“The SuperFight” – WBC Middleweight Title
MARVIN HAGLER (62-2-2, 52 KO, WBC Titleholder)
SUGAR RAY LEONARD (33-1, 24 KO)
April 6, 1987 | Caesars Palace – Las Vegas, NV
by Damon Ealy, Simon Garner and Dafydd Thomas
April 6, 1987
Unbeaten for over a decade, Marvin Hagler was a substantial favourite coming into this fight against Leonard, despite being inactive for twelve months. This was normal for Hagler, who rarely fought more than twice a year in the 80’s. It was Hagler’s thirteenth time to defend his WBC title since he captured it by stopping Alan Minter in three rounds, unifying the division along the way by collecting the WBA and IBF titles to add to the trophy cabinet, before being stripped for failing to defend them again during 1986. His most notable defences came against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi.
Only Leonard die-hards predicted that Sugar Ray, who had come out of retirement for the second time, would be the man to take Hagler’s middleweight crown. Leonard had gathered three years of rust and his career battles had finally caught up with him, or so it seemed.
Hagler gifted Leonard the opening two rounds, before changing gear as he realised that Leonard wasn’t there for the paycheck. The infamous round stealing tactics from Leonard was partly the reason this fight was named Upset of the Decade in the 80’s, also collecting Fight of the Year and of course, Upset of the Year for ’87.
Debates have raged for over twenty years about who should have got the nod on that April 6 night, with both sides steadfastly believing they were right. The Boxing Tribune has assembled a balanced judging panel from its forum featuring Damon Ealy, an unabashed Hagler supporter, Dafydd Thomas, who prefers boxers that put the sweet into the science, and a non-biased British judge, Simon Garner.
Damon – “Understandably, this being “the Super Fight,” both guys come out looking a little antsy and tight. Hagler’s standing orthodox. There’s little meaningful action here, but Hagler spends so much of this round watching and stalking that he couldn’t have won it. Hagler closes out looking more comfortable, Leonard still maybe a little fidgety, but Leonard takes the round on the couple of straight punches that he sneaked through mid-round.” 10-9 Leonard
Simon – “A slightly timid start for both fighters, with Sugar Ray moving and fainting for the first thirty seconds or so, with Hagler content to follow. Leonard makes contact with a straight right up the middle soon after, while Hagler decides to smile and bait the former champ. The round is dominated by Leonard covering the ring and throwing the occasional jab with a few combinations in between.” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “Leonard doesn’t sit still through the opening stanza, while Hagler stalks; never managing to close the distance enough to let his punches go. Sugar Ray picked some nice jabs, eventually throwing a few combinations before tying Hagler up. A straight right from Leonard immediately catches Hagler’s attention, who smiles and taunts at Leonard. Hagler did get through with some body shots, but this is a definite Leonard round.” 10-9 Leonard
“I just don’t understand this. Marvelous Marvin is acting very, very cocky; you can’t just let the other guy put rounds in the bag. He’s much better as a southpaw and yet he’s fighting orthodox.” – Gil Clancy
Damon – “Hagler stays in the left lead. What did he see in round one to keep him there? Now both men are looking more comfortable. Halfway through the round, and still no offense to speak of. Leonard’s grabbing on and tying up already? And Referee Steele is in to break them up and having to be aggressive about it. Hagler chops away in close quarters. Leonard uppercut appears to connect with about 30 seconds left, but Hagler comes forward. Now he grabs on. Leonard works out of it, lands a round punch, a clean body shot to end it. Close round. Hagler could’ve won this one with his work, by moving forward for the first two-thirds, but Leonard landed better shots, though they were few.” 10-9 Leonard
Simon – “Similar to the first round, Leonard is happy to jab and move and Hagler content to follow. The Marvelous one landed a few punches in the early part of the round, but nothing of any note. There were a number of clinches in the round and as a consequence, less action. Hagler walked in a few times with his guard down, and Leonard made him pay. The three minutes conclude, this time with Leonard sticking his neck and baiting Hagler.” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “As commentator Gil Clancy points out, Hagler puzzles everybody by fighting as a righty, when it was clear that he was getting more success as a southpaw in the opener. The round starts off very similar to the opener, where Leonard takes Hagler for a tour around their workspace for the evening. Leonard catches Hagler with a few right hooks, and this is the first example we see of Leonard “steeling” a round, as it was even going into the final thirty seconds or so. Another Leonard round.” 10-9 Leonard
