OLIVER “ATOMIC BULL” McCALL was pegged as a no-hoper against exalted WBC heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis but, with one eye closed shut, the American dethroned Double L and at the Royal Albert Hall no less. Fast forward two-and-a-half hours and McCall asked me to go on a post-midnight walkabout despite heavy rain. So, propelled by the best champagne, the new ring king and I started slogging through the streets around our lodgings (the Dorchester Hotel). Having properly belted Lewis, McCall decided to show off his green and gold WBC belt. McCall was squinting into the distance and asked me if I recognised a man he was calling out to. Instantly, I did, confirming that it was former world champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler who did TV commentary for the show.
Hagler could not have been more gracious to the rough edged McCall, saying, “You done it, champ. You done it up right, big congratulations!”
They shook hands and McCall marvelled at the encounter with Marvelous Marvin. “He called me champ,” McCall gushed, “so I guess it’s official.”
It wasn’t mentioned then but later I reflected that Hagler, whose road to the 160-pound crown was blocked by unsavoury rival interests, could relate to the rough and tumble, no ducking and no dodging path that McCall had also travelled for years, including having to go to an opponent’s hometown for his opportunity.
McCall came, saw and conquered in the UK while a young Hagler ventured into Philadelphia rings to match up with such stalwarts as Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts. Later, he fought and beat Philly favourite Bad Bennie Briscoe.
Even when he was a pro novice, Hagler couldn’t care less about an opponent’s resume.
His early and mid-career ring log is filled with foes more cautious fighters and or handlers would have sidestepped. But Hagler was essentially fearless and his guys, Pat and Goodie Petronelli, never wavered.
Another example of such stubborn matchmaking came involving three bouts with former Olympic gold medallist Sugar Ray Seales. Hagler outpointed Seales in Boston but still travelled to Seales’ home area of Seattle, only to come away with a disputed draw. One judge favoured Seales but it was a majority draw. Both left-handers wanted a third bout and Hagler stopped his rival at just 1-20 of the first round. All the time, Hagler was becoming the ultimate craftsman, able to handle all styles and modes of attack.
After triumphing in another three-fight rivalry with someone as skilled as Monroe, Hagler would then proceed to pick on a 10-0 prospect such as “Sugar” Ray Phillips from Dallas and a 22-0 contender like Oregon’s Mike Colbert.
Reportedly, Hagler got beat in a Brockton street fight by local boxer Dornell Wigfall. In a smaller city which claimed Rocky Marciano as a favorite son and a high school whose teams are known as “Boxers,” their rivalry cried out for a grudge bout. When they fought at Brockton High Hagler was 3-0 while Wigfall was 8-0 as a pro. Hagler decisioned Wigfall before stopping him in a second bout. (The bad blood between the two supposedly began when football star Wigfall objected to Hagler asking his lady friend to dance.)
Until his Boston promoter Rip Valenti was able to get Bob Arum’s powerful Top Rank outfit to back Hagler, the bald-pated southpaw’s progress seemed to be on the verge of stalling out. Arum linked up with powerful Boston based politician Tip O’Neil and Hagler began getting proper bouts and paydays.
Even when Hagler faltered, as in his first title chance (a legit Vegas draw against Vito “The Mosquito’ Antuofermo) Arum and his matchmakers brought Hagler back with key opponents. Such work paid off for all concerned when Hagler began ploughing through top contenders.
It’s often overlooked how Hagler took rough customers such as Juan Domingo Roldan and completely and methodically dismantled them.
Which brings me to What I Most Admired About Mr. Hagler:
1. He carried his own gym bag, really to remind himself to stay rooted and humble.
2. His devout loyalty to Goody and Pat even when (or especially when) they dropped the ball negotiating the Sugar Ray Leonard super fight, giving Leonard a gloves, ring size and distance advantage when they did not need to.
3. How the sight of his own blood spurred Marvin on to his most brilliant victory, the epic war with Thomas Hearns.
4. How Hagler resisted his own ego and the financial power of a Leonard rematch, retiring with his brain and financial books in good condition and thus provided a good example for others.
5. For never complaining how the Boston area never embraced him as a sports superstar.
Finally, I had the thought that when he came to the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter warmly greeted Hagler and said, “Marvin, we all know you beat Sugar Ray in Vegas.”
Then those Pearly Gates swung wide open for the fighter who liked to “destruct and destroy.” His retirement is official now.