by Fox Doucette
When last we left our middleweight tournament, Vito Antuofermo had pulled what some in the boxing press were calling the Upset of the Year as he scored a 15-round unanimous decision win over Rodrigo Valdez in an 8-vs-1 shocker to kick off the WBA’s middleweight tournament to crown an heir to the throne vacated by the retirement of Carlos Monzon. His opponent will be a young Marvin Hagler, who beat the snot out of David Love in a single round to claim his place in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, a still-undefeated Ronnie Harris, who sliced and diced the face of Alan Minter en route to a five-round stoppage on cuts, takes on the venerable Bennie Briscoe, who pulled off a 7-vs-2 upset of his own in what would prove to be the swan song for Gratien Tonna, who retired after the fight.
At the same time, the public was getting restless, as the orchestrated murder of Muhammad Ali at the hands of CIA spook Mike Leary, disgraced (and now murdered) trainer Panama Lewis, and Soviet fighter with a 1-0 professional record Ivan Vysotsky, plus a resurgent Black Power movement, was creating political nightmares for the New York congressman who had won election in 1976 precisely because he’d promised his Empire State constituents a cleaning up of a scandal-ridden sport.
And what of the other weight classes around the sport? We’ll be getting to them as well, but first, those middleweight fights:
July 8, 1978
(5) Marvin Hagler vs. (8) Vito Antuofermo
Hagler’s win over Love was a wake-up call that the man who had struggled as recently as 1976 in his fight with Willie Monroe was not going to just be some journeyman who was going to skulk around the fringes of championship glory. Hagler was out for blood and respect, and if knocking out a guy who was a bit of a patsy by championship contender status was simply a nice start, going after the guy who might well already have been champion if not for the tournament format was going to cement his rise.
The fight itself was a bloody, vicious assault not only upon the face of the Italian but upon the sensibilities of the viewer, as Hagler opened up cuts on Antuofermo like he was punching him with a palmed knife. By the end of the third round, Vito was slashed above both eyes, had a two-inch gash on his left cheekbone, and looked like he was going to bleed out in the ring.
Referee Richard Steele looked on, debating with himself whether to stop the fight or let the contest be decided by the combatants. Antuofermo was working the jab well, and when he wasn’t getting popped open like a ripe melon by the fists of his opponent, he was actually winning the fight. He’d caught Hagler clean a couple of times with shots that had they not landed on a man with a granite jaw might well have dropped him.
Hagler, for his part, began to switch to a more precise style, working from the southpaw stance in an effort to further open up the cuts that, to his mind and to the mind of his trainer, looked the more likely to get him that stoppage. In the process, he opened yet another cut, this time over the bridge of the nose, which had Antuofermo bleeding from three distinct wounds that looked like a Crimson Unibrow.
After three more rounds of this, during which a fifth cut opened, the second such slash over the left eye of the Italian, making an X that looked like it marked the spot on a treasure map, Steele stepped in, and over the vociferous objection of cutman Freddie Brown, stopped the fight.
Curiously, after those six rounds, had the fight gone to the scorecards, Antuofermo would have won a majority decision. On two judges’ cards, he was ahead 4-2, and on the third, it was even. There would be no rematch, however, as Hagler had bigger fish to fry first—the final step on his road to a title.
RESULT: HAGLER TKO6 (CUTS) ANTUOFERMO.
(3) Ronnie Harris vs. (7) Bennie Briscoe
Ronnie Harris was still undefeated, and after slicing and dicing Alan Minter, looked ready to stay that way against a guy who, victory over an ancient Frenchman notwithstanding, was 0-4 against guys in this tournament (and who, in the prime timeline, would lose to both Marvin Hagler and David Love during the time frame of this tournament.)
Still, the old dog had some fight in him. Early on, he was able to get to Harris, backing him up to the ropes and doing work, but by round three, Harris had settled down and began a patient breakdown of Briscoe that combined some quality boxing with the application of a southpaw right hook that had a little extra giddyup on it on this particular evening. Harris, who had not lost a fight, amateur or pro, since the 1967 Pan Am Games, was not about to let an old dog who had already been a pro for five years himself on that day of Harris’s last loss outwork him.
The fight was 15 rounds; for that length of time, Harris simply dominated, erasing the early two round deficit en route to a unanimous decision by twelve rounds to three on all three cards. The stage was set for a showdown with Marvin Hagler in October.
RESULT: HARRIS UD15 BRISCOE.
October 14, 1978: (3) Ronnie Harris vs. (5) Marvin Hagler
Hagler had come of age in that semifinal. His team showed him the footage of the fight, correctly pointing out how Marvin had let go of his sound defensive principles in trying a little too hard to work the cuts of Antuofermo; had his opponent not had skin of wet paper in that fight, Hagler might very well have given it away on the cards.
The lesson was clear. Harris may have posed no threat to knock Hagler out, but to underestimate him, or to deviate from sound strategy in the pursuit of a knockout, might prove to be exactly the wrong move. Hagler was a better boxer, and he damn sure had more power in his fists; the only way he was going to lose this fight was going to be if he got reckless.
What’s more, his corner was determined to break Marvin of his habit of starting slow. Giving away two or three rounds may not have been a killer over the course of fifteen, but why give your opponent an advantage? For nine weeks of training camp leading up to the fight, Hagler’s sparring partners were urged to fight in a style that would normally get Marvin to go into a defensive, feeling-out-the-opponent stance, and when Hagler adopted that pose without opening up his jab, an air horn would sound from ringside. Anything to get Marvin moving his hands as early in the fight as was feasible would do in the course of training.
