Natural Born Fighter


"That's Hagler's mentality, to be angry so that when he's in that ring, he just wanted to just squash you," says Sugar Ray Leonard on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

When Goody Petronelli first watched a 16-year-old Marvin Hagler throw punches in his Massachusetts gym in 1970, he saw raw skill filtering through an unprocessed form.

Hagler said the boxing trainer called him a "natural" early on, a tag the lefthander thought undervalued his work ethic, minimizing the hours he spent practicing the combinations Petronelli taught. Marvelous Marvin Hagler merely wanted the credit he deserved -- much like he'd hunger to fight the best when the middleweight pros later turned their backs on him, wary of his punching power. "A bunch of sissies," Hagler railed.

Their concerns proved well-grounded. After a long wait for a title shot, Hagler would advance to earn the world championship and a reputation as one of the all-time top middleweights.

"What makes Marvin such a great fighter is his versatility," Petronelli said in 1983. "The majority of fighters are either bangers or boxers. They're great at what they do, but that's all. Marvin can do anything."

Hagler, 5-feet-9, head shaven and often scowling, fought righthanded at times, and though lacking a signature knockout punch, wore down rivals with unrelenting combinations. He counter-punched superbly and rarely got hurt.

Unlike boxers who avoided him, he ducked no one. He beat Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Vito Antuofermo and Olympic gold medalist Ray Seales (twice) among others.
After stopping Briton Alan Minter for the title in 1980, Hagler successfully defended his crown 12 times before losing a controversial split decision in 1987 to Sugar Ray Leonard, a man he disliked and whose popular image he envied. The highly publicized fight, which ended an 11-year unbeaten streak, became his farewell when Leonard failed to offer a rematch.

The Hall of Famer finished a 14-year pro career with a 62-3-2 record, including 52 knockouts, and earned an estimated $40 million.

Hagler was born on May 23, 1954, in Newark, N.J., and grew up fatherless in an inner-city tenement. The major rioting in Newark in the summer of 1967 led to his mother, Ida Mae, moving the family of seven to Brockton, Mass., the hometown of Rocky Marciano, where her sister lived, in 1969.

An unwed father and ninth-grade dropout, Hagler worked construction jobs and spent time on the streets -- as he said, "running a lot, stealing a little."

He visited the small gym in downtown Brockton and connected with Goody and his brother, Pat Petronelli, who became Hagler's co-manager. After winning 57 amateur fights and taking the 1973 national AAU middleweight title under the brothers' guidance, he turned pro that year. His purse in his debut: $50.

Opponents fell quickly as Hagler's slashing style dictated his first 17 money bouts, all in New England. His reputation grew quickly, and the Petronellis struggled to find fights outside the region.

"Guys run from Marvin so much they should be in track meets instead of fights," Pat Petronelli said.

The unbeaten 20-year-old decisioned Seales in Boston in August 1974, then fought a draw with him in Seattle three months later, Hagler's first pro competition outside New England and his first non-win.

A breakthrough from the "B" ranks began in 1976 when Hagler got three fights in Philadelphia. He lost decisions to Bobby Watts and Willie Monroe and stopped Eugene Hart on an eighth-round TKO. The losses, his only defeats until the Leonard fight 11 years later, seemed to toughen Hagler, who later knocked out Monroe twice and Watts once.
Renowned for his aggressive approach and strong chin, Hagler also had ring smarts. He knew how to knock straight-ahead sluggers off balance with quick jabs, how to measure distance distinctly so that he'd be just out of range of counter-punches, and how to change the pace of fights in his favor, as he did against Duran and Mustafa Hamsho in defending his title in the 1980s.

"Every fighter has to be a thinking fighter," Hagler said, adding that "anyone can go in there and throw punches."

Not just anyone could land him fights, though. His loyalty to the Petronellis -- Hagler could have snagged a big-name manager -- probably slowed his rise, and even when becoming an elite challenger, he waited while champions such as Rodrigo Valdez and Hugo Corro fought others.

The opportunity finally arrived in his 50th pro fight when promoter Bob Arum matched Hagler against champion Antuofermo on Nov. 30, 1979 in Las Vegas on a Leonard undercard. He bloodied the bull-like champ early, but Antuofermo, a 4-1 underdog, rallied in the late rounds for a questionable draw and retained his title.

The next September, new champion Minter gave Hagler a second title chance. Hagler left nothing to the judges this time, swarming Minter early and winning on a third-round TKO, the night ending with London fans throwing bottles into the ring.

His dream realized, Hagler stayed busy. He fought and dispelled the best challengers available, stopping Fulgencio Obelmejias, Antuofermo and Hamsho in 1981, Caveman Lee and Obelmejias again the next year.

An 11th-round TKO of Hamsho, who needed 55 stitches from multiple cuts, earned Hagler his first million-dollar payday and praise from the opposition corner. "I knew Hagler was a great puncher and he was strong," said Paddy Flood, Hamsho's manager, "but I didn't know he was such a beautiful boxer."

One of Hagler's less attractive performances came in his eighth title defense, against Duran in 1983. Duran, a former lightweight and welterweight champ, was in his 16th year fighting professionally and was past his prime. The Panamanian nonetheless became the first to go the distance against Hagler in a world title bout, losing a close but unanimous decision.

In his next fight, Juan Roldan knocked down Hagler for the first time in his pro career, hitting him in the back of the head, though many observers said the champion only slipped. Hagler recovered to register a 10th-round KO.

His most illustrious victory came in April 1985 against the once-beaten Hearns in a bout billed as "The War." Hearns, the junior middleweight champion and former welterweight titlist, had knocked out Duran 10 months earlier.

The two fought savagely for eight minutes, with Hagler's forehead bloodied and Hearns' right hand broken in the first round. Hagler kept his title with a third-round KO. "Once I see blood, I turn to bull," he said.

His knockout of John Mugabi in 1986 preceded one of the sport's most anticipated matchups: Hagler-Leonard on April 6, 1987. The oft-retired Leonard, beset by injuries to both of his retinas, had fought once in five years and had never competed as a middleweight. But he made a comeback to fight the champion, who was riding a 37-fight unbeaten streak, and drew up several demands. Hagler's management team agreed to 10-ounce gloves instead of 8-ounce, a 20-foot ring instead of 18, and 12 rounds rather than 15.

Leonard started quickly, dancing and landing counter right hands and keeping Hagler at a distance. After the fourth round, the champion began attacking more but couldn't put Leonard away. In the end, the judges scored it for Leonard, with round counts of 7-5, 5-7, 10-2, the latter a complete bewilderment to the Hagler camp.

"I feel in my heart I'm still the champ," Hagler said. "I really hate the fact that they took it from me and gave it to, of all people, Sugar Ray Leonard."

Hagler took the loss badly, falling into occasional heavy bouts of drinking and seeing his longtime marriage to wife Bertha crumble. For a short time, he went into near-seclusion at a New Hampshire cabin.

When it became clear that Leonard wasn't interested in a rematch and would retire again, Hagler also quit. He announced his retirement on June 13, 1988, saying he planned to begin a movie career. He appeared in several films, the most notable "Indio," in which he played a U.S. Marine.

Hagler, who moved to Italy and re-married, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.