The Mega Fight: Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs Sugar Ray Leonard
On November 10th, 1983, one of the most lucrative and anticipated boxing matches of all time took place – a Middleweight showdown between undisputed champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and the golden boy of the sport, Sugar Ray Leonard.
There were genuine questions if the fight would ever happen again, as a detached retina suffered by Leonard in the middle of 1982 put his career in jeopardy. However, following surgery and a diagnosis of a full recovery, Leonard announced at a charity event in November of 1982 that his career would continue, and that he would look forward to fighting Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler in the coming year.
Leonard’s fight against Pryor was highly anticipated by many.
Pyor was the reigning WBA and Ring Magazine light welterweight champion, riding a streak of 25 knockout victories in a row and defeating very well-regarded opposition like Antonio Cervantes and Alexis Argüello.
However, he was a champion of the 140lb weight class, and Leonard was much larger, having fought as high as light middleweight - 154 pounds – and possessing a 3-inch advantage in height and a 1-and-a-half-inch reach advantage.
The two men had sparred frequently while on the same 1976 Olympic team (Pryor was an alternate, Leonard won gold) and this was a major part of the build up to their April 1983 professional showdown.
Accounts of those sparring matches ranged from Pryor knocking Leonard down, to Ray styling on “The Hawk”. Others suggested that Leonard and Pryor’s sparring matches were competitive chess matches.
The public was eager to see how the fight would play out. Adding to the excitement was Aaron Pryor’s public persona as a rough and tough fighter. As a later manager would recount, Pryor was the sort of fighter that “would take your best shot, spit in your eye and then kick your ass!”
While there was no spitting by Pryor, he certainly hyped up the fight as best he could, calling Leonard “a pampered golden boy”, “a media hype” and claiming, “I’ll knock you out like I did in sparring”. He had a famous chant, where he would say “What time is it?” and his entourage would respond “Hawk Time!”
Leonard was no stranger to mental warfare, which had been used so effectively against him by Duran, who would go on to beat him in their first fight before Leonard avenged the loss in the classic “No Mas” bout.
“Everybody talks, but it only matters what you can do on the night,” he said calmly while talking to the media.
The night of the fight came and the crowd was electric. Big fight energy was in the air.
While most in the crowd cheered for Leonard, there were more than a few men with “Hawk Time!” shirts on in the stands.
Both men walked to into the ring. Their names were announced. The bell rang and they met in the middle.
Pryor came out aggressive, swinging for the bleachers with every punch in the book – a torrent of straights, uppercuts, hooks – which sent Leonard reeling back from the torrent coming at him. Leonard attempted to settle his opponent down with jabs, but Pryor was bobbing and weaving towards him throwing wild combinations.
Most of the first round saw Leonard moving backwards as Pryor advanced with incredible pace, rhythm, and pressure. But neither fighter landed any telling or damaging blows.
In the second round however, the first decisive blow of the fight would be scored – and it was thrown by Pryor. A wild overhand right by Leonard caught him on the point of the chin, buckling his knees and forcing Leonard to shell up along the ropes as Pryor teed off. Leonard would spend several seconds being teed off on, before managing to grab a clinch and reset.
He spent the rest of the round tentatively boxing while Pryor continued his dance of perpetual motion.
Leonard went back to his stool, where an irate Angelo Dundee (the same man famous for training Ali) berated him.
“What are you doing? You’re letting this little guy beat on you! Get back in there and take it to him!”
Dundee’s provocation woke Leonard up, as it had late against Hearns, and Leonard came out with a new resolve to meet Pryor in the middle of the ring and trade.
It was in this round that fans were treated to Leonard at his offensive best – stunning, sizzling fast combinations snapped and jerked Pryor’s head around as Leonard opened the round with a flurry as only he could.
The two men exchanged leather in the center of the ring, neither taking a step back. But it was Pryor who was getting the worst of it, by far. Leonard was simply bigger, faster, and hit harder.
Towards the end of the round, Leonard landed 3 flush hooks in a row that dropped Pryor to the canvas. He arose at the count of 8, but was hurt. Leonard pounced on him, landing a series of punches as Pryor did all he could to hang on.
