By Kieran Mulvaney
When Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto clash on HBO pay-per-view from Las Vegas on May 5, it will be the culmination of years of on-again, off-again discussion about the two men meeting in the ring. Extenuating circumstances and alternative dance partners have kept them on separate paths since the concept was first discussed, but in that time each man has won titles at 147 and 154 pounds, Mayweather has exploded into a crossover sensation, Cotto has become arguably the biggest pay-per-view star not named Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, and their fight is likely all the more anticipated than it might have been in 2006.
If that's the case, it would not be the first time something like this has happened. In fact, 25 years ago today, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler met at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas long after it seemed that particular ship had sailed. By the time the bell eventually rang, it was not just a fight, but a phenomenon.
In 1982, Leonard, the welterweight champ, rented a Baltimore ballroom to make a major announcement, to which he invited middleweight champion Hagler. The prevailing assumption was that he would express his desire to make what was the biggest potential matchup in the sport, an assumption that was only strengthened when Leonard extolled Hagler's virtues and the potential significance of a fight between the two. But then Leonard pulled a swerve. It was "too bad," he said, that the fight wouldn't happen. Because of concerns following surgery for a detached retina, he would be retiring from boxing instead.
Humiliated, Hagler focused his energies on a succession of title defenses, capped by a three-round war with Thomas Hearns that continues to amaze even after repeated viewings. Leonard came back for one fight and promptly hung up his gloves again. But all along, even as he commentated ringside for HBO, he yearned to test himself inside the ropes anew, and eventually, in 1987, he laid down the challenge that the middleweight king had long awaited.
Few gave Leonard a chance. The prevailing opinion was that Hagler was too strong, and Leonard too inactive. In a poll of 67 boxing writers, 60 picked the defending champ, including Leonard’s HBO broadcast partner Larry Merchant, who observed that, "I wouldn't go onto an operating table if I knew the surgeon hadn't been practicing regularly for five years."
But Hagler was over-confident; content to look for one explosive punch, he allowed Leonard to build up a big lead over the first third of the fight. In the fifth, the champion began to land heavy blows; over the rest of the fight, Hagler pursued while Leonard sought to steal rounds with flurries in the final 30 seconds. At the bout's conclusion, Hagler was convinced he had prevailed, but the split decision win was awarded, in a shocking result, to Leonard.
Although one judge scored the fight ludicrously widely, 10 rounds to 2, for Leonard, the two others split seven rounds to five in either direction. Had Hagler not thrown away the first few rounds, he would have won. Even today, he still insists he did. And he is not alone: a quarter-century later, the result continues to raise hackles, split opinion and spark arguments among fight fans – evidence that it doesn’t necessarily matter how long it takes a fight to happen, as long as, eventually, it does happen.