by Fox Doucette
Ask most folks who the greatest middleweights of all time were, and their top four, in some order, will include Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Sure, some folks might throw Dick Tiger in there, and the true old-timers might give the nod to Mickey Walker, but Hagler is undoubtedly one of the greatest middleweights of all time.
Of course, all this talk would no doubt be seen as a slight by one Bernard Humphrey Hopkins Jr.; unless you’re rating him as a light heavyweight rather than as a middleweight, leaving him out of the top four is a referendum on the state of the middleweight division during The Executioner’s decade as a 160-pound titleholder and four-year run as the undisputed champion after ripping that distinction from Felix Trinidad in 2001. Hopkins undoubtedly thinks himself at least Hagler’s equal, and there is only one way to settle that, at least from the point of view of this show.
Meanwhile, the co-feature takes Emile Griffith from the single worst fate a victorious fighter can inflict on his opponent. With a vicious barrage of punches that continued even as his opponent was out on his feet and referee Ruby Goldstein a mere spectator, Griffith dealt a knockout blow to Benny Paret that would, ten days later, end Paret’s life from a brain hemorrhage. At the time Griffith is put into the time machine for this fight, however, he does not know the ultimate fate of his opponent; it will not be a psychological factor in tonight’s fight.
Griffith’s opponent tonight is Thomas Hearns, but not the version of Hearns who got knocked out by Hagler in three rounds in 1985. This version of the Hitman is the one who beat the snot out of Roberto Duran in two one-sided rounds on June 15, 1984. Hearns was at the height of his powers, delivering vicious shots with bad intentions against a man who had no prayer of inflicting any real damage on Hearns himself; will a stronger opponent prove to be more of a challenge tonight?
These fights are 12 rounds and contested under the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. There is no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and the fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round. In the event of an accidental foul, we go to the scorecards after four rounds are completed.
And now, for the thousands in attendance here at the HFN Arena and the millions watching around the world…Let’s Make History.
Emile Griffith (March 24, 1962, 29-3, 11 KOs) vs. Thomas Hearns (June 15, 1984, 39-1, 33 KOs)
“The reason it’s my favorite war is that it was a range war and what that means is that the Argentine guns could fire 9 kilometers and the British guns could fire 17 kilometers so we just parked our ships 10 kilometers away and theirs were falling into the sea and we were shelling the shit out of them. It’s the war equivalent of holding a midget at arm’s length and he’s flailing and you’re just kicking him in the bollocks like that.” – Ricky Gervais, on the Falkland Islands War.
Emile Griffith looked vulnerable in that third fight with Paret, hitting the canvas and almost finding himself knocked out in the sixth round before turning the fight around to its lethal conclusion. Griffith’s best punches were short, chopping right hands, which was great for the guy in front of him in 1962, but against Hearns, who had a freakish 78-inch reach on his 6’1” frame, Griffith was going to have to do a lot of work to get inside if he was to have any hope of landing such a short shot, since Griffith stood only 5’7” and had only a 72-inch reach. He wasn’t as small as Duran (who was the same height but had a 67-inch reach, making him practically a midget against the bigger Hearns), but the gross disparity in ability to get punches to the target without having to walk through hell to do it was on the mind of the commentators from the moment this fight began.
As well it should have been, really…Hearns came out right away knowing that he was the much bigger man; as if it weren’t bad enough that he enjoyed such a disparity in height and reach, Griffith weighed 144 pounds at the weigh-in of that last fight against Paret, but this fight is contested at junior middleweight. Sure, Griffith had at that point in his career fought at middleweight more than once, and with an eight-week 2015 training camp of sports nutrition and every other modern advantage of conditioning that did not exist in 1962, he was stronger at 154 than he had ever been in his actual career, but the fact remains this is the same guy who got manhandled twice by Carlos Monzon once the 1970s rolled around.
Hearns knew it. And the Hitman’s fight plan was to use the combination of superior size and the hand speed of a boxer, refined to perfection at the same Kronk Gym that had been a Detroit institution thirty years ago but with the 1984 version of Emanuel Steward thrown in the time machine with him, to impose his physical will upon his opponent.
As the three minutes went on, it was the Duran fight all over again. Emile Griffith may have been a world-class fighter in 1962, but here, against a matchup that posed an absolute nightmare for him, kept constantly on the outside and unable to work his way in against the vicious left hooks—not even jabs, since the sheer amount of range Griffith had to close allowed for Hearns to sit on his power shots—that awaited him as he tried to force his way to the inside to work those short rights.
