Marvin Hagler, one of the greatest middleweight boxers in history, died March 13 aged 66. The American southpaw won the World Boxing Council world middleweight title against Briton Alan Minter in London in 1980, and defended it 12 times, before losing it to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987.
Throughout his 67-fight professional career, Hagler fought the best. But his story is incomplete if it misses his brawl with Ugandan John Mugabi – Hagler’s toughest fight, a match made in hell.
After a third-round KO against Hagler in April 1985, Thomas Hearns wanted a rematch. But with 25 KOs in 25 fights, Mugabi emerged the number one challenger to Hagler’s title despite fighting in junior middleweight.
The match between “Marvelous Marvin”, the undisputed champion , and “The Beast,” one of the most exciting knockout artists, was definitely exciting.
Date and venue were set: November 14, 1985, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
But two weeks to the event, Hagler broke his nose while sparring Zachary Hewitt, the Citizen reported October 31, 1985. The event was rescheduled to March 10, 1986.
After bagging silver at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Mugabi turned pro under British promoter Mickey Duff and trainer George Francis, knocking out all his 25 opponents, with only James Green lasting beyond six rounds.
That ruthless streak earned him “The Beast” nickname from Duff and his fanatics in Tampa, Florida.
But Mugabi disliked the moniker: “Why they call me this?” he told Sports Illustrated. “I am a quiet man… if somebody calls me Beast, I ask, ‘Gosh, what is he doing to me?’ I am a quiet man and a good man too, I think.”
Three weeks to the match of his life, Mugabi was baptised as a Roman Catholic John Paul Mugabi in Nogales, on the US-Mexico border.
In the March 3, 1986 article, “This Beast Is A Beauty,” Clive Gammon wrote for Sports Illustrated that “Father Anthony Clark is from Davenport, Iowa, but on loan to Sacred Heart with special responsibility for delinquent boys on both sides of the border…he recognised Mugabi at once.”
The cleric used boxing to sway young criminals off the streets and Mugabi, bred in the abject poverty and delinquent life of Nakawa in suburban Kampala, and Uganda’s political turbulence of the ‘70s, was the perfect inspiration to Fr Anthony’s juveniles.
However, having crossed the border from Mexico, Mugabi was denied entry into the US, his visa having expired. Fr Anthony’s intervention did not help: he was one of the 11 co-defendants in a case accusing nuns and priests “of sheltering illegal immigrants from El Salvador.”
Mugabi, too, pleaded in vain until Duff‘s lawyers sorted the matter.
None had lost since 1980 – the year Mugabi won Silver at the Mexico Games turned pro; the year Hagler first won this title.
Half an hour to the fight, Duff, Mugabi’s manager, entered Hagler’s dressing room ranting that Hagler’s protective cup was not the right size “and there would be no fight,” Sports Illustrated reported.
“Get him the hell out of here, I can’t concentrate,” Hagler told his team.
Duff just wanted to derail Hagler’s concentration, no wonder the champion entered the ring with rage.
Mugabi had stopped the likes of Curtis Parker, James Green, Frank Fletcher and Ear Hargrove, some on live television and this one was the first-ever fight on ShowTime after promoter Bob Arum disagreed with HBO.
The purse was equally handsome: a career-high $750,000 for Mugabi and $2.5m a percentage of the revenue for Hagler.
Mugabi was aggressive from the onset and took the first round with solid hooks and a heavy jab, punishing Hagler for fighting in orthodox, unlike his natural southpaw stance.
But Hagler had found his rhythm by the end of the third round, as his southpaw jab paved helped him avert Mugabi’s left hook. He got better in the fourth, landing quick punches but “The Beast” braved the assault.
At the end of the round, Mugabi landed a hard right uppercut that shook Hagler’s clean-shaven head. He added another heavy right to Hagler’s temple.
Haggler nearly stopped Mugabi in the sixth, with hard right but referee Mills Lane paused play for eight seconds to warn Hagler for hitting low. The second warning saw Lane deduct a point from Hagler.
