By Lee Groves
For those who were lucky enough to witness their battle for the undisputed middleweight title 25 years ago today, their hyphen-linked names remain a short-cut method of describing the kind of robust, vigorous combat that is promised so often in pre-fight promotions, but seldom fulfilled.
Their eight minutes of mayhem remains the gold standard in terms of succinct savagery between members of the boxing elite and serves as validation for those who must explain to their friends why they love boxing so much.
The pairing was so combustible that it didn’t need a fancy title to sell it to the public. Like the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Hagler-Hearns was simply known as “The Fight”; like that historic heavyweight showdown “The Marvelous One” and the “Hitman” delivered the goods as few fights ever have.
The back-and-forth theatrics fulfilled the greatest desires of every fan: Drama, action, shifting changes of fortune, huge punches from both combatants and an explosive, conclusive ending that cemented the winner’s greatness as well as the loser’s valor.
As titanic as was the actual battle, it only served as the culmination of an extended build-up that raised tensions to a tantalizing peak.
This fight was originally scheduled to take place May 24, 1982, two months after Hagler destroyed William “Caveman” Lee in 67 seconds and nearly three months after Hearns wiped out Marcos Geraldo in 108 seconds. An injury to Hearns’ vaunted right hand caused the fight to be rescheduled for July 12, then canceled altogether.
Hagler, eager to cement his status against a household name as well as cash the huge paycheck that came with it, was incensed.
“He was going to make two million dollars and then he turned down two million dollars,” an exasperated Hagler said. He then taunted “The Hitman” from afar, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he said, “he started complaining about his little baby pinkie. Do you know how many people would give a million dollars for that little baby pinkie? They’d cut that thing off.”
The fighters would go their separate ways and go about the business of building their reputations further.
Hearns, who changed his “Hitman” moniker to the less violent “Motor City Cobra” at the request of Detroit’s mayor at the time, lived up to that nickname by showing only flashes of the enormous power that vaulted him into the public consciousness.
He stopped Jeff McCracken in eight rounds before dethroning WBC junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez in a fight that resembled chess more than chest-to-chest combat. He tested the middleweight waters with a virtual shutout over Murray Sutherland, and then retained his 154-pound belt with a ho-hum unanimous decision over Luigi Minchillo.
By the time he stepped into the ring at Caesars Palace to fight Roberto Duran on June 15, 1984, Hearns had a change of heart. He once again declared himself the “Hitman” and boasted that he would destroy the Panamanian legend as no one had ever done before.
It was a bold statement given that Duran not only had never been knocked out but also had suffered only two knockdowns in his 17-year, 82-fight career, the last of which occurred more than 10 years earlier.
Hearns, however, knew what he was talking about. He scored two knockdowns in the first round and then delivered a crushing right to the chin in the second that forced Duran to pitch forward and land face-first on the canvas in a semi-conscious haze.
Hearns followed that spectacular performance with another one as he blasted out the once-beaten Fred Hutchings in three one-sided rounds. It was the definitive preamble to a showdown with Hagler, who by then was hailed as the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.
The shaven-skulled slugger from Brockton by way of Newark, N.J. earned those accolades the old-fashioned way – by decimating a continuous string of mandatory challengers.
First was the rematch with Fulgencio Obelmejias, which ended in five rounds with a wicked right hook to the jaw. Hagler then sliced and diced the rugged Brit Tony Sibson before disposing of him in six. After that he literally laid Wilford Scypion at his feet in four rounds, “just the way I wanted him.”
But just as he was gaining recognition as the best fighter of the post Sugar Ray Leonard era, his reputation absorbed a couple of hits despite winning.
The critics skewered Hagler for his overly respectful showing against an out-sized, out-gunned but rejuvenated Duran that ended in a much closer decision than the action indicated.
Then he struggled in the early rounds against Juan Domingo Roldan before either a right hand or a thumb caused Roldan’s eye to slam shut and his competitive will to wilt.
Hagler’s three-round stoppage of a faded Mustafa Hamsho in their rematch proved little to his antagonists; he knew that the Hearns fight represented his last and best chance to stamp himself as worthy of being labeled one of history’s greatest middleweight champions.
For a man who already sported a chip on his shoulder the size of the Caesars Palace hotel building, that was even more reason to be motivated.
