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30 Years Ago Today: 'The War' between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns

Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns arrived for "The Fight." When they were done, it was called "The War."

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

For eight minutes on April 15, 1985, a mega-fight lived up to its hype. That was the night, thirty years ago today, that middleweight champion "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and Thomas "Hitman" Hearns went into the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and battered one another until one man couldn't continue.

It was billed as "The Fight." It is now known as "The War." It was a primal battle, savagely ferocious from the opening bell. They had been meant to fight on May 24, 1982, when Hearns had to withdraw due to a hand injury. Eventually, the fight was simply canceled. In the three years that elapsed before they finally did meet, Hagler and Hearns both went 6-0, including wins over the great Roberto Duran for each man. Hagler beat Duran by unanimous decision over 15 rounds in 1983, while Hearns famously smashed Duran in two rounds the following year.

Hagler also wasn't exactly pleased with the way the fight was shut down. "He was gonna make $2 million. He turned down $2 million. He started complaining about his little baby pinky. You know how many people would take a million dollars for that little baby pinky? They'd cut that thing off," Hagler said in a 1982 TV interview.

So when Hagler-Hearns finally came together, it was probably an even bigger fight than it would have been three years prior. There was now some bad blood added to it all, and then Hearns made a bold prediction at a January 1985 press conference: "Come April 15 in three rounds, I will be the greatest."

The pre-fight interviews with each man hinted at what was to come, too.

"That's what I feel: WAR. That's what's on my mind." - Marvin Hagler

Hearns: "We feel like the jab is going to be a key factor in the fight, the left hand. We feel that once we can get Marvin to watch the left jab, get his mind on the left hand, then there will be no problem with getting other shots off."

Hagler: "Hearns' best defense is his offense, because that's the only way that he knows how to fight. In my way, I have to make my defense my best offense. Once I get him in trouble, I can change it around. Thomas don't have that ability."

Hearns: "I have the ability, the punching power to get in there and knock out middleweights, light heavyweights, whatever. Welterweight the whole way up to the light heavyweight division. I have that power."

Hagler: "I have my mind focused on one thing, that is to destroy him. That is to knock him out. If I have the opportunity, if it's there, I'm gonna take it. That's what I feel: WAR. That's what's on my mind. I've been feeding the faith. I've been starving the doubt. So there's no doubt in my mind that I can win this fight, or that I'll knock Thomas Hearns out."

Hearns: "I don't see the fight going 12 rounds."

* * * * * * * *

hagler hearns poster

Hearns began his long, slow walk to the ring with a familiar nervous energy, accompanied by the University of Michigan's fight song, "The Victors." Surrounded by his entourage and security, he turned the corner to where the majority of the audience could see him well, and the cheers and whistles went up. Once in the ring, he began loosening up, shaking his arms out as Emanuel Steward and the rest of the Kronk Boxing Team settled into their corner.

Commentator Al Bernstein noted the criticism of the Kronk corner in Hearns' 1981 loss to Sugar Ray Leonard. "There was criticism of Emanuel Steward. Normally a very calm corner for Thomas Hearns. On that night, the most pressure-packed of his career, there was some chaos in that corner. Emanuel says, 'We learned from our mistakes with Leonard, and we've got it all together now.'"

Marvin Hagler jogged, shadowboxed, and bobbed his way to the ring. Al Michaels and Bernstein noted a more positive reaction to Hagler than normal, figuring it was even a bit better than what Hearns received from the crowd.

After the national anthem, the tension grew even greater. Referee Richard Steele was introduced. Hearns and Hagler were introduced. Steele gave his instructions during a fierce staredown between the fighters, and then it was on.

Immediately, Hagler threw a right hook from the outside as the two went to the center of the ring. Hearns slipped away, then went to his jab, as he said he'd like to do. Hagler targeted the body with hard shots, then a right hook upstairs. Hearns smacked Hagler back with a right uppercut, and a flurry of wild shots that hurt Hagler and forced the champion to hold on. But just as it looked as though Hagler may be in trouble, he stuck Hearns with a straight left hand and went back to the body.

"Wild first round," Al Michaels said, just before they once again let their hands fly. Hearns continued to land right hands, but Hagler marched steadily forward, throwing to the body and head, eating the shots from "The Motor City Cobra." A cut opened on Hagler as Hearns continued to rain down heavy right hands. Hagler stalked Hearns into the corner and went to the body and head with rights and lefts, Hearns absorbing punishment.

"There's blood all over Hagler's face!" Bernstein shouted. Michaels asked, somewhat in disbelief, "Half a minute to go in round one! How far can this one go at this pace?"

The two just continued to trade bombs, Hearns standing against the ropes and looking to fight his way off. Once he did, Hagler wobbled him with a left and a right. Hearns, though, kept throwing in the middle of the ring. The bell sounded. The punching stopped for the first time in three minutes.

"That was an entire fight accomplished in three minutes," Michaels said as the crowd cheered. There was no letdown. "The Fight" had already become "The War," and it would only cement that going forward.

