A look back at Hagler v Hearns — a night when ferocity and fury clashed

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‘Eight Minutes of Fury’ is the title of Pat Putnam’s peerless account of one of boxing’s all time classic encounters, involving Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler in what remains the greatest three rounds of boxing there’s ever been — and likely ever will be.

The setting was a specially built outdoor arena and ring erected on the tennis courts of Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas, the date was 15 April 1985, and watching the fight back today still renders you stunned at the ferocity unleashed by two of the sport’s all-time greats, who on this night crashed into one another like men bent on taking possession of the other’s heart.

Hearns at 26 was the young pretender looking to seize from Hagler’s head the undisputed middleweight crown which Hagler himself had torn from the head of Britain’s Alan Minter five years previously at London’s Wembley Arena. Hagler’s imperious performance on that occasion was denied its rightful acclaim. Instead, when Minter’s trainer Doug Bidwell stopped the fight in the third round after Hagler had opened up two vicious cuts over Minter’s eyes, beer bottles and cans rained down on the ring, forcing Hagler to depart the arena like thief in the night, protected by his team and security.

Though the memory of those shameful scenes had doubtless been expunged from Hagler’s consciousness by the time he faced Hearns five years on, his phenomenal condition was evidence that the memory of being the pretender looking to take the champ’s crown and the knowledge that complacency is a champion’s most dangerous opponent had ensured no shortcuts had been taken in his preparations.

Even so, Hearns had more than enough reason to feel confident, having knocked out 34 of his previous 41 opponents. Moreover, Hagler at 30 was a fighter whom many believed was past his prime. Further still, at 6’1” to Hagler’s 5’9½” Hearns carried considerable height and reach advantage — though this was offset by the fact that Hagler was a natural middleweight while Hearns was moving up from junior middleweight.

Steward had laid out his fighter’s gameplan in anticipation of Hagler fighting on the front foot with his customary aggression, telling reporters, “I think Marvin may come out so fired up that we’ll just have Tommy stick and move. Hagler will be so juiced up [that] after seven or eight rounds it’ll rob his strength. Then we’ll go for the late knockout.”

However, as Putnam colourfully recounts, Hagler came to the ring with “a simple strategy, one that could have been designed by Attila: Keep the swords swinging until there are no more heads to roll, give no quarter, take no prisoners. There would be only one pace, all-out: only one direction, forward.”

Tommy Hearns would say of the fight many years later that he was proud to have been part of it. “I worked hard for that fight. I’m happy that people have a lot of respect for the fight. People say they’re the three greatest rounds in boxing. Let me just say, they’re the three greatest rounds that I ever put out.”

It is rare indeed to have a fighter who got stopped in three rounds in a championship fight, and was carried out of the ring like Jesus from Calvary after being brought down from his cross, speak so warmly of his performance and the fight itself years later. But then this was no ordinary fight or three rounds of boxing.

Hagler, just as Putnam described, came out from the opening bell and proceeded to mug Hearns, who suddenly found himself pitched into the fight of his life. The exchanges in that first round were so fierce they were nothing a fighter could train for. Pure animal instinct, the instinct to keep throwing leather no matter the leather coming back, drove both fighters to extraordinary limits of intensity and determination.

Midway through what was already an epic round, Hagler sustained a cut on his forehead and now was fighting with blood streaming down his face. He continued to press and maul regardless, almost as if the cut had only succeeded in unleashing a mad man. As for Hearns, in the words of Steward afterwards, he “fought 12 rounds in one.”

In Hagler’s corner at the end of the round, trainer Goody Petronelli told his fighter to forget the cut and keep the pressure on, to which Hagler replied, “Okay, I won’t worry about the cut. If you go to war, you’re going to get wounded.”

Emanuel Steward in the opposite corner, meanwhile, berated his man, screaming, “What are you doing? You’ve got to stick and move. Jab. Don’t fight with him.”

In the second round, Hagler hardly let up on the blistering pace he’d set in the opening round, doing exactly what Petronelli had instructed and keeping the pressure on — this despite being rocked by a Hearns right hand midway through. By the end of the round Hearns was visibly tiring, unable to keep Hagler off and burning more energy than a passenger jet as tried with increasing desperation to fight fire with fire.

Hagler now had the scent of victory in his nostrils, telling Petronelli in his corner between drinking and spitting out mouthfuls of water, “He’s ready to go. He’s not going to hurt me with that right hand. I took his best, and now I’m going to knock him out.”

Hagler came out for the third with every intention of doing exactly that, launching himself right back into attack mode and walking through Hearns’ weakening jab, forcing him onto the back foot.

However on a night in which the meaning of drama was being redefined, into the action now stepped referee Richard Steele, interrupting the action to allow the ringside doctor examine the cut on Hagler’s forehead after a Hearns jab connected with it to unleash a fresh torrent of blood down the champion’s face.

“Can you see all right?” the doctor asked the champion by the ropes. The doctor in this moment had a decision to make that would mark either the ruination or salvation of those in the crowd who’d staked more than they could afford to lose on the outcome. “No problem,” came Hagler’s reply. “I ain’t missing him, am I?”

With that, the doctor signalled to Steele that the fight could continue.

It was all the impetus Hagler needed to go ahead and close the show, immediately barrelling into Hearns with a fierce left and right to the side of the head to send him spinning back on legs that were so skinny they defied the laws of physiology. Hagler never let up and proceeded to chase him across the ring, throwing punches as he went, before leaping forward with an overhand right which found the target and instantly had Hearns out on his feet before hitting the canvas.

Who knows what order of spirit it required for Tommy Hearns to get back on his feet just as the count reached nine, but no matter he was in no state to continue and Richard Steele signalled closure.

Hagler-Hearns was more than a fight it was a search for meaning in a world of commodity fetishism in which no meaning has no place. Together they produced three rounds of such staggering brutality they scaled heights of human intimacy that even Freud would struggle to comprehend. It was as if they were set on punching each other out of the ghetto from whence they had come.

Sitting ringside was Scotland’s inimitable boxing scribe, Hugh McIlvanney. When asked by an observer who he thought Hagler should fight next, McIlvanney replied, “How about Russia?”

End.

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