On This Day: Sugar Ray Leonard Edges Past Marvin Hagler In Titanic Battle

One of boxing's closest results is still contested to this day
10:00, 06 Apr 2022

"How do you like it, how do you like it?!"  

The commentator's words rang out around the world as the final bell went in one of the greatest clashes of all time. Now, boxing quite often throws up odd decisions, prompting accusations of bent judges and referees who take a dive. Most recently Jack Catterall was robbed by the judges in his title fight with Josh Taylor, a result which enraged the sporting world. 

Then on very rare occasions it throws up a fight so close that fight fans will argue the toss to their graves, immortalising a fight in controversy such was the outcome.

One such bout occurred on this day in 1987 where, after one fight in five years, Sugar Ray Leonard came out of retirement to fight Marvellous Marvin Hagler at Caesar’s Palace in what was then the richest fight in boxing history.

More than 300 million tuned in around the world while 15,000 spectators crammed into the Vegas arena to watch a mesmerising fight unfold that would end with Leonard winning a split decision and thereby becoming only the 10th man to win world titles at three different weights.

The build-up to the fight was intense, Leonard announcing a year earlier on a TV chat show he was ready to come out of retirement and face the fearsome middleweight champion.

Hagler was on a run of 15 straight wins which saw him defeat some formidable opponents such as Alan Minter, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns.

Leonard by contrast had fought once in the past three years (a ninth-round KO of Kevin Howard in 1984) but had really retired two years previous after his win against Bruce Finch in February 1982.

Leonard even acknowledged beforehand that he could not hurt Hagler. “If I’m going to win, I have to outbox him,” he said “There is no way I can hope to knock out a man like that.”

In what should be a lesson to most modern day boxers, there was no unpleasantry before the fight, both boxers held the upmost respect for each other.

Leonard’s tactics were obvious as he tried to stay out of range from Hagler, who started orthodox rather than his usual southpaw.

The fight came to life in the fourth, Leonard seemingly in control, where Hagler was caught low by Leonard, but there was no complaint from his opponent – ever the model professional.

Leonard seemed to tire over the following two rounds, prompting Hagler to go on the march, smelling victory.

The champion’s strength showed as he repeatedly drove Leonard back onto the ropes, drilling him with body shots, despite Leonard’s swift counters.

To get the crowd (and judges) back on onside Leonard spun away and did an Ali-shuffle, but Hagler, clearly unimpressed, and rocked the challenger with big left hooks.

Leonard did land some good shots and even got a break in the eighth as the referee ordered a re-tie of his gloves but Hagler continued to bombard him, Leonard’s eye swelling up.

The ninth was the best round of the fight with Leonard landing a big left hook early on, only for Hagler to drive him back to his corner and pummel him with heavy shots.

Leonard looked ready to drop, but as with all true greats, he rallied, and fought off Hagler’s relentless assault.

Leonard struggled in the next two rounds, Hagler continuing to bombard him, and when he missed wildly with an uncharacteristic big right, the crowd sensed a stoppage.

But in yet another twist to keep the crowd and somehow the judges also, on his side, Leonard danced round the perimeter and caught Hagler with two big left hooks.

The final bell sounded, Leonard raising his arms aloft and after what seemed an age the scorecard revealed all three judges gave it to Leonard.

It is still a moment of controversy but to most fight fans, Hagler comfortably won the fight. It was a demoralising end to a fine career as Hagler never returned to the ring, despite much talk of rematch.

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