The bell rang and Pryor had survived the round, but was badly hurt.
Round 4 began, with Pryor much more hesitant to throw punches. Leonard, having gained the respect of his man, was far more content to box and pick away at the challenger.
He jabbed away at Pryor, occasionally opening with left hooks and uppercuts where he could. Pryor landed little in the way of offense, he could only move forward and get picked apart.
Round 4 ended, mercifully for The Hawk, and the referee warned the corner that he would stop the fight if Pryor had another bad round like that.
Leonard came out in round 5 and showed more of the offensive talent he was known for. Pundits used phrases like poetry in motion to describe Leonard, and that praise was more than deserved – Leonard threw combinations against Pryor that looked effortlessly fluid, but which battered Pryor’s face into a bruised and bloody mass.
The 5th round was even less competitive than the last, though Pryor’s grit and determination saw him refused to be knocked down despite several close calls. Shortly after going back to his corner, the referee stopped the fight.
Sugar Ray Leonard had won. In his post-fight comments, Leonard commended Pryor for his heart, toughness, and skills, but stated “I was the bigger man and I believe that had a lot to do with the fight going the way it did. But Aaron Pryor was a dangerous opponent and I have nothing but respect for him.”
Once that was out of the way, he was ready to set up his next big money bout.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler would meet him in the ring for a stare down and a brief exchange of words. Both men were professionals and respected the sport and themselves – there would no shoving or exaggerated theatrics.
Just two modern gladiators, two legends of the sport, eager for a showdown that prove to be one of the biggest in boxing history.
If Leonard was the media darling of boxing, then Hagler was perhaps the exact opposite – a workhorse, long underappreciated fighter who had to toil away in obscurity before reaching the top.
From the very beginning, Hagler was told he had three things going against him - “You’re black, left-handed and good.”
But he fought on regardless, and eventually earned his way to a title shot against Vito Antuofermo in 1979, which ended in a very controversial draw that many felt Hagler deserved to win.
The title would change hands the following year when British middleweight Alan Minter defeated Antuofermo for the crown.
In September of 1980, Hagler would have his chance to become a champion again, this time against Minter at Wembley Arena in London, England.
The build up to the fight was notorious for the racial animosity stirred up by Minter, who stated that he “did not intend to lose his title to a black man”, to which Hagler responded that Minter would “pay for saying that when we meet at Wembley."
The two fight-camps squabbled over minor details like beards and the use of substances to treat cuts other than other than one part water to 1,000 parts adrenaline.
This created a toxic environment leading up the fight, and the drunk hometown crowd was rapidly pro-Minter on the night of the bout.
When Marvellous Marvin Hagler defeated Minter in the third round after he was deemed unable to continue following several bad cuts to his face, the new champion did not get to savor the victory. Instead, bottles, chairs and other projectiles were launched into the ring at Hagler and his team, who had to flee. The rabid crowd harassed Hagler fans, destroying the banners and signs of any pro-Hagler attendees.
The Minter-Hagler fight would go down as one of boxing’s lowest moments and robbed Hagler of what should have been the happiest night of his professional life.
Not even a string of 7 straight title defenses, all by knockout, could erase the memory of that night.
Hagler needed to beat Ray Leonard to validate a career spent toiling in obscurity, never getting the respect he deserved. To Marvelous Marvin, Sugar Ray was his opposite – someone granted every opportunity as a result of a shining smile and careful marketing.
But that wasn’t a fair assessment, Sugar Ray Leonard had more than proved himself as one of the best active fighters in boxing.
All the same, Hagler chastised Ray as someone who “struggled against a little guy in his last fight”, while Leonard derided Hagler as being “a brawler and a bully in the ring”.
For as much intensity existed between the two men, and whatever they said in public, neither underestimated the other in private. But even without the traditional bad blood which could fuel boxing rivalries, the public was ecstatic about this fight – these were two of the best fighters in the world meeting in their primes for all the glory.