"I remember thinking, 'Could there ever have been a better round in the history of boxing?'" - Al Michaels

"At the end of the first round of that fight, I remember thinking, 'Could there ever have been a better round in the history of boxing?'" Michaels said years later on HBO's "Legendary Night" series.

Hearns relayed to trainer Emanuel Steward that he felt he had broken his hand on Hagler's skull -- which Hearns referred to as a "hard weapon" -- in the first round. "After he hit me with the right hand," Hagler said to HBO, "I think that was his best shot, and I knew for myself that in order for you to knock me out, you better hit me with that ring post, because I ain't goin' nowhere."

Longtime boxing journalist and HBO analyst Larry Merchant said, "Nobody could take Hearns' punches. When Hagler shook it off, I remember thinking, 'The fight's over.' Bang. Just like that."

Hagler came out and switched to an orthodox stance for round two, as he continued to move forward, going right at the lethally powerful Hearns, showing no fear of his vaunted right hand. The pace slowed, a bit, because the pace had no choice but to slow. It was Hagler leading the action to start round two, and Bernstein noted that Hearns' legs looked a little weak.

Hagler strayed low repeatedly as he looked to turn the fight into a close quarters war. With Hearns' legs seemingly abandoning him already, the champ smelled blood. Hearns smiled after the bell to end the round, giving Hagler a look that suggested he just keep bringing the same pressure. Neither man had any designs on backing down.

Round three began with Hagler coming out orthodox once again. "Marvin Hagler has been rough inside," Bernstein said. "He's thrown some low blows, he's thrown some elbows, but you know what, now the right is getting there, but it's not hurting Hagler. We've got our answer, I think, to some extent."

Hagler continued to walk down Hearns, who bounced on the outside, getting on his bike and looking to pick Hagler off with jabs, continually moving around and staying away from the street fight that Hagler wanted. Richard Steele called time to send Hagler, once again donning the partial crimson mask, to the ringside physician to look at his cut.

"It's not bothering his sight, let him go," the doctor said in a fairly dismissive tone.

"I couldn't understand where the cut came from, because I don't think it was from a right hand," Hagler said to HBO later. "There wasn't blood over my eyes, and I couldn't understand why the referee was trying to step in there and give Tommy more time to rest."

Perhaps sensing that once again, the boxing establishment was against him, Hagler came out of that looking to end the fight. A long right hurt Hearns again. Then another put him on jelly legs, awkwardly turning his back and fleeing from Hagler, trying to buy some room. Hagler stormed after him, hit him with another right, and Hearns went to the canvas, flat on his back.

"He's not going to beat the count, I don't believe!" Michaels said. "They've gotta stop this fight," Bernstein added. Hearns did get to his feet, but was clearly in no shape to continue. Referee Steele agreed.

"He goes down, and I'm counting. Thomas Hearns' heart is as big as he is. He gets up and collapses in my arms," Steele remembered later.

The fight was over. 1:52 of round three. Seven minutes, 52 seconds of one of the all-time great fights in boxing history.

"I told you I was gonna eat him up like Pac-Man," Hagler said in the ring after the fight. "I figured once I get through the right hand, then it was all mine. Because I think the first big one that he tried, he tried to put me away out there. I wanted to show the world I am the greatest."

"To all the people out there who spent your money, I hope you got your money's worth," Hagler added.

"I don't think until that moment that any or many of us realized how important it was to Marvin Hagler to be considered a great fighter," Larry Merchant said on Legendary Nights.

Hearns was gracious after the bout. "The man showed his greatness," he said of Hagler, "and I have to say it was one damn good fight."

"I do give a lot of respect to Tommy. He came to fight. He showed me great skills and a lot of courage," Hagler said years later."

* * * * * * * *

As we approach boxing's latest "mega-fight," with Floyd Mayweather facing Manny Pacquiao on May 2 in Las Vegas, there is no sense that we will see eight minutes of hell. Mayweather, a cautious defensive fighter, isn't going to play the role of Hagler. Pacquiao isn't going to play the role of Hearns.

Will we be talking about Mayweather-Pacquiao with awe in 2045?

They will sell millions of pay-per-views -- maybe three million, maybe even above that. For five years, the public has thirsted for this fight, as Floyd and Manny have largely bowled over competition that could often be described as merely adequate. But there is also the sense that maybe it's happening too late. Hagler and Hearns were 30 and 26 on fight night, respectively, still in their athletic primes. Mayweather and Pacquiao will be 38 and 36. Still, in today's game, those aren't the ancient ages they once were.

Much of this, really, is what Bob Arum, promoter of Hagler-Hearns and a co-promoter of Mayweather-Pacquiao, means when he says you can't compare big fights in different eras, because so much changes over time. Mayweather-Pacquiao is a huge fight. Everyone involved will make more money for Mayweather-Pacquiao than those involved did for Hagler-Hearns, and it's not close.

On the receipts, it will be a "bigger" fight than Hagler-Hearns was in 1985. But it is unlikely their fight will go down in history the way that this one has. Will we be talking about Mayweather-Pacquiao with awe in 2045? Or will it simply come and go, all tension and excitement leading to a routine night of fights from your couch, and the feeling that boxing, even at the very highest level, just isn't what it used to be?

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