It's the ultimate boxing "What if?" question. Who would win if, in a parallel universe, Fighter A from the 1950s or '60s fought Fighter B from the 1990s or 2000s? In this particular case, Fighter A and Fighter B are in certain ways interchangeable -- two hardened, no-nonsense, chip-on-their-shoulder pugilistic craftsmen who dominated the middleweight division for extended periods a generation or so apart.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler was the middleweight champion -- the only middleweight champion, it is important to note -- from 1980 to '87, making 12 defenses, 11 by knockout. Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins became a middleweight alphabet titlist in 1995, had unified all the belts by 2001 and reigned as the true champ until 2005, making a division-record 20 consecutive defenses over a division-record 10-year reign. Both Hagler and Hopkins are regarded as all-time great middleweights, ranked by most experts among the five finest 160-pound champions ever. Yet they're the sort of men who will always feel at least a little bit undervalued and disrespected, no matter how highly we regard them.
Though Hopkins went on to great success at light heavyweight as well (and is still among the best in the world at age 48!), for this fantasy fight, we're taking the time machine back to match prime middleweight Hopkins against prime Hagler. Below, we provide scouting reports for both men, and our panel of ESPN experts picks a winner in this Classic Matchup.
A late start in boxing led to relatively late blooming, not to mention a style that evolved from power-punching knockout artist to wily master craftsman. He followed a loss in his pro debut with 22 straight wins, then two failed title tries before he claimed a belt at age 30. Kept improving as champion and eventually fought on boxing's biggest stages at an age by which most fighters are shot, knocking out both Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya as his 40s approached. As he became less reliant on raw strength and power, developed a remarkable boxing IQ and emerged as one of the sport's very best with exceptional defensive skills, dirty tactics, mental toughness and unsurpassed between-fights discipline.
Perhaps the most famous switch-hitter in boxing history, but was naturally a southpaw, which, combined with his elite ability, made him one of the most avoided fighters of the '70s. Came up the hard way and suffered a couple of early decision losses, but avenged them both by knockout en route to an overdue title shot. Got screwed via draw against Vito Antuofermo in that first championship try, but got over the hump against Alan Minter 10 months later and developed into one of boxing's biggest stars and its pound-for-pound king in the mid-'80s. Boasted intimidation, versatility, skill, power and a great chin -- a fighter with almost no holes in his game until age started to creep in, at which point he promptly retired before he could become a typical cautionary tale.
Power: It's hard to argue with Hagler's 11 KOs in 12 title defenses or 52 total KOs among 62 wins, though B-Hop does boast the quickest knockout in middleweight title history. Still, by the time Hopkins reached his true prime, he wasn't a great puncher anymore. Advantage: Hagler
Speed: Speed wasn't the No. 1 asset for either man, but that doesn't mean they weren't both well above average in this category. If we have to make a pick, we'll remember that Hagler struggled mightily with the smaller, faster Roberto Duran, whereas Hopkins took care of business against the smaller, faster Oscar De La Hoya. Advantage: Hopkins
Defense: Again, it's a tough call. Hagler was an excellent defensive fighter who got hit more by the end. Hopkins started out with defensive holes but never took two clean punches in a row once his prime arrived. Advantage: Hopkins
Chin: In 130 combined fights, they have zero knockout losses between them. Still, Hagler suffered one official knockdown his whole career, and it was a questionable ruling by the ref. B-Hop touched down just often enough to finish in second place here. Advantage: Hagler
Ring IQ: Hagler was a smart, well-rounded fighter, but clever boxers could trouble him. Hopkins is quite probably the smartest fighter of his generation. It's another close call, but you pretty much never pick against "The Executioner" in a ring intelligence contest. Advantage: Hopkins
Dan Rafael: Hopkins by decision
Hopkins and Hagler -- blue-collar grinders and late bloomers who came up the hard way, both with shaved skulls and a menacing presence -- have so much in common. Hopkins is from Philadelphia; Hagler made his bones there. Hagler is also one of Hopkins' boxing idols, and Hagler has told me about how much respect he has for Hopkins. It's as if these all-time great middleweight champions are kindred spirits. They fought everyone in their respective eras, but if they fought each other at their best? Very tough call.
First off, it would definitely be a close fight. Both could take a punch, both were fearless and both had good boxing skills, although neither was a speed demon. Although Hagler was the bigger puncher, Hopkins had the superior defense. The way I see it unfolding, Hagler would try to press the action while Hopkins would hang back and try to slip shots and counter. That could prove frustrating for Hagler, who was taken out of his game by Sugar Ray Leonard in their famous fight. Hopkins' focus is unbreakable. Hagler's was not. In a fight that shapes up so close, I think Hopkins' mental strength would give him the edge. I think he would eke out a close decision by sticking to his plan and frustrating Hagler just enough to win seven rounds.