Leonard made a media skeptical of the build-up, doing regular, intense public workouts while Hagler isolated himself for weeks up until the fight, training out of abandoned motels at Cape Code and running miles at 5 AM every morning in old army boots.
They were two very different boxers with two very different styles and personas – and who would win was the hottest question in boxing.
On November 26th, 1983, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard met in the ring.
The atmosphere inside The Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City was nothing short of electric and even the hottest A-list celebrities struggled to get tickets. The likes of Jack Nicholson, Christopher Reeves, Tom Cruise, Muhammad Ali, Matthew Broderick, Chevy Chase, and more all attended the fight and it was the highest earning box office gate in boxing’s history. Ronald Reagan himself watched on a closed-circuit broadcast from the White House, and a phone installed in the dressing rooms of both men to talk to the winner.
Leonard walked out first, wearing white shorts with blue trim. He had bulked up for his fight, having moved up from the welterweight limit of 147 pounds, to weighting in at 159lbs, one below the middleweight limit. The commentators note that Leonard looks somewhat nervous going into the ring, but in such a high-profile fight this is not especially unusual.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler walked out to the ring next, as was customary for a champion. He wore crimson shorts with white trim. His iconic bald head, ice cold demeanor and rock-hard physique were all on display as he calmly walked to the ring and took off his hooded robe. For a man who was regularly in prime physical form, he’d seemingly outdone himself this time – he looked like he had been carved out of stone.
The two men stared each other down, not breaking eye contact even as they touched gloves. The crowd roared in anticipation.
The two went back to their corners, the bell rang, the world held its breath…
Round 1 began. Leonard danced out to the middle of the ring, while Hagler marched forward, determined to validate a career of struggles by beating Ray Leonard.
To the shock of everyone present, including Hagler himself, in a microsecond, Ray Leonard switched from dancing to planting his feet and swinging with a blistering combination that stung the Marvelous One. But punches bounced off Hagler like bullets bounced off Superman.
Being the gladiator he was, Hagler swung back with a left hook that buzzed over Leonard’s head as he ducked. The two men fell into a clinch.
To the surprise of many, Hagler could not bully or easily shove Ray around the ring when the two got chest to chest. Leonard tied up Marvellous Marvin’s hands, preventing the champion from getting off any offense at all.
As a southpaw fighter, Hagler’s shoulder was in the way of Leonard’s jab, which made it far more difficult for one of Leonard’s best punches to land. However, Hagler could also right orthodox, which was the traditional right-handed method of fighting which was far more common in boxing and he would often switch stances mid-jab.
When the referee separated the two, Leonard again went right back to brawling with Hagler, who responded in kind. Leonard flurried, while Hagler timed a stiff jab that stung Ray and gave him pause. As Leonard reset in response to the stiff punch, Hagler put his left foot forward, switching orthodox and threw a two-handed combination of alternate left and right hooks that forced Leonard back even further, so his back touched the ropes.
However, Leonard was incredibly fleet footed, and danced away to the side, avoiding Hagler’s follow up punches and pivoting 180 degrees back to the centre of the ring.
Hagler remained in orthodox, and Leonard, now able to jab Hagler more effectively, did so, stinging at Hagler’s eyes and darting out of the way of a jab, before throwing a hook to the body. Hagler did not so much as grimace in response, but it scored points.
Leonard threw another jab, and Hagler slipped it and threw a wide hook to the body that Leonard blocked with his elbow. The two men were in the middle of the ring yet again, and Leonard again chose to stop dancing and start brawling, which Hagler was more than happy to oblige.
While Leonard landed more punches, Hagler’s blows were the harder of the two, knocking Leonard on his heels when he could connect and whipping his head around. Leonard was forced to back off following a hard hook to the ribs, and Hagler gave chase as the round ended.
A brawl was not what pundits were expecting, but it drove the fans into a frenzy. The first round ended, and all three judges gave it to Hagler.
Leonard got back to his corner, and Dundee chastised him saying: “You gave away that round by fighting his fight. Stick to the game plan.”
Goody Petronelli, Hagler’s trainer was far happier with his fighter’s performance.
