The SuperFight

Courtesy of Top Rank Inc.

Tonight in Las Vegas, Nevada it is the thirty-third anniversary of ‘The SuperFight’ between ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard. 

The encounter marked my entry into covering big time boxing as a young freelancer and also the zenith of what George Kimball on the cover of his definitive 2008 bestseller Four Kings rightly referred to as the “Last great era of boxing”.

Over the course of the 1980’s the Kings of Hagler, Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran would share nine fights that defined the sport of boxing and that decade in particular.

In 1986, as a recent graduate I worked for eight months as a council cleansing operative (aka dustman) in the coastal town of Poole in England, finishing off as a clerical assistant at the University of Cambridge to raise the finances to support a trip in March 1987 bound for ‘The Superfight’.  For any boxing mad fan or correspondent of the time it was a must-go venture. With a very close friend of mine we flew, bussed, hitchhiked and walked our way to Vegas to experience all of fight-week in the company of legends like Angelo Dundee, Gil Clancy, Mike Tyson, Thomas Hearns and anyone in boxing worth their salt.

‘The Superfight’ was a confrontation and event that had taken years to ‘marinade’.  Leonard had twice in high profile announcements retired from the sport and stated the fight would never happen.  Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion had proceeded to dominate his division through twelve defences and at 32 years old had almost given up on the fight ever happening. However, by late 1986 the planets were finally aligning and the fight might be on.

Hagler was coming off a close shave against John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi in the March of ’86 and looked like he was coming to the end of his reign, due mainly to lack of motivation but also his advancing years.  Leonard, sitting ringside on the night, saw the dimming of the flame and clear evidence that if he were to seize his opportunity it had to be soon, else Hagler might retire.

So, some months later Bob Arum with his Top Rank organisation, Mike Trainer – Leonard’s representative, and with multi-millions of dollars at stake a deal was struck with the then mecca of boxing Caesars Palace to put the event on.  It was estimated the event would be worth in excess of $300M for the local economy with $7.9M for the live gate. Mind blowing figures at the time.

On that balmy April night there was an electricity in Sin City, the 15,400 outdoor car park arena and strip beyond has rarely been repeated since, certainly not for middleweights.  The whole of the state of Nevada was blacked out from showing the fight other than special pay per view showings in casinos, a habit of a bygone era, and Vegas was a mass of boxing humanity, high rollers and Hollywood A-listers. 

The weigh-in on the morning of the fight took place in Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion before a raucous capacity crowd and in a frenzy of anticipation.  Leonard with his ships captain hat and Hagler with his baseball cap emblazoned with the word ‘War’. Leonard coming in at 158lbs and Hagler scaling half a pound heavier, both well within the 160 divisional limit.

My friend and I each bagged a ticket with hours to go on the back of social networking (way before the term was invented), ‘moody’ press experience and our English accents.  We were ecstatic.

On Monday night (5am UK time) ‘Marvelous’ Marvin entered the ring with a 62-2-2 (52 KO’s) record, a champion for over six years, having not lost a fight in eleven and, the recognised pound-for-pound king.  Also, chasing the dream of Carlos Monzon’s fourteen successful defences of the title. ‘Sugar’ Ray on the other hand was 33-1-0 (24 KO’s), had not fought for just short of three years and, had a history of eye problems.  

Although never being considered a mismatch due to Leonard’s elite pedigree and skillset the odds makers and almost all so called experts predicted a Hagler victory. Some emphatically.

But; what boxing history had shown thirteen years earlier in the jungle of Kinshasa, Zaire was that legendary fighters ‘find a way’. This, although argued strongly by some expert observers to this day, Hagler notwithstanding, was what happened on the night.  Leonard found his way in a virtuoso performance to withstand Marvin’s early pressure and pick, poke and dance his way to victory, standing his ground when needed, to land the occasional bolo punch and mainly bamboozal the advancing Hagler through the twelve round distance.

The ageing champion had sacrificed in pre-fight negotiations the traditional fifteen round distance (his right) to his disadvantage, preferring to take the bigger purse, and with so playing into Leonard’s inactivity hands and reducing the fight to twelve rounds.

On fight night, he then chose to abandon his legendary and hugely successful southpaw stance and chase the retreating Leonard, never registering enough pressure or success to take the decision. His claims that Leonard ran all night, at the time, and even now remain wide of the mark.

Sugar Ray proved, as The Ring would pronounce how sweet he still was and took the split decision 115-113, 113-115, 110-118, a full eight rounds on the last card.  There were no knockdowns but the drama was immense after a riveting opening round which many pre-fight thought Leonard wouldn’t hear the finishing bell, Sugar Ray then put round after round in the bank to the whoops and hollers of the majority in attendance. To this writer there was only really one winner on the night….Ray Charles Leonard. That, despite rooting for and clearly picking Hagler (the blue collar fighter) pre-fight.

When all was said and done ‘The Superfight’ that took five plus years to happen was a blockbuster in all sense of the world.  It sent Marvelous Marvin bitterly into retirement, relaunched ‘Sugar’ Ray and most importantly left us with a memorable event that sits comfortable in the annals of the sport. There were really no losers on that famous night.

It was bookended by eight other fights between the Four Kings and is recently celebrated in a fine Ring magazine publication to commemorate this period. This is a must read and can be ordered online at the following link:

To supplement this, further articles will appear in The Undisputed over the coming months on this golden period.

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