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Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing
By George Kimball
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 George Kimball
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning ...
On May 7, 1973, what may have been the finest collection of American amateur boxers assembled under one roof in a non-Olympic year convened at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston for the National AAU Championships.
Most of the Olympians who had represented the U.S. at the star-crossed Munich Games a year earlier–including Sugar Ray Seales, the lone American gold medalist–had joined the professional ranks. A new and promising group of boxers (though few could have guessed just how promising) had moved up through the ranks to replace them.
The field of 324 included nine future world champions. Four of the boxers who would win a record five gold medals in Montreal three years hence were in attendance, three of them as participants, but just one of them, featherweight Howard Davis, Jr., would prevail in Boston. Davis beat LeRoy Veasley, the All-Service champion, in the 125-pound final.
Another Montreal gold-medalist-in-waiting, sixteen-year-old Ray Charles Leonard, who had yet to begin calling himself "Sugar Ray," defeated two of his future professional opponents, Bruce Finch and Pete Ranzany, on his way to the light-welterweight final, where he was outpointed by yet another boxer he would defeat professionally, Randy Shields.
Leon Spinks was knocked out by D.C. Barker in the light-heavyweight final. His younger brother Michael had been eliminated in the regionals of the 165-pound class, but he had accompanied "Neon Leon" to Boston. Both Spinks brothers would win Olympic gold three years later, and both would eventually become heavyweight champion of the world.
Another future world champion, eighteen-year-old Aaron Pryor, won the lightweight championship, while Marvin Camel, J.B. Williamson, and Arturo Frias, who would all capture world titles at a professional level, were eliminated in earlier rounds in their divisions.
Other participants included Roberto Elizondo, who would twice challenge for the lightweight title; Wayne Hedgepeth, who would later become a world-class referee in New Jersey; and Tommy Brooks, who would train many world champions, including, briefly, both Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
Brooks, the future son-in-law of Hall of Fame–trainer Lou Duva, experienced one of the more humiliating moments of the week when his trainer, former light- heavyweight champion Archie Moore, expressed his displeasure over Tommy's performance in his middleweight semifinal against Terry Dobbs by angrily slapping him in full view of the spectators as he sat on the stool between rounds.
The unquestioned star of the week was not one of the future Olympians, but a nineteen-year-old apprentice machinist from nearby Brockton. Marvin Nathaniel Hagler won all four of his bouts, two of them by knockout, and upset Dobbs, the twenty-four-year-old U.S. Marine Corps champion, in the 165-pound final.
Although Hagler was the lone New Englander to win a national title at the Hynes, the Boston newspapers barely acknowledged his presence that week until the night he beat Dobbs and was voted the Outstanding Boxer of the tournament. In one report on a preliminary round bout, a Boston paper called him "Nagler."
The local press had collectively hitched its star to what appeared to be a better story for the local angle. Robert C. Newton had boxed for the Naval Academy in his college days. Upon graduation from Annapolis, he had been commissioned an officer, and had spent the next four years in the service, three of them aboard a destroyer, the U.S.S. Finch, off the coast of Vietnam. Upon his discharge he had enrolled as a graduate student at Harvard and resumed his amateur boxing career. Newton was a few weeks away from receiving his Master's degree from the Ivy League school when he defeated future world champion Hilmer Kenty in the first round of the AAU tournament.
Bobby Newton won two more bouts that week, but the bandwagon ground to a halt when he lost to Pryor in the 132-pound final. Boston reporters turned, with seeming reluctance, to Hagler to fill their notebooks.
In provincial New England boxing circles Hagler was considered an outsider. He had moved to Brockton from New Jersey just three years earlier, and had been boxing for only two years. He represented an obscure gym operated by brothers Guarino (Goody) and Pasquale (Pat) Petronelli, who had been in business only since 1969, and when he reported for duty at the Hynes he was sporting a shaved head, a look that had yet to become fashionable.
Throw in the menacing scowl he had already adopted for those occasions when he was focused on the business of fighting, and it helps explain why sportswriters took one look that week and ran the other way-at least until they could no longer ignore him. Even after he won, the account of his triumph in the following morning's Boston Herald American described Hagler as "a Newark-born middleweight."
In the final round of the championship bout, Hagler knocked Dobbs down twice, and the Marine took another standing eight-count.
"The ref saved Dobbs," Hagler would recall later.
A few months earlier, Hagler had reached the 156-pound final of the National Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell before losing to Dale Grant of Seattle, Ray Seales' half-brother. The two might have met again in Boston, but fate intervened when Reinaldo Oliveira, who had qualified as the New England representative at 165, declared his intention to turn pro and was thus disqualified from participating. Hagler, who had made the team at 156, was allowed to move up to 165. There was no New England representative in the 156-pound division, and Grant, as expected, breezed through the field to win.