From the color man in the booth came an aphorism for the ages as the bell sounded: “Gentlemen, forget what your wives and girlfriends told you. Size matters, and Thomas Hearns is just too big and too strong for Emile Griffith.”
The only thing left was to determine where the final blow would come from, and in exactly the same manner as had closed the show against Duran, Hearns threw a half jab to the body of Griffith to feint him out of position, which only served to open up the guard of the man from the Virgin Islands as a right hand came in and caught him right on the point of the chin. Like Duran, Griffith fell forward, helpless on the canvas, unable to beat the count, and the fight was over.
When the whole of their respective careers are taken in turn, Emile Griffith may very well be the equal or perhaps even the better of Thomas Hearns…but as a style and size matchup between the two men at their best fighting directly? The man from Detroit is just too big, too strong, too fast, and too skilled at imposing his will on a smaller man. Griffith never stood a chance in this fight.
RESULT: HEARNS KO2 GRIFFITH.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler (April 15, 1985, 61-2-2, 51 KOs) vs. Bernard Hopkins (September 18, 2004, 45-2-1, 32 KOs)
“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” – Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
For all the talk of height and reach in the previous contest, and how a bigger, longer man can prove to have a decisive advantage if he can keep his opponent at the end of his punches (consider the freakish 81-inch reach of Wladimir Klitschko, or for that matter the 87-inch reach of the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard in basketball, which is all the more insane considering that Leonard, at 6’7”, is only an inch taller than Wlad), what do you do when two guys with the same reach stand at starkly different heights?
Such a question comes up when Bernard Hopkins (6’1”) and Marvin Hagler (5’9”) both come into a fight with a 75-inch reach. With neither man able to enjoy the advantage that had led to Thomas Hearns beating Emile Griffith utterly senseless in the space of two rounds, this would be purely a matter of the tactics of the fight, not the range.
We find Bernard Hopkins brought forward in time from the moment of his last professional knockout, a ninth-round stoppage of Oscar De La Hoya that would be his penultimate defense of the middleweight championship of the world. Questions of the decay of his power would not yet be asked at that point in time; middleweight Hopkins had a lot more pop in his fists than light heavyweight Hopkins ever did.
Marvin Hagler? He’s been brought forth from his demolition of Thomas Hearns, an eight-minute war that was the 1985 Fight of the Year and featured one of the greatest rounds in the history of the middleweight division in Round 1. Of particular interest, besides the all-action nature of that fight, it was a departure in style for Hagler; normally a slow starter, Marvelous came out chucking leather and forcing the pace of the fight even as he ate one hell of a counter shot from Hearns that stunned him and nearly sent him down for the count before three minutes had gone by.
Hopkins spent the first three rounds of his fight with De La Hoya so keen on feeling out his opponent and boxing that he averaged only around thirty punches thrown over that stretch. The commentators for HBO even made mention that Hopkins had made the same mistake that Hagler had in the Sugar Ray Leonard fight, letting his opponent win rounds to a point where he needed to come from behind (it is worth noting that the actual judges in that fight did not agree with the television crew; Hopkins was significantly ahead on two of the three cards by the time of the stoppage.)
Hagler brought the same fight plan with him for this fight, so…
Just like in the Hearns fight, Hagler applied pressure early. Hopkins had shown in the De La Hoya contest a tendency to freeze when his opponent applied pressure, and his early efforts to counter were too tentative for the relentless pressure that Hagler sought to apply.
Hagler turned orthodox rather than his usual southpaw style when he got inside so that his lead left would be in a better position to dig to the body, and Hagler spent the bulk of the first round ripping shots one after the other, trying to tear Hopkins in half and possibly land the same sort of shot that Hopkins had landed on Oscar De La Hoya to close the show in round nine of that fight.
The punch that Jim Lampley dubbed the “Micky Ward left hook” never quite landed, but it was clear from the outset that Hagler had no intention of letting this go the full twelve rounds if it could be helped. He couldn’t make the mistake he’d made against Leonard; in his view and mind, that fight had not yet happened, historical record thirty years later be damned.