“Excellent, champ,” he said, “You’re too strong for him. Go to the body and break him down.”
In truth, Leonard had allowed his ego to get the better of him, seeking to prove wrong everyone who said he was too small for Hagler and that he could not stand toe-to-toe. While he had made a commendable effort, he realized that there was nothing to gain from fighting to his opponents’ strengths.
So, he changed tactics.
Leonard moved to the centre of the ring, but rather than exploding with a combination, he allowed Hagler to come to him. Hagler threw a left cross, Leonard gave ground momentarily and sprang back into range with a right straight, followed by two hooks and uppercut, all blindly fast.
While Leonard had lost the first round, he gained some important knowledge – namely, for as fearsome as Hagler’s reputation, he was not the one-punch destroyer many assumed he was. His best punch by far was a lead right hook from southpaw, and every other punch in his arsenal was to distract from that punch. As such, Sugar Ray moved constantly away from Hagler’s right hand, giving up ground when Hagler attacked and moving in with combinations to chip away and score points against the champion.
It was a strategy which clearly worked, and Leonard began to dominate at mid and long range. However, when the two got together, Hagler began to work to free his hands and hammer away at Leonard to the body with short punches. They were not devastating blows by any stretch, but they would wear Leonard down if he did nothing about them.
Leonard’s response was to shove Hagler away and flurry with punches to the head, in order to even out the exchanges. This gave Leonard the space and time he needed to disengage from the clinch and dance away, inviting Hagler to close the distance and then stinging him whenever he tried to get in close. Leonard was aided by a larger 22-by-22-foot ring, which he insisted be used instead of the smaller ring.
He danced around and peppered Hagler with shots all through the second round. But Hagler was one of the toughest men to ever box, never being knocked down, let alone out, in all of his fights. None of Leonard’s blows damaged Hagler, but they were scoring points which is exactly what the challenger was aiming to do.
Round 2 ended, and the round was clearly Leonard’s.
Round 3 began, and Leonard looked to dance and pot-shot Hagler, who began to follow Leonard around the ring and walk into punches. He marched forward, attempting to use every punch in his arsenal to catch Leonard, who expertly slipped and dodged them.
Hagler attempted to switch again to orthodox in an attempt to confuse Leonard, but this made it easier for Leonard’s cobra-like jab to find Hagler’s bearded chin.
The one bright spot of Hagler’s offense was still the clinch, but Leonard’s fast feet and deft movement made it harder and harder for Hagler to get into close range. Leonard’s confidence grew, and he began to shuffle his feet the way Ali had done in his prime, before letting rip with sizzling combinations.
Towards the end of the round, Leonard wound his ring arm up as if to throw a punch, and then threw a left jab which snapped Hagler’s head back. This was the same trick Leonard had used against Duran to embarrass him, and Hagler similarly felt the sting as the crowd laughed.
The bell rang to end the round, Leonard rose his arms in triumph. Hagler went back to his stool feeling dejected. But Hagler’s spirit was not so easily broken. In the time between round 3 and 4, Hagler and his trainers devised a new way to close the distance against Leonard.
Leonard had success in allowing Hagler to walk forward towards him, and then using his superior speed to get off first with point scoring punches before retreating to a safe distance. So Hagler decided he needed to find a way to close distance faster.
His solution was to essentially leap forward from outside of Leonard’s range into a powerful jab. This was his opening gambit in round 4, and it worked beautifully. Leonard was shocked by the distance Hagler could cover so quickly, and his head was jerked back by the force of the punch.
This allowed Hagler to get in close range, and land strong punches to Leonard’s sternum. This specialised jab did much to solve Hagler’s struggles at Leonard from range, as Leonard could no longer rely on Marvin to walk forward into his counter punches. Leonard had to give up more and more ground to get away from Hagler, and regularly round himself on the very edges of the ring.
Leonard attempted to clinch up with Hagler, who began sneaking in strong uppercuts to the sternum which created the space necessary for Hagler break Leonard’s grip and throw combinations while Leonard was pinned against the ropes.