A multi-city promotional tour only heightened the tensions between the combatants as they traded barbs face-to-face and in the press. They further turned the knife by predicting an early knockout.
“Come April 15 – in three rounds – I will be the greatest,” Hearns said at the Detroit stop on January 28.
“Tommy said I’m going to be laying down there and his hand is going to be raised,” Hagler said the next day in St. Louis. “I feel almost the same way but when the smoke clears – because I’m coming out smokin’ – it’ll be my hands that’s going to be raised.”
The contrast carried over to their training camps as Hagler voluntarily imprisoned himself in the “jail” of Provincetown, Mass., before traveling to Palm Springs to conduct workouts that were closed to the public.
Hearns, who traditionally trained out of the Kronk Gym in Detroit, instead began work at Miami Beach before moving directly to Las Vegas. He was uncharacteristically loose during his public workouts and one session was highlighted by a female dance troupe that entertained the fans during a break.
The 30-year-old Hagler (60-2-2, 50 KO), who had not lost a fight in nine years, weighed a rock-hard 159 ¼ while the 26-year-old Hearns (40-1, 34 KO) tipped the scale at a surprisingly heavy 159 ¾. His 78-inch reach was three inches longer than Hagler’s and many insiders thought he would use it to keep Hagler at a distance.
The historic nature of Hagler-Hearns could be seen at ringside, as middleweight greats Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and Jake LaMotta were present. Curt Gowdy emceed the closed-circuit broadcast while a pair of Als – Michaels and Bernstein – handled the PPV blow-by-blow. HBO’s Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard worked the network’s delayed broadcast. Hagler remained the 7-5 favorite despite a late rush of Hearns money from his loyal Detroit fans.
As “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen played the national anthem and the worlds largest flag was draped from the top of the Caesar Palace hotel building, Hagler smoldered with intensity as he fixed a laser-like glare on Hearns. “The Hitman” fired his own baleful look at Hagler during referee Richard Steele’s final instructions, and when the pair retreated to their corners the moment that had been three years in the making was finally here.
Hagler bolted from his corner behind a sweeping right that whizzed over Hearns’ head and a short left to the body as Hearns circled away. Hearns’ jabs fell short as Hagler fired another southpaw left to the stomach. A robust right hook over the top nailed Hearns, but he instantly responded with a cracking right cross to the chin that not only stunned Hagler for the briefest of moments but also ignited a firefight for the ages.
With his back to the ropes, Hearns frenetically whaled away with both hands as Hagler tried to recover from the hammer he had just absorbed. A torrid right uppercut to the jaw forced Hagler to take a reluctant step back before slapping on a half-hearted clinch. Once Steele parted them Hagler stepped in with a flush left cross to the chin that stung Hearns into action. Hearns missed with three power shots but connected with a right cross as Hagler landed a left to the belt line.
The punches came fast, furious and ferociously and the crowd roared with every landed blow. Hearns ripped a right-left to the body as Hagler whipped over two wicked hooks to the face. Then came a Hearns left uppercut that brought an overhand right from the champion.
In just 60 seconds the fight had already exceeded the lofty expectations because it is exceedingly rare for two elite fighters to tear into each other with such feral wrath. All of the weeks of pent-up fury came spilling out in a symphony of violence that escalated at a breathtaking pace:
“You’re going to knock me out in three rounds, Tommy?” Wham!
“You’re going to knock me out in three rounds, Marvin?” Boom!
“I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree, Tommy?” Blam!
“You’re going to chop me down and say ‘timber,’ Marvin?” Whoom!
“I’m a midget, Tommy?” Take this!
“I’m a freak, Marvin?” Taste that!
Each man was exacting his pound of flesh, much to the delight of the 15,141 at ringside and the 1.2 million jammed into closed-circuit outlets.
It didn’t matter that the fight was scheduled for 12 rounds and it looked like judges Harry Gibbs, Herb Santos and Dick Young were the most superfluous men in the building. Hagler and Hearns were their own judges, juries and hopefully executioners.
The frantic pace had already taken a frightful toll on Hearns’ anatomy, for his legs were already rubbery and his fearsome but fragile right hand was fractured by Hagler’s shaved dome. Hearns continued to land the right, but he no longer put his full weight behind them. Meanwhile, Hagler walked through those rights with ease and was eager to seize every opportunity to unload.