More of the same came the Executioner’s way; Hagler decided that “second verse, same as the first”, throwing in some much dirtier means of keeping the distance where he wanted it. His confidence high, he began to bull rush, shoving Hopkins back against the ropes, getting him off balance, then doing more damage with those crushing body shots that occasionally brought with them a right uppercut that drifted a little south of the border.
It is here that Hagler showed some strategic savvy; when he threw the illegal punches, he always made sure that referee Mills Lane could not clearly see the shots from the angle at which he had positioned himself. If Lane was on Hagler’s right where he could see the low blows, Hagler threw the hooks further back toward the kidneys of Hopkins. If Lane was on the left, Hagler threw the uppercuts where they’d be at risk of connecting below the belt. No matter the means, the intent was clear—rough up the man from Philadelphia and continue to sap his stamina.
Hopkins, between rounds, got an earful from Bouie Fisher, his trainer, exhorting him to put more snap on his jab and to make Hagler pay for trying to walk him down, and if that didn’t work, to ugly up the fight to the point where if the referee wasn’t going to make his enemy pay for cheap shots, no need to make it a fair fight.
Hagler came in with more of the same, continuing to dig to the body, but as Hopkins began to clinch, shove, and generally make it harder for Hagler to get any work done, Mills Lane lost his patience and began to break the fighters far more readily than he had in the first two rounds.
Continually shoved back to the outside by the referee, Hagler had to reset himself, charging forward more times than he otherwise would have, and every time he came forward, Hopkins met him with a counter. Even though Hagler continued to walk Hopkins down, he never got the chance to work without paying a price for the real estate gained.
Two minutes into the round, a counter left hook caught Hagler on the temple, stunning him, and forcing him onto the back foot. Hopkins chased Hagler down, opening up and moving his hands, trying to finish off the man in front of him, pouring on combination hooks and straight rights, and it was only the sound of the bell to end the third round that bailed Hagler out. Hopkins had his best round of the fight so far, and with scores at a consensus 29-28, we had ourselves a fight.
The fight settled down over the next four rounds. Hagler had been forced to respect the power of Hopkins; Hopkins, knowing that being reckless could lead to his own demise if he opened up too far and got caught by a guy with one-punch knockout power, engaged only in spots. On some occasions, Hopkins would get off first, using his jab to keep Hagler at range, while on other occasions, it was Hagler who would slip the jab with a deft little move to the side then step forward, using his shoulder as a battering ram to move Hopkins backward, then reaching the rope and continuing the onslaught of shots to the body that had defined the first two rounds.
They were tough rounds to score; in the old days, under the old rounds system of yore where a fighter really had to dominate in order to get the point awarded every three minutes, the rounds would have likely been scored even.
This was not such a scenario; the conventional wisdom in boxing today is that there is no such thing as a truly even round; over three minutes, someone has done the slightest bit more than the other guy to get the 10-9, even as no two 10-9 rounds are created equal. Whether a judge had it 69-64 Hagler through seven or 68-65 Hopkins, that judge could ultimately defend his score. The prevailing view was in between, giving two rounds each to both fighters, making the score 67-66, four rounds to three, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
The problem came in the fact that Hagler’s punches were taking more out of Hopkins. CompuBox tallied shots to the body, and in terms of connects, Hagler had landed 76 power punches to the body through seven rounds against only nine for Hopkins. Overall punches were a different story; even though Hagler had the higher overall work rate, Hopkins was hitting far more accurately, both on the counter when he caught Hagler coming in and in the use of his own hands to deliver leather to the head of Hagler while the Brockton-based fighter had his guard down to work down below.
As the action developed in the eighth round, Hagler was just a little faster than Hopkins; he’d begun to beat his man to the punch because he was fresher, with a much firmer foundation underneath him. The eighth round went easily to Hagler, who had begun to show the ambidextrous versatility of the Hearns fight insofar as he would fight southpaw on the outside but square up or shift to orthodox in order to get that digging left hook to the target when he got inside.
Still, Hopkins had the great equalizer when he needed it; Hagler, despite a granite chin that led to him never being knocked out and indeed only ruled down once (and that by extremely questionable ruling on what was a push by Juan Domingo Roldan mere seconds into the first round) in a career that spanned 67 pro fights over nearly 400 rounds, fully 20 hours of in-ring action, could if hit flush still be stunned.