"I'd actually thought Marvin was too small for 156, and I couldn't believe it when he entered at 165 and won," recalled Emanuel Steward. In the 1980s Steward would win multiple Trainer of the Year awards, but in 1973 he was still in the early stages of building an amateur powerhouse at an inner-city Detroit gym called the Kronk Recreation Center. "And Marvin fought a lot of seasoned guys in that tournament."
"Marvin hurt everybody he fought in this tournament," Sam Silverman, then the pre-eminent Boston boxing promoter, told reporters. "He was easily the best puncher in the whole show."
* * *
Hagler was named the tournament's Outstanding Boxer. Having won forty-two of his forty-five amateur bouts, he might have been considered the brightest prospect of all as a future Olympian, but the night he accepted his trophy from Boston Mayor Kevin White, Hagler announced that it had been his last amateur bout. "You can't take a trophy and turn it into a bag of groceries," he said.
"Win or lose, I was turning pro," Marvin would recall years later.
Six days after the completion of the AAU Championships, he knocked out Terry Ryan in the second round of a fight at Brockton High School for the first of what would ultimately be sixty-two professional wins.
Marvin Hagler's take-home pay for the Terry Ryan fight was $40.
Four years later, an Olympic medal in hand, Sugar Ray Leonard would earn $40,000 for his professional debut. By then, Hagler had fought thirty-three pro bouts and might have earned $40,000 all told, but he had done it the hard way.
Eleven months earlier, on June 26, 1972, a crowd of 18,821-more than had watched any lightweight fight in history-had packed Madison Square Garden to see the estimable Scots champion from Edinburgh, Ken Buchanan, defend his World Boxing Association title against a scrappy Panamanian named Roberto Duran.
Duran had turned twenty-one a week earlier and was but a few years removed from life as a street urchin in his homeland, but he wasn't a complete stranger to New York audiences. When Buchanan defended his title against Ismael Laguna the previous September, Duran had knocked out Puerto Rican journeyman Benny Huertas in the first round of a supporting bout on the card.
"Duran blazed out of his corner and finished Huertas in about a minute," Vic Ziegel would recall in Inside Sports eight years later. "He was awesome. But I couldn't help noticing that he neglected to shower after the fight. 'Duran hardly worked up a sweat,' I wrote, 'and a good thing, too, because he didn't bother to shower.' Duran, Ziegel found out years later, hated the line.
The title fight was Duran's first U.S. main event, the first time all eyes would be trained on him, and he left an indelible impression.
* * *
The champion, who brought a 43-1 record to the fight, weighed in at 133 / ½, a quarter-pound more than Duran, who was undefeated at 28-0. Duran, comfortably ahead by margins of 9-2-1, 9-3, and 8-3-1 on the scorecards after twelve rounds, was going to win the fight anyway, but the outcome turned on an almost grotesque display of savagery.
Late in the thirteenth, the two were wrapped up in an exchange so spirited that neither seemed to hear the bell. Referee Johnny LoBianco tried to grab Duran from behind to pull him away, but as he did, the Panamanian unloaded an uppercut that came up from the floor and caught Buchanan squarely in the groin, beneath his protective cup.
Buchanan writhed in agony on the canvas, and eventually staggered back to his stool. There, he was visited by both the ringside physician and LoBianco, who eventually waved his arms, signaling that the fight was over.
Although 18,000 pairs of eyes had seen the low blow, LoBianco apparently did not. Under the rules, Buchanan could have been granted five minutes to recover from a punch below the belt. The referee also had it in his power to penalize Duran for the infraction, or even to award the fight to Buchanan on a foul.
None of those things happened. Roberto Duran was the new lightweight champion of the world, but all people would remember was that a man Budd Schulberg described as "a Panamanian street dog" had stopped Ken Buchanan with a punch to the family jewels.
While his career didn't end that night, Ken Buchanan was never the same fighter. The critical punch from Duran ruptured his right testicle, and he still experiences discomfort from the injury thirty-five years later.
"I still get a pain there," Buchanan told Duran's biographer Christian Giudice. "I'll have it till the day I die. I told Roberto 'I'll never forget you. Every time I take a piss I'll think of you.'"
When Derrik Holmes learned of plans to initiate a boxing program in 1970 at the Recreation Center in Palmer Park, Maryland, he was eager to give it a try, but was hesitant about showing up alone. He persuaded his best friend to accompany him.
Ray Leonard, then thirteen years old, was reluctant. His brother Roger had been boxing for a few years, and on the few occasions Ray had gone to the gym to watch, he'd found himself wincing whenever he saw his older sibling get punched in the face. But Holmes was determined, so Leonard agreed to tag along.
Holmes would box professionally, accumulating a 17-3-1 record that included an unsuccessful 1980 challenge for Wilfredo Gomez' World Boxing Council junior featherweight title. It was not immediately apparent that his friend Leonard might be even more gifted.