Still, Hearns got in enough punches to raise a small swelling under Hagler’s eye and later opened a cut on the champion’s forehead that bled copiously. The angled gash added another plot twist to an already melodramatic opening round. Heartened by the sight of Hagler’s blood, Hearns shot in a pair of right uppercuts and a right cross that sent a spray of crimson several feet.
Undaunted, Hagler landed scorching hooks to the head and body and worked in several fierce rights as Hearns swayed his torso along the ropes. Hearns tried to fight his way off the ropes but Hagler’s superior strength and lower center of gravity kept Hearns right where he was. Hearns missed with right after right as Hagler peppered him with short, crisp blows.
Finally, with 13 seconds to go, two hammering rights allowed Hearns to escape the ropes but another long right sent Hearns tottering several feet backward. However, his right-left to the face was the final salvo of a sensational opening round. At the bell each man looked over his shoulder and fired a glare at his rival as if neither one was quite ready to cease their war, however temporarily.
“That was an entire fight encompassed in three minutes,” Michaels declared.
“Perhaps one of the best in middleweight history,” Bernstein agreed.
The opening round’s shocking intensity served to electrify the crowd. Some yelled themselves hoarse while others jumped up and down as if they had received a vicarious infusion of energy. It was everything they could have hoped for and more than they had a right to expect.
It was one of those incredibly special events that prompted a person’s brain to take an instant snapshot of their surroundings so that they could reflect back and savor it for years to come. Only the sound of the second round bell had the power to interrupt that process, for no one could afford to miss even a single split-second of what was to come.
Hagler started the round with a jolting left to the face of Hearns, who was now doing what trainer Emanuel Steward called “leg boxing.” This was the strategy that allowed Hearns to build a late-rounds lead on Leonard after taking a pounding in rounds six and seven and by doing this Hearns was conceding that Hagler, the natural middleweight, was indeed the stronger man.
Hearns picked his spots well as he dug hooks to the belly and pivoted to the side. A Hagler right hook to the top of the head brought a taunting smile – and a pelting left hook – from Hearns. Despite his show of strength, Hearns’ shaky legs revealed his true state to all – most of all Hagler. When he tried to pivot hard to his left he stutter-stepped halfway across the ring before he could manage to right himself.
Hagler walked through a right hand to land his own cuffing hook followed by a stiff right moments later. The difference in power and strength was graphically evident, for every punch Hearns landed merely bounced off Hagler’s anatomy while the champion’s every blow shook Hearns to his core. Hagler’s snappy, straight-from-the-shoulder punches shredded Hearns’ defense while Hearns’ offerings no longer had the power that had made him such a mortal threat to Hagler’s title.
As the round wound into its final minute Hearns’ blows looked ragged and disorganized and his balance awkward and splay-legged. But he got in enough punches to spread the blood all over Hagler’s face, which only angered the beast even more.
With 30 seconds remaining, Hagler easily punched his way out of an attempted Hearns clinch with three sweeping hooks and a fourth crashed against the jaw seconds later. That punch sparked another torrent of power shots that only weakened Hearns further. Only Hearns’ instincts and giant fighting heart kept him upright and at the bell a smiling Hearns again stared ruefully at his tormentor as each walked toward his respective corner.
“Keep your hands up close,” Steward told Hearns. “You’re out-boxing the man out there. Try on working on letting him miss with the left and going over here on the incoming and then land with the right. Just box him, stay away and box him. Just get your second wind and relax like Milton (McCrory) did against Colin Jones. When you get through with your shots, just move off to one side or the other (because) you’re getting hit on the tail end of punches.”
Hearns started the third well as he landed a pair of light rights to the face that brought a counter right from Hagler. The challenger’s piercing jabs and right-lefts strafed Hagler’s face and aggravated the cut on the forehead to the point where Steele called a time out to have ringside physician Dr. Donald Romeo examine the cut.
The crowd howled in surprise at this turn of events because they sensed the possibility that the title could somehow change hands.
Following the briefest of examinations, Dr. Romeo put that speculation to rest.
“No, it’s not bothering his sight,” he said. “Let him go.”
Fearing his precious titles were in jeopardy, Hagler shifted into overdrive. A stiff jab and a booming right rocked Hearns to his very foundations and a snappy right jerked the challenger’s head. Following Steward's instructions, Hearns wheeled off to his right and poked out a lazy jab.