Sugar Ray, with his back literally against the wall, did what all great fighters do when they are pressured. He fought back with everything he had, throwing a vicious combination against Hagler, which served to halt the champion’s assault.
As soon as Ray felt an opening, he darted away and moved back to the centre of the ring. But Hagler’s shifting gazelle jab continued to bedevil Ray for the rest of the round.
Hagler’s big moment with Ray against the ropes, and the success of his new jab technique gave him a clear victory in that round.
Round 5 began, and now it was Leonard’s initiative which saw him counter Hagler’s new tactic. Hagler again leapt in with his jab, and Leonard ducked low and responded with a punch to the body when Hagler jumped in to close the distance. However, the leaping motion would still put Hagler uncomfortably close to Leonard even if the champion ate a body blow for his troubles. Rather than attempt to hold, Leonard would then shove Hagler away when the two were in close and then use his footwork to pivot away from danger.
It was a brilliant and effective strategy, and Hagler was forced to box again at the distance of Leonard’s choosing. Leonard was able to effectively force Hagler into committing to punch, move out of the way of the champion’s offense and rip him with hard counters.
Round 5 ended, and with it, the first Act of this 15-round battle of gladiators. All three judges had Leonard up 3 rounds to 2.
The two men come out to fight for round 6.
Hagler starts the fight orthodox and eats a few jabs from Leonard. The Marvelous One merely walks through them however and responds with a jab of his own. Again, Leonard had quantity, Hagler has quality.
Leonard threw out another jab, but this time, Hagler went over the top with an overhand right which cracked Leonard square on the jaw and buckled his legs. It was by far the most impactful punch of the fight, and Leonard is forced to shell up against the ropes as Hagler bangs away on him.
Leonard composed himself and began dancing again, but remained on the defensive for the entire round, slipping punches and avoiding damage, hoping to recover enough to reset in the 7th. Despite Hagler’s offensive firepower, Leonard stayed calm and did everything he had to do to make it out of the round and prevent himself from being knocked down, or worse, knocked out.
A clear Hagler round, but Leonard felt glad just to have survived.
Hagler continued his strong momentum in the 7th. Recognizing that Leonard was extremely difficult to hit in the head, Hagler began following up his jabs with vicious lefts to the body which sapped Leonard’s strength bit by bit. Leonard did enough to stay in the fight and avoid any major knock out punches, but he was beginning to neglect offense, falling behind as a result.
Leonard seemed to recover more in the 8th, showing more pep in his step and throwing the combinations that wowed the judges and made the crowd cheer. He began expertly doubling up punches on either side, having no consistent rhythm to his combos which made it almost impossible for Hagler to block them all completely. Hagler seemed to take the round off and allowed Ray to steal it.
Round 9 began with Hagler probing with his jab, but Leonard now had a means by which to counter it. He would throw a jab, and leave his arm extended to block the path of Hagler’s punch to frustrate him. This proved an effective strategy, and Hagler grew angry, abandoning his masterful boxing strategy and resorting instead to throwing wild hooks and punches in an attempt to knock Ray Leonard out. Ray was able to avoid these and pick away at Hagler.
Ray no longer had the stamina to waste on an Ali-style shuffle, but his confidence was growing once again. He began throwing jabs would he would then convert into a cupped arm around the back of Hagler’s head, yanking his head down into uppercuts which seemed to get Hagler’s attention.
Round 9 clearly belonged to Leonard and proved to be one of his best of the fight.
Hagler, extremely frustrated and desiring a knockout against Ray, decided simply to march through Leonard’s offense in the 10th and deliver punishing body blows. Leonard, growing exhausted, was not able to dance away as effectively as he had previously, and this produced one of the closest rounds of the fight. Hagler would push Ray into the corner or against the ropes and work away to the body and the head, until Ray would find the strength to flurry his way out and reset to the middle of the ring.
Hagler was calmed down his trainers after round 10, and adopted a more scientific approach to round 11. He showed his defensive acumen, slipping Leonard’s flurries or blocking them behind his gloves, and then responding with flurries of his own, always ending with a hard hook to the body. Now, Leonard was fading and Hagler was coming on strong. The punch stats for round 11 favoured Hagler by a significant margin.
