Thomas Hauser reviews Don Stradley’s new book, The War: Hagler-Hearns and Three Rounds for the Ages
IT’S a line in boxing’s record book: April 15, 1985 – Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas – KO 3.
Hagler-Hearns was marketed as “The Fight” and later became known as “The War.” The combatants, United Press reported, fought like men fought “before the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.”
“The way it turned out,” famed sportswriter Jim Murray wrote, “we’ll all have nightmares for weeks.”
Reminiscing about the first round, Larry Merchant recalled, “It was as though you couldn’t breathe for those three minutes. There’d been an electric buzz around the fight all week, but people were expecting a traditional boxing event. Once it started, there was a new story and the realization that this was something they’d never seen before.”
Don Stradley revisits this epic fight in The War: Hagler-Hearns and Three Rounds for the Ages (Hamilcar Publications). His work comes on the heels of Brian Doogan’s book, The SuperFight, which chronicles the historic encounter between Hagler and Ray Leonard two years later. In some respects, the books cover similar terrain. But The War stands on its own as an excellent recounting of a landmark fight – “boxing as it appears in our imagination,” Stradley writes, “wild and unbridled.”
The War gives readers the usual biographical details about Hagler and Hearns. Hagler, Stradley recounts, was “the eldest child in a fatherless family of seven, an introverted lonesome boy, likely to sit alone on his fire escape, playing with pigeons and injured animals. At fourteen, he dropped out of school and went to work in a toy factory to help support the family.”
Hearns, Stradley tells us, “dropped out of Detroit’s Northeastern High School during his senior year to pursue boxing full-time. His amateur career had taken him around the country and to Asia and Europe. But his schoolwork suffered; he’d been required to repeat eleventh grade.”
Stradley also sprinkles in lesser-known facts. Writing about the collection of animals (including a macaw, a bulldog, and a cougar named “Atomic”) that Hearns maintained on his estate, Stradley reports, “There was the crazy night when Hearns wanted to prove he was indeed quick as a cat and started shooting his right hand in the vicinity of Atomic’s head. The animal whirled, opened its mouth, and clamped down on his fist. Horrified that his moneymaking knuckles might be damaged, Hearns had to choke the cat with his left hand to get his right hand out of its mouth. Hearns bled all over his expensive home.”
As for Hagler, Stradley writes, “Alex Wallau, executive producer at ABC sports, allegedly told Hagler’s camp that, if he wanted to be known as ‘Marvelous,’ he should go to court and make it official. This was typical of the way Hagler was treated at the time. ABC never had a problem calling Ray Leonard ‘Sugar Ray,’ but wouldn’t call Marvin ‘marvelous.’”
There’s a long section in the book – maybe too long – on the difficulties encountered in making the fight, which was first announced for May 24, 1982. There’s also an entertaining recreation of the 14-day, 21-city pre-fight publicity tour when the promotion finally got off the ground.
Stradley hits his stride in describing the scene in Las Vegas in the days leading up to the fight. Al Bernstein told him, “Las Vegas was on fire that week. The event took on a life of its own. During that period, Las Vegas was in transition. It was between the Rat Pack era and the corporate era. And Las Vegas was not a respected place. People thought of Las Vegas as an absurd cliché, some cornball place your uncle went to.” But that week, Bernstein continued, “you could feel the energy flying through the air. I really believe Hagler–Hearns put Las Vegas over the top.”
The scene on fight day is particularly well told. A few samples:
- “Hector Camacho occupied a spot by the Caesars Palace swimming pool in nothing but some gold jewelry, blue sneakers, and a leopard-skin slingshot bikini. Trying to snatch a bit of spotlight for himself, the twenty-two-year-old Puerto Rican lightweight burst into a loud rendition of Madonna’s hit from the previous fall, Like a Virgin. While Camacho sang and strutted, artist LeRoy Neiman sketched him. When Neiman presented the finished drawing, Camacho asked him to pencil in more muscles.”
- “There was certainly reason to believe the Las Vegas casinos would’ve preferred a Hearns victory. The money being dropped on Las Vegas that week wasn’t coming from Boston. It was Hearns’ followers coming down from Detroit. So of course, Las Vegas wanted Hearns to come back again and again. Hearns brought the high rollers. It was all Detroit street money.”
And there was Pete Hamill’s take on the scene: “They came piling out of cabs and airport limousines: cartoon Detroit pimps, overdone fancy ladies, bi-continental drug dealers weighed down by chains, medallions and Rolexes. They were here for Hearns and Hagler. But Sinatra was at the Golden Nugget for two nights so you could also see second-rate hoodlums from the East. All wandering through the neon wilderness of girlie shows, ninety-nine-cent breakfasts, and the pervasive intoxicating apparatus of gambling.” Hagler was 30 years old. Hearns was 26. Marvin had been an early 6/5 favorite. By fight week, those numbers were reversed. Eventually, the odds wound up even.
Hagler preferred the traditional 15-round championship distance to the newly-implemented 12-round limit but pledged to “put fifteen rounds into twelve.” Asked about the fact that many people were picking Hearns to win, Marvin said simply, “We all have our ideas about this fight, but only Tommy and me can get at the truth.” As for Hearns’ prediction that he’d knock Hagler out in the third round, Marvin responded, “He says he’ll knock me out in three because he can’t count past three.”
The fight was contested on a Monday evening. Closed-circuit television was the driving economic force behind it and, in those days, most theaters were unavailable for boxing on Saturday night. Saturday was “movie date” night. The weigh-in, as was standard practice, was held at 8am on the day of the fight.
Hagler’s fight plan was simple.
Tony Petronelli’s father managed Hagler and his uncle trained Marvin. “We were not training for a boxing match,” Tony told Stradley. “We wanted a street fight. We knew Hearns was a gunfighter and he’d trade punches with you. So it was all a matter of whose chin would hold up. We knew Marvin had one of the best chins ever, and Hearns wasn’t known for having a great chin. The plan was to have Marvin jump all over him. It wasn’t a gamble.”
“This fight comes down to who can take the hardest shot, who can take the most punishment,” Hagler prophesied.
The War unfolded accordingly. Hearns broke his right hand in round one. After that, Stradley writes, “Hagler was fighting to do damage, while Hearns was fighting to survive.” The end came with a minute left in round three and Hearns no longer able to defend himself.
Al Michaels and Al Bernstein handled the closed-circuit commentating duties. Barry Tompkins and Larry Merchant called the fight on a tape-delay basis for HBO.
“They both left everything they had in the ring,” Merchant said later. “They poured everything in their minds and bodies into their fight. Those eight minutes transformed Hagler from a terrific pro into a star and one of the great middleweights of all time.”
As for the fact that there was no rematch, Merchant observed, “I can’t imagine a rematch being as good. It’s a beautiful picture that has been framed and can’t be duplicated. That was the way it was supposed to be. That’s the way it stands.”
The saga of Hagler-Hearns is a good story and Stradley tells it well. The War ends with a nod to the future. Hagler-Hearns made Hagler vs. Ray Leonard inevitable. But there’s also a poignant nod to the past.
Hours after the Hagler-Hearns fight ended, Wallace Matthews (who had covered the bout for Newsday) was introduced to Sugar Ray Robinson, who was suffering from dementia and would die four years later at the much-too-young age of 67. They chatted for a while and the greatest fighter who ever lived asked Matthews, “Did I ever fight those guys?”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.