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Beautiful, Beguiling Violence

Illustration for article titled Beautiful, Beguiling Violence

Here is John Schulian's piece on the legendary Hagler-Hearns fight. It appears in Schulian's fine collection Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. Also, you should track down Schulian's boxing compilation, Writers' Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists. The piece appears here with the author's permission.

"The Proud Warrior" April 16, 1985

(Philadelphia Daily News)

By John Schulian

Blood cascaded down Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s nose, leaving a stripe thick enough to divide a highway. And yet the sight and feel of the relentless crimson ooze moved Hagler in a way that bore no relation to anything modern, automated or federally funded. Suddenly he was jerked out of 1985 and back into a time when warriors wore loincloths instead of boxing trunks and did their hunting without benefit of 8-ounce gloves. He was a primitive and that splash down the middle of his face wasn’t blood. It was war paint.


The more it flowed, the more savage Hagler became. And the more savage he became, the more you wondered if this hellish explosion hadn’t been building inside him for all of his 30 years. Or is he really 32, the way Thomas Hearns kept insisting? For all Hearns knew, Hagler might have been born 2,000 years ago if the violence that poured out of him last night was any measure. And there was no time for Hearns to renew the debate now.

He was trapped inside the third-round nightmare that would end his dream of becoming the world’s middleweight champion. The roar of the crowd that had moved him to try slugging it out with Hagler had turned into an ugly, unbearable hum in his ears, and every time he tried to take a step to safety, Hagler was there punching—punching, punching, punching until the spidery challenger must have thought he was trapped in a thunderstorm of leather.


This wasn’t the way Hagler was supposed to fight. Hagler was supposed to be cautious in the early rounds, jabbing, moving in and out, a conservative who would make Ronald Reagan look like a socialist by comparison. That was why the champion had looked so bad in groping to a decision over Roberto Duran 18 months ago. That was why Hearns’s stock had skyrocketed when he caught Duran on the rebound and splattered that vicious little wharf rat across the canvas like a bad painting. But it counted for nothing now as Hagler turned the gaudy outdoor ring behind Caesars Palace into the kind of hellhole the beautiful people aren’t supposed to know about.

As Bo Derek, Joan Rivers and a lot of TV stars who don’t deserve to have their names in print gaped and gawked, the champion woke up memories of dingy arenas where the air is solid cigar smoke, human flesh is the only thing anybody has to sell, and the showers never work. It can be a miserable business, this fight racket, and maybe Hearns forgot that with the kind of money he and Hagler were making. The price tags on this one said $5.6 million for the champion and $5.4 million for the challenger, and you can get your head turned around by a payday like that. You can think you are better than you really are. You can think your seat doesn’t sink. And if you do, your thoughts aren’t worth a penny.


“Tommy is very cocky,” said Hagler, who knows that fortunes don’t come cheaply, “and I had something for him.”

Make that some things.

The first of them was a leaping right hand that sent Hearns reeling across the ring. Then there was another right that sailed over gloves that were barely at half-mast and rattled the challenger’s brain inside his head. Hagler punctuated the barrage with a left hand that missed—what an irony for a great southpaw puncher—and then he went back to his right for the last time. And Hearns was done.


He lay on the canvas with nothing moving but his heaving chest as referee Richard Steele slowly toiled his destiny over him. At nine he was up, but it didn’t matter. “His eyes were glazed and his legs were wobbly,” Steele said. There was no point in pushing the issue beyond 2:01 of the third round. Thomas Hearns was finished and Marvelous Marvin Hagler was still the champion.

“Yeah, I’m still the champion,” he said, “but I had to fight like a challenger.”

And he was magnificent.

And so was Hearns—for a while. Maybe he was just setting himself up for what matchmaker Teddy Brenner called “a tomahawk followed by an ax.” Maybe he was just giving Sugar Ray Leonard, the only other man ever to beat him, an opening to belittle him for “thinking he could knock everybody out.” But the first round that he and Hagler wove last night was a tapestry of violence—beautiful, beguiling, violence.


They went for each other’s throats, and they refused to back up. If Hagler was rattling Hearns’s ribs, Hearns was hammering Hagler’s head. If Hearns was making Hagler taste blood, Hagler was filling Hearns’s mouth with a fist. Back and forth they went, never pausing for a breath, never looking for a break. It wasn’t just Pryor and Arguello. It wasn’t just Ali and Frazier. It wasn’t just Robinson and LaMotta. It was all of them rolled into one.

And just as he had said he would, the 5-9 ½ Hagler turned into a giant. He was giving away four years in age, 3 ½ inches in height and 3 ½ inches in reach, and none of it mattered. He got cut on the forehead in the first—“A butt,” grumbled one of his trainers, Pat Petronelli—and that didn’t matter, either. He was getting bigger and bigger, and as the round thundered to an end, he whacked Hearns with a left that drove him into a neutral corner and widened his eyes with surprise and maybe even unwanted knowledge. Now the challenger knew who the boss was.


“Marvin took away Tommy’s right hand, that was the key, “Petronelli said. “He ran right through that right hand, and when he knew he could do that, he knew he could do anything. He took away Tommy’s legs and he took away Tommy’s heart.”

The only thing that could have stopped Hagler was his own blood. It poured from that gash in his forehead, and there was more to come when Hearns opened the scar tissue under Hagler’s right eye. The ring physician studied the damage between the first and the second, and the referee followed suit at the start of the third, but Marvelous Marvin Hagler—the single-minded destroyer who had WAR written across the baseball cap he wore throughout training—never paused in his attack. “I was afraid they might stop the fight,” he said, “but you know, when I see blood, I turn into a bull.”


So Hagler raged and Hearns fell in the round he had predicted for the victory that eluded him. The challenger wound up helpless in the referee’s arms and the champion moved within three of Carlos Monzon’s record of 14 successful title defenses. And that was at it should have been. “I hope Tommy will say I’m the better man now,” Hagler said. Whether the loser did or didn’t hardly mattered, though. The rest of the world knew the truth—the world that Hagler rules as the kind of the middleweights.

Never mind that this was the 65th fight of his career. He had never been royalty before. But when he walked into his post-fight press conference, he was embraced by the new major-domo at Caesars Palace. And everything around him seemed musical, even the sound of promoter Bob Arum introducing the sagging Hearns while he, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, donned his championship finery in the sanctuary of his dressing room. Hagler was moving at his own pace now, deciding when he would step back outside into the loving glow of the television lights, enjoying it all so much that he scarcely noticed the stretcher he passed on his way out the door and into the glorious night. No stretchers for him. Only a chariot would do.

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