Superfight No. 5: Hagler-Leonard

Updated: August 29, 2013, 4:42 AM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Marvin HaglerFocus on Sport/Getty ImagesMarvin Hagler got to Sugar Ray Leonard in the ninth round of their bout, but Leonard finished strong.

It's a boom time for boxing, with one of the sport's finest years in recent memory barely two-thirds finished and a handful of blockbusters still to come before the calendar flips again.

With Floyd Mayweather Jr. defending his pound-for-pound crown against Mexican darling Canelo Alvarez on Sept. 14, Juan Manuel Marquez taking aim at a fifth title against welterweight belt holder Timothy Bradley Jr. on Oct. 12, and Manny Pacquiao preparing to bring world-class boxing to China against Brandon Rios on Nov. 23, there has never been a better time to celebrate the pomp of the must-see prizefight.

So during the next several days we'll be counting down boxing's top superfights of the ESPN era (since Sept. 7, 1979, for those of you scoring at home), as picked by our panel of boxing experts. Of course, we know there can be, ahem, disagreement on such a subjective topic, so we'd like to know what you think about our choices, get your picks and hear any other comments you might have related to our project. Just tweet using the hashtag #ESPNsuperfights, and we might feature your comment below.


You couldn't help but wonder what Marvin Hagler was thinking when Sugar Ray Leonard strolled into their postfight news conference. Leonard was wearing a white yachting cap and a sleeveless T-shirt tucked into his jeans, looking more like he had just finished a Caribbean cruise than a hotly contested fight against a man favored to beat him.

It was, of course, Leonard's glamorous persona, as much as his fighting style, that set him apart from Hagler, and it added another layer of animosity to their rivalry. The just-deposed middleweight king had come into the fight riding an undefeated streak dating more than 10 years, and he was unaccustomed to being gracious in defeat.

"I feel in my heart that I'm still champion," Hagler said. "I really hate the fact that they took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray Leonard, of all people ... it really leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

The bitterness hasn't dissipated, and those who thought at the time that Hagler was ripped off still feel that way. But why does this particular decision continue to be the subject of such passionate debate? Other than the fact that it was a close fight, what is it about Hagler-Leonard that resonated so strongly with so many?

I believe the archetypal nature of the match is at the core of the enduring dispute. It was the classic struggle between beauty and the beast, even though beauty had enough beast in him to be a great fighter, and the beast fought with a controlled savagery that was gorgeous in its own right.

Opposites may attract, but in this case they clashed in a fight for what many considered the philosophical heart and soul of the sport. It's a battle as old as boxing, one that's in play whenever a boxer meets a slugger in a big fight. But this time, due to the status of the combatants, it counted a lot more than usual.

As an event, Leonard-Hagler was incredible, and the buzz was unlike any I've experienced before or since. You overheard people talking about the fight as soon as you got off the plane in Las Vegas. The media swarmed over the scene like an army of ants, and TV satellite dishes popped up like mushrooms. At times, you felt as if you were at the center of the universe.

[+] EnlargeSugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler
AP PhotoMarvin Hagler's reflexes had eroded enough by the time he fought Sugar Ray Leonard as to give the quick-firing challenger an edge.

Unfortunately, the fight didn't come close to equaling the occasion. Not that it was a bad fight, by any means. Both fought well and at a high skill level, but neither was at his best, especially Hagler. The wear and tear of his wars with John Mugabi and Thomas Hearns -- on top of a long career of tough fights against other tough fighters -- had slowed his reflexes enough to give Leonard the edge he needed.

The telltale signs of a fighter in decline were easy to see: Hagler was frequently unable to pull the trigger when the opportunity presented itself, and he pushed his body shots instead of ripping them home. But most distressing for his supporters was that he actually got outpunched when his elusive prey stood and traded.

Despite having been out of the ring for three years, Leonard showed few signs of rust. He fought a controlled, well-conceived fight, and pulled himself together for a fast finish after being hurt in the ninth.

Judge Dave Moretti scored the fight 115-113 for Leonard, while Lou Filippo had it for Hagler by the same margin. Fair enough. Jose Juan Guerra's 118-110 for Leonard, however, was totally over the top.

"Jo Jo Guerra should be in jail," snarled Hagler's co-manager Pat Petronelli, taking to an extreme the bitterness shared by many observers.

In a way, the controversy has overshadowed the fight itself. A rematch would have been nice, but Hagler never fought again, and I doubt the result would have been significantly different anyway.

Yes, it was close, but from my ringside seat at Caesars Palace, the right guy got the decision.

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