“The Better Man”
By Juan Williams
Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.
I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.
When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.
And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.
If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”
For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.
At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.
The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.
Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.
My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.
In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.
Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.
Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.
The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.
Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.
At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.
The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.
Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.
Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”
Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.
Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.
Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.
Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.
The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them off. It slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.
Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.
No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.
When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.
After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”
The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.
This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.
In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.
The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.
All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.
Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.
Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.
Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.
The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.
Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.
Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.
But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.
In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.
My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?
Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.
Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.
In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.
Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!
By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.
Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.
Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.
In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.
My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.
As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.
I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.
The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”
At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.
But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.
There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.
Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.
Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”
Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.
I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”
I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.
I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.
When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.
Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.
Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.
The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.
Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.
[Featured Image by Joe Maloney]