Hagler-Leonard: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow - 4/12/87


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Commentary : Hagler-Leonard: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

April 12, 1987|TONY KORNHEISER | The Washington Post

LAS VEGAS — They have already taken down those gigantic posters of Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard from the facade of Caesars Palace. They're old news. Ancient history. As dated as that hand of blackjack you played 10 seconds ago--the one before the hand you're playing now.

That's the way it works here. The neon police come unseen in the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping or gambling. They take someone's name down and put someone else's name up. Because nobody who's here today cares who headlined yesterday. What they care about is what you can do for them right now. That's life here. And here's what you have to understand about this place: Anyone can win big, but you'd better get out of town quick, or you'll give the money back.

Leonard was gone before the neon police could catch him. He was on his way home even as the lights were flashing and the coins were still clanging in the trays. He'd come like a cat burglar, stealing the crowd and the championship from Hagler.

Hagler had advertised a war, and Leonard obliged. But they weren't reading from the same manual. Hagler fought conventionally, attacking and pursuing straight ahead from a position of strength. Leonard, recognizing his inferior numbers, hit and ran, tantalizing and tormenting Hagler by fighting a thinking man's guerrilla war, the strategy that best suited his arsenal.

Even the denouement seemed to confuse Hagler. Before the decision was announced, Leonard claimed he told Hagler, "I still consider you the middleweight champion of the world." But what Hagler claimed he heard was, "You beat me, man."

Hagler complained bitterly afterward that he was robbed again in Vegas, sewing another patch on the pattern that began with a draw here against Vito Antuofermo and continued through his fight here with Roberto Duran, when Hagler had to win the last round to win the decision.

"Everyone expects me to win big. Any time I don't knock somebody out, I'm in trouble in Las Vegas. It's a gambler's city. They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray Leonard, of all people. I really hate that," Hagler said with genuine disgust.

"He never hurt me. He never hit me hard. He fought like a girl in there. . . . I've never seen this before. If it's a split decision, it should go to the champion. He had to beat me bad, knock me down, to be the champion."

What Hagler forgets is that Leonard was only a nominal challenger. He hadn't left the ring on his shield, he left because of his eye. He was every inch the champion Hagler was, and more of an attraction. You think Leonard doesn't know who he is? You think a man who wears a white satin jacket into the ring with a red satin peacock-tails design on the back doesn't know what he's selling? The fact is that Leonard was in a no-lose situation.

Hagler in a sense was fighting as the challenger. Given Leonard's circumstances--his long layoff, his celebrity, the mystique that's grown around around him over the years as a fighter and a performer--Hagler probably had to beat Leonard badly to win. "From the opening bell," Pat Petronelli conceded Tuesday, "Marvin should have come at him like an animal."

Hagler rightfully feared having to fight Leonard, because Leonard is such a seductive entertainer, that rare boxer who can overcome your substance with his style. Hagler had the crowd at the beginning--he was the bettors' choice--but by forcing Hagler out of his rhythm, by making him miss and look foolish doing so, by Duran-ing and Ali-ing Hagler with shuffles and bolos and wide-eyed taunts, by fighting his way out of big trouble in the glorious ninth round, Leonard won the battle for their hearts--and their minds inevitably followed. By the 12th round, the crowd was chanting, "Su-gar Ray! Su-gar Ray!" And even as Hagler stalked him, Leonard waved his gloved fist to orchestrate the chant.

What an empty feeling the honest, guileless Hagler must have felt, seeing this man whom he called "a sissy" in the ring walk out the winner. "I believe the world of boxing wants me back, and they're trying to keep me by not letting me retire undisputed middleweight champion, and making me fight Leonard again," Hagler said. "But it's not fair. They should have let me make my own decision.

I think there will be a rematch. Hagler, feeling incomplete, will hunger for one. I've heard Leonard retire and un-retire three times now, so I've learned that his announcements aren't chiseled in granite. It's clear Leonard loves boxing too much to give it up; it defines, satisfies and becomes him.

He's a dandy, isn't he? The image is the boy next door--friendly, darling Sugar--but the image belies the taunting, the psychological warfare. He competes as fiercely as Pete Rose and flatters like Eddie Haskell. People consistently underestimate his cunning and resourcefulness. It's a spectacular, complex and audacious package.

Look what he did. He essentially took five years off and beat the greatest fighter in the world. Beat the odds? With the dealer showing a face card, he drew on 19, got a deuce, and laughed all the way home, leaving behind the thick, sweet smell of cologne, the pulsating rhythms of neon and the haunting tinny sound of coins, like the echoes of a siren, dropping incessantly into metal trays.