Round 12 began, and seemed to mirror the 11th, until the last 40 seconds Leonard landed a picture-perfect right uppercut, followed by left hook and then following up by firing a right cross that caught Hagler right on the point of the chin. Hagler stepped back and initiated a clinch for the first time in the fight, clearly buzzed by Leonard’s attack. Sensing blood, Leonard shoved his opponent away and uncorked an insane 15 punch combination that Hagler was forced to shell up from.
Hagler recovered quickly, as always, and attempted to retaliate with an offensive barrage of his own, but Leonard retreated, avoiding them all. As the clapper went off signalling the last 10 seconds of the round, Leonard did a quick shuffle of his feet and flurried once again – the vast majority of these final punches missed, but it put an exclamation point on the round, and all 3 judges scored it for Leonard.
A reinvigorated Leonard came out aggressively in the 13th, looking to score early, but Hagler came prepared. He waded through Leonard’s flurry and crashed into the clinch, before shaving Leonard away to create space and uncorking a sublime uppercut which caught Leonard square under the jaw. Leonard stumbled badly, having to grab onto Hagler’s arms and cling for dear life to avoid hitting the canvas.
With both men tiring, Hagler used his superior strength and size to bully Leonard around the ring, pushing him into the corner and against the ropes to land combinations. Leonard did all he could to survive, before exploding in the final 30 seconds into a flurry in an attempt to steal the round. It didn’t work, the round clearly belonged to Hagler. All Leonard could have hoped for was that it was not scored a 10-8.
Both men were exhausted come the 14th, with Leonard actively walking himself to the ropes just to hold himself up, and Hagler’s once crisp hard offense being reduced to slow, sloppy swings. Ray would save himself for short bursts of explosive, high catching punch combinations while Hagler was doing more consistent work through the rounds, which made for a close penultimate round.
As the 15th round began, the end of the fight was within view, and both men rallied as a result. Leonard began the round with a flurry and then retreated for much of the rest of it, until the final 30 seconds when his corner yelled “30 seconds, Ray!”
However, for the rest of the middle portion of the round, it was Hagler chasing down Ray and throwing punches. While Leonard avoided many of these, he no longer had the stamina to dodge as effectively and would inevitably get hit with every 4th or 5th punch in Hagler’s combinations.
But with 30 seconds to go, Leonard came alive again and put everything he had into one final flurry. Sugar Ray clinched and ran out the clock for the last 10 seconds. The bell rang.
The fight was over. Both men raised their arms in victory.
It was in the judges’ hands now. It was a close fight, and it was anyone’s guess who had won it.
The judges scores were tallied.
The first judge scored it 143 to 142 for…Leonard.
The second judge scored it 143 to 142 for…Hagler
The third scored it 143 to 142 for the winner…by split decision…
the undisputed middleweight champion of the world – Marvelous Marvin Hagler!
Hagler had done it. He’d beaten the biggest star in the sport. Round 10 and 15 proved to be the swing rounds, around which the fight was decided. Leonard needed to win both these close rounds to have the fight scored his way, while Hagler only needed one of either.
Hagler’s camp erupted, but the man himself looked stoic, as though he had expected victory all along. Ray was classy in defeat, calling Hagler a “great champion” but saying he’d be back to fight again and it “wasn’t my night tonight”. Hagler gave similar credit to Leonard, calling him “a great fighter” but saying that with this victory, “I’ve earned my respect”.
With this fight, Hagler got what he wanted – A-list celebrities came to him after the bout, asking for Polaroids. He got a phone call from the President of the United States. He got his multi-million-dollar payday.
Leonard went into seclusion following the fight, retreating to an island getaway to get away from the media – while he had gotten the bigger payday as the bigger star, this meant very little. He felt the sting of defeat once again. He’d have to live with it at least until he got his rematch.
Both men were determined to fight on – Hagler, to take advantage of this new fame, and Leonard, to wash the stain of defeat from his legacy.