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Leonard-Hagler at 25

They fought on April 6,1987 before nearly 2 million closed-circuit viewers and 20,000 more in the open stadium behind Caesars Palace.  Now Leonard-Hagler is 25, and aficionados still argue about the split decision for Leonard.

To commemorate the anniversary, and to honor the brothers Petronelli – Pat and Goody – who passed away in 2011, following is the Epilogue to “Sorcery at Caesars: Sugar Ray’s Marvelous Fight”, published in 2008:

In the cocaine-addled, junk bond ‘80s, Leonard and Hagler gave us a fable, and themselves a permanent place in boxing lore.  Both are elevated among the all-time greats, Leonard a step higher.

As much as his career, Hagler is remembered for his exit.  He quit, at the age of 32, after losing to Leonard, and declined multi-million dollar offers to fight again.  He was one of a few champions – Rocky Marciano being another – to quit with his health intact and money on the table.

“Marvin Hagler did a lot of good things by walking away,” said Flip Homansky, a Nevada physician who worked the bout. “He walked away at the peak of his health, and I think a lot of our younger fighters could learn a lesson from him.”

Hagler’s abrupt exit was an oddity, to be sure, but also a natural outgrowth of his career.

“People say he shouldn’t be so bitter, but let me tell you something,” said Emanuel Steward.  “That chip on his shoulder is what made him a good fighter.”

Leonard was larger than life, and sometimes smaller.

In the summer of 1983 Leonard sailed to England on the QE II with a Canadian film crew at work on a documentary about him.   Princess Margaret and Bob Hope were aboard, and a formal black-tie dinner was thrown.  In tuxedoes, Leonard and his bodyguard, James Anderson, made their way to a sparkling men’s room, where an attendant handed out towels and accepted tips.   But a problem arose after Leonard and Anderson washed their hands – neither had money for the tip box.

“So the guy turned his back to hand another guy a towel,” Anderson recalled, “and Ray reached into the change thing, picked it up, and dropped it back in there.”

The attendant turned around as change cascaded into the tip box.

“Oh, thank you very much, Mr. Leonard.”

“No problem,” Leonard said, and returned to the dinner with Princess Margaret and Bob Hope.

This wasn’t about stinginess.  By most accounts Leonard was a generous man who once wrote a spur-of-the-moment $250,000 check to Grambling, supported relatives and friends, and helped strangers in need.

This was about Leonard feeding his inner con, if just a tiny hors d’oeuvre.  This was the same impulse that shaped his strategy against Hagler, and created a timeless classic.   As the bout is Leonard’s legacy, so is his devilish persona.

Steve Farhood was editor of KO Magazine from 1980 to 1997, and of The Ring Magazine from 1990 to 1997.   He oversaw coverage of hundreds of championship fights, but none stirred his readers as much as Leonard-Hagler.

“I got more mail on the fight and the decision than any fight in all my years of editing,” Farhood said. “I continued to receive mail on the decision years after the fight.”

Dave Moretti, the ‘swing’ vote, is never far from the fight.

“Twenty years after the fight it’s still the one most people ask me about,” Moretti said.  “Did Leonard really win?”

The same is true of Jo Jo Guerra, the judge who “wasn’t there”, yet never escaped from it.

“They made me famous,” said Guerra.  “Wherever I go, that’s the fight people want to know about.”

Leonard, in a 2005 interview, said he often is reminded of the bout by everyday fans.

“Even to this day, in New England or wherever I go, his fans will come up to me and say, ‘Ray, we like you, but Hagler beat you.’ To this very day.”

Its enduring appeal may stem from the potent alchemy of opposites.  Before the bout Promoter Bob Arum theorized that their personalities were reflected in other athletes, teams, places, politicians, and “ordinary” citizens.

“Everyone and everything is either Hagler or Leonard,” Arum wrote in the Las Vegas Sun.

Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants were Hagler; John Elway and the Denver Broncos were Leonard.  Most quarterbacks were Leonard, while linebackers and defensive linemen were Hagler.

The Boston Celtics and Larry Bird were Hagler; the LA Lakers and Magic Johnson were Leonard.

California, Florida, Texas and Arizona were Leonard, while Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma and New Mexico were Hagler.   Nevada suffered from a “split personality”, Reno was Hagler, Las Vegas was Leonard.   New York City was too cosmopolitan to fit into either category, but the rest of New York was Hagler.

Democrats were Hagler and Republicans were Leonard, with exceptions.  Of the Republican presidential hopefuls, Sen. Robert Dole and former Sen. Paul Laxalt were Hagler, while Democratic candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson were Leonard.

On fight night, Arum concluded, “The Haglers and Leonards in the vast audience will be rooting like mad for that fighter representing the personality category each fan identifies with.”

The metaphors of 1987…

Leonard was Hollywood, the catwalk, sushi, desktop computing, and the future.  Hagler was Main Street, a 30-year mortgage, a burger with fries, a factory that closed, and the past.

…are different today, but the same.

Leonard is an Internet search engine, a hedge fund, and high-definition plasma TV.  Hagler is bumper-to-bumper in the morning commute, a windowless cubicle, and late fees on a credit card that never is paid down.

Leonard was who we dreamed of being, Hagler was who we are.

No matter that Leonard was not who or what he appeared to be.   Leonard’s magic was in the seductive vision he represented.

Two judges voted for Leonard, one for Hagler.  The outcome said as much about our culture and desires as about the fight.

Leonard and Hagler gave us a ‘marvelous’ fight and something more – a looking glass.

“Every time I watch it,” said Richard Steele, the referee, “it gets closer.”