Kieran Mulvaney: Hagler by decision
We've become so accustomed to the Bernard Hopkins of the past decade, who at times in contests has been something of a spoiler and a fighter-in-spurts, that it is easy to forget that earlier in his career -- say, for example, when he was "only" in his early-to-mid 30s -- he truly could be an executioner. Video from Hopkins' earlier middleweight reign reveals some familiar sights -- notably the "head down, chin tucked, start to fake a left then throw an overhand lead right" routine -- but also portrays a fighter who, although still working behind a tight defense, is more aggressive than the 48-year-old we see now.
Even on his worst day, that Hopkins would have been a handful against just about any middleweight in history, but in a prime Hagler he would come up against a foe with the same indomitable spirit, the same granite chin, the same ring intelligence, a harder punch and better footwork and head movement. Hopkins might well have frustrated Hagler in the early going, but eventually "The Marvelous One" would start to time him, to cut off the ring and to force him into retreat with his relentless aggression. It would be skillful, it would be enthralling and it would be by no means one-sided, but in the end Hagler would win a clear decision.
Nigel Collins: Hopkins by decision
The single word on the cap Hagler sported at the news conference following his knockout of Thomas Hearns told you all you needed to know about the man wearing it. The word was "war," and that's exactly how Marvin felt about his profession.
On the other hand, the executioner's mask Hopkins wore throughout much of his career was something of a red herring. Sure, Bernard knocked out plenty of opponents during his middleweight years, but, as he said from time to time, his nickname was more about "executing" his craft than lobbing off heads.
Hopkins wouldn't have stood and traded with Hagler the way Hearns did. He would have boxed, created angles, set traps and made Hagler pay for his mistakes. I saw Willie "The Worm" Monroe do likewise in his first fight with Hagler, and Monroe wasn't half the fighter Hopkins was at 160 pounds.
It would be a bitterly contested match, with Hagler applying relentless pressure and landing withering blows whenever the opportunity presented itself. Hopkins, whose punches carried far more sting at middleweight than at light heavy, would counter back with enough authority to keep Marvelous Marvin from overwhelming him.
Both men have great chins, so despite some bristling exchanges, there wouldn't be any knockdowns. In the end, however, Hopkins' more diverse skill set would give him the edge he needed to take a narrow decision.
Eric Raskin: Hopkins by decision
In a battle between two evenly matched, dominant champions who have found a way to chalk up nearly every loss or draw on their ledgers to bad judging, how can you predict anything other than a close, controversial decision here? Hagler would be the more offensive-minded of the two, but that tends to play into Hopkins' hands, as he's at his best against opponents who pursue him. Hagler, of course, has many more dimensions than such famous Hopkins victims as Trinidad and Kelly Pavlik, but still, his desire to score a knockout could at times work in Hopkins' favor.
In the end, it comes down to what a judge likes -- Hopkins' cleaner punching and ability to visibly frustrate Hagler in spots, or the Marvelous One's busier attack and forward motion. Call it a split decision for Hopkins, with the winner's postfight interview drowned out by boos.
Brian Campbell: Hagler by decision
This is about as close a hypothetical matchup as one could produce, matching the defense and intelligence of Hopkins with the power and toughness of Hagler. But there are many layers to this matchup. Would a prime Hopkins confuse and frustrate a slugger of Hagler's class while getting off enough offensively to win over the judges? And could the hard-punching and relentless Hagler consistently catch Hopkins enough to hurt the historically durable fighter?
What you would ultimately have is a tactical bout in the early going, with Hopkins unafraid to give away the early rounds in order to scout his opponent. But things would heat up in the second half, with Hagler amping up the pressure and landing the heavier blows. I don't believe Hopkins has ever faced a challenger of this class with the same combination of toughness and determination. Hagler clearly has. In the end, the fight would go the distance, with Hagler winning in the 115-112 range.
Salvador Rodriguez: Hagler by KO
Maybe Bernard Hopkins really is an alien (his latest ring character, perhaps only a brief departure from his Executioner persona). At any rate, we have seen no one fighting between middleweight and light heavyweight like him in the past 15 years. Still, I don't think Hopkins' boxing would be enough to stave off the massive attack and devastating power of Hagler, one of the greatest middleweights of all time.
I strongly believe that Hagler's abilities and ferocious instincts would give him a chance to hurt Hopkins and, with his wilting pressure, maybe allow him to finish the fight late. Hopkins would throw only a few times per round by the end, and the hungrier Hagler would make him suffer for it.
Carlos Narvaez: Hagler by KO
Marvelous Marvin Hagler is without a doubt one of the best counterpunchers in boxing history. His ability to cut off the ring and avoid his opponent's offense, combined with his southpaw stance, made him one of the great figures in the fight game. He shined in a golden age, when there were twice the number of stars than currently shine in the sport today.
Even a young Bernard Hopkins would have very limited options against Hagler, who would pressure him from the opening bell. Hopkins likely would follow a plan, a la Sugar Ray Leonard, of keeping his distance and, if necessary, getting on his bike to try to frustrate his opponent. But Hagler's patience would force "The Executioner" into a fatal defensive mistake midway through the bout, creating the opening for a furious flurry of right hands that would stop the action.
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