The 1970s were coming to a close when Bob Arum, fresh off promoting a pair of fights between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, checked his mail one morning to find a letter from two Massachusetts politicians with the kind of power he knew would be unwise to ignore.
House speaker Tip O’Neill and Sen. Ted Kennedy had one simple question for Arum: Why wasn’t their fighter — a local favorite enjoying a modicum of success — being given a chance to fight the best middleweights in the world?
They also had an implied threat: If Marvin (the Marvelous was yet to come) Hagler wasn’t given a chance to prove himself they would form a joint House-Senate panel to look into the reasons why — and might just investigate a lot of other shady things that went on in the world of boxing.
“Not wanting any trouble, I got hold of a promoter in Boston and told him to get the Hagler people — whoever they are — in to see me,’’ Arum recalled. ”The next thing you know I’ve got Marvin fighting in Monte Carlo on a card with Vito Antuofermo with the promise he would get a title fight if they both won their fights.’’
The congressional intervention gave Hagler the shot he was sure would never come. He did the rest, winning a title two years later and going eight years without a loss until a disputed decision at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 angered him so much he walked away from boxing.
Unlike Leonard, Hagler wasn’t boxing royalty. He didn’t win an Olympic gold and fight his first bout on network television.
He was a working man’s fighter from a working man’s town, and that was a big part of his appeal. Hagler never turned his back on Brockton, Massachusetts, just as he never abandoned the Petronelli brothers there who trained him from his amateur days until his last fight.
He became a charter member of the Four Kings, a boxing club so elite that only Hall of Famers got entry. On the glitziest Las Vegas stages, he, Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns rotated in and out of the biggest fights of a golden era of boxing.
He didn’t have a huge right hand like Hearns, or the hand speed of Duran. He wasn’t flashy like Leonard and there wasn’t an Olympic medal in his trophy case.
But he trained as hard as anyone and, when the bell rang, fought even harder. Fans may not have been immediately drawn to him but they liked his determination and came to appreciate his grit.
He also had something every fan could relate to — a burning desire to win and to inflict punishment on whoever was in the ring with him.
Hagler’s passing on Saturday was sudden and unexpected. No one who remembered the sculpted body under his glistening bald dome and his incredible energy could believe it was all over.
At the age of 66, Hagler was gone. And we were all left to reflect upon what we — and the sport he so loved — had lost.
The outpouring of affection came from everywhere. Fans remembered his disputed draw with Antuofermo in 1979 almost as much as his disgust at losing the final decision to Leonard eight years later.
In Texas, ring announcer Michael Buffer appeared near tears as he paused for the 10-bell count that is traditional in boxing for fallen fighters. The task was one Buffer had done for others 100 times before, though this was different. When he finished, he took a long pause, then put on his game face for the fight between Chocolatito Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada because that, he said, would be what Hagler would have wanted.
Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis took to Twitter to credit Hagler’s work ethic inspiring him to greatness as he was coming up in the amateur ranks.
“Not only was he a living legend, but I was proud to call him my friend,’’ Lewis said. ”He was so full of life, energy and positivity in our conversations that you would never guess what a wrecking machine he was in the ring.’’
And, as always, the memories were dominated by the magical night in 1985 when he stopped Hearns in the third round of what many consider to be the greatest fight ever.
Hearns himself was thinking about his old adversary and the night he threw everything he had at Hagler in the first round and couldn’t get him to back up.
“I can’t take anything away from him,’’ Hearns told The Associated Press. ”He fought his heart out and we put on a great show for all time.’’
The fight that defined Hagler’s career was personal, as were most of his bouts. He fought convinced everyone was against him, and a lot of the time he was right — at least when it came to the boxing establishment.
He and Hearns might have bonded when they went on a 23-city tour to promote their fight. Instead, they almost came to blows several times before the fight as Hagler became increasingly irritated with Hearns and his antics.
“They had gotten on each other’s nerves so much they didn’t want to do a boxing match. They wanted to kill each other,’’ Arum said.
The way the fight unfolded left those at ringside slack jawed. It was sheer violence and will, with neither man giving an inch in a brutal first round that will live forever in boxing lore.
When it was over, blood was streaming down Hagler’s face from a huge gash on his forehead. Across the ring, Hearns was being carried to his corner by one of his handlers.
Now, 36 years later, new generations got a chance to watch and they had to be slack jawed, too.
The fights of the Four Kings dominated both the decade and the era. Hagler fought them all, and went to his grave convinced he had beaten them all.
None of it may have happened if Arum hadn’t listened when the politicians roared. Hagler got his break, and did the rest himself.
In a word, he was simply Marvelous.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg