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‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler, dominant middleweight boxer, dies

Mr. Hagler (left) battled Thomas Hearns in a bout that some considered boxing's greatest match.
Mr. Hagler (left) battled Thomas Hearns in a bout that some considered boxing's greatest match.Jim Wilson/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the indestructible Brockton boxer who dominated the middleweight division for most of the 1980s, died of undisclosed causes Saturday in New Hampshire. He was 66.

A muscular left-hander with a shaved head who was renowned for his punishing fists, his granite jaw, and for treating bouts as battles, Mr. Hagler retired at 34 having won 62 of his 67 professional matches (52 by knockout) and drawing two. For seven years, he was the undisputed world middleweight champ.

On Mr. Hagler’s official website, a statement posted Sunday said, “We are very sad to report that Marvelous Marvin Hagler died on March 13 of natural causes near his home in New Hampshire. He was a champion until the end. His family asks for privacy at this time of sorrow.”

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He avenged two of his three losses to Bobby ‘”Boogaloo’' Watts and Willie “The Worm’' Monroe and took the bitterness of the other, to Sugar Ray Leonard in his final appearance, to his grave.

Between 1980, when he took the crown from Alan Minter, and the Leonard loss Mr. Hagler, whose motto was ‘Destruct and Destroy’, successfully defended his title a dozen times. By far the most memorable was his 1985 brawl with Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, which lasted for only eight minutes but is considered by many to be the sport’s greatest bout. “I never have seen three rounds of action like that,” said referee Richard Steele after the bloodied champion put Hearns on the canvas.

Mr. Hagler, who was named Fighter of the Decade by Boxing Illustrated magazine, is enshrined in both the International and World Boxing Halls of Fame.

While he and unbeaten heavyweight titlist Rocky Marciano were the one-two punch that put Brockton on the planetary map Mr. Hagler was a Newark native whose family left the city after the 1967 riots. He found a second home in the gym above a hardware store that was run by brothers Pat and Goody Petronelli and made his amateur debut at 15 after lying about his age.

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After winning the National AAU title and compiling a 55-1 amateur record, Mr. Hagler turned professional in 1973. “You can’t eat trophies,” he said. “I didn’t have any money and I needed to work.”

Ballet dancer Tony Capanzaro of the Boston Ballet (left) helped Mr.  Hagler and Tony Petronelli improve their balance and footwork.
Ballet dancer Tony Capanzaro of the Boston Ballet (left) helped Mr. Hagler and Tony Petronelli improve their balance and footwork. Globe File Photo

Mr. Hagler, who received $50 for his first paid bout, worked relentlessly, fighting 19 times in as many months. His breakthrough came in late 1974 when he posted a unanimous decision over Olympic champion Sugar Ray Seales, the only US victor at the 1972 Games. “He’s a bull,” Seales said after taking his first loss. “I really got hurt tonight.”

Seales was one of the few opponents who went the distance with Mr. Hagler early in his career. “Marvin already has wiped out the best in New England,” observed Goody Petronelli. “There’s nobody left.”

Mr. Hagler was eager to move up in class. “I belong up there with the big boys,” he said. But ranked opponents avoided him. “You have three strikes against you,” former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier told him. “You’re black, you’re a southpaw and you’re good.”

Mr. Hagler concluded that he had to fight name opponents on their own turf. His first two losses came in Philadelphia, which was notorious for hometown decisions. “I beat him every round,” he complained after Watts won a majority decision at the Spectrum. “That was terrible. I’ve never seen a place like this.”

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Mr. Hagler discovered that the road to a title shot began overseas. “I showed them something,” he said after knocking out Argentine rival Norberto Cabrera in Monte Carlo during the summer of 1979. “They can’t say I’m not known outside the Northeast any more.”

To the city of Brockton, Mr. Hagler was an extension of Marciano’s legacy, a favored son whose grit and seeming invincibility conveyed characteristics of the community.

“Marvelous Marvin will always be a champion from our ‘City of Champions’ and he inspired civic pride in generations of Brocktonians,” Mayor Robert Sullivan said Saturday night.

