The Anti-Hero We Needed – Rest In Peace Marvin Hagler

This past Saturday, seemingly out of nowhere, news of Marvin Hagler’s death broke. As stoically, as Hagler spoke, using his words like his punch, making each one count, so was news of his passing, in a brief statement made on a fan page, that explained in closing that the family wanted privacy.

So why did Hagler mean so much to so many?

To unpack that we have to start with the fact that Hagler personified toughness. Hagler looked like the meanest boot camp instructor, one who had a heart of gold, but the intensions to take you to limits you didn’t know you could go to. Someone who if boxing was a team sport would be a first-round draft pick, and you’d hate to play against.

A decorated boxer, Hagler, from the blue-collar suburb of Boston, Brockton, Mass., embodied everything you could ever want from a working-class fighter. Hard-nosed, unapologetic, a fighter who the politics, seemingly never favored, and yet still emerged dignified.

Hagler amassed a 54 fight amateur career per Sports Illustrated, which listed his record as 52-2 with 43 KOs.

Hagler spent most of his early career in the Boston area, building up a professional record of 45-2-1, before being granted a world title shot against Vito Antuofermo, for Antuoferno’s WBA and WBC undisputed middleweight world title. The fight would forever change Hagler, as despite winning the fight to most people’s perceptions, the bout was ruled a draw, as Hagler, entered each fight after that with the intentions of stopping every opponent from that point onward.

Hagler would win his first world title against Alan Minter in a fight that became racially charged prior when Minter said he “…did not intend to lose his title to a black man“. Hagler stopped Minter in three rounds as the bout was stopped due to cuts and damage Minter had sustained, and Hagler’s first world title win was cut short, by UK fans rioting at the Wembly Arena, ruining Hagler’s long-awaited celebration inside the ring.

The majority of Hagler’s career was as follows, being avoided and not getting the respect he deserved.

Hagler was a loner, with Goody & Pat Petronelli, serving as his trainers and managers, holding training camps in the remote Provincetown, Mass.

Hagler would bring his belts back to the U.S., and defend them in Boston, serving as the cities fifth sports team in a way, alongside the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots. Hagler would also avenge his draw to Vito Antuofermo in his second Boston fight, stopping him in five rounds.

In 1982, Hagler changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, in response to ABC refusing to call him “Marvelous” on the telecast against Caveman Lee, a bout he won by way of first-round knockout. It was even rumored that ABC executive said that Hagler would have to go to court and get his name changed if he wanted to be called that, and in Hagler fashion, that’s what he did.

Hagler had to wait for nearly 50 fights to get a world title and that speaks to the fact that not unlike fellow great Bernard Hopkins, he had to rely upon mandatories from sanctioning bodies to get his opportunities and beyond, mandatory title defenses are what kept him on television and relevant as it took three years and seven world title defenses, all by knockout, before Hagler would get his first marquee bout against Roberto Duran.

Roberto Duran, a bonafide hall-of-famer, took Hagler to the fifteen-round limit, as Hagler, picked up a close unanimous decision win over Duran, as Duran ended Hagler’s seven-fight knockout streak.

Hagler would be down in his very next fight against Juan Domingo Roldan in the first round, a knockdown Hagler insisted was a slip until the end of time. Whether it was or it wasn’t was meaningless, as Hagler would win via a tenth-round technical knockout anyway.

Hagler’s marquee moment came when he faced Thomas “The Motor City Cobra” Hearns, who at that time was renamed as “The Hitman”, fighting out of Emmanuel Stewart’s Kronk Gym in Detroit, Michigan. Hearns’ lone loss was to the U.S. Gold Medal Olympian “Sugar” Ray Leonard, in a fight Hearns was winning until the point Leonard stopped him in the fourteenth-round of the fight.

“That’s what I feel – War, that’s what is on my mind,” said Marvin Hagler in this pre-fight build-up clip dawning a red cap that read “war” as well.

The bout was one of the best fights ever, and that is no lie, or boxing writer speak. Hagler came out aggressive and went toe-to-toe with one of the best punchers the sport has ever seen, as Hearns’ had a whip-like right-hand that when it landed probably felt about as good as getting shot by a gun, and Hagler went straight after him. If you never watched boxing, and you watch Hagler versus Hearns, you can’t help, but watch. It has the brutality of war, and the beauty of poetry, all in the same breathe.

In the end, Hagler stopped Hearns in the third round, the first round might be the best round of boxing ever seen, and now after beating Duran and Hearns, Hagler had gone from an unrecognized champion to one of the most well-respected fighters, based upon his performances.

Hagler followed that win up by defending all three of his world titles in the middleweight division against 25-0 undefeated big puncher John “The Beast” Mugabi. Mugabi was ranked #1 by all three of the major sanctioning bodies, and Hagler gladly faced and stopped him in the eleventh. This personified Marvin Hagler. Fight the emerging boogeyman of the division, and stop him.

Hagler had one last foil – “Sugar” Ray Leonard, a man who invited Hagler to a press conference, years prior only to retire in front of him. Leonard facing Hagler was the perfect theatrics as Hagler played the perfect role to Leonard’s hero. Hagler felt largely disrespected and was so competitive, that any statement an opponent made you could tell would be used as fodder for Hagler. Hagler trained in isolation, he didn’t make friends with others in the boxing industry, he had his team, and he was fine with that, and legend had it he wouldn’t even shake his foe’s hand, though this is unverified.

Hagler was a part of “The Four Kings of Boxing”, a marketing name given to Hagler, Leonard, Duran, and Hearns, that denoted their vast superiority over the rest of the division, as well as gave great fodder to writers in that decade. Hagler had beaten two of three other kings, and Leonard was the last one he needed to defeat all the major players in the division.

Leonard was the opposite. Leonard had an image he wished to maintain, and polish, and build. The two were exact opposites, but two of the best ever. Their bout ushered in the matter era of boxing as Leonard, was one of the first boxers to game the system, setting-up the glove size, ring size, and stealing rounds with heavy activity late in rounds. The fight embodied what made them different, Hagler wanted to hurt Leonard, Leonard wanted to win the fight.

In the end, Leonard won a disputed split decision, one that bothered Hagler so much he retired and never came back. The business stole Marvin Hagler from us, who never felt the need to come back, Hagler felt morally wronged it seemed, and that the fight wasn’t scored for him, and felt no need to come back – to avenge the loss, despite offers for Ray Leonard rematch or a Tommy Hearns rematch, Hagler stayed true to his statement and retired.

Hagler would move overseas and become a movie star in Europe, as opposed to continuing his career.

The lasting legacy of Hagler is the blue-collar boxer, who created an aura of intimidation. Hagler was Mike Tyson, before Mike Tyson. Hagler wanted to beat up the guy everyone was afraid of and do it in front of everyone. Hagler’s running in military boots started a trend nationwide of running in those military boots simply because people wanted to be a little bit like Hagler, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Hagler was a cultural icon, and a larger-than-life figure, who at his prime, was bigger than the sport itself.

Marvin Hagler passed away this past Saturday, March 13th, 2021, and he will be dearly missed. For anyone, who ever liked boxing, and felt marginalized whether it was politics of the sports, or any other torment the sport can bring, Marvin Hagler was someone who proved you can fight through adversity.

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Lukie Ketelle

Lukie Ketelle