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25 Years On–Leonard Beat Hagler in Clear But Close Decision

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leonard1For some in the boxing community it was the most anticipated fight since the “Fight Of The Century” between heavyweight Champ “Smokin” Joe Frazier and challenger Muhammad Ali 16 years earlier. And if you think about it, reigning middleweight champ Marvin Hagler and former welterweight/junior middleweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard were on a collision course longer than Ali and Frazier were.

One could argue that ever since Hagler and Leonard challenged for their first world titles on November 30th 1979, they were often mentioned as future opponents. And even then Hagler played second fiddle to Leonard being that his title bout with defending middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo was the semi-wind up bout prior to Leonard challenging WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez. The heavily favored Hagler was held to a disputed draw against Antuofermo an hour before Leonard stopped Benitez with six seconds remaining in the 15th and final round.

Well, it's been 25 years–April 6th 1987–since Leonard came out of a three year retirement having only fought once in five years to challenge the slightly eroding undisputed middleweight champ, Hagler, who was fighting just once a year by April of 1987. Most forget that it was Leonard who challenged Hagler after retiring on November 9th 1982 with Hagler sitting there watching Ray announce that a fight between the two greats would never happen. As we found out later Leonard wanted to continue fighting and wanted to meet Hagler eventually, but succumbed to family pressure and retired after having his detached retina repaired. For the next five years Leonard did commentary for Hagler's title defenses on HBO while taking notes on him subconsciously the whole time.

When Leonard finally initiated the challenge to Hagler, that should've raised a red flag in Marvin's head. Mainly because for the previous five years it appeared that Leonard was less interested in the fight than Hagler was. Then after a grueling fight with the undefeated John “The Beast” Mugabi, six months later Leonard is all in to meet Hagler? What changed? Perhaps Marvin looking a little less hungry and ferocious and him starting to mention that Mugabi may have been his last fight?

Here's what many weren't sophisticated enough to know or didn't understand about the at the time 30 year old Leonard and 32 year old Hagler…..

1) Leonard never stopped training or running during his retirement. He knew boxing was still in his blood and that he might fight again.

2) When he came back to fight Kevin Howard in 1984 and suffered the first official knockdown of his career, he wasn't focused and was still dealing with personal turmoil.

3) Leonard realized beyond all doubt after Hagler had trouble with Roberto Duran's wait and react counter-punching that he matched up great with Hagler stylistically.

4) Ray knew that as dangerous as Hagler was, he was dramatically less effective fighting as the attacker and that Marvin was no Frazier when it came to cutting off the ring and forcing the fight. He was fully aware that he'd force Marvin to pursue him if they ever fought.

5) Hagler's money punch was his right hand, which fighting as a southpaw he obviously led with. Ray was confident he wasn't going to be iced by any fighter's lead punch. Furthermore, Leonard had no fear or concern over Hagler's left cross, uppercut or hook and viewed them as nothing more than set-up punches with their intent to make you forget about the right.

6) Leonard also grasped that Hagler was an overrated puncher coming off his three round war with Thomas Hearns. Unlike the public perception of Hagler, Leonard didn't view Marvin as a “catch-n-kill” style attacker. He said repeatedly if Hagler was such a killer, why'd he have to hit Hearns so many times with his Sunday shots before finally stopping him?

7) Leonard knew that Hagler wouldn't feel complete until they fought and knew Marvin would fight him under almost any circumstances.

8) Leonard knew that Marvin thought he was a pretty boy and didn't view him as a tough guy with a much better chin than he ever got credit for. And that it was conceivable that Hagler would take him lightly regardless of what he said.

9) Hagler was an incredible cheapskate and thought about money constantly. Leonard knew that money would make Marvin do foolish things, like consent to 10 ounce gloves when middleweights fought with eight ounce gloves at that time.

Lets also clear some other things up.

Hagler's previous two title defenses (Hearns & Mugabi) were scheduled for 12 rounds and fought in 20 foot rings, which were the conditions in which the fight with Leonard was conducted. So saying Leonard made Hagler consent to unfavorable conditions (12 rounds instead of 15) really doesn't apply. Prior to their fight Leonard did everything but send Hagler a hand written letter saying that he was gonna move and box while looking to flurry at the end of the rounds to impress the judges. Was there the slightest doubt that Leonard had no intention of obliging Hagler in a knock down drag out war?

For some reason as great as Hagler was, surely one of the top five or six greatest middleweight champions in boxing history, he was a little awed by legends his equal like Roberto Duran and Ray Leonard. He was psyched out by Duran's ring antics during a good portion of their bout and abandoned his southpaw style in the early going of his bout against Leonard.

