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IntuBoxing Remembers: Sugar Ray Leonard vs ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler.

On the day of his birth, IntuBoxing remembers Ray Charles Leonard’s Greatest Night.

By Aaron Cooper   - @intuboxingfm

Today marks the 62nd birthday of one of the finest boxers ever to lace a pair of gloves. That man is Ray Charles Leonard. ‘Sugar’ Ray has a list of accolades that most pugilists can only dream of. A stellar amateur career capped off by a gold medal in the Montreal Olympics that paid dividends in the professional arena. Leonard would go onto win world titles in five weight divisions, the lineal champion in three and just to put the cherry on the cake he enjoyed a spell as the undisputed welterweight champion of the world.  

Leonard’s accolades list longer than Apollo Creed’s monikers. Named as ‘Boxer of the Decade’ in the 1980’s, this future Hall of Famer would go onto to be named Fighter of the Year in 1979 & 1981 by Ring Magazine, and Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America three times (76, 79 & 81)

In truth, Sugar Ray Leonard would have been a star in any era, the boxing fan in me has often wondered just how he would fair against the man they call the best ever, Sugar Ray Robinson and the man that calls himself TBE, Floyd Mayweather. But as history has taught all of us, you will often be remembered not by your own ability, but of the ability of the competition you had to face. Leonard will forever be lucky in this regard that he fought in the era of the ‘Four Kings’. Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns & Marvin Hagler had brutal fights and fantastic careers in their own rights. But together they immortalised one another in boxing history. Put simply without the other three I doubt the other would be as fondly remembered or regarded as they are now.

Sugar Ray Leonard is one of my favourite boxers of all time, in fact, he is second behind ‘The Greatest’ in my eyes, Muhammad Ali. I hope you enjoy reading this piece, as much as I’m enjoying writing it.

For those of you who may not know, allow me to set the scene…..

Sugar Ray Leonard turned professional in 1977 after his Olympic triumph in the summer before. After, picking up his first world and in fact lineal title after beating Wilfred Bentitez just shy of three years and 25 fights after his professional debut. People from all walks of life knew the name Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, remember me saying how Leonard was my favourite fighter? Here’s why. His name would be etched in history because of his next ten fights. Ten fights that would take place over the next ten years. Overcoming serious injury he would battle Hearn’s twice, winning once and drawing once. He would beat Roberto Duran, losing before famously claiming victory in the fight the world over has dubbed ‘No Mas’. But the fight that I love the most the one that really gets the blood pumping is his fight with ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, the fight that took 6 long years to come to fruition. Following Leonard’s victories over two of the aforementioned four kings, Hagler and Leonard were on a collision course. That was until Leonard suffered severely detached retina, leading to him announcing his retirement at a charity event in his hometown of Baltimore, with Hagler sat in the audience.

Fast forward to March 1986. SRL was in the crowd to watch Hagler defend his title against John Mugabi. I'm not sure what SRL saw that night. But he called Mike Trainer and said ‘I can beat Hagler’.

The fight was arranged for April 6th, 1987 at Caesars Palace. It was surrounded in controversy due to Leonard’s injuries and inactivity. Needless to say, Hagler stepped between the ropes as a 3-1 favourite that night.

The result remains one of the biggest upsets and amongst some, one of the biggest controversial decisions our beloved sport has ever seen. I won’t go into detail, watch the video above and tell me what you think, boxing is a subjective beast after all. I personally see the fight the same way that Jim Murray, a long-time journalist for the LA Times saw it. ‘It wasn’t even close … He didn’t just outpoint Hagler, he exposed him. He made him look like a guy chasing a bus .. in snowshoes’.

The fight was awarded ‘Fight of the Year’ and ‘Upset of the Year’ by The Ring.

So how did Sugar Ray beat Hagler?

Well, the sweet science dictates that you hit and not get hit, and while Leonard did get tagged far more than he’d like this fight saw its two combatants revert to type and their identities as fighters. It became the boxer against the puncher. Bizarrely Hagler came out in the opening two rounds in an orthodox stance, which did not help his cause. But Leonard refused to allow the bigger man, and bigger puncher to engage in combat. To stand in front of a puncher like Hagler, whose timing and versatility was elite world level would have been nothing short of a recipe for disaster. Leonard wasn’t about to stand there and get his head beat off. He has one thing and one thing only on his mind, victory. Now make no mistake about it Marvin Hagler was a fine boxer-puncher, so how did Leonard survive against such a dangerous opponent? Simple ladies and gentleman, Sugar Ray Leonard’s footwork was possibly his finest asset. His mix of footwork, speed, reflexes, and timing with an added dose of ring generalship to boot won him that fight. Only in the last three rounds did Leonard decide to oblige Hagler’s request to fight him toe to toe. But let us not forget SRL was a fighter too. Whilst Hagler was busy pummelling him for all his worth against the ropes, SRL fought back with willpower and speed …. A champion until the end.

Happy Birthday, Champ! Thanks for the memories!!