There are only a few fights among the many which litter the annals of boxing history that deserve the superlatives given to the middleweight championship bout held on April 15 1985 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas between Marvin Hagler, the undisputed champion, and Thomas Hearns, a world welterweight and super welterweight titlist.
An eagerly anticipated bout at the time of its happening, the Hagler-Hearns clash superseded expectations and added a glorious chapter to the corpus of boxing's most celebrated clashes.
The Newark-born and Brockton-raised champion had by the time of the Hearns bout established himself as the most dominant figure in the middleweight division since the tenure of Carlos Monzon.
Once he had succeeded in terminating Alan Minter's reign, Hagler had embarked on a 'reign of terror' consolidating his position with wins over Vito Anterfermo, William 'Caveman' Lee, Tony Sibson and Mustapha Hamsho.
Yet Hagler, ever restless and ambitious, and aching to achieve the levels of grandeur he had painstakingly been building towards, was not content. And neither was the boxing fraternity who yearned for a fighter of the subsisting era to be anointed as a truly all time great. Ali was gone and the ensuing vacuum, temporarily filled by the golden personage and sublime skills of Sugar Ray Leonard, was as gaping as ever.
Larry Holmes a technically competent but uninspiring colossus among a band of corpulent heavyweights and overblown white hopes (although the Rocky films made some amends) could not fill the void. Mexican genius Julio Cesar Chavez was yet to achieve maturity and Salvador Sanchez, snuffed out by a motorcycle accident, never would.
Tony Ayala, a man reckoned to have the best chance of bettering both Hagler and Leonard had cheated himself out of contention owing to a rape conviction. In this midnight of a dark age, Hagler alone appeared to be carrying the torch on boxing's behalf.
Thomas Hearns was an outstanding fighter. A mightily tall, spindly-limbed welterweight in the physical mould of Al Brown and Bob Foster, Hearns had metamorphosed from a light-hitting amateur boxer of impressive credentials to a hard-belting professional apt at doubling over his opponents with a vicious right hand. His record was sullied by a sole loss, in 1981, to Sugar Ray Leonard against whom he was winning but against whom he wilted and finally succumbed.
If Hearns had shrunk in his biggest test, then victory over Hagler offered some form of redemption. With Leonard prematurely retired both fighters knew that their biggest pay day and a confirmation for posterity of the greatness each felt sure was his, lay in doing battle with the other.
Many felt this would be an even fight no matter the odds being manufactured by the gambling industry. If Hearns used his jab and kept his distance he would win. On the other hand if Hagler got in close to 'rough up' the narrow-waisted 'Hit Man' from Detroit and could bang him on his suspect chin, victory would be his.
Some ventured to compare the results both men had with a common opponent, Roberto Duran. While Hagler had churned out a workman like fifteen round decision over the Panamanian, Hearns had despatched him in two brutal rounds. Still, no one knew what to expect.
At the din of the first round both men hastily approached the centre of the ring but while Hearns started by orientating his movements into the "feeling out with a jab" stance, Hagler quickened his pace, bulling himself straight at Hearns and stepping in with short powerful hooks.
But Hagler’s sudden surge was met with an equally violent response: Hearns stepped sideways and unleashed a two fisted fusillade of hooks and uppercuts that smashed into and around Hagler's face.
Stunned for a few moments, Hagler stumbled into Hearns unwilling embrace and shook what he could of the pain out of his head. As they both stepped away from each other, a cut on the bridge of Hagler's nose became visible and by the round’s end, following a sustained period of 'give and take' brutality, blood was pouring from the centre of his forehead.
The second round did not match the drama of the first, but only by a little margin. Both men moved around the canvas at a maniacal pace, spitting out blood and also more than a few personal insults (according to referee Richard Steele's recollections). Both men rocked each other with heavy blows, although Hagler appeared to have the edge.
In the third, Hearns, though physically tiring, started by moving around throwing his long left into Hagler's path. While Hagler pushed forward, Hearns moved laterally attempting to keep the champion at arm’s length. Blood continued seeping down Hagler’s face and Steele now suspended proceedings to call for the ringside doctor to look at Hagler's injury.
When Steele asked Hagler whether Hearns was still visible, Hagler retorted; "Well, I ain't missing him, am I?" The doctor counselled forbearance and the fight continued.
The end came soon after when Hagler, now fearing that he would be the victim of a technical knockout stoppage, detecting Hearns off-balanced shot out a right hook which caught Hearns on top of the head.
Hearns visibly weakened and Hagler sprang at him, chasing him as Hearns strained, back half turned and legs dragging, to get out of harm’s way.
But Hagler caught up, whacking him at the side of the head with a hopping motion. Now backed up on the ropes, Hearns was virtually paralysed and was on the verge of tumbling to the canvas when Hagler again followed up with a leaping right hook to the head.
Hearns remained motionless for a few seconds before he stirred and incredibly rose to his full height. Steele had reached the count of nine. But Hearns' action was instinctive; he was in no position to defend himself and Steele completed the formality of waving the fight over.
The fight, it was said would be decided on the twin issues of heart and chin; both men had heart but Hearns was decisively lacking in the latter.
It was a truly memorable encounter and immediately brought comparisons with the Dempsey-Firpo and the Zale-Graziano slugfests: wild, exhilarating, dramatic and decisive in its denouement, Hagler-Hearns like these bouts stands Olympus-like over others, a testament to the power that stylised savagery has in providing for passion-filled spectacle.
It will be remembered too as the crowning event in Hagler's career; much more than defending his title, he successfully crossed the threshold from being a dominant champion to being a great champion.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2002)