Harris, meanwhile, prepared himself to fight a big puncher, but otherwise stuck with his own style, which had netted him plenty of decision wins; he wasn’t going to be lured into trading shots with a guy who could get the better of those exchanges. The stage was set; it would be an unstoppable force against someone who was less an immovable object and more an elusive one.
Which, as it turned out, was no contest at all. Hagler’s early aggression, coupled with a well-drilled ability to cut down the ring and close off his opponent’s avenue of escape, and thrown in with Hagler’s ability to turn orthodox at will and attack the southpaw with right-hand power shots, made the result academic. Harris was blitzkrieged, and his chin simply could not withstand the assault. The fight was a slaughter, ending after the fourth knockdown of the fight halfway through the third round.
Marvin Hagler was middleweight champion of the world.
RESULT: HAGLER KO3 HARRIS.
Roberto Duran had defended the lightweight title twice in the fall and winter of 1977-78, but vacated the title in February in order to move up to welterweight, where Carlos Palomino was still champion. Duran fought a tuneup fight in May, beating Pipino Cuevas to a pulp over the course of four rounds, establishing himself as a force at the higher weight. This set the scene for a night of boxing not to be missed, as not only was Duran fighting Palomino, but a certain other welterweight who we’ll see not too far into the future was on his way up through the ranks as well.
September 30, 1978, Orange Bowl, Miami, FL
Sugar Ray Leonard TKO10 Floyd Mayweather Sr.
After winning the gold medal at the Olympics in Montreal, Sugar Ray Leonard turned pro in 1977 and immediately started setting the world on fire, winning his first 13 fights, including a fight with Dicky Eklund in Boston that would set the latter man on a spiral into drugs and crime that would only later be redeemed with the help of his half-brother.
But we’re not here to discuss David O. Russell movies. We’re here to talk boxing. And for that, we move to a fight that was originally scheduled for the 9th of September in Providence but was moved to Miami at the insistence of ABC, which was televising the card and wanted to showcase an up-and-comer for future ratings consideration alongside the championship fight.
The Leonard camp readily agreed—money talks, after all—and the stage was set. Floyd Mayweather, who at 15-1 was regarded variously as either an interesting prospect with a questionable future or as one of the top ten welterweights in the world depending entirely on who you asked (Ring Magazine had him sixth; the WBA had him unranked), and who was the father of a 20-month-old child still years away from anyone knowing or caring who he was, would be the stiffest test of Leonard’s young career yet.
The fight itself proved that it may have been a stiff test, but Ray Leonard dropped Floyd twice in the eighth round before closing the show in the tenth; Mayweather had his moments where he worked his jab to effect, but Leonard was simply the stronger and faster man, outclassing Mayweather in every possible way.
Roberto Duran KO6 Carlos Palomino
Duran, for his part, stepped into battle with a guy who simply would not be his equal on this day. In front of a raucous crowd in a football stadium on a simply gorgeous early-autumn Florida evening, the bright stadium lights casting a glow on the Panamanian fighter that seemed to energize him in the joy of the moment, Duran prepared to show the world that his “manos de piedra” would be brought to full bear since he no longer had to dry himself out to make the lightweight limit.
Palomino had wanted a fight with Wilfred Benitez, but the WBA intervened, demanding Palomino fight Duran first; if he refused, the sanctioning body would order Benitez to fight Duran for what would become the vacant title.
Benitez, for his part, simply shredded Randy Shields and bided his time.
Palomino, it was said, had a rough go of it in training camp; fuming from the boxing politics machinations going on behind the scenes and remembering a promise he had made to his mother to retire before the age of thirty (Palomino is 28 as this tale unfolds), he was not nearly so focused as he might otherwise have been.
The combination of all of those factors and a few good chaos butterflies combined in the form of a quick left hook-right cross combination in the sixth round, and Palomino rose, but only to one knee, watching the count hit ten, his will to fight lost. He retired after the fight, and the WBA had a new welterweight champion of the world.
Elsewhere around the world…
Masahiko “Irish Mickey” Sakai was back in his native Japan after losing the inaugural super flyweight title fight against Miguel Canto, but he was far from done as a fighter. He went back to Japan for a couple of months after that fight, using his fight purse to improve his living circumstances and fighting a couple of guys on the Kyoto club circuit before heading back stateside; a deal came through whereby he would fight Antonio Becerra, best known for working Salvador Sanchez to a split decision, in Boston on the undercard of a monster St. Patrick’s Day show featuring a rematch between Danny Lopez and Sean O’Grady and, as the main event, Marvin Hagler defending his title against Hugo Pastor Corro.
But that’s later. Next week, the continuing tale of politics and intrigue as we shift focus once again to the world behind the scenes; Jerry Ambro is up for re-election to the House, Don King stews in a cell, Mike Leary and his band of brothers in Langley have a fight of their own on their hands, and Wilfred Benitez eats a sandwich with Cus D’Amato in Brooklyn, all on the next episode of One Champ Per Weight, coming Tuesday, July 21 to a computer near you.
Meanwhile, don’t miss Historical Fight Night on Fridays; our last battle was an epic between Bob Foster and Roy Jones where the result may surprise you, and we’ve got a special Mirror Match edition involving Muhammad Ali and George Foreman this week.
Boxing history buffs have a lot to love, so set that bookmark and come back weekly.