It was the rare instance when a hyped event not only matched the expectations, but managed to exceed them. When middleweight boxing champion Marvin Hagler faced Thomas Hearns 35 years ago, there was no outrage from fans claiming they were hoodwinked, lamenting that they didn’t get their money’s worth.
So what if the fight ended in the third round. There was more action, more punishment dished out, in the first round, than in some 12-round fights that have gone the distance.
Hagler-Hearns was held on April 15, 1985, which was Patriots Day in Boston. Both the Celtics and Bruins were in the playoffs that spring. Earlier that day, Geoff Smith won the Marathon men’s title for the second year in a row, while Lisa Larsen Weidenbach took the women’s title. The Red Sox lost, 6-5, in 11 innings to the White Sox.
The fight that evening took place at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, at a time when fights on Monday night were not uncommon. Before the days of pay-per-view, the biggest fights were on closed circuit television, broadcast in movie theaters and sports arenas.
“Monday was a dead night for movie theaters around the country. People would go to the movies in big numbers on Fridays,” said Top Rank CEO and founder Bob Arum, who worked with Hagler and promoted the fight. “Also, sporting events were generally held on the weekend, so Monday night the arenas were available, where you could show the bout on large screens. That was the primary reason.
“The other reason was we were getting big site fees from hotels like Caesar’s Palace, which was in the forefront, and they loved events on Monday and Tuesday nights, because customers would come in on a Friday and stay for an extra day or two, so they’d have them at their mercy at the tables.”
Arum picked legendary broadcaster Curt Gowdy to serve as host of the production, another indication of the magnitude of the fight. He handled the introduction before throwing it to announcers Al Michaels and Al Bernstein, and they were busy from the opening bell calling the action.
There was bad blood between Hagler and Hearns leading up to the fight. A publicity tour kicked off in February, with press conferences in 21 cities in 12 days, with the aim of getting fans to buy in all over the country. Madison Square Garden showed the fight, as did Boston Garden and Brockton High’s Staff Gymnasium, where Hagler made his pro debut in 1973 after winning the national AAU championship in Boston.
Despite traveling in separate private jets, the fighters built a genuine dislike for each other. In St. Louis, the two almost came to blows, and it was no act, Arum assured. The press tour was done by the end of February, but the animosity would not dissipate in the six weeks leading up to the fight.
So there was no feeling-out process in the first round. The fighters headed straight to the center of the ring and unloaded. Within the first minute, Hearns connected with a right that hurt Hagler, and the champ appeared to be in trouble, if only briefly.
“I saw Hagler’s cheek compress, almost as if his face just became concave, and it was like in a cartoon, when you see a guy get hit and the cheek pops out, that’s what it looked like to me," said Michaels.
But Hagler recovered.
“Hearns hit him with the best punch Hearns ever has thrown, and Hagler was like a bull, and spun, and comes right back,” said Arum. “The fight is over at this point, in my opinion.”
Only it wasn’t, of course. Hagler weathered the storm, and switched from southpaw to righthanded in the second round, but he also suffered a nasty cut on his forehead. While Hearns was wilting under the pressure in the third round, referee Richard Steele halted the fight temporarily to have the ring doctor examine Hagler’s cut. At that point, it seemed the only way Hagler could lose would be if the doctor stopped the fight. But Hagler was allowed to continue, and he wasted little time in sending Hearns to the canvas, knocking him out to retain the belt.
“Hagler had, and may still have, the best chin you could ever imagine a boxer having,” said Bernstein. “Except for that moment in the first round when I think Hearns did stun Hagler, I don’t even remember a time in his career when he was ever hurt.”
Hagler finally had his signature win. Despite having not lost a fight in nine years, and successfully defending his title 10 times, there were those who did not hold him in the same regard as Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard, all of whom rose to fame while battling each other as welterweights.
Prior to facing Hearns, Duran was Hagler’s highest-profile opponent. While Hagler would prevail, it was hardly in convincing fashion, taking a 15-round unanimous decision that left some critics doubting Hagler’s greatness. But the win over Hearns put those doubts to rest, and he improved to 61-2-2 with 51 knockouts.
“It just seemed to me that this fight was more important to Hagler. He had felt somewhat disrespected and had not been given the acclaim that he felt he deserved,” said Michaels. “So he didn’t feel as if he was getting the Sugar Ray Leonard or the Duran or even the Hearns accolades.”
At 26, Hearns was four years younger than Hagler, three inches taller, and entered the fight with a record of 40-1 with 34 knockouts. The one blemish was against Leonard, a fight he was leading after 12 rounds before losing by TKO in the 14th round. Although this loss was more decisive, his legacy was not tarnished, and both fighters were enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame after their careers.
The fight has become the gold standard for championship bouts.
“It helped solidify the legacy of both fighters,” said Bernstein. “Even in losing, Tommy Hearns created along with Marvin Hagler one of the most exciting rounds. I’ve said the first round could be the best in middleweight history.”
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.