the WBC withdrew recognition of the Argentinean and so there is a case for picking Hagler as the most successful 160lbs champion of all time.
Naturally, the Marvelous One liked the sound of that and joked: "Of course, if I was allowed to become champion when I should have become champion (Hagler was jobbed out in a so-called draw against Vito Antuofermo in 1979) then I believe I would have set a record for title defences that would have stood for a long time!"
The Newark, New Jersey born legend also pointed out that he would have been within striking distance of Monzon’s record if he’d have been given the decision against Leonard. Hagler’s contentious 12 round points defeat to nemesis Leonard has divided two generations of fight fans and - without a trace of weariness for what must be an almost daily subject of discussion - the former Undisputed Middleweight Champion was very open about his feelings towards his old nemesis.
"As a fighter, I respect him very much, very much. But as a man, I don’t really respect him, not as a person. He ran like a rabbit all night and tried to steal the fight by using a few flashy tricks here and there rather than winning the three minutes of each round, which I feel I did.
"There’s no question in my mind that I won that fight - there’s never been any question in my mind that I won that fight. That’s how I feel. Recently during a HBO programme he basically admitted he lost that fight, which was good of him, but he never wanted anything to do with me after the quiet beating I gave him. Anyway, many, many fans believe I won the fight with Ray and - if anything - the majority of people out there think I won it and that is something important. So I let all that go - that was yesterday. I’m happy with my achievements in life."
After the controversial Las Vegas decision, Hagler gave the Sugarman a one-year deadline to agree to the rematch but Leonard insisted the bout was a one-off and he had retired forever. As good as his word, the Marvelous One - who had no interest in any other opponent - quit the sport (although Sugar Ray was back in the ring the following year and, in fact, had his final bout in 1997 v Hector Camacho Senior).
Now aged 50, Hagler believes everything worked out for the best.
He said: "Now, years later, I realise losing that controversial decision could have been one of the best things to happen to me. If I’d have been given the decision I would almost certainly have continued boxing and (chased) Carlos Monzon’s record (the most defences of the middleweight title). That would have taken another year and I would have kept going after my prime, and that would have been sad because after 65 fights and 14 years as a professional it was time to bow out; and a lot of times that ’one last fight’ is a huge mistake.
"So, in some ways, I am thankful I lost the decision to Ray Leonard in Las Vegas."
Hagler still trains every day and - his head still shaved to a bullet shine - looks at least a decade younger than his 50 years. Now living in Italy with his wife, the legendary fight figure is breaking into acting, with four films already to his credit. It is difficult, Hagler said of his second career.
"It is a lot like boxing, you have to train, put your heart and soul into it. You can’t fake a lack of preparation - you will be found out just like in the ring. But it is also like boxing in the sense you just need a big shot - landing a big role is like landing a title shot - it changes your career overnight. Until then you sit and wait. But acting is a new challenge, right now I’m doing six rounds and I’m hoping to move up to eight, ten and then championship roles. Of course, no-one hits you went you make mistakes in acting!
Content and wealthy, Hagler is a boxing success story. Some estimate he earned around $20million as a fighter and, 16 years after his final bout, he continues to make a very comfortable income just by being Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The night before this interview (conducted in April of 2003), he had completed an after-dinner speaking tour of Great Britain, which sold-out halls all over the country.
Mainly, people want to know about my fights with Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns, Hagler said of the fans he meets at these events. Of course, I enjoy talking about the Hearns fight because I won! No, really, I’m very proud of the fact so many fans (regard) that fight as the best of all time. There’s been a lot of fights over the years, and for so many people to rate one of your fights as probably the very best, well, thank you.
The April 15, 1984 war was the pinnacle of the Marvelous One’s career. "I have to say that was my favourite fight and not just because of the excitement, but also the fact I overcame a cut, poor refereeing (Richard Steele seemed to separate the two a little too often) and I took the best Tommy Hears could throw at me. I was so (worked up) for that fight I felt like a monster - I wanted him to get up so badly so I could knock him down again. The way I felt I would have beaten an army that night. Whenever I watch the tape of that fight I still get chills which remind me of the way I felt that night."
"The promoters called that fight ’War’ and I went in there with that mentality. I wanted to win that fight desperately because I knew that victory would show the world, forever, that I was the best out there."
Somewhat surprisingly, the Marvelous One also ranks his defeat of Syrian Mustafa Hamsho alongside his greatest ever victories - purely because of the location of the bout.
He explained: "Fighting at Madison Square Garden (w rsf 3 October 1984) was another highlight. The Garden is the most beautiful building in the world, and I remember watching Ali v Frazier there and wondering whether I’d ever get to fight there. Just by fighting there you are somebody, it is very special to headline there. Just the other day someone told me his son had been to the Garden and saw my picture (MSG hangs pictures of all the luminaries to grace within its halls) there, which is a great honour."
Just then a nervous looking waiter approaches for an autograph saying, "I know I shouldn’t do this, Mr Hagler, but I’m a huge fan..."
The ex-fighter gives him a Don King sized welcome, pulls out several picture cards and signs them to the waiter, the waiter’s son and the waiter’s nephew. The Champion told me he signs dozens of autographs each day, at the shopping mall, in restaurants, all over. I wondered whether it ever became intrusive, being a sporting celebrity 24-7.
He said no. "It is an everyday job, signing autographs and meeting people. I believe it is my asset in life that I enjoy meeting people so, no, I never get tired of talking with people. Even people who can’t speak the same languages as me (English and Italian) still want to talk to me. Guys from all over come up to me in airports all the time and say: Hagler, Hagler, you - you - Hearns wow! (laughs) From the second I leave the house to the second I get in at night I’m always speaking with people who want to know about my fights. It is such an honor to still be able to excite people by something you did in the 1980s.
"The one thing that does bother me is merchandise that I have never agreed to be made, and that I don’t get any money from. There are all sorts of things out there with my image that I never had any say on, and some of them are so poorly made I’d never have given them permission to be made. It is not right that people can make money off fighters like that - we were the ones who gave up years of our lives to give our families a future. If you want to make a Marvelous Marvin product - great - but I want to be involved in it."
Any regrets? "No, even the fact that Ray never gave me the rematch doesn’t matter anymore. I’m happy with the opportunities I had, the titles I won, I’m happy with my life and the way I think I’ll be remembered."
Visit Hagler’s official site at http://marvelousmarvin.com