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The Greatest: Sporting Rivalries - Hagler, Hearns, Duran & Leonard

Seeing two sporting greats go toe-to-toe at the peak of their powers is what propels a sport beyond its traditional boundaries; Ronaldo v Messi, Ali v Frazier, Senna v Prost, the list goes on.

To see three – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – is the making of a sport’s golden era.

To see four would be almost mythological. 

But that’s what boxing provided in the 1980s with The Fabulous Four.

The 1970s were dominated by the heavyweights; Muhammad Ali’s trilogies with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, Frazier’s fights with George Foreman, Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle with Foreman.

But by the end of the decade, there was a gaping chasm in the sport. 

Ali, Frazier and Norton were all at the end of their careers, but with boxing staring into the void - Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns stepped into the breach creating the legendary Fabulous Four.

From 1981 to 1987, The Four Kings, as they would also be known, were awarded Ring magazine Fight of the Year three times; from 1980 to 1985, they were awarded Ring magazine Fighter of the Year five times. In total, they shared the ring with each other nine times, with all four men scoring victory and defeat.

Four fighters, four boxing greats, all with their own styles and talents, creating perhaps the greatest era in boxing. But these weren’t just four members of a wider boxing rivalry; they were very much stars in their own right. An approximate modern-day equivalent would perhaps be if Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao spent a decade fighting each other at their respective peaks, exchanging world titles, and even then you’d be a legend short.

There was Sugar Ray Leonard: boxing’s golden boy and 1976 Olympic champion. With fast hands and tremendous fight IQ, Leonard combined sound defensive boxing with showmanship that introduced him to an audience that transcended the sport.

From the devilishly handsome Leonard to the devil incarnate himself, Roberto Duran. The lightest of the four having moved up from lightweight, Duran was nicknamed Hands of Stone with devastating power that – genuinely – frightened opponents who he would frequently bully into submission with his relentless pressure-fighting style.

There was Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, whose slender frame betrayed the force his hands possessed, with a punching power that saw him win world titles at five weights from welterweight to cruiserweight.

And finally Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who spent his career at middleweight and was naturally the bigger man. A more awkward fighter who could switch between southpaw and orthodox at will, Hagler had less speed than his contemporaries, but made up for it with raw power as well as one of the most renowned granite chins in the game.

The biggest criticism of modern boxing is that the biggest names so often avoid each other. Riddick Bowe successfully evaded Lennox Lewis throughout his career – as a pro, at least – and for seven years from 1992, there was no undisputed heavyweight champion. There hasn’t been an undisputed world heavyweight champions since Lewis in 2000.  The wait for the biggest fight in British history between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua goes on, while Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fought so late they might as well have not bothered.

In the 1980s, such politics didn’t exist, at least not between the Fabulous Four of Hagler, Hearns, Leonard and Duran. Some fights took longer to make than they should have – largely due to Leonard dipping in and out of retirement five times – but by and large, they got made when they were at their best.

Their legacy wouldn’t be created by protecting zeroes; it would be created by risking them. Indeed, Hearns and Leonard lost unbeaten records to fellow Fab Four members, while Duran’s 31-fight win streak was ended by Leonard.

Prior to Leonard beating Duran, however, Duran beat Leonard…

Leonard v Duran

The first of nine fights between the Four Kings saw Leonard take on Duran in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where he won Olympic gold four years prior. By the summer of 1980, Leonard was the undefeated welterweight champion with a 27-0 record.

It’s a credit to Duran that he could even be considered part of the Fab Four. Prior to his fight with Leonard, Duran had amassed a record of 71-1 and had been lightweight champion for most of the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the best boxers of the decade. On top of that, he was jumping from 135lb to 147lb (and later as high as 168lb – adding roughly a third of weight to his natural former fighting weight).

Leonard, like Duran, was a star in the late 1970s, having won Olympic gold in 1976 and been named Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1979, out-pointing Wilfred Benitez (the unofficial fifth member of the Fab Four) to capture the welterweight title earlier that year, and was fancied to extend his unbeaten record against the smaller Duran. Boxing’s new golden boy won the hearts of millions at the Olympics with his style in the ring and his charm outside of it. 

But Duran, albeit at lightweight, had not just established a reputation as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world but instilled genuine terror in opponents. Duran once said he was Mike Tyson before Mike Tyson; Joe Frazier likened him to Charles Manson, and Leonard, long after retirement, admitted he was ‘freaked out’ by Duran. 

