By Tom Brennan
Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who ruled the middleweight division as champion from 1980 until 1987, defending his title 12 times until he lost to Sugar Ray Leonard in a hotly contested split decision, has died at 66.
His wife, Kay G. Hagler, said he had died unexpectedly at his home in New Hampshire.
Hagler was one of the most formidable fighters of his era, defeating a string of challengers that included Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, whom he knocked out in the third round of a 1985 fight that he considered the highlight of his career.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.
“I always wanted to be somebody,” Hagler told Sports Illustrated in 1982. “Baseball, I played like I was Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays; basketball, I’d be Walt Frazier or Kareem; boxing, I’d pretend I was Floyd Patterson or Emile Griffith.”
Hagler grew up in Newark, NJ, but his mother moved the family to Brockton, Mass., after the 1967 riots, when fires and violent clashes between the Newark police, National Guard troops and Black residents consumed the city and 26 people were killed.
He learned to box in Brockton, the hometown of another great prizefighter, Rocky Marciano, where he was trained by the brothers Pat and Goody Petronelli, who ran a gym in the working-class city. During the day, he worked for the Petronellis’ construction company and was paid $3 an hour.
Hagler suffered because he was so good.
No one in Boston would dare to fight him.
So he gave down to Philly in 1976 to hone his skill against Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Bennie Briscoe before finally getting a shot at the title in 1979, according to the Boxing Hall of Fame.
That year, however, the judges gave Hagler only a draw against Vito Antuofermo, who remained the champion.
He had to wait until 1980 to claim the title from Alan Minter in London. Because the English spectators showered the ring with bottles when the one-sided fight was stopped, Hagler’s hand was not raised in victory.
Many boxing enthusiasts consider Hagler’s bout against Hearns to be his finest, and Hagler said that it was in that match that he was able to finally prove his greatness.
In an outdoor arena beside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, before a sellout crowd of more than 16,000, Hearns and Hagler traded fearsome blows until the third round, when Hagler threw a solid right that caught Hearns on the chin.
Hearns staggered against the ropes and fell to the canvas. Slowly, he raised himself, holding onto the ropes, and was on his feet at the count of eight. The referee looked into Hearns’s glassy eyes and waved that the fight was over.
“Tommy’s a good fighter,” Hagler said afterward, “but he’s cocky. I had something for him.”
Hagler’s professional career ended after Leonard, who had fought just once in the previous five years, beat him in a 12-round split decision in 1987 at the Caesars Palace outdoor arena. Hagler, who had not lost a fight since 1976, had been the heavy favorite, and he had a special distaste for Leonard, whom he called “Mr. Politician” and “Mr. Middle Class.”
“He is a phony,” Hagler told The Times in 1987. “He’s been protected all his life. Besides, if he hadn’t become a boxer, he could have done other things. Me? I had nowhere else to go.”
But Leonard put on a stunning display of boxing artistry — painting with jabs and uppercuts — to score an upset.
Hagler announced his retirement in 1988, saying he didn’t want to wait for a rematch with Leonard. Over his career, he had fought 67 bouts, winning 62, losing three and fighting two to a draw, the Boxing Hall of Fame said. He had 52 knockouts.
“I feel in my heart I’m still the champ,” Hagler had said after losing his title. “I really hate the fact that they took it from me, and gave it to, of all people, Sugar Ray Leonard.”