I could go on and bore you with the cookbook reasons as to why Leonard out boxed Hagler, but I'm assuming those reading this have a high enough boxing aptitude that doesn't require me drum-beating the nuanced trinkets you already know. The bottom line is Marvin Hagler was at his best when his opponents took the fight to him. The fallacy at the time was because of Vito Antuofermo's draw with Hagler in their first fight the way to beat him was to make him go back.

Ironically, Marvin never lost in his career to a fighter who tried to make him go back. The worst Hagler ever looked were in his first fights with Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe in Philadelphia. Watts and Monroe handed Hagler his first two defeats (although the Watts bout is considered a home town decision). The point being both Bobby and Willie used their feet and brought Marvin to them en-route to out-boxing him. And like Duran and Leonard after them, they didn't try to take his head off or knock him out.

Ray Leonard knew that Hagler wasn't really that fast of hand or foot and followed movers like Mike “The Roadrunner” Colbert (who wasn't stopped until the 12th round) instead of cutting them off and forcing them into the ropes or a corner. In order for Hagler to beat Leonard in 1987, he was gonna have to freeze him with one shot to where he was defenseless, then go in and finish him. Only Leonard knew Hagler wouldn't get that many Sunday shots on him and the odds of freezing him with one shot weren't that great due to his chin and movement.

What Leonard showed the boxing world in his fight with Hagler was, Marvin wasn't that great at cutting off the ring. He tended to follow more than stepping in front of Leonard to block his escape route. The only time Hagler was able to corner or pin Leonard against the ropes was when he tired and started slowing down. By Leonard moving and using the ring, Hagler wasn't able to take advantage of his most significant advantage, his physical strength. Because Hagler had to constantly keep his feet moving in order to track Leonard down, he was never able to mount a sustained offense or get set, especially in the early rounds. Leonard continually beat Hagler to the punch and was just about always a step ahead of him, thus forcing Hagler to reach and sometimes miss wildly.

Some have implied that Leonard's punches were nothing but pitty-pat punches that lacked power. What amazes me about that is, Hagler had one of the best chins in history. If Leonard's punches had nothing on them, why didn't Hagler just walk through them and force Leonard to fight instead of box? Actually, Leonard won many of the exchanges and fought Hagler straight up when he was too tired to move.

Another ridiculous statement made over the years is that Leonard should've fought Hagler like a man. In other words, Leonard should've nullified his own strengths and made it easy for Hagler. Suggesting that Leonard should've fought Hagler like a man is one of the most ignorant statements I've ever heard about a fight or fighter. I guess Muhammad Ali should've fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman toe-to-toe like a real man.

The style in which Leonard fought Hagler wasn't a surprise to any knowledgeable fight observer. It was the only style he could employ against him to win. On top of that, it was the style Leonard fought in every fight of his career with the exception of his first bout with Duran. If Hagler was shocked by Leonard trying to keep the fight from becoming a slugfest, shame on him.

The bottom line is Sugar Ray Leonard out-fought and thought Marvin Hagler. He set the pace early by moving and boxing, using his greater hand and foot speed to its fullest advantage. In those first three or four rounds, Hagler couldn't get near Leonard. Starting around the fifth round Hagler began to get closer and scored as Leonard started to slow.

There is absolutely no doubt that Leonard was up 3-0 after three rounds. At best Hagler won 5 of the last 9 rounds. That makes it 7-5 Leonard or 115-113. On top of that, there was not a 2-point round in the fight. Although Hagler was the aggressor he wasn't the effective aggressor. An effective aggressor is Frazier versus Ali in their first fight or Duran versus Leonard in their first fight. Not Hagler versus Leonard.

Lastly, some have said that a reigning champ shouldn't lose his title on such a close decision. The problem was, despite not having the title, Leonard was the star and bigger personality which neutralized Hagler being the champ. However, that had no bearing on the fight. Sugar Ray Leonard was just a little sharper and more effective than Marvin Hagler the night they fought and earned a clear cut close decision victory.

Recently a friend of mine said, “I think one of the reasons Hagler didn't press hard for a rematch was because he was afraid his legacy would suffer even more from a second loss to Leonard. In Hagler's mind it was better to go out disputing a 'controversial' loss rather than a more decisive one.”

Looking back 25 years, I think you nailed it, Bill. And based on Seth Abraham's quote in Sports Illustrated years after the the fight, he may have been right.

Seth Abraham: There was talk of a rematch, but it never went anywhere. Marvin made it very clear — he thought he was jobbed and he was never going to fight again. And he never did. There were conversations, but they were never at the level of negotiations. If people say Marvin wanted the fight and Ray didn't, that's revisionist history.