Being a professional boxer who’s scared of an opponent feels a bit like choosing a career in window cleaning while battling vertigo, but Duran had that effect on people.

Duran’s pre-fight antics had baited Leonard. The boxer set about trying to punch the puncher. Leonard backed his power, particularly against the smaller man – after all, a good big ‘un beats a good litte ‘un – but it was Duran who had more success over the 15 rounds.

What had been a close fight initially became more one-sided as Duran began to accelerate away from Leonard in the later rounds. A back-and-forth slugfest descended into an all-out war, and had Leonard stuck to what he knew, the fight could’ve panned out differently, but going toe-to-toe with a man nicknamed Hands of Stone was a quick way to hand over your welterweight title. 

The Fab Four era was underway with a classic; a breath-taking encounter.

Leonard admitted the best man won. Duran, whose mental warfare continued after the final bell, said he knew he’d win, and that he was more of a man than Leonard. But the stereotypical Latin American machismo that coursed that Duran’s veins would be drained out of him just a few months later.

Duran v Leonard II

Leonard had a tough childhood, but Duran grew up in a Panamanian slum, and despite the titles and accolades he collected throughout the 1970s, his fee for the first Leonard fight was the biggest payday of his career by far, despite being around a quarter of what his opponent earned.

Duran had spent 10 years fighting like his life depended on it and had suddenly reaped 10 years’ worth of rewards all at once. From Duran’s perspective, it was time for a well-earned party.

But Leonard had got wind of Duran’s ever-worsening condition and increasing weight and pushed for an immediate rematch. 

The rematch would go down as one of the most infamous fights in history and almost certainly the most shocking. No matter where you were from or what language you spoke, everybody knew two Spanish words after the rematch: No mas.

The fight will forever be known as the No Mas fight; as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, they produced an episode titled No Mas. They were two words that would plague Duran for the rest of his life.

Of course, Duran has often denied uttering those exact words, but the fact he quit has never been disputed. 

So shocking was the ending, there were suggestions of a fix and Duran’s purse was withheld. In the years that followed, Duran has offered a number of explanations for what happened that night, ranging between suffering from stomach cramps to refusing to fight someone who was showboating like Leonard was.

Occam’s razor is the principle that the simplest solution is usually the right one: the simplest solution as to why he quit is that an overweight, underprepared, under-motivated Duran was being outclassed and embarrassed and wanted no further part in the affair.

Leonard, initially rocked to his core, was eventually encouraged by his first career defeat; it was a close contest despite fighting Duran’s fight. For the rematch, Leonard was much better prepared while his opponent was much less prepared and it showed.

As the fight wore on, Leonard was embarrassing Duran, lowering his hands and sticking his chin out to the champion, who still couldn’t catch the challenger. Leonard was too quick, too good, and he knew it. Sugar Ray danced around the ring, bolo punching, toying with one of the most menacing fighters in the business. This wasn’t just about winning for Leonard, or even avenging a defeat; it was about setting the record straight; it was about definitively proving he was better than Duran, ensuring there’d be no calls for a trilogy fight.

Eventually, Duran turned away from Leonard, refusing to fight. The referee briefly separated them and put them back together, but realising Duran was done, waved the fight off. 

The man who’d had to fight his whole life; the man who literally fought his way out of poverty; the man who threatened to kill his opponents in the ring; the toughest, baddest street fighter in the world just… quit. 

How could it be? It was inconceivable. Duran hadn’t been beaten into submission; he’d been embarrassed into submission. 

For all his accomplishments, it’s what Duran would be best known for throughout the rest of his life. Panama’s national hero had become a national embarrassment.

Leonard v Hearns

To the victor went the spoils, and Leonard set about a unification fight with WBA champion Tommy Hearns. 

Hearns was able to use his longer reach to pinch most of the early rounds before a Leonard onslaught in the middle rounds threatened to put Hearns down. The Hitman stayed upright and kept himself up on the scorecards before regaining his composure to outbox Leonard. It meant Leonard would need a stoppage.

The momentum shifted one way then the other throughout the fight with Leonard again involved in a back-and-forth classic, and as Hearns was seemingly closing in on victory, Sugar Ray poured everything on his opponent. Hearns went through the ropes – though it wasn’t ruled a knockdown – before the sheer relentlessness of Leonard had Hearns propped up on the ropes again and this time it was ruled a knockdown.

Leonard had been given a lifeline in the fight but was still down on the cards and realistically needed a finish. 

