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Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler: One of Boxing's Greatest Fights

I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

A Controversial Decision

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

It is one of the most debated fights in boxing history. Who won? Did Sugar Ray Leonard's showmanship really outpoint Marvin Hagler's toughness? How does a champion lose a fight where his opponent never hurts him? What happened?

The fight took place on April 6, 1987 for Hagler's Middleweight belt. The result was that the judges decided in Leonard's favor by split decision. But did Sugar Ray Leonard really take Hagler's belt? Or did Leonard's flashy style sway the judges to ignore the substance of his punches? If you have never seen this fight, it's a fantastic example of style over substance. And it's a boxing match that altered the course of boxing.

Judges would never judge fights the same way again.

An Analysis of the Actual Fight

One of the most anticipated fights of all-time, the boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonardand Marvelous Marvin Hagler for Hagler's middleweight crown took place on April 6, 1987. It ended somewhat controversially with Leonard winning a split decision. But was it the right decision? I say no. I watched the fight live back then and to this day I believe that Hagler should have won that fight.

First let me say that there are arguments to be made that Sugar Ray Leonard won the fight. Good arguments. He landed more punches, for instance. He also fought the smarter fight. Certainly, if the bout had been scored by the rules of an amateur boxing match, Leonard would have won, no doubt. However, what proponents of Leonard's victory fail to remember is how professional boxing matches were scored back then (and in many cases, are scored today).

The challenger had to take the belt from the champion. It meant that not only did a fighter have to win the fight, but he had to beat the champion in the true sense of the word "beat". The champion had to appear beaten. To do that meant that the challenger had to be the aggressor and had to land the more telling blows. To do neither of these meant that the challenger had not sought the action and had not hurt the champion meaningfully. This was the case when Leonard fought Hagler. It was Hagler who pressed the action and it was Hagler who landed the meaningful blows. While Hagler might have been frustrated by Leonard's style, he was never hurt by any of his punches and in a championship fight, that meant something.

Now, Leonard may have done the only thing he could have done to win the fight, which was to stay away from Hagler's power and frustrate him much like he frustrated Roberto Duran in the "No Mas" fight, but that by itself should not have been enough to win the fight. He did well. His strategy was impressive, but he did not take Hagler's belt and that, the taking of the belt, was usually crucial in the judging decision.

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There are a few things to remember while watching these videos. This was one of the first, if not the first, twelve round championship fights. Prior to this, championship fights had been 15 rounds and Leonard had never signed to fight Hagler in that situation. It was only when they changed championship bouts to twelve rounds that Leonard finally agreed to the fight. Also, this was Hagler's last professional fight and he is noticeably slower in this fight than in previous fights. It was clear from this fight that Hagler had lost a step, which is understandable having been through some wars with the likes of John "The Beast" Mugabi and Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns and Roberto Duran. In fact, after fighting Hagler, neither Mugabi nor Duran were the same. Hagler was one of those fighters who didn't just beat an opponent, in many cases, he ruined them.

Remember too that Leonard was an American hero. As a likable, heroic person, Leonard was often given the benefit of the doubt. It seemed that judges both liked and admired him and, if any evidence suggests he had the advantage in a decision, the second Thomas Hearns fight was it. It was ruled a draw and most people felt Hearns had won. Even Leonard himself said he was gifted the decision.


Does Landing More Punches Automatically Translate to a Win?

Were this an amatuer boxing match, I agree that Sugar Ray Leonard won the fight. He outpointed Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His gloves landed on Hagler's body more than Hagler's gloves landed on Leonard. However, if you watch the last round of this fight and when the fight is over, who looks like they've taken more punishment? The answer is clearly Leonard. He's been hit with the harder, more meaningful punches. Hypothetically, if Leonard was fast enough to run around Hagler for twelve rounds, tapping Hagler with his gloves, but not get hit himself, he would win the fight. Fortunately, that is not true and part of judging professional boxing matches involves more than punch-count.

At some point in American history, our cultural shifted from emphasizing substance to emphasizing style. The Reagan era itself is often characterized this way. While I will stay away from criticizing Reagan on these grounds, it was around this time that a new generation, brought up on television from birth, was coming of age. Like I said, Sugar Ray Leonard fought the only fight he could fight to come out the winner because going after Hagler would have been suicide. Still, at the end, Leonard looks like he has taken more punishment.

Sports can occasionally demarcate interesting cultural shifts and the fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler may have been one of those: the advance of style over substance.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler (CC-BY 2.0)

Marvelous Marvin Hagler (CC-BY 2.0)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Allen Donald

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