As he had in the third round, Hopkins managed to hurt Hagler on another of those counter left hooks, and although Hagler did not go down, Hopkins was nonetheless able to press the attack, out to leave no doubt in the minds of the judges as to just who was to be awarded the ten points, indeed trying to impose himself such that he could steal a 10-8 round even without the knockdown.
Still, the hook was the only punch that landed truly flush. There would be no 10-8 round, only a lot of expended energy from a guy who had perhaps punched himself out trying to seize the momentum. Once again, Hagler shook off the effects in the minute between rounds, and when the next round began, he was once again the fresher of the two combatants.
On the subject of an excellent chin, Hopkins nearly made it to his 50th birthday without tasting the canvas in a fight—only the machinations of Sergey Kovalev have ever dented the chin of Hopkins. Marvin Hagler may have been doing a world of damage to the body of Hopkins, but whenever Hagler would follow the hook to the body with a second hook above the now-lowered guard, Hopkins shook it off like he’d hardly been touched.
It’s not like Hopkins had never at that point in his career fought a big puncher—Felix Trinidad, Antwun Echols, and the 1993 version of Roy Jones were all known for the monster shots they could administer to the chin of an opponent unfortunate enough to stand too close with his guard out of position. The only man who could even so much as dent the chin of Bernard Hopkins was Father Time, and even he needed Sergey Kovalev as a tag-team partner.
Still, the relentless body attack of Hagler was taking its toll. It is one thing to be resistant to concussion; quite another to be able to stand up like the thickest redwood to repeated chops from an ax. Hagler was the lumberjack, and how the judges scored the tenth round came down ultimately to whether the judges were savvy enough to see good body punching on the inside or whether a bit of shoe-shining to the head or even a crisply landed hook where the judges could see it would offset the more powerful shots that were landing outside of the view of at least one judge at any given moment purely by the nature of the body shielding the view of that judge.
The eleventh round was more of the same; Hagler took the starch out of the shots, but the simple fact remained that Hopkins was nonetheless continuing to land them. Would a depleted man win out over a hard-punching one?
Hagler’s hard work at last paid off. Hopkins simply had nothing left in the tank, and indeed, had this fight been 15 rounds, Hopkins would have surely gone down by knockout in the 13th or 14th, like Arguello against Pryor or like Frazier against Ali in their third fight. Many an argument can be made in favor of the 15-round championship distance by observing how boxers in 12-round fights look after 36 minutes of unceasing punishment.
Hagler poured on the punches, throwing them seemingly without reply, forcing Hopkins into survival mode, and when the bell sounded to end the fight, a visibly exhausted Hopkins was hardly able to hold his hands high for the victory that perhaps even he doubted he had earned. If Max Kellerman’s adage that you have to ask yourself which of these two guys would you rather be at the end, that’s the one who won the fight held true, then Hagler was the obvious winner. If instead you awarded the rounds to the guy who landed the punches that were more immediately visible to the judges, then the fight would go to Bernard Hopkins. It was with great anticipation that the fight went to the judges’ scorecards.
Judge Dave Moretti scored the bout 116-112, Hagler. Judge Julie Lederman scored the bout 115-113, Hopkins. And judge Glenn Feldman scored the bout 115-113 in favor of your winner, by split decision…
RESULT: HAGLER W-SD12 HOPKINS
We’ve got a wild main event for you in the career-cut-tragically-short division, as Edwin Valero takes on Salvador Sanchez in a junior lightweight contest to earn a title that the winner can present to the gods.
Meanwhile, by popular demand, the co-feature, also at junior lightweight, features the rematch between Alexis Arguello and Arturo Gatti—this time, Arguello is pulled not from his fight with Aaron Pryor but instead from a point in his career when he was still very much in his prime; a 25-year-old Arguello comes from his first fight with Alfredo Escalera, while this version of Gatti, also age 25, is the one who knocked out Gabriel Ruelas in 1997. How will “Thunder” fare at his opponent’s best weight? Will it be the foregone conclusion that so many believe? Or will your columnist once again be torn apart by wolves in the comments section?
Stay tuned, 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific, every Friday on The Boxing Tribune, for another edition of Historical Fight Night.
Fox Doucette covers boxing news and trends for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If and Historical Fight Night alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. As always, fighters’ styles are representative of fights throughout their careers, with special emphasis on the date listed. Fan mail, hate mail, and suggestions for future Historical Fight Night matchups can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.