Nevertheless, the champ was in the lead but toward the end of round nine, Mugabi retaliated with a few hard rights. By the end of the 10th round, though, Mugabi’s steam was used up. His longest fight had lasted six rounds.
“Mugabi is tired…” the commentators said. “We love you,” Father Anthony, who was also in his corner, encouraged him during the break. But Mugabi did not last the 11th round.
Hagler’s uppercuts early in the round missed the chin but toward the end, three right hooks sent Mugabi to the ropes and down. The first time he had hit the canvas; he never beat the count.
Carried by his team, fists in the air, a big lump nearly shutting his right eye, the champion celebrated the hardest-earned victory against a hard-punching, iron-chinned challenger.
“I took the toughest opponent out there, a guy with all those knockouts, and I destroyed him... Now maybe all those doubters will shut up,” Hagler said.
Boxing fans would have loved a Hagler-Mugabi rematch. But it never happened. What looked very imminent was the rematch between Hagler and Hearns. But that too never happened.
Instead, the champion, swayed by a record payday, chose to give the fans the long-awaited match: against Leonard, on April 6, 1987, nearly three years since Leonard’s second retirement.
It is believed that after watching the Hagler-Mugabi action-packed slugfest ringside, Leonard decided to return, having studied Hagler’s weak point.
Leonard, a former world champion who had fought only once in five years, took Hagler’s WBC Middleweight title by split decision, arguably the most hotly disputed result.
Hagler, who often said the world was plotting his downfall, retired.
Meanwhile, according to Sports Illustrated of March 1986, Mugabi returned to junior middleweight (69kg) and didn’t even hint at a rematch with Hagler.
“Marvin is very tough and very strong and a great champion. Now I want to fight [Donald] Curry and Hearns.”
However, years later Mugabi said the Hagler rematch did not happen because “Marvin went through hell.”
Both men were hospitalised, urinating blood. Since then, each highly respected the other, eternally.
But Mugabi suffered his own hell. He returned to Caesar’s Palace on December 5, 1986, in another title shot but again lost the WBC World Super Welter title to Duane Thomas after suffering a broken eye socket.
He underwent surgery and only returned to the ring on January 22, 1988. After a streak of eight stoppages, he finally landed a third title shot. This time, Mugabi knocked out Frenchman Rene Jacquot to clinch the WBC World Super Welter title.
His final bout was a TKO loss to Glen Kelly January 16, 1999, in Sydney. He retired after 42 wins [39KO], 7 losses, and 1 draw. At 61, Mugabi, a Florida Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Mugabi on Hagler
In a 2017 interview for the ‘Best I Faced’ series with RingTV, Mugabi chose Hagler in most of categories.
Best jab: His jab was very effective because he was a southpaw. It can destroy you. He also had a come-forward motion that helped him propel his jab with power and precision. The jab stung like hell.
Best chin: He was the only fighter I faced who didn’t go down to my clean punches, especially an uppercut in the sixth round.
Smartest: Marvin changed stance after losing the first round from southpaw to orthodox and I made the mistake of changing to a southpaw and I got knocked out.
Best skills: His experience, talent, and toughness enabled him to show the best set of skills. I attribute this to Hagler’s length of time in the sport before becoming champion.
Best overall: He had too much experience for me. He had barely lost a fight from the start of his career (Hagler had lost two fights before facing Mugabi).
Marvin Hagler returned the respect when speaking about Mugabi and his personal career in the ring.
“Mugabi tried to knock my head off. I mean this guy here was kind of awkward. I mean he was a big puncher, 25 fights, 25 knockouts, but I said, ‘You know what? You’ve never been in the ring with the Marvelous One, and I’ll tell you what. I will feast on ‘The Beast,’” he told On the Ropes Boxing Radio.
About the opponents he respected the most, he said: “I will give Mugabi, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns more respect because these guys came out there and tried to take my title. Not like [Sugar Ray] Leonard who ran like a little girl – excuse my language, I’m sorry. They didn’t just try to survive and not to win the fight, I really couldn’t see that.”
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Dalby Shirley (97-94)
Dave Moretti (96-95)
*All to Hagler