By Bernard Fernandez
It would be technically incorrect to state that it all began for Marvelous Marvin Hagler during his frequent working visits to Philadelphia in the mid- to late-1970s. Hagler, arguably the best middleweight champion of all time (his name absolutely belongs in that discussion) turned pro on May 18, 1973, with a second-round knockout of Terry Ryan in a high school gym in the future superstar’s adopted hometown of Brockton, Mass. The southpaw slugger reportedly was paid just $50 for that bout, an insulting pittance for someone who had gone 55-1 as an amateur and had won the ’73 U.S. national championship.
Why didn’t Hagler, who was 66 when he unexpectedly passed away Saturday at his home in New Hampshire, delay his professional debut until after the 1976 Olympics, where he conceivably could have won a gold medal and, possibly, the immediate high visibility and generous early paydays that went to future nemesis Sugar Ray Leonard, the brightest American ring light at those Montreal Games? Hey, hanging around three years before he could cash checks for his boxing prowess was deemed too long a wait for someone who had grown up poor in the ghettos of Newark, N.J., the oldest child in a fatherless family of seven. Hagler figured it would take some time to work his way up the ladder and the kind of recognition his talent had always hinted at, but the process proved to be more laborious than he and co-managers Goody and Pat Petronelli could have imagined.
To say Hagler -- who relocated in his late teens to Brockton, the hometown of legendary heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano -- was avoided in the formative stages of his pro career is an understatement. He not only was really good, but a lefty to boot, so getting the kind of fights he needed to draw more attention to himself, in addition to honing his overall skill-set, proved to be an ongoing challenge.
The Petronellis found just such a crucible for Hagler’s refinement at the Spectrum in Philly, where their guy would fight five times, going just 3-2 with points losses to Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts.
“We knew if Marvin was going to develop into a champion, he had to go outside New England to fight,” Goody Petronelli told me in August 1991. “We went to Seattle and he got a draw with Sugar Ray Seales (a gold medalist at the 1972 Munich Olympics), but other than that he was 25-0 going into 1976 when we went down to Philadelphia to fight Bobby `Boogaloo’ Watts.
“When we got there, I remember the Spectrum promoter, Russell Peltz, telling me, `Guys from Boston can’t fight.’ But I looked Russell in the eye and I said, `This one can.’”
Goody, who was 88 when he died on Jan. 29, 2012 (he was preceded in death by Pat, who was 89 when he passed away on Sept. 10, 2011), said Philadelphia’s deep roster of tough, world-rated middleweights – Hagler swapped punches with Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Bennie Briscoe, in addition to Monroe and Watts – was instrumental in helping their guy step up to the next level, at which he would remain for the remainder of his pro career, retiring with a 62-3-2 record following a controversial, split-decision defeat to Sugar Ray Leonard on April 6, 1987.
“All those Philadelphia fighters were tough,” Goody said. “We fought `The Iron’ down there. I called them `The Iron’ because they were as tough as iron. Whenever we fought one of ’em down there, I’d use the others as sparring partners.”
Goody Petronelli returned to the renamed First Union Spectrum on June 20, 2003, when another of his fighters, Ian Gardner, fought Dhafir Smith, from the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby. It was sort of like old times, except for the fact that Gardner, a middleweight, southpaw and with a shaved skull, only resembled Hagler before the opening bell rang, even though he did come away with an eight-round, unanimous-decision victory.
“You know what, it brought back memories, being here again,” Goody said, waxing nostalgic. “We had some wars down here with Marvin.”
Unlike certain fighters, who need someone to blame when they lose, discarding trainers, managers and promoters as if they were yesterday’s newspaper, Hagler remained fiercely loyal to the brothers Petronelli, who stood by him when it was still a bit questionable that he would fulfill the glorious destiny that eventually came to be his.
In a 1980 story that appeared in the Boston Globe, Hagler explained why he never considered leaving Goody and Pat for higher-profile or better-connected handlers.
“I didn’t trust anybody,” he said in recalling his financially desperate introduction to the pro ranks. “I had a dollar in my pocket and I kept it to myself. Goody and Pat amazed me. We’d go out to lunch and they’d say, `Keep your dollar. This is on us.’
“I’d think they were going to take it out of my paycheck and the end of the week (Hagler made ends meet in the interim by working as a swimming pool installer and roofer). But they didn’t. They said, `Marvin, when you make it big you can pay us back.’”