Damon – “Now Hagler’s back to southpaw. Leonard moving, moving, moving, and Hagler touches him with a lead left. Moves in pursuit and immediately looks to be doing better work out of his natural lead, scoring with a jab. Is Leonard refusing to play along here? He won’t circle away from Hagler’s left hand. Leonard with a nifty right hand out of the break. He is now attempting that lead right hand, trying to maybe catch Hagler coming in, but without success so far. He does score with a sweet hook to close the round, making Hagler pay for his aggression. That’s Leonard’s round, but it’s a close one. The strategy seems clear—anger and frustrate Hagler, lure him into getting sloppy, and make him pay.” 10-9 Leonard
Simon – “Hagler starts the round as a southpaw on the advice of his corner and lands his first notable punch of the fight with a left hand shot to Leonard’s head. A long clinch in the second third of the round is followed by a couple of good right hands by Leonard. Sugar Ray finishes the round with a good combination, and does enough to win the round.” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “Hagler begins the third round out of the southpaw stance, and it proves to be the correct decision as he gets through with a left counter. Leonard is keeping to the same tactics, staying on the outside and hoping that his pizzazz wins him the round. I had Hagler ahead with a minute to go, but Leonard lands a quality right hand, before finishing with combinations as the round closed. An extremely close round.” 10-9 Leonard
“He hasn’t put Ray on the ropes or trapped him in the corner. Missing, missing, missing.” – Tim Ryan
Damon – “Of the two, Hagler is the man using his cross to greater effect and shows it a couple of times in this round. Leonard is moving laterally deftly, but not scoring off of it, not making Hagler pay. Best punch of the round for Leonard ends up being a showy bolo to the body—the crowd eats it up—but Hagler gets in there, working to the ribs, scoring. (On replay, the bolo is well low.) Nice scoring right uppercut for Leonard in the closing 20 seconds, but Hagler pursues and lands a left to Leonard’s chin in response. Leonard dances away, holds, mugs. Hagler wins the round.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Leonard makes Hagler swing and miss with a few shots early on, and then follows them up with a few quick combinations. Hagler comes back with a few heavy if unspectacular body shots. The highlight of the round is some showboating by Leonard which seemed to mask the sub sequential low blow. Leonard ends the round with a few little combos, and does enough to with his fourth consecutive round. Hagler needs to step it up!” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “Hagler gets through with a left hand lead in the opening exchange, following it up with hard body shots in the opening two minutes. However, Hagler didn’t land often, and despite Leonard not flurrying late like the last round, he did manage to land clean right hands and eye-catching combinations, which stop Hagler in his tracks. Another very close round that could go either way, but slight edge for Leonard.” 10-9 Leonard
After 4 Rounds: Damon – 39-37 Leonard, Simon – 40-36 Leonard, Dafydd – 40-36 Leonard;
Damon – “Exciting start to this round, as Hagler pursues, Leonard answers with scoring straight punches, and Hagler continues to pursue. Right hand is landing for Leonard in this round, though it doesn’t yet appear to have a deterrent effect on Hagler. The uppercut is scoring for Leonard. Hagler lunges, misses badly, seemingly playing into Leonard’s plan. Leonard getting after Hagler a little better now, even willing to trade. But Hagler lands a tidy uppercut with 30 seconds left that shakes Leonard. Hagler pushes Leonard back and lands another to the body. Excellent round that ends in a flurry with both fighters landing punches. Tight one. Hagler might be wishing it would’ve been a three and a half- or four-minute round—or maybe if he’d landed that uppercut a little earlier.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Best round so far. Hagler starts to find his range in the second half of the round, and makes contact with a short right uppercut which forces Leonard to hold on. Sugar Ray is also forced against the ropes and the Marvelous one is able to unload. Good round for Hagler.” 10-9 Hagler
Dafydd – “Leonard does well in the opening minute, repeating his success in the opening rounds. Hagler slowly works his way into the round, putting some hurt on Leonard by landing a head-snapping right uppercut, that make Leonard’s knees buckle. This fires the champ up, who makes Sugar Ray uncomfortable.” 10-9 Hagler
