By James Slater
Marvin Nathaniel Hagler, for many the greatest, the toughest, the hardest middleweight in boxing history, today celebrates his 65th birthday. He looks almost the same today as he did when he was a rock-solid 160 pound terror, the man who ruled the world from 1980 to 1987 almost seeming to have defied the ageing process, yet it really was well over thirty years ago when Hagler last fought.
Fans who idolise the shaven-headed southpaw know full well the struggles Hagler had to overcome, first to become world champion, and then to remain as such.
For Hagler the road would be long and hard, most of it uphill. Fighting for $50 paydays, the future Marvelous Marvin, having had a veritable handful of amateur fights, worked as hard as can be as he chased the big money that could secure his life. Hagler fought at a tremendous rate, ducking nobody. Often fighting in the hometown of his opponent, Hagler was to grow accustomed to a bitter taste – that of being robbed. It happened at least twice during the future middleweight king’s early career, in decision losses to Bobby Watts and Willie Monroe, and the anger and the paranoia of being stolen from and the possibility of it happening again stayed with Hagler forever.
Little did he or his growing number of fans know at that time, but a robbery (or at least Hagler’s perception of one) would end his career one day. For now the goal remained: that of conquering the 160 pound division. But first yet another debatable decision went against him and prevented Hagler from reaching his goal.
Having had to wait so long to get his first cracking at a world title (Senator Ted Kennedy amongst others assisting Hagler in getting his deserved shot) Marvin was in no mood to let it slip. To many he never, but defending champion Vito Antuofermo was awarded a controversial 15-round draw. The familiar taste resurfaced once more. Hagler was in tears and almost inconsolable. Only the great, the immortal Joe Louis, who told the embittered Halger how he had been robbed (Marv alerady knew), managed to persuade Hagler to carry on.
Eventually, after having had 54 pro fights – an entire career and then some by today’s standards – Hagler claimed the coveted belt. Ripping it (the only accurate description when it comes to this slaughter) from Britain’s Alan Minter inside three bloody rounds, Hagler was at last the champ. Twelve retentions followed, with Hagler cementing his greatness with wins over Roberto Duran, John Mugabi and, in what is often called the greatest middleweight title fight in history, Thomas Hearns. Then came the fight that continues to haunt Hagler and his fans and will do so forever: the Hagler-Leonard fight of 1987.
Who really won, Sugar Ray or Marvelous, is an old question; prompting the return of an even older debate, but the fact is, Hagler still burns over this fight, or its result: a split decision win awarded to the returning Leonard. Hagler may or may not have been robbed, but he wa now a rich man, a great man, and an idolised man. Hagler’s millions of fans know who won that night in Las Vegas and Hagler sure had come a long, long way from the day when he stopped a guy named Terry Martin inside a couple of rounds inside a school gymnasium.
Is Hagler the greatest middleweight ever, over fellow legends Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, Stanley Ketchel, Bernard Hopkins and others? Is he today the greatest living fighter, over former foes Leonard and Duran? Maybe.