"Of the four boys in my family," Leonard would later recall, "I was probably the least likely to become a boxer. My three brothers were good at sports, and from the earliest time I can remember they all played football and basketball and had done well. I wasn't an athlete. I wasn't even athletically inclined. I relied on my mother for everything. Once when I was very small I did go to the gym with Roger, and he talked me into putting on the gloves. I cried when I got punched in the nose. I didn't like it a bit."
Dave Jacobs and Pepe Correa each claim to have initiated the boxing program at Palmer Park. Ollie Dunlap, the director of the rec center who would become Sugar Ray's closest friend and confidant, recalls that it was initially Roger Leonard's idea, and that while Correa, who had taught boxing in the Army, was also involved, "the paperwork I did for the boxing program had Dave Jacobs' name on it."
Jacobs, an AAU featherweight champion in his youth, would later become the salaried head of the boxing program at Palmer Park, but in 1970 he was an unpaid volunteer, and still earned his living driving a delivery truck.
When Jacobs asked Leonard what he knew about boxing, the thirteen-year-old struck a pose reminiscent of John L. Sullivan's fighting stance. It was all Jake could do to keep from laughing out loud.
Those who would later describe Leonard's "choirboy" looks were actually spot-on in their assessment. Up until the day he put on the gloves at the rec center, he had been an accomplished member of the choir at St. John's Baptist Church in Washington. Once he faced a choice between the two, the choir didn't stand a chance.
"My mother always used to tell me 'You sound like Sam Cooke' or 'You sound just like Ray Charles,'" Ray reminisced. "But I think she was just being kind. My sister Sandy was the real singer in the family."
Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on May 17, 1956. That he grew up in a traditional nuclear family makes him unique among the Four Kings. He was the fifth of seven children born to Cicero and Getha Leonard, and at the age of four he moved with his family to Washington, D.C.
Cicero, the son of a sharecropper, had boxed in the Navy during the Second World War. He found work at a Washington produce market, and in time was promoted to night manager. Getha worked days as a nurse at a convalescent home, ensuring that one parent was always home to attend to their growing brood. By 1966 they were able to purchase a home in Palmer Park, Maryland, a lower middle-class, predominantly black enclave just across the District of Columbia line.
"Palmer Park wasn't a ghetto, but it wasn't what you envision when you think of suburbia, either," recalled Ollie Dunlap, who had played on Michigan State's 1966 national co-championship football team. After graduation he had signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent and had a largely unproductive stint on the taxi squad. Although Dunlap later played for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, he continued to make the nation's capital his off-season home, and after leaving football found work as the full-time director at the Palmer Park Rec Center.
"To my way of thinking, it was only a 'sport' if its name had the word 'ball,' in it," said Dunlap. "Football, basketball, baseball ... But when Roger came to me and proposed the boxing program, I said 'Sure, why not? '"
Correa, in any case, soon departed Palmer Park ("for personal reasons" ) to begin his own inner-city boxing club in Washington, and Jacobs took charge of the Palmer Park boxing program. He was shortly joined there, at Dunlap's behest, by an insurance broker named Janks Morton.
Morton and Dunlap had been football teammates in Toronto (after being cut by the Browns and Redskins, respectively) and had become friends almost immediately. In addition, Ollie knew that Janks was a former boxer. Jacobs, Morton, and Dunlap weren't dreaming about producing an Olympic champion. They were just looking for another way to keep kids off the streets.
The initial outlay for the boxing program was $45-the cost of two pairs of gloves. The Palmer Park Rec Center didn't have a proper boxing ring, nor would there be one until 1976, by which time the program's most illustrious graduate had already won an Olympic gold medal. The young boxers sparred in a makeshift "ring" marked off with tape on the basketball court, a condition that made the Palmer Park boys acutely aware of the importance of balance. In the absence of a ring mat to cushion one's fall, a misstep or a knockdown could be doubly painful. Initially, boxers had to clear the gym whenever someone wanted to play basketball, but as Jacobs' charges began to assert themselves in matches throughout the area, the rec center devoted the 1–5 p.m. time slot exclusively to boxing.
Over the next few years Palmer Park accumulated a prodigious collection of trophies, many of them won by Leonard, who, once he learned the basics, proved to be the most naturally gifted boxer Jacobs had ever seen.
In Jacobs' recollection Leonard had weighed "a hundred pounds, soaking wet" the day he walked into the rec center with Derrik Holmes. A year later he had added twenty-five pounds, virtually all of it muscle, and when the fifteen-year-old soundly defeated Bobby McGruder, generally regarded to have been the Washington area's best amateur featherweight, in 1971, Jacobs realized that he might have something truly special on his hands.
"Up until then I'd boxed in the Novice class," recalled Leonard. "McGruder's opponent that night fell out, and somebody said 'Well, we've got this kid ...'
"I said 'Sure, I'll fight him,' and I not only beat him, I beat the hell out of him," said Leonard. "That was the end of Novice fights for me. I'd only been boxing competitively for a year, but I fought in the Open class after that."
Excerpted from Four Kings by George Kimball. Copyright © 2008 George Kimball. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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