It came shortly after landing a swinging right to the chin of Hearns. 

The Hitman somehow stayed upright while Leonard raised his hands in victory. There was still work to be done, though Hearns had nothing left; the gazelle was limping; its jugular severed; the lion circling. 

Though there wasn’t a decisive, finishing shot, the referee stepped in with Hearns no longer adequately defending himself. Across the first 13 rounds, Hearns – even with the knockdown – was up on all three scorecards, but such are the fine margins of elite sport, that he relinquished his belts.

Leonard would only fight two more times in the next three years. The first, a routine title defence against Bruce Finch, after which he’d announce the first of several retirements, suffering with addiction and a severe eye injury. Coming out of retirement, Leonard fought Kevin Howard, suffering the first knockdown of his career. Despite recording another stoppage win, Leonard announced his retirement again after the fight, claiming he didn’t have it any more.

Hagler v Duran

In the meantime, Duran, still trying to rebuild some kind of reputation, moved up to super-welterweight, claiming the WBA title, before moving up again in his next fight to middleweight to fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

The lineal, undisputed middleweight champion had ruled the division since 1980 and was a big favourite to beat Duran. Most of Duran’s successes had come from overpowering 135lbers at lightweight. He was now another 20lb heavier, fighting the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world; a man that not only couldn’t be stopped, but couldn’t even be knocked down. 

It was perhaps those factors that saw Duran change tactics; instead of trying to overpower the bigger man, Duran took a more cautious approach. Similarly, Hagler was happy to box Duran after realising putting him away wouldn’t come easily. He recognised the threat Duran posed and tried to fight smart, but still found himself down on two cards with two rounds to go. Duran’s strategy so nearly came off, but Hagler took the final two rounds to retain his titles by unanimous decision.

Hearns v Duran

Dropping back to light-middleweight, Duran returned to Las Vegas, looking to claim the 154lb belt after vacating his WBA crown to fight WBC champion Hearns, who’d moved up a division after his loss to Leonard.

Most of the fights between the Fab Four were close contests. This one was not. The size difference had finally caught up with Duran, with Hearns able to pick the Panamanian off at will in the first round, sending him to the canvas. 

Duran’s senses had been scrambled and it’s unlikely, if asked, he’d have been able to tell you whether he was in Caesars Palace or Buckingham Palace. 

Duran stumbled to a neutral corner at the end of the round and had to be escorted back to his stool. Duran gamely fought on in the second round but a flush right to the jaw sent Duran back to the canvas face-first. He wouldn’t be getting back up.

It was a destructive performance from Hearns, and perhaps the most dominant and comprehensive of any of the Fab Four fights.

Hagler v Hearns

The following year, Hearns moved up against to fight Hagler at middleweight. What ensued wasn’t just the best fight of the era, but one of the best fights of all time. 

Nearly 40 years have passed since that night at Caesars Palace and we’re still waiting for a round that supersedes the opening salvo minutes of Hagler/Hearns.

The 100m sprint is typically completed in little over nine seconds. This was a 100m sprint that lasted nearly nine minutes.

In Hearns, there was the longer, rangier fighter who’d dismantled Duran, while Hagler was made to work for 15 rounds to beat Duran, but had ruled the middleweight division for half a decade and would look to get inside the challenger. They say styles make fights and this was a fascinating match-up.

Possessors of two of the best jabs in the business, Hagler and Hearns would keep them holstered and throw caution to the wind. There’d be no feeling out process; the first punch of the fight was a wild right hook from Hagler and both fighters would stun each other in the first round; Hearns even broke his right hand. 

The Hitman tried to box Hagler more in the second round but Hagler was having none of it. He wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, perhaps owing to scar tissue above his eyes making him more susceptible to cuts and a potential early stoppage. 

Hearns remained on wobbly legs throughout the third round with Hagler delivering a series of rights to Hearns who went down. Narrowly beating the count, the fight was waved off with Hearns barely able to stand and the Hitman would be carried out of the ring. Hearns was one of the biggest punchers of his day but Hagler had the chin to stand up to the test. 

Hagler felt he never got the respect he deserved and resented the fact the media were unwilling to refer to him by his nickname. Finally, Marvelous Marvin had his night, and what had been billed as The Fight would forever be known as The War.

Hagler v Leonard

In November 1982, Leonard held a gala where he promised a ‘historic announcement’. Thousands attended, including Hagler, and the world put two and two together. But Leonard, acknowledging that a fight with Hagler would be ‘one of the greatest fights in history’, said it would never happen, and announced his retirement. It was a slap in the face to Hagler, who was waiting for a fighter of Leonard’s calibre to propel him to the stratosphere.