It is almost inconceivable given today’s accelerated path to the top for a few select fighters who get world title shots with a dozen or fewer bouts, but Marvelous Marvin – he legally added “Marvelous,” which previously had been only a nickname, in 1982 – had to wait until his 50th pro outing before he got such an opportunity against reigning WBC/WBA middleweight titlist Vito Antuofermo at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion. The split draw that enabled Antuofermo to retain his championship was widely derided, and left Hagler with a deep-seated suspicion of Las Vegas judges that was never more apparent than in the outrage he expressed in the aftermath of his setback to Leonard.
Hagler got another crack at the big prize on Sept. 27, 1980, when, in his 54th pro bout, he traveled to London to challenge the man who had dethroned Antuofermo, Alan Minter of England, in Wembley Stadium. There would be no pilferage by pencil this time as Hagler stopped Minter in three rounds, but the occasion was marred when unruly Minter fans began hurling objects into the ring.
Once anointed as the king of the 160-pounders, Hagler settled in for a long and productive stay upon the throne, logging 12 successful defenses. He went through most of the division like a scythe in tall grass, scoring wins inside the distance against Fulgencio Obelmejias, Antuofermo, Mustafa Hamsho, Caveman Lee, Tony Sibson and Wilford Scypion. But not every fight with his belt on the line was a walk through the park; his three-round war with Thomas Hearns has been called “the greatest seven minutes in boxing history,” and he also was extended in matches with Roberto Duran, Juan Domingo Roldan, John “The Beast” Mugabi and Hamsho (rematch).
The last time around for Hagler, although no one could have known it then, was the much-anticipated showdown with Leonard, who was on the plus end of the official scorecards submitted by JoJo Guerra (an almost-incomprehensible 118-110) and Dave Moretti (115-113) while Lou Filippo had Hagler up by 115-113.
At the postfight press conference, a bitterly disappointed Hagler complained that Leonard had fought like “a sissy” and “a girl,” while depicting himself as the aggressor, constantly stalking a fleeing opponent who couldn’t and didn’t hurt him, and whose only goal was survival.
“I put pressure on him, I took his best shots,” Hagler said. “If it wasn’t for me putting pressure on him, he wouldn’t have fought. He would have laid back. The man was dead on his feet, he was tired. I had to pressure him.
“I’ve never seen, for a championship fight, a split decision where the other guy (challenger) wins the fight. That’s not right. If it’s a split decision, it should go to the champion. I think he would have to beat me more decisively – knock me down, beat me real bad, in order to take the title away. And he didn’t do that.
“I still feel as though I’m the champion. I fought my heart out to keep my belt. It’s just not right. I think I’ve done a lot for boxing. I’ve been a true champion to the sport. It just puts a bitter taste in my mouth, the way they went and did this.”
Although a rematch seemed to be in order, it never came to be and Hagler opted to retire, seemingly with a fair amount of tread on his tires at the age of 32. He never yielded to the temptation to return, if indeed he ever felt such an urge, and thus joined the likes of Marciano, Michael Spinks and Lennox Lewis as elite fighters who stepped away from the ring and never came back.
Hagler found a degree of satisfaction in the next phase of his life upon moving to Milan, Italy, and becoming an actor, before moving back to the United States. He was the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Fighter of the Year in 1983 and ’85, and also was named Fighter of the Decade in the 1980s by Boxing Illustrated. A 1993 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, he drew crowds of adoring fans for public appearances where he was always gracious and accommodating.
He even was able to mend some bridges with Leonard, whom he blamed for resisting all overtures for the do-over that never happened.
“Hagler didn’t want to be around me for a while, which I understand,” Sugar Ray told me on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of their fight, in 2007. “But when we see each other now, we’re cordial. I was in Vegas for Oscar (De La Hoya) and Felix (Trinidad). Marvin was there. He asked to see me. We shook hands and spoke.
“After the fight, which Oscar lost, I saw Marvin the next morning before I went to the airport. I said, `Can you believe that decision? No way Oscar lost.’ He said, `Yeah, I believe it. It happened to me.’”
And now Marvin is gone, too soon, but at least he took his leave from this mortal coil on the night that two gallant smaller fighters, Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, engaged in what no doubt will be remembered as one of the best bouts of 2021. You have to figure the Marvelous One would find that to be an appropriate way to cross over to a celestial destination where great champions such as he presumably shall forever reign.
Here on earth, Hagler’s passing figures to again spark old and familiar debates regarding his place among the middleweights’ all-time greats, an exclusive club whose members include Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, Bernard Hopkins and maybe a couple of others who merit consideration.
Hagler’s second wife, Kay, confirmed her husband’s death on social media. Marvin Hagler was a father of five children with his first wife, Bertha, and was also the half-brother of former middleweight contender Robbie Sims.
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