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

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A hockey Arena in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, roughly 100 miles south of Montreal, hosted tonight’s card on ESPN+, a co-promotion of Camille Estephan’s Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. Arum wasn’t there; he was in Leeds, England, but the outcome would have mitigated his aggravation at seeing his fighter Josh Taylor fall short earlier in the day.

Super middleweight Christian Mbilli, of whom Arum owns a piece, needed only 40 seconds to conquer British import Mark Heffron who, on paper, was a very credible opponent. Mbilli backed Heffron into the ropes and collapsed him with a left hook that landed under his rib cage. Heffron, 30-3-1 heading in with 24 KOs, went down on all fours and was counted out. The contest was over almost before it began.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO. With the victory, he advanced his record to 27-0 (23 KOs). His next fight will reportedly come in August with rugged but battle-blistered Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the opposite corner. Mbilli has been chasing a fight with Canelo Alvarez, but has scant chance of landing it. At this juncture of his career, the red-headed Mexican undoubtedly wants less daunting assignments.

Co-Feature

Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, rebounded from his poor performance against Agit Kabayel with a second-round stoppage of sacrificial lamb Milan Rovcanin. Makhmudov (19-1, 18 KOs) knocked Rovcanin to the canvas with an overhand right in the opening round. The punch knocked Rovcanin sideways, his head resting on the ring apron. To Rovcanin’s credit, he beat the count and launched a futile offensive after he arose. A similar punch ended the brief bout at the 2:32 mark of the next frame.

Makhmudov is certainly heavy-handed, but he moves at a glacial pace and would be up-against-it against a world-class opponent with faster hands and better footwork. Rovcanin, who had  been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia, declined to 27-4.

Other Bouts of Note

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 178 pounds, Montreal-based Mehmet Unal, a 31-year-old former Olympian for Turkey, scored the best win of his career with a fourth-round stoppage of 34-year-old Laredo, Texas campaigner Rodolfo Gomez.

Gomez, routinely matched tough and better than his record (14-7-3 heading in), protested loudly when the referee waived it off, but his corner stood poised to throw in the towel. He hadn’t previously been stopped, let alone knocked off his feet. Unal improved to 10-0 (8 KOs).

Super middleweight Mereno Fendero, a 24-year old French Army veteran, improved to 6-0 (4) with a six-round decision over 38-year-old Argentine journeyman Rolando Mansilla (19-15-1). Fendero won every round on all three cards including a 10-8 round on one of the cards although there were no knockdowns. Although badly out-classed, the teak-tough Mansilla, a glutton for punishment, earned his pay.

Local prospect Alexandre Gaumont, a middleweight, improved to 11-0 (7) with an unpopular 8-round split decision over Argentina’s Santiago Fernandez (8-1-1). Two of the judges gave Gaumont six rounds, ridiculed as home town bias, with the other awarding five rounds to the Argentine who received a loud ovation as he left the ring.

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Sweet Revenge for the ‘Cat’: Catterall Outpoints Taylor in a Fan-Friendly Fight

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Former unified junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall renewed acquaintances tonight in a sold-out arena in Leeds, England. Their first bout 27 months ago in Glasgow ended in favor of Taylor, a controversial winner by split decision as most felt that Catterall was robbed. Tonight, the Cat, as he is nicknamed, turned the tables, winning a unanimous decision in a 12-round non-title fight that was more entertaining than their first encounter.

Catterall, who closed a short favorite, came out fast and was plainly ahead at the mid-point of the fight. But Taylor closed the gap and on unofficial scorecards it was an even fight after 10 frames. Then, in the 11th, shortly after the referee halted the action to warn the fighters about something, Catterall turned the tide back in his favor, stunning Taylor with a looping left hand coming out of the break. Seconds later, both fighters went down in a heap in front of a corner post.

Both fighters were marked-up at the finish, more so Taylor who ended the fight with his right eye swollen and nearly closed shut.

A draw would not have been unreasonable, but two of the judges gave Jack Catterall nine rounds (117-111) and the other had it 7-4-1 (116-113).

In his post-fight interview, Eddie Hearn, Catterall’s promoter, conceded that the scores were too wide but opined that the right guy won. Few would disagree, but co-promoter Bob Arum had a different take. “Those scores were a disgrace,” he said, taking the microphone. “I feel sorry for Josh. I thought he won the fight….”

In avenging his lone defeat, Catterall improved to 29-1 (13). It was second straight loss for Taylor (19-2) who had been inactive since losing his unified title to Teofimo Lopez.

A rubber match would be welcome.

Semi Wind-up

In the chief supporting bout, Cheavon Clarke improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with an eighth-round stoppage of Ellis Zorro. Clarke, who represented both his native Jamaica and England in international amateur competitions, won the BBBoC British cruiserweight title.

