Marvelous Marvin Hagler died over the weekend. (Yes, for the uninitiated, “Marvelous” was his legal first name, adopted in response to his perennial sense of being disrespected by the image-obsessed sports media.) I have lost all my youthful enthusiasm for spectator sports, as I believe is proper and natural as one matures, as well as being almost morally mandatory in this age in which even popular athleticism has been tethered to the politically correct agenda of progressive soft despotism. But in my younger days, boxing was one of the sports I favored, and Hagler — partly because of his constant struggle for appreciation against many lesser but more television-friendly contemporaries — was one of my special favorites among the favored.
Hagler was the middleweight champion for several years during the last golden age of boxing, during the 1980s — before “the sweet science” gave way to the vulgarity of the fake “no-rules” cage match nonsense that has supplanted boxing in the public imagination, a direct mirroring of the devolution of masculinity itself, from honor-based displays of courage to the glorified hair-pulling and back-stabbing that pretends to represent manliness today. From Reaganism to Trumpism, if you will.
Hagler was the king of one of the traditional glamour weight classes, the erstwhile home of Sugar Ray Robinson, and — in the years immediately preceding Hagler’s reign — the domain of another of the all-time greats, Carlos Monzon. And yet Hagler more than earned his place in that exalted company, which matters in a sport that as much as any other lives within its own history. (Boxing’s former devotion to its traditions and past champions was another of its peculiar appeals, much as was once true of baseball. Today, however, both sports have forsaken that traditionalism in favor of trash and flash — urinating on the record books with steroid pee in the case of baseball, and simply discarding the legends in the name of desperately seeking a younger and stupider fanbase in the case of boxing, a fanbase more inclined to join the fantasy cult of short-lived heavyweight champion Mike Tyson than to wonder, as Tyson himself certainly did, whether the new hotshot champion would have been much more than a decent contender in any of the eras from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali.)
It is always satisfying to think that a man of value and character who might have passed through life largely overlooked could finally get his due. In the case of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, after years of greatness and several victories over important opponents, the ultimate moment of historical reckoning came on April 15th, 1985, when he defended his title against Thomas Hearns in a fight that immediately became, and remains, one of the historic moments (that tradition thing again) of the middleweight division.
Hearns himself was another great boxer whose star was somewhat diminished by his lack of TV smoothness, as well as by his having run out of gas in the late rounds of a fight he was winning until the thirteenth round, against his and Hagler’s main nemesis in the popular imagination, former Olympic glamour boy Sugar Ray Leonard. As a teenager, I looked forward to the Hagler-Hearns fight without a rooting interest — or rather, with two rooting interests. I did not care who won, because I wished both could win. As it happens, both did win legendary status through that night, although Hearns earned his by fighting bravely but in futility through the eight minutes of fury that was Hagler’s vengeance against a world that he felt had refused to give him his due. Hagler died with the popular reputation of a brutal warrior, a fighter of reckless abandon and relentless aggression, but in fact that is not how he fought through most of his career — with the extraordinary exception of April 15th, 1985.
That fight happened to appear on television during the early days of video cassette recorders, so I was lucky enough to get it on tape. I subsequently watched it perhaps fifty times over the years. I would return to it whenever I felt the need for a reminder of the meaning of willpower and the rewards of simple courage. At the end of the only two-and-a-half round boxing match that ever lived up to, and beyond, the “fight-of-the-year” hype that boxing uses to sell its big events, Al Michaels, the broadcaster calling the fight on my recorded version, summed it up, breathlessly but perfectly: “It didn’t go very far, but it was a beauty.”
Apparently, the day before his death, Thomas Hearns, his old foe, and then friend through mutual respect, asked boxing fans to pray for Hagler, who, he shared, was in intensive care fighting effects of a coronavirus vaccination. Now wouldn’t that just sum up everything that has happened to America and the world over the past year!
I do not know whether a vaccination played any role in Hagler’s death. But I do know that Hagler’s life meant a good deal to one young, very unathletic “middleweight” who in the 1980s was often struggling against feelings of isolation and pointlessness, and who found in Hagler’s fortitude some of the inspiration he needed to shrug off his own demons of surrender, as Hagler did to the ring doctor who, during Round Three of his greatest victory, checked the gaping cut on his face and asked if he could still see through the blood, famously quipping, “I ain’t missing him, am I?”