They come, they still come. They’re the dreamers, the next ones. They have fury in their fists, a glimmer in their eyes, a wanting inside in search of a way out.
Marvin Hagler was one of them, a very long time ago, before he was Marvelous, before he tore fortune and fame from the flesh of a sport designed to hurt, guaranteed to punish, and one that virtually never rewards as in the movie scripts.
“The smell,” Hagler once said of his first day in a Brockton boxing gym, a high school dropout in a teenager’s tattered sneakers. “I just loved the smell of it.”
A half-century after Hagler strolled into the Petronellis’ gym, said Mike Cappiello, a trainer today would spot a kid with Hagler’s natural ability in a matter of seconds. He’s sure of it. He has seen it many times. He has trained boxers in his own Brockton gym on Main Street for more than 25 years, and the spigot of dreamers has never turned off.
Like Hagler, the ex-world middleweight champ who died March 13 at the age of 66, they want it all, but know nothing of what it all takes. They soon find out, some in a day, some in a few weeks or months, and then they’re gone.
“Funny thing,” mused Cappiello, “they learn pretty fast . . . it’s life, it’s not easy. Nothing about it is easy.”
Most of all, times are just different, said Cappiello. Not for the sport, because boxing always has been a long game, “a tough road,” he said. In an era of instant results, ready-made fame, and whirring news cycles, boxing remains a place for patience and endurance and dogged commitment. Rare commodities in a 2021 world of high-speed Internet, E-ZPasses, online ordering, and apps that deliver everything but dreams.
“A kid will come up to my gym and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I want to be a champion,’ ” Cappiello, 59, mused the other day. “And you tell ’em, ‘OK, but the actual thing is, you have to put the time into it, it doesn’t just happen overnight.’ But that’s how they think.”
Until the workouts begin, and the punch coming back is fiercer, and better targeted, than the punch they sent out. The dream gets real in a hurry when viewed through a pair of black eyes or a whiff of smelling salts.
“Then they’re saying, ‘OK, maybe I’m wrong,’ ” said Cappiello, his laugh tinged in irony and frustration rather than humor. “You know what I mean?”
Nonetheless, there is always the hope of another Hagler out there, albeit maybe in a different town. Brockton gave us both Rocky Marciano and Hagler, both reaching fame within less than a marathon’s distance from downtown Boston.
To think that another Marciano or Hagler might pop up again from there could be like standing today at Plymouth Rock, awaiting for the arrival of another Mayflower to drop anchor. But still, there’s a chance, and they still make their way to Cappiello’s place.
Hagler, 62-3-2 lifetime, went 36-0-1 over 10 years (1976-86), an astounding stretch interrupted only by a Nov. 30, 1979, draw in a 15-rounder with Vito Antuofermo.
Hagler’s April 15, 1985, brawl with Thomas Hearns, his 36th match in that decade-long run, is among the sport’s classics. It was ferocious from the opening bell, and it ended with Hearns, dismayed that he hadn’t belted Hagler to the floor off the hop, staggering helplessly back on his feet 1:52 into the third round. Enough, said referee Richard Steele, and the 30-year-old Hagler retained the world title.
“Whenever I get down on boxing, which is about every other 25 minutes,” said Al Valenti, the longtime Boston-area fight promoter, “I just go to YouTube, Hagler-Hearns, and then I realize what true fighters are like.”
Fight fan or not, it’s worth watching if only to see the core of Hagler’s game, his steel will, unremitting determination. He weathered repeated fierce shots throughout the first round, withstood an early facial gash that kept leaking blood, all the while refusing to back off.
Cappiello watched it again recently, in the hours after Hagler’s wife posted on Facebook that her husband of some 20 years died in their Bartlett, N.H., home.
“Thomas Hearns could punch,” said Cappiello, talking faster as he recounted details of each round. “He landed some big shots on Marvin, OK? I mean, a lot of guys would have said, ‘Holy smoke, I’m done with this!’ Marvin didn’t. Marvin just kept on going straight, took the shots, kept coming back.”
The bell rang to end Round 1, and Hagler, unbowed, fixed a stare on Hearns for a couple of seconds as the challenger turned for his corner. In the media tour leading up to the bout, recalled Valenti, Hagler stood up while Hearns was speaking at the podium, and said, “I’m going to break every bone in your body.”
The stare repeated the intent.
“I remember the bell rang, and Marvin looked at Hearns,” recalled Cappiello, “and that’s where Hearns had to think to himself, ‘I’m in for a long night.’ ”
Hagler was an adopted son of Brockton. He was born in Newark and arrived here soon after that city’s riots in the summer of 1967. Lights turned off at night in their apartment during the five-day rampage, Hagler and his siblings survived, in part, by sleeping under their beds in order not to be struck by stray gunfire.
Hagler picked up some boxing basics while living in Newark, so it wasn’t by complete whim that he wandered into Goody and Pat Petronelli’s place and watched quietly in a corner, taking it all in, smell and all.
“Think about that for a second,” said Valenti. “Here’s two guys, Goody and Pat, who are bricklayers with a boxing club on the side. And Marvin walked in the gym at 16 and the rest is history. Now call Stephen King and ask him to write that story.”
Meanwhile, Cappiello stays on the job, awaiting the next one. A former NFL player, he said, recently trained for a few weeks and then disappeared. Another promising kid showed up two weeks ago, said he wants it all, and Cappiello hopes the new kid will stay.
He’s a trainer, with punches to teach, awaiting the next dreamer to walk through the door in tattered sneakers.
“Look, I have kids right now with me that have natural skills and ability,” he said. “But it’s not that. You just don’t know what life’s going to throw at ‘em. Know what I’m saying? It’s always, ‘I want to be a champ.’ Of course. That’s good. That’s dreams. But it’s a long road.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.