This fight didn’t provide a lot of action. The humdrum ended in the waning seconds of round eight when Clarke nailed Zorro with a chopping right hand. He seized the moment, swarming after Zorro, and chopped him down with a series of punches. None appeared to land very cleanly, but Zorro was counted out with a mere second remaining in the round. It was his second straight defeat after opening his career with 17-0. In his previous bout, Zorro was blasted out in the opening round by Jai Opetaia.

Clarke, 33, is eyeing the winner of the forthcoming fight in London between WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith and Richard Riakporhe.

Also

Welterweight Paddy Donovan, a Traveler from Limerick, Ireland, advanced to 14-0 (11 KOs) with a ninth-round stoppage of former British lightweight champion Lewis Ritson (25-4).

Donovan, trained by former middleweight titlist Andy Lee, fought off his back foot for the first seven rounds as Ritson forced the pace. He changed tactics in round eight which was a strong round for him and then closed the show in the ninth. A series of punches had Ritson plainly hurt and the referee stepped in after 32 seconds and waved it off. It was Donovan’s fifth straight win inside the distance.

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Okolie Demolishes Rozanski to Jump-Start a Busy Boxing Weekend

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The weekend boxing activity got underway today in Rzesnow. Poland where, to the dismay of the locals, Lukasz Rozanski, was blown away in the opening round by UK invader Lawrence Okolie. Heading in, the Pole was 15-0 with 14 knockouts, was coming off back-to-back first-round stoppages, and had never fought beyond the fourth round. And he was a world champion of sorts, making the first defense of his WBC bridgerweight title.

Okolie (20-1, 15 KOs) knocked him down hard on the seat of his pants with a straight right hand, the first of three knockdowns. The final knockdown was the result of a combination that knocked Rozanski to his knees with his head landing outside the ropes. There were only seconds to go in the round, but when Rozanski arose on unsteady legs, the referee properly waived it off. At age 38, his first career loss may also mark the end of his career.

A 2016 Olympian co-managed by Anthony Joshua, Okolie (pictured) was making his first start with trainer Joe Gallagher after previously working under Shane McGuigan and SugarHill Steward and his first start since losing his WBO cruiserweight title to Chris Billam-Smith.  At six-foot-five and with an 82-inch reach, the 31-year-old Londoner is a very interesting specimen. His stated goal when he turned pro was to unify the cruiserweight division before moving up to heavyweight.

Had Rozanski won, there was talk of him fighting Badou Jack. The guess is this may be Okolie’s first and last fight at bridgerweight (under 225), a division recognized only by the WBC which invented it. (The WBA is poised to follow its lead. The WBA board of directors recently approved the addition of a super cruiserweight weight class.)

Saturday

The action tomorrow in regard to major fights begins at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen where the Fighting Dane, Dina Thorslund (21-0, 9 KOs), defends her WBC/WBO female world bantamweight title against Turkey’s Seren Cetin (11-0, 7 KOs). Thorslund, whose name appears on many pound-for-pound lists, is appearing in her 11th world title fight.

The marquee event takes place in the late afternoon (USA time) in Leeds, England, where Josh Taylor (19-1, 13 KOs) clashes with Jack Catterall (28-1, 13 KOs) in an eagerly-anticipated and twice-delayed rematch. Catterall will be seeking to avenge his lone defeat.

Their first encounter took place in February 2022 on Taylor’s turf in Glasgow, Scotland. Taylor won a split decision. To say that it was controversial would be putting it mildly. One pundit called it the biggest robbery in British boxing history. At stake was Taylor’s unified welterweight title which he would lose in his next outing when he was upset by Teofimo Lopez.

Catterall has fought twice since that night in Glasgow, most recently scoring a 12-round decision over globetrotter Jorge Linares who announced his retirement after the match. This is Taylor’s first ring outing since the Teofimo fight in New York. He and Catterall have engaged in a nasty war of words since their first encounter and the match – televised live exclusively in the U.S. on ESPN+ and around the world on DAZN — is an advance sellout. Check local listings for start times.

There’s been steady money on Catterall today and, if the odds hold up, Josh Taylor will assume the role of an underdog for the first time in his career.

Lastly

We’re back to ESPN+ again for a show in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, a co-promotion between Eye of the Tiger and Top Rank.

In the featured bout, Christian Mbilli (26-0, 22 KOs) meets England’s Mark Heffron (30-3-1, 24 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight contest.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO.

In the co-feature, heavyweight Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, returns to the ring looking to rebuild a reputation that was badly tarnished last December when he was manhandled by underdog Agit Kabayel in Saudi Arabia. Makhmudov (18-1, 17 KOs) opposes no-hoper Milan Rovcanin (27-3, 18 KOs) who has been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia. The TV portion of this Saturday Night card has a scheduled starting time of 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

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