As it was, Hagler continued to rule the Leonard-less middleweight division, and after beating Hearns, defended his titles against the ultra-tough John Mugabi. It was another gruelling night for Marvelous Marvin, who took plenty of big shots but gave every bit as good as he got to eventually stop Mugabi in the 11th.

It was the fight that finally tempted Leonard out of retirement. Hagler was still only 31 but had 66 professional fights, 13 middleweight title defences and was contemplating retirement. Sugar Ray was seeing chinks in the armour, and after three years out of the ring and four years since his impromptu retirement, knew his time had come. The Super Fight was made.

Leonard had of course retired twice before. He claimed he no longer had it after his previous fight, had battled addiction and a serious eye injury. Three years removed from his last contest, Leonard was stepping up to middleweight – where he’d never fought before – to fight the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world after Mike Tyson. Understandably, Hagler was the big favourite.

What wasn’t widely known however, is that Leonard had partaken in a number of behind-closed-doors fights, and was training with people who would fight Hagler’s style. Leonard also requested the ring be bigger, the gloves be heavier and the fight only be over 12 rounds, all of which he felt were to his advantage.

Leonard knew that knocking Hagler out was near impossible and that he’d have to win seven of the 12 rounds. Hagler, perhaps concerned with the scar tissue around his eyes making him susceptible to cuts, knew he’d have to be the aggressor. 

Hagler – as he almost always did – started slowly but grew into the fight, eventually buzzing Leonard in the fifth rounds and landing good shots that troubled Leonard throughout the fight. 

The fight was incredibly polarizing, with ringside scores from the media ranging from 118-111 Leonard to 117-111 Hagler. But there were only three men whose opinion mattered, and two of them said Leonard had won, beating arguably the greatest middleweight of all time.

It was a controversial decision, but any decision would’ve been controversial. One judge gave Leonard 10 of 12 rounds, another gave Hagler seven of 12. 

Such was the close nature of the fight, fans clamoured for a rematch. But with preliminary talks dragging on following Leonard’s third retirement, Hagler, who felt like he’d been cheated, hung up the gloves – for good.

Leonard v Hearns II

After Hagler’s retirement, Leonard made a swift return to the ring, taking the super middleweight title from Donny Lalonde. Now a four-weight world champion, Leonard had his eyes set on a rematch with WBO champion Hearns.

Another gruelling encounter, the fight could so easily have gone both ways, though the widely-held opinion is that Hearns shaded it. Though Leonard had a big fifth round which was unanimously scored 10-8 in his favour, he was knocked down twice by Hearns.

It was by no means a robbery, but the decision was booed by the fans in attendance, and in later years, Leonard would admit that Hearns won the fight.

Leonard v Duran III

Naturally, there were calls for a trilogy fight between Leonard and Hearns, but Duran, now the WBC middleweight also had claims to have another go at Leonard, nine years after the infamous No Mas fight.

Reports that Hearns wanted purse parity while Duran was prepared to accept a smaller share saw Leonard take on Duran in a bout billed Uno Mas.

The 1980s were packed with the lighter weight classes going toe-to-toe, contesting instant classics, most of which could’ve been won by either fighter, but the final fight of the Fab Four era failed to live up to the billing. 

While Leonard executed a boxing masterclass to keep Duran at bay, crowds had come to expect wars. As it happened, Duran – now 38 years old and onto his 93rd professional fight – was miles below the level of Leonard. One-way traffic from the off, Leonard coasted to a unanimous decision win, making just the sixth title defence of his storied career.

It would be final win of Leonard’s career, while Duran boxed on for another 16 fights up to 2001; Hagler never came out of retirement for the rematch with Leonard, while Hearns fought throughout the 90s, claiming the WBA light heavyweight title and the IBO cruiserweight title, but like Hagler, would never fight Leonard again. 

Contemporary sporting discourse is littered with never-ending comparisons of each game’s greats. The discussion isn’t how good anyone is or was, it’s how they are or were better than someone else; the only way one can be judged is in direct comparison to another. In order to celebrate one, another must be denounced.

It’s impossible to say who the best of the four was, but trying to rank them and solve that particular puzzle is to miss what was so special about that era.

Elite sport is about being the best and beating the best, but this was more than that. 

For a decade, the Fabulous Four were the best.

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