Hagler vs. Leonard: Oral History and Fight Video of a Boxing Classic

"Sugar" Ray Leonard defeated "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler in one of the most controversial boxing decision in history. Photo by John Iacono/Si, courtesy of SI Vault

Grantland, Bill Simmons' pet project, is a hit-or-miss venture. They struck gold last week with an oral history of the 1987 middleweight championship fight between "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and "Sugar" Ray Leonard.

For those unfamiliar, here are the basics: Hagler and Leonard, along with Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran ruled the welter- and middleweight divisions in boxing during the mid-80s. Hagler fought both Hearns and Duran. Leonard fought both Hearns and Duran. Hearns and Duran fought each other. The missing piece of the de facto round robin was Hagler and Leonard.

In 1982, doctors diagnosed Leonard with a detached retina. He scheduled a press conference in Baltimore, and flew Hagler and his camp, who figured Leonard would formally challenge Hagler, in to attend. Instead, Leonard told Hagler that the fight between them would never happen, and then subsequently announced his retirement.

Five years later, after a one-fight comeback in 1984, Leonard returned to boxing, and the fight with Hagler was on.

One particular plot line of the buildup is relevant to today's MMA fan. Leonard paid J.D. Brown, primary matchmaker for Leonard's Victory Promotion, to spy on Hagler's camp:

Brown: One night I got a call from Mike. He told me to come to Ray's room, and they told me they wanted me to go spy on Hagler for a couple days. I disguised myself - my hair was black, so I dyed it gray. I put these horn-rimmed glasses on. And I went and sat in the back and watched him train for three days. I picked up a few things. He wanted to be in the center of the ring for all the sparring sessions; when a round would start and the guy would come out of the other corner, he'd be standing in the middle, waiting for him. And he got mad at his sparring partners, the Weaver triplets, because they weren't fighting him. They were boxing him. They were hitting him, moving, and he's like, "Come on, stop moving. Fight me, you little bitch!"

Samuels: The Weaver triplets had a lot of energy. That's why they were brought in, to get Marvin ready to deal with Leonard. And they did pose some problems. That's what they were supposed to do.

Carlino: I remember when J.D. Brown showed up. He was roaming around and I recognized him, but the Petronellis didn't know who he was. I didn't say anything to anyone because I didn't think it mattered. I figured there wasn't anything he could learn from watching public workouts.

Leonard: I said to J.D., "You show me that you were there by taking a picture with him to document it."

Brown: At the end of his training sessions, Hagler would sign autographs and take pictures. So I took a little camera up there, I put my arm around him, somebody took the picture, and I left. I came back and reported what I saw to Ray, and he put it to good use.

The fight is one of the most controversial and talked about decisions in boxing history. After the jump, footage from the fight highlighted by commentary from the principals.

Leonard: The bell rang. I saw Hagler in an orthodox stance. I wanted to say, "Hold on. Stop this fight. You're not doing the right thing!" It was that blatant. I was like, What are you doing? Then I thought, Well, shit, this is great! I had all this nervous energy, but when he did that, it settled me down. It occurred to me that he was a little bit more in awe of the moment than I was, and he was just as concerned as I was. That showed me a vulnerability that Marvin shows no one. When Hagler walks into that ring, he's a beast. But against me, he was more like a little lamb.

Hagler: A lot of people think I made a mistake by fighting him right-handed. But you know, the strategy was that I know he fought another southpaw - I can't remember his name, but [Leonard] looked good that fight. I knew that he knew how to fight southpaws, so you don't want to give him that look.

Leonard: At the start of the fourth round, I rushed right to the center of the ring. I did that in a lot of rounds. J.D. had come back from Palm Springs and said, "Ray, one thing about Hagler, he feels that the first person to the center of the ring wins the fight." So that's why I would do it. It's just the little things that I did to play with his head. Anything to prevent him from doing what he wanted. This was a small thing, but it was big for him. And later in the fourth round I landed that bolo punch to the body. It didn't hurt him, but it hurt his pride.

Merchant: All of a sudden the perception of the fight was completely different. Ray Leonard, the underdog, was winning. He was winning the drama of the fight as well as the fight itself. That builds a certain kind of emotional force and momentum, and maybe it influences some judges in close rounds. It was clear that, as the fight went on, Hagler understood he had to dig himself out of a hole that he himself had dug.

Hagler: I still came on, fighting him on the inside, even trying to beat him with his own speed. Everybody was looking for me to knock him out, but you know what? I just wanted to beat him.

Leonard: He buckled me in the fifth round with an uppercut. That was the only blow that hurt me. But when I use the word "buckled," I mean I was knocked off balance, stunned, but I wasn't in trouble. It was nowhere near like how I felt after the Quincy Taylor shot.


Leonard: He shoved me when the bell rang to end the fifth. He was getting frustrated. I don't know what prompted that push, specifically. Maybe I looked at him a certain way, but it bothered him.

Hagler: People say his movement gave me problems. Movement? You mean running? The way the public looks at it, they say that was his strategy. I don't think that was strategy. I think he was fighting to survive. He tried to steal the last part of every round - that's amateur. Professional, you got to win the whole round, not 30 seconds.

Dunlap: Ray won the fight, in my opinion, in the ninth round. Marvin had him on the ropes, and Ray backed him off. And at that point, I felt like people were watching Ray rather than watching the fight. He backed up the beast. To me, that's when the fight turned. Marvin was getting back into the fight. He was making it close on the scorecards, and all of a sudden Ray took it away from him.

Merchant: As Hagler tried to catch up coming down the championship rounds, it created a melodrama. Was Ray going to hang on? Who was actually winning? Was Hagler going to be able to get him?

Tompkins: At the final bell, I made the call, "How do you like it?!" As a broadcaster, you never know what you're going to say in those situations. You hope you can say something that encapsulates what you've just seen, and I guess that had two meanings. It was like, "That was really something!" But also, because it was a close fight and how you scored it might have depended on which style you liked, I guess you could take it literally, "How do you like it?" Somewhere in the bowels of my mind, I probably meant it both ways, but I never thought, "What am I going to say when this fight's over?"


Hagler: I was bouncing around the ring, and I'm all happy and everything, because he knew it and I knew it - that I won the fight.

Leonard: He did things that were totally uncharacteristic of him. At the end of the fight, before the decision was announced, he was dancing! Hagler never does that crap. He knew ... he knew.


Hagler: Real boxing people, they know I won. And I just wait for the day - one day, Leonard's gonna tell the truth. He's starting to tell a lot of truth about a lot of things,2 so if he wants to tell the truth about this, I'm open.

Leonard: The second Hearns fight, when we got a draw, Hearns should have gotten the decision. I admit that. So don't you think if I thought Marvin beat me, I'd admit that, too? Look, I won the fight - whether I got the decision or not. I came from a five-year hiatus with one fight under my belt, fought the toughest guy in the world, [and] went the distance. I was a winner anyway, no matter what the decision was.

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