At this, Hagler sprung up from a semi-crouch and blasted a wide-arcing overhand right to the temple that instantly turned Hearns’ legs to rubber. As Hearns loped away toward ring center Hagler gave chase, landed a second right, whiffed on a home run hook and unloaded a crushing right to the side of the face. The effects of Hagler’s punch acted like a time-release capsule; Hearns first fell onto Hagler’s shoulder, then slid down his body in slow motion before hitting the floor with a thud.
Lying flat on his back with unseeing eyes aimed at the ring lights, Hearns looked all but out. Drawing on reserves only the great champions can access, the challenger stirred at Steele’s count of six and somehow lifted himself upright by nine. But Hearns couldn’t clear the final hurdle as his body weaved from side to side and his eyes had a semi-conscious glaze. Steele correctly waved off the fight and just as he predicted Hagler raised his arms as a winner at 2:01 of round three.
This was the ultimate moment of triumph for Hagler and this time he was greeted with thunderous cheers instead of bottles of beer. For Hearns it was a shattering loss that would, along the with the Leonard result, overshadow his many triumphs. The sight of Hearns being carried to his corner was evidence of the toll Hagler’s attack – and his own efforts to win the fight – had taken on his body.
“This is one of my toughest fights,” Hagler, the master of understatement, told Bernstein. “I told you I was going to eat him up like Pac Man. I figured once I got through the right hand that he was all mine. I wanted to show the world I am the greatest. I figured I had to take punches in order to give some but I told you he was going to get some, too.
Later, when he was asked about how the cut affected him, Hagler uttered a defining line: “Once I see the blood I turned into the bull. I had to get serious and get it done quicker.”
As for Hearns, a major point of contention was why he engaged Hagler in a slugfest. His answer: He had no other choice.
“The reason I started out punching was that Marvin started coming in and I had to show Marvin I deserved some respect,” Hearns said.
Ever the gentleman, “The Hitman” gave the champion his due.
“A man doesn’t hold the title for (five) years for nothing,” he said. “He showed me he is a great champion.”
Both men were well compensated for their efforts. Hagler was guaranteed $5.6 million and 45 percent of the gross over $14 million while Hearns was paid $5.4 million and 35 percent of the gross over $14 million. With the fight grossing $20 million – third all-time behind Holmes-Cooney’s $22 million and the $20.5 million tally that came with Leonard-Hearns I – that meant Hagler cleared $8.3 million to Hearns’ $7.5 million.
Those who staged the show also enjoyed a financial bonanza. The fight drew 15,141 and produced a live gate of $4,589,400. The 1.2 million closed-circuit customer total was second all-time to the 1.6 million who saw the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali bout.
At long last, Hagler had achieved the mainstream acclaim that he felt should have been his all along. He worked the talk show circuit and secured commercial endorsements from Gillette and, most notably, Pizza Hut, for which he did several commercials. In the most famous one, he takes a bite of pizza and said – obviously in reference to Hearns – “I wonder what what’s-his-name is having for dinner? Probably soup.”
Ring magazine named Hagler-Hearns 1985’s Fight of the Year and the opening frame as its Round of the Year. Years later, the publication would declare the first round the greatest single round ever fought.
A rematch was ostensibly set after Hagler stopped John Mugabi in 11 rounds and Hearns wiped out James Shuler in a single round, but that all went away the moment Leonard told the world he wanted to come out of a nearly three-year retirement to challenge Hagler for his title. After Leonard won a split decision hailed by some and disputed by others, an embittered Hagler walked away from boxing for good.
Hearns got his chance at redemption in June 1989 and many thought he got it after scoring knockdowns in rounds three and 11, but the judges thought differently and scored their magnificent second act a draw. Leonard conceded years later that Hearns deserved to win but that did nothing to change the record book.
What the record book – and those who witnessed those eight Marvelous minutes – will say without reservation is that the night of April 15, 1985 will forever stand as a landmark day in boxing history.
The fight showed beyond doubt why the middleweight division is held in such high esteem by fans and historians alike. The speed of the lighter men and the punching power of the heavyweights converged in the most spectacular manner possible and the result was a gloriously violent monument to boxing’s greatness.