Damon – “Leonard looking less cute to start the sixth, and Hagler’s forcing the fight inside. Leonard holding on less, but going backwards making the jab land and score—but still no apparent repellent effect on Hagler. Second half of the round, the only offense Leonard can manage comes when he’s holding and hitting. Both guys look slowed this round. Leonard landed a nice couple of punches late, but Hagler brought the pressure consistently and won the round.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “A slow round by both fighters as the pace of the early rounds start to take its toll. Ray Leonard is breathing very heavily and Hagler is swinging and missing with a lot of punches. Sugar Ray lands a couple of combinations in the last thirty seconds and does enough to sneak the round.” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “Marvin presses forward, consistently getting within punching range, but the flashy punching from a visibly tired Leonard overshadows Hagler’s work. Leonard puts a spirited effort to bounce back, finishing the round with a solid combination which finishes with a hook up top to win the round.” 10-9 Leonard
Damon – “Hagler defines controlling the action to start 7, landing jabs, moving Leonard around the ring. Hagler every bit the stronger man here. Leonard finally shows some life with 30 seconds left. Hagler hasn’t landed anything huge—Leonard could still steal this round. Leonard opens up, but then opts to dance and mug. Hagler moves in and scores to the head, to the body. Maybe not Hagler’s best round in the fight but his most dominant and the easiest round to score.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Another tough round to score as the pace slows. Ray Leonard begins the round with a noticeable left hook and Hagler responds in jest. The Marvelous one is making contact with a few more of his punches now as Sugar Ray becomes an easier target. Leonard lands another few combinations and crowns them off with an Ali shuffle. Probably the toughest round to score, but I gave it to Hagler because his shots although limited in number, were more effective.” 10-9 Hagler
Dafydd – “Leonard’s legs look like they’ve done their shift tonight, and that spring we saw in his step in the first quarter has disappeared. The consequence is that Ray is forced to stand and trade, a dangerous tactic against a mean body puncher like Hagler, whose jab is landing repeatedly as Leonard tires. He just can’t keep Hagler off, who seems at home fighting in the pocket as he does some nice body work followed by strong hooks and uppercuts.” 10-9 Hagler
Damon – “Hagler is scoring with his jab when Referee Steele stops the fight to address loose tape on Leonard’s right glove. Action resumes, and Leonard’s movement is beautiful to watch—it’s loose, it’s fluid. But he’s just not mounting sufficient offense to win these rounds. Hagler, meanwhile, continues to work, landing jabs, working inside. Leonard finally puts together a nice right hand as Hagler comes in, but then goes to the ropes, where Hagler continues to work his body. Hagler does damage with round punches and Leonard holds on to end the round. Just more of round 7 here, and now Leonard is the one looking frustrated.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Hagler opens the round with a solid right jab and continues his dominance throughout the round. Leonard is starting to move his feet slightly better but Hagler is landing the better shots and is throwing with greater frequency.” 10-9 Hagler
Dafydd – “Easiest round to score of the night, as Leonard takes a round off. Hagler lands a solid right jab to begin the round, and Leonard is content in holding on. Some brutal body shots wade in from Hagler, who is now landing with the cleaner shots and with more volume. Dangerous waters ahead for Leonard.” 10-9 Hagler
After 8 Rounds: Damon – 77-75 Hagler, Simon – 77-75 Leonard, Dafydd – 77-75 Leonard;
Damon – “Hagler sticking to a game plan now, it seems. But about 30 seconds in, he backs Leonard up and Leonard puts together a sweet combination, punctuates it with a right uppercut. Leonard seems willing to plant his feet a little more in this round, and it’s paying off in spots. And Hagler backs Leonard up into a corner and goes to work, scoring, stepping back, jabbing. Leonard bides his time and fires back. He won’t give this round away there. Great exchanges in round 9, and it’s a different Leonard than in previous rounds. Another skin-tight round.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Best round so far! Leonard throws a flashy combination to start out with little effect. Hagler backs Leonard up against the ropes, and later in the corner lands his best punch of the fight so far, a big left hand to the chin of the challenger. However, Leonard comes firing back with rights and lefts, showing true heart to get himself out of the corner. Round goes to Hagler though for his superior work earlier in the round.” 10-9 Hagler
