For some, the 1980s represent the last golden age of boxing, an era when those at the top of the sport sought out the best competition, even if it meant forcing opposing promoters to work together to get a deal done.
Those who weren’t around to witness it, or perhaps were not paying attention, may be skeptical, raising the question: “Were the good old days really that good?”
The answer, as Showtime’s latest documentary “The Kings,” reminds us, is a resounding yes.
The four-part series begins Sunday at 8 p.m., with hourlong episodes to follow each Sunday. It chronicles the remarkable and intertwined careers of Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the Brockton boxer who died of undisclosed causes at age 66 in March.
The four combatants helped bridge the gap between the reigns of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, combining for nine fights among them from 1980-89, but it would be inaccurate to describe the series as strictly about boxing. That’s how executive producer James Gay-Rees pitched the project to director Mat Whitecross.
“James said, ‘This is going to be wasted on you, because you’re not a sports fan, but there’s this amazing story about these four guys. If we make it, it’s not really going to be about the boxing,’ ” Whitecross recounted. “ ‘It’s kind of about the boxing, but it’s also kind of a snapshot about America in the ’80s. Kind of talk about what happened there socially and politically through the eyes of these four men. But I’m sure you’re not interested.’ ”
But Whitecross was interested, because the topic marked a departure from his previous work, which included directing music documentaries on Coldplay and Oasis. Acknowledging that he is “not a super sports fan,” Whitecross had turned down other projects before agreeing to work on “The Kings.” This time, he dove right in, reading every book he could find on the subject, including the late George Kimball’s “Four Kings.”
“It was like I went to school,” said Whitecross, who was born and raised in Oxford, England. “I was an outsider, and I approached it with great humility.”
He began his research two years ago, and sought to get the four boxers to participate, but only Hearns and Duran cooperated.
“We wanted to approach everyone at the same time,” said Whitecross. “We wanted to be fair about it. People offered their advice. If you approach Marvin first, then Ray will say no. Approach Ray first, then Marvin will say no.”
At one point, it appeared that both were coming aboard, but in the end, they chose not to. That is hardly noticeable in the finished product, as Whitecross and his team scoured the Internet and YouTube for clips from interviews on television shows, podcasts, or wherever the rabbit hole would take them.
He also found willing participants among those who covered the fights, including Steve Marantz, who covered many of Hagler’s fights for the Globe. Legendary announcers Al Bernstein, Steve Farhood, Larry Merchant, and Teddy Atlas were among those interviewed.
“Farhood knows more about boxing than anybody I’ve ever been around in my life,” said Hall of Fame announcer Barry Tompkins, who estimates that he called about 25 of Hagler’s fights. “I thought he was the star of it, because he’s so good at putting things into perspective.”
Atlas also plays a prominent role. The crew initially had only an hour to work with the ESPN analyst, but Atlas agreed to do a followup session, inviting Whitecross to his house. What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview turned into a seven-hour visit.
“He has the voice of an Old Testament prophet,” said Whitecross. “In some ways, he kind of became the narrator. All of the editors were fighting over who got to use the best Teddy lines.”
‘A very polarizing time’
The documentary was initially projected to be three hours, and Whitecross tried to stick to that. But he wanted to show what was going in America at that time outside the boxing world, and how history repeats.
To that end, we learn of the riots in Newark after a Black cab driver was beaten by two police officers in 1967. That would serve as the impetus for the Hagler family’s move to Brockton. Also covered is the campaign of Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, which included the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.”
“You speak to some people and they say this is the greatest era of modern America,” said Whitecross. “Then other people might say it was the worst. And probably both are true. It was a very polarizing time.”
There certainly was plenty of material, and local boxing fans will be happy with how Hagler is portrayed. Though he held the middleweight crown for seven years, many believed he never got the recognition he deserved from the boxing community. The commentators in “The Kings” demonstrate otherwise, beginning with their reaction to the judges ruling Hagler’s first bid at a title against Vito Antuofermo in 1979 as a draw.
“One of the most egregious decisions in boxing history,” said Bernstein.
Hagler became a world champion less than a year later with his fourth-round TKO over Alan Minter in London. When he pursues a mega-fight with Leonard in the ensuing years, the scene shifts to Baltimore in November 1982. Leonard held a black-tie event, with a boxing ring as a stage and Howard Cosell serving as master of ceremonies. Leonard invited Hagler for what many assumed would be an announcement that he had agreed to fight the middleweight champion.
“A fight with this great man, this great champion, could be one of the greatest fights in the history of boxing,” Leonard says as he points to Hagler. “But unfortunately it will never happen.”
With that, Leonard exits the ring, announcing his retirement while stunning the crowd and Hagler as well. Leonard would later acknowledge that he had “taken a couple of shots and a hit of cocaine” before making the announcement.
“I don’t think it was one of the shining moments of Ray’s career,” said Marantz.
“It was adding insult to insult,” said Merchant. “It was very self-serving.”
Giving them their due
Hagler moved on, winning a showdown with Duran before facing Hearns on April 15, 1985, in what is widely considered one of the greatest fights of all time.
“That first round will live forever,” said Farhood. “Probably the greatest round in boxing history. It was just pure hell.”
Hearns was unable to keep up the pace in the second round, but Hagler was badly cut and in jeopardy of having the fight stopped in the third round. Realizing he didn’t have much time to work with, Hagler pressed the action and knocked Hearns out.
“Right hook, right cross, right over,” said veteran boxing scribe Jerry Izenberg of The Newark Star Ledger in describing how Hagler put Hearns away.
In his next fight, Hagler defeated John Mugabi in 1986, but it was apparent that his skills were diminishing. Leonard, who sat ringside that night as part of the announcing team, sensed that Hagler was vulnerable and decided to come out of retirement for what was billed as The Super Fight.
Hagler fans might be tempted to ignore the final hour, which features his controversial split-decision loss to Leonard in 1987. But the episode illustrates that Hagler was able to do what the others could not, which was walk away from the sport. He never entered the ring again after that loss, despite being only 32 and likely could have gotten a $20 million payday for a rematch with Leonard.
Leonard’s last fight came at 40, Duran’s at 49. In both cases, they lost to Hector Camacho. Hearns fought until he was 47. The toll on Hearns is particularly noticeable with regard to his speech, with his most recent interviews requiring the use of subtitles.
In the final shot, before the credits roll, a black-and-white image of a smiling Hagler appears with along with the caption “in memory of Marvelous Marvin Hagler 1954-2021.”
After two years working on the documentary, Whitecross was putting on the finishing touches when news of Hagler’s death came.
“I was incredibly sad and shocked, like everyone, I think,” said Whitecross, who had hoped to meet Hagler in Italy but never got the opportunity. “People who were rivals with him talk about his decency and his honesty. Of all of them, he was the one who refused to be dragged into the corruption of the industry. He got out at the right time.”
Whitecross hopes that Hagler and the other Kings get their due.
“I hope it introduces a new generation to the achievements of these four guys,” said Whitecross. “They are unjustly, I think, forgotten about. Everyone knows about Ali. Everyone knows about Tyson. These guys in my mind are just as interesting.”
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.