Our Generation’s Leonard-Hagler

By Eric Raskin

A beloved pretty boy moving up from the lower weight classes waits until he thinks the time is just right to face the long-reigning badass career middleweight the fans have been begging him to face. Together, they put on a tense, thrilling show in Las Vegas, the eyes of the world upon them as they empty their reserves for 12 rounds. They both raise their hands at the end, and fans and media wait nervously for a decision that has a “nothing would surprise me” edge to it. Then something does surprise them: a galling 118-110 scorecard in favor of the pretty-boy underdog. In the end, the conversation is as much a debate over the outcome as it is a celebration of the drama produced by two Hall of Fame-bound warriors.

Saturday night’s Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez battle was electrifying, repulsive, rewarding, deflating. It was all of these things. But it wasn’t the first of its kind. We’d been there before – 30 years earlier, with Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Taking a page from the present-day Hollywood playbook, Alvarez and Golovkin remade a classic.

And this remake might well have been better than the original.

It’s not an exact one-to-one comparison, but the similarities between Canelo-GGG and the April 6, 1987 middleweight championship superfight pitting Sugar Ray against The Marvelous One are striking. It begins with the wait. In the case of Leonard-Hagler, it was a five-year delay that included a couple of Leonard retirements, as compared to Canelo stalling Golovkin for two years while he puttered around against relative no-hopers. Both promotional A-sides engaged in teases: Leonard, when he invited Hagler to a news conference of sorts in Baltimore then yanked the rug out by telling him, “It’ll never happen”; Canelo, when he invited Golovkin into the ring after the Amir Khan fight, insisted (in less delicate language) that Mexicans don’t mess around, and then proceeded to spend the next year messing around.

Alvarez is undoubtedly the Leonard of the modern fight game. He’s the heartthrob who had to fight his ass off over and over to earn the respect of those fans who couldn’t see beyond the soft exterior. He’s the number-one cash cow in the sport, the guy everybody within two weight classes in either direction calls out. He’s even promoted by the Leonard/Canelo equivalent who reigned in between Leonard and Canelo, Oscar De La Hoya.

Golovkin, like Hagler, has refused to leave his natural weight class of 160 pounds. “If you keep knocking everyone out, they’re going to have to come to you,” Hagler told me in 2011 of his attitude toward patiently waiting for the stars at welterweight and junior middleweight to fight him on his middleweight turf. Golovkin, like Hagler, was repeatedly put in a position where he had to consider sacrificing money to stay busy in the ring and keep getting the exposure he so badly needed.

When GGG struggled unexpectedly against Daniel Jacobs in March, it was almost impossible not to think of Hagler’s draining fight with John “The Beast” Mugabi. Was Golovkin starting to slip? Canelo seemingly thought so, since it was only after that fight that De La Hoya and Alvarez got serious about putting pen to paper for a Golovkin showdown. Leonard liked what he saw in Hagler-Mugabi – liked it so much, in fact, that he ended a three-year retirement to capitalize on what he suddenly perceived as opportunity rather than obligation.

Few fights in history can compare in terms of the prefight butterflies and nonstop edge-of-your-seat intensity that both Leonard-Hagler and Alvarez-Golovkin brought to fans. There were swings in momentum, there were late rallies that may or may not have been enough. Like Canelo, Sugar Ray incorporated a great deal of movement – which, of course, Hagler labeled “running” afterward. In quite a few of the rounds this past Saturday evening, Canelo did his best work in the first 30 seconds and the last 30 seconds, a technique perfected 30 years earlier by Leonard.

Former HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant was ringside for both affairs, and his words about Leonard-Hagler six years ago apply almost perfectly to the scoring of Canelo-GGG. “I scored it a draw,” Merchant said of Leonard-Hagler. “But Leonard was able, as I said at the time, to steal the fight fair and square. As an underdog, he won the drama and looked like he was able to impose his boxing style on Hagler … I think this was a very close fight, but I also think Ray pulled off a historic con job to get the decision – and I think he earned that.”

Of course, Canelo’s “con job,” if you want to think of it as such, wasn’t quite enough to get him the decision. It merely allowed him to escape with a draw — a draw that wouldn’t be quite so controversial if not for one outrageous scorecard in his favor. When Michael Buffer announced Adalaide Byrd’s 118-110 card for Canelo, boos reverberated throughout T-Mobile Arena. It was every bit as unfathomable as the scorecard Chuck Hull read at Caesars Palace, featuring the exact same numbers, 118 and 110, turned in by judge Jo Jo Guerra in favor of Leonard. Neither of these were 10-2 fights, but both times one disturbing outlier scorecard said they were and thus detracted and distracted from the 36 minutes of action that had just been completed.

A couple of other random officiating tidbits: Kenny Bayless, the referee for Golovkin-Alvarez, was the chief inspector in Hagler’s corner 30 years ago; and Dave Moretti judged both fights, and both times he turned in a 115-113 card that perhaps most accurately reflected the overall public opinion.

Three decades on, the debate still rages over who won Leonard-Hagler. It’s hard to predict exactly how the Canelo-GGG conversation will sound in 2047, but it’s certainly possible that fans will still be arguing. The argument, however, won’t be over who won; it will be over whether somebody deserved to win.

The fights seem destined to diverge when it comes to the matter of where they lead. It appears all but guaranteed that Alvarez and Golovkin will attempt to clear things up with a rematch next May. It’s also probably a safe bet that Golovkin will not retire immediately in disgust and move to Italy to star in B action movies.

That’s because Golovkin is far from done making action movies in the ring. He and Alvarez gave us one of the modern greats of that genre on Saturday night. They gave us a fight that in countless ways repeated what Leonard and Hagler did, except with more brutality and, quite likely, more rewatchability.

GGG and Canelo didn’t do it first. But they might just have done it better.

Read “Still Standing: Marvin Hagler vs. Sugar Ray Leonard” in Inside HBO Boxing’s From the Vault collection.