Dafydd – “Hagler has a full head of steam now and hurts Leonard with a short left hand. Hagler drills Sugar Ray with continuous head and body attack on the ropes, with Leonard stylishly flurrying back. The best round so far, but it wasn’t really close. This was three minutes of steady punishment, interrupted by a few moments of flashy trickery from Leonard.” 10-9 Hagler
Damon – “Leonard comes out looking alive again, but there’s nothing on his punches. Hagler’s just imposing his will, and he lands a couple of scoring uppercuts early on. Leonard backs up, responds with an even better combination, but doesn’t follow up.” 10-9 Hagler
Simon – “Understandably a quieter round with little action. Ray Leonard throws a few combinations with Hagler providing little in return.” 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “The tempo dramatically slows after a thrilling ninth round. Leonard throws a few combinations, but for me, Hagler’s rough inside work, landing some short shots at the end of the round clinched the round. It was a close, but clear Hagler round.” 10-9 Hagler
Damon – “Leonard keeping pace with Hagler a little better to start this round. His combinations look sharp, and he’s doing a little scoring. Hagler’s work rate is waning a bit. When he tries to pick it up, the shots lack steam. Leonard counters with some success and is getting the better of Hagler in this round.” 10-9 Leonard
Simon – “Hagler lands a few solid body shots but Ray Leonard soon bounces off the ropes with a cool combination to escape harm’s way. By this point, Leonard has a second wind and is bobbing and weaving, forcing Hagler to miss and follows this up with a few cleanly landed punches. 10-9 Leonard
Dafydd – “Leonard shows true heart to bounce back from four rounds against him on my card. For me, this is Leonard’s best round. Leonard’s letting his hands go and his work rate is enough for him to take the round, but he also landed the harder punches. Leonard showboats, which captivates the crowd but maybe not the judges.” 10-9 Leonard
“It’s going to be interesting scoring Tim, you know, do you like the plodding guy or the flash.” – Gil Clancy
Damon – “Beginning of round 12 looks a lot like this fight in a nutshell. Leonard wants to come out and advertise himself as the fresher man, the faster fighter, the superior boxer—but what he’s doing in the ring doesn’t really bear that out. A nice flurry to escape, but it’s just as much for show—some of those punches may score; none will hurt Hagler. Second half of the round, Leonard is running, but stopping enough, picking enough shots, turning it on, landing enough to be in command. Hagler, even when he’s tired, gets the better of the exchanges, including the one that ends the round. Another close round. Leonard ran a lot, but stood and fought here enough successfully not to lose it.” 10-9 Leonard
Simon – “Ray Leonard circles the ring for the majority of the round, making Hagler chase him and earn the points he needs for victory. This round was very indicative of the fight as a whole, Leonard with a few flashy combinations and Hagler with some solid if unspectacular shots. Hagler seems to land the more effective shots in the last thirty seconds in contrast to Leonard’s showboating for the crowd.” 10-9 Hagler
Dafydd – “All the effective stuff came from Hagler in the final round. Hagler stalked and Leonard ran, and you can’t win a round without fighting. Leonard was happy to showboat and glide along the ropes, throwing potshots from time to time but nothing of real note.” 10-9 Hagler
Official Scorecards: Dave Moretti – 115-113 Leonard, Lou Filippo – 115-113 Hagler, Jose Juan Guerra – 118-110 Leonard;
Sugar Ray Leonard wins via split decision
The Boxing Tribune Scorecards: Damon Ealy – 115-113 Hagler, Simon Garner– 115-113 Leonard, Dafydd Thomas – 114-114 Draw;
Marvin Hagler retains his title via draw
The Boxing Tribune’s Combined Scorecard
Round 1: Leonard (0-3);
Round 2: Leonard (0-3);
Round 3: Leonard (0-3);
Round 4: Leonard (1-2);
Round 5: Hagler (3-0);
Round 6: Leonard (1-2);
Round 7: Hagler (3-0);
Round 8: Hagler (3-0);
Round 9: Hagler (3-0);
Round 10: Hagler (2-1);
Round 11: Leonard (0-3);
Round 12: Hagler (2-1);
Total: 114-114 Draw
So, the dispute goes on. Three cards pointing towards three different results. Even the combined scorecard can’t separate both fighters. Hagler and Leonard both won six rounds each, four unanimously and two split. The media were as divided as The Boxing Tribune’s panel, with a ridiculously close 6-5 to Leonard, with three draw cards. There will always be disagreement over this fight, it comes down to personal preference. Like Gil Clancy commentated, two of the judges at ringside that night preferred the boxer over the slugger. Maybe a different combination of judges would have changed the result, but this was no robbery, it was just a damn close fight.