A mural of Mr. Hagler is one of the many reminders of his time in Brockton.
A mural of Mr. Hagler is one of the many reminders of his time in Brockton. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The victory over Cabrera earned Mr. Hagler a November date with Italian world champion Vito Antuofermo in Las Vegas but left him perplexed after his bloodied rival was awarded a draw. “I didn’t even know a championship fight could end up in a draw,” said Mr. Hagler, who’d missed a chance to knock Antuofermo out.

Mr. Hagler got a second opportunity a year later in London against Britain’s Alan Minter, who’d subsequently beaten Antuofermo. This time he won the championship belt by TKO in the third round after opening up several cuts on Minter’s face. “They said it couldn’t be done,” declared Mr. Hagler, who was escorted to the dressing room by police after furious fans had thrown beer bottles onto the ring. “They said I’d never get there.”

Having finally reached the pinnacle Mr. Hagler, who legally changed his first name to Marvelous in 1982, welcomed challengers, defending his crown eight times in the next three years, beating Antuofermo at Boston Garden and light middleweight king Roberto Duran along the way. But it was his Las Vegas showdown with Hearns, the light middleweight champion, which came to be known as “The War,’' that came to define him.

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Despite blood streaming from a deep cut in his forehead, Mr. Hagler attacked Hearns ruthlessly, staggered him with a right hand, and watched him slump into Steele’s arms in the third round. “The better man won,” Hearns told him.

Mr. Hagler “was a man of honor and a man of his word, and he performed in the ring with unparalleled determination,” said Bob Arum, chairman of boxing promoter Top Rank, in a statement.

The news of Mr. Hagler’s death brought Hearns back to that ring in Las Vegas. “He fought his heart out, and we put on a great show for all time,’' he told the Associated Press.

Mr. Hagler was honored with a parade on Main Street in Brockton after his win over Thomas Hearns.
Mr. Hagler was honored with a parade on Main Street in Brockton after his win over Thomas Hearns. Joe Dennehy/Globe Staff

Mr. Hagler’s next bout a year later against unbeaten Olympic medalist John Mugabi of Uganda, which Mr. Hagler won in the 11th round, was similarly savage. Observers, noting that he seemed slower and less agile, speculated that the champion was on the downslope of his career. Leonard, sensing that Mr. Hagler could be dethroned, came out of a three-year retirement to face him in April 1987.

Although Mr. Hagler was a 3-1 favorite, Leonard frustrated him by dancing just out of range, forcing the champion to chase him, and clinched whenever Mr. Hagler caught him. “He was fighting like a girl,” he said. “Doing all that showboating stuff.” Yet Leonard’s elusive strategy earned him a controversial split decision win that Mr. Hagler found unimaginable. “I have to go to sleep and wake up and see if I can believe what happened,” he said.

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Leonard retired again without granting a rematch and Mr. Hagler, weary of waiting, hung up his gloves in June 1988. Outside of the ring for the first time in 15 years, Mr. Hagler struggled and was divorced. But returning to boxing was out of the question, even after he was offered $15 million to face Leonard again in 1990. “I didn’t even want to smell a boxing ring,” said Mr. Hagler, who earned an estimated $40 million inside of it. “Just getting that close you start to get that feeling again and start thinking crazy thoughts.”

Mr. Hagler clowned around with boxing legend Jake LaMotta at Nick's Comedy Stop in 1985.
Mr. Hagler clowned around with boxing legend Jake LaMotta at Nick's Comedy Stop in 1985.Blanding, John Globe Staff

Instead, he moved to Milan and began an acting career, appearing in Italian action films like “Indio’' and “Virtual Weapon.’' His most challenging scene, he said, was the fatal ending of “Night of Fear.’' “I mean, how exactly do you die?”, Mr. Hagler told Sports Illustrated. “Hey, I’ve never died. I’ve only lived.”

Mr. Hagler leaves his wife, Kay and five children from his first marriage to his wife, Bertha. He is also survived by half-brother Robbie Sims, also a former middleweight boxer.