The former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston’s headstone had his name, the year of his birth and death and two simple words — “A Man” — that perfectly summed him up.
Those two words are also the perfect summation of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, arguably the greatest middleweight champion who ever lived.
Hagler unexpectedly died Saturday at his Bartlett, New Hampshire, home, his wife of nearly 21 years, Kay, announced on his official Facebook page. Hagler’s son, James, told TMZ that his father was having chest pains and difficulty breathing. He said Hagler was taken to a local hospital where he died four hours later.
Though he felt betrayed by the business that made him rich and famous, Hagler was universally loved by fans, fighters and members of the media who dealt with him.
He never fought again after losing an agonizingly close split decision at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to Sugar Ray Leonard on April 6, 1987. Judge JoJo Guerra scored it 118-110 for Leonard, a score which even the most hardcore Leonard fans found ridiculous. Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 for Leonard, while Lou Filippo saw it 115-113 for Hagler.
Hagler and Leonard embraced in the ring and Hagler contended to his death that Leonard said to him, “You beat me, man.”
He walked out of the ring and into exile. He moved to Italy where he became an actor and would meet his second wife, Kay Guarrera.
Not only did he not fight again, he was rarely seen at the major fights like so many of his peers. His beef was really with two men, Guerra and Moretti, but he took the loss so personally and penalized the entire sport by staying away from it.
In his early days, he’d been ducked and avoided by the champions prior to gaining the belt, and he constantly was fighting the most difficult challengers.
When he finally won the belt and turned himself into a star through sheer force of will, he expected the reaction to his success would be different. But he always played second fiddle to Leonard, who pulled the rug out from Hagler at a charity event in Baltimore in 1982 that was televised on ABC that Hagler thought would be the vehicle to announce a fight between them.
Instead, Leonard retired and Hagler had to wait nearly five full years to get his nemesis into the ring. He made numerous concessions to Leonard in the talks leading to the 1987 fight — the bout was 15 rounds instead of 12, the ring was 22 feet square instead of 20 — that hurt him when the bell rang.
Hagler made several mistakes of his own in the fight, the biggest of which was starting in an orthodox stance and fighting that way for several rounds. He didn’t have success but didn’t go away from it.
He was startled when the scores were read and was convinced the fix was in. He left the ring and never returned. Boxing without Marvelous Marvin Hagler was never the same.
While Leonard was retired, Hagler mowed through the competition, racking up 12 consecutive title defenses. Among those was a third-round KO of Thomas Hearns in an unbelievable battle that to this day ranks among the best fights ever staged.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, his first year of eligibility, but it wasn’t until he was inducted in the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015 that he seemed to understand how beloved he was among the boxing community.
At a cocktail hour at Caesars Palace, no more than a few hundred steps from where he fought Leonard, Hagler barely had time to himself. Some of the richest men in Las Vegas fawned all over him, begging him for photos and simply asking to shake his hand.
He finally posed for a photo with his long-time rival Leonard. Richard Steele, who refereed their fight and was a member of the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame’s board of directors, encouraged him to pose with Leonard, and Steele raised both of their arms as they beamed. Later, they embraced.
So elated was he by his induction — a sign that he was beloved by the establishment he felt had eschewed him — that Hagler choked up as he began his acceptance.
Wiping his eye and fighting back tears, Hagler said, “Excuse me, guys. I never thought this would happen to me.”
He proceeded to give a charming speech in which he asked his mother and aunt to stand for recognition from the crowd, then later singled out his wife.
“I understand that success is nothing without someone to share it with,” the old tough guy said to his beaming wife. “I love you, baby. Thank you.”
So many loved him, too, for his fearless nature, his determination to win and his willingness to fight everyone.
He won a 15-round decision over Roberto Duran, knocked out Hearns and lost the controversial decision to Leonard. Together, those four were dubbed “The Four Kings,” and were the representatives of a decade of boxing excellence in the 1980s.
He was a fighter’s fighter and a man’s man, and rarely have his likes been seen in this game since.
He was, as his adopted name indicated, truly marvelous. He leaves a hole in this sport, and in the hearts of those who loved him, that will never be filled.
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