Marvin Hagler was never seen on the professional circuit again. He retired with an impressive professional record of (62-3-2, 52 KO), and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in 1993.
Leonard announced his retirement after the fight, but came back in 1988 to win the WBC light heavyweight and super middleweight title with a from the canvas ninth-round stoppage of Donny Lalonde. He attempted to unify super middleweight titles with a second fight against Thomas Hearns, but on the night, Hearns was the better fighter, and Leonard accepted that in the post-fight press conference after the fight was scored a draw, but we’ll save that until another rendition of Controversial Fight Series.
Leonard dominated Duran in ’89, coming out on top in the trilogy 2-1. Again, Leonard retired, and came back again. He challenged Terry Norris in ’91 for Norris’ WBA junior middleweight title, getting annihilated, dropping a wide unanimous decision after being on the canvas twice in the fight. At the time, it seemed that this would be Leonard’s final farewell.
But it wasn’t. In 1997, Leonard was inducted to the IBHOF. Hector Camacho came calling shortly after, and Leonard accepted. Unfortunately, it was yet another unsuccessful return to the ring, as Camacho scored a fifth-round technical knockout win, retiring Leonard for the final time. Sugar Ray finished (36-3-1, 25 KO) and a five-weight world champion.
Damon’s Closing Thoughts
An admission: This is the first time I’ve seen this fight in its entirety. It took me 24 years to watch it all the way though. When “the Super Fight” happened, it was the first time anything in sports broke my heart, and I didn’t see it live. No one was taking me to see the fight on closed-circuit TV. I had school the next day. I was 9.
I went to bed thinking about it that Monday night, though. I got the news when I got to school. The other guys in class liked Sugar Ray. Of course, they did like a front-runner. The Steelers were miserable at that time. The Pirates had lost a hundred games the season prior, so these guys became fans of the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, the Celtics. Teams from places you had to get on a plane to get to. “Fans” might be a stretch. They wore those teams’ gear. To me, it made them seem physically bigger somehow.
My rooting interests were decimated, and I felt like I needed something to latch on to. Teams that’d beaten the hell out of the Steelers would never do. At some point, somewhere on the playground or in the cafeteria, I made it known that Marvin Hagler was going to win this fight and that I was rooting for him because he was the best.
I’d read his biography—a thin one of maybe 40 pages from our school library—and done a book report on it. (Did you know he went to England to win the belt, knocked the champion out—and those no-good bastards threw bottles at him for that?) I didn’t so much want to box like Hagler. Boxing would mean getting hit back. Or just getting hit. I wasn’t athletic. I was small. I was way better with a book reports than a basketball. But I wanted to have just a fraction of his strength, just a little bit of his menace.
Even in the ’80s, they were calling Sugar Ray Leonard a fighter of the ’80s and meaning it to sound like some kind of compliment. His good looks, his media saturation, his ostentatious wealth, the fact that he was always a winner—these were things my classmates admired.
I probably didn’t hear much about it before the fight, even as I spoke up: “Hagler’ll win.” Maybe some indifferent shrugs. But come Tuesday morning, I did: “Sugar Ray killed Marvin Hagler.” “Sugar Ray knocked out Hagler.” “Hagler’s garbage.” And I felt small and like an outsider and put-upon and like I wanted to be far away from school and these kinds of people. I felt a little piece of the loss, too—what it was like to invest in something and come out on the losing side. And that might’ve been just a little bit similar to what Hagler was feeling.
So now I can say that I’ve watched this one in its entirety. I still haven’t watched the decision, though.
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