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THE SHOWDOWN : Five Years Too Late, Hagler and Leonard Meet to Decide What?

April 06, 1987|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Sugar Ray Leonard's decision to return to the ring, after a retirement that more or less spanned five years, is either a magnificent ambition or an awful arrogance. Here he is, choosing out the greatest fighter of our time, and securing the fight with little more credentials than a wink and a smile.

What's gotten into the man, who was already damaged goods five years ago? What's gotten into us, moreover? The public, apparently bewitched by that retinal-repaired wink and that industrial-strength smile, is likely to make tonight's fight at Caesars Palace the richest, most widely seen in history.

Evidently the man had built up quite a reservoir of good will during his brilliant career as a welterweight.

Certainly, he has done nothing since then, in five years as a cummerbund-cinched celebrity, to suggest he is worthy of tonight's challenge to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the middleweight champion with 12 title defenses behind him, the bald eminence who is unbeaten and undaunted in nearly nine years. Leonard has not had so much as a tuneup bout. The challenge is made on the basis of a year's conditioning and, one might say, a lifetime of hubris.

"In a way, it's an insult to any athlete," says Larry Merchant, who sat alongside Leonard behind HBO microphones during much of that retirement, "for Leonard to not only come back after that inactivity, but to come back and perform in a Super Bowl."

The fight experts accord Leonard little chance, all noting this might have been a great competition five years ago, when their destinies first seemed to demand each other. But not now, with Leonard looking out of place in anything but a tuxedo.

"Leonard knows how to fight Hagler," admits Eddie Futch, the renowned trainer, "but knowing what to do and how to do it is not enough. He has to be able to do it."

Still, there is an attractive enough aspect to Leonard's glorious effrontery. Unlike many comeback attempts, Leonard is not coming back for the money, although he has been guaranteed $11 million. Nor is he really even coming back. "This is not a comeback," he assures. "This is one fight." He is returning for Hagler only, in about the same way and with about the same chance that Capt. Ahab pursued a white whale. "I see this man when I go to bed, when I wake up, when I sleep," he complains.

Leonard thus assigns a desperate nobility to his quest. Anyway, this fight was always ahead of him, somewhere. As Leonard proceeded from Olympic hero to welterweight champion, numbering respected titleholders Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran among his victims, he really proceeded directly to Hagler, the malevolent presence whose blue-collar style promised a fight of contrast and, possibly, greatness.

The logic of boxing, such as it is, demanded it. Leonard, who earned $50,000 for a main event in only his third go, while Hagler was fighting for $1,500 in his 36th fight on the undercard, was either destined or doomed to redress this terrible inequity. The match was inevitable.

But then Leonard suffered that eye injury in 1982, several months after he had unified the welterweight division with a knockout of Hearns in a brilliantly tactical fight. Leonard underwent retinal surgery and then lingered over whatever anticipation still remained. Finally, having invited Hagler to a gaudy gala during which the working champion sat stiffly in a tuxedo, Leonard turned to him and said, "That fight will never happen."

Hagler was stunned and steamed, but still anxious enough for a match that he was hopeful when Leonard came back in 1984. But again Hagler was left holding the bag. The tuneup bout, with Kevin Howard, was so desultory that Leonard immediately announced yet another retirement.

Hagler, disappointed, managed to go on to consolidate his greatness. At first a man so anxious to have things on his own terms that he anticipated history by having the courts change his name to Marvelous, Hagler eventually became comfortable as those historians caught up with his career.

With Leonard ringside for many of the fights, Hagler waded through the contenders. Promoter Bob Arum, who is also presenting this fight at Caesars Palace, shrewdly maneuvered Hearns back into a role of prominence and matched the two fierce punchers. In what many call boxing's most furious eight minutes, Hagler collapsed Hearns' jab, drew him into a brawl and destroyed him.

Hagler's reputation was assured, his anger banked. "Maybe now I'll get some commercials," he said, anticipating his acceptance.

He did get commercials, which seemed to redress the unfair amount of exposure Leonard had going into his career. The acclaim and money, though late in coming, were satisfying. And most satisfying of all, he had attained them not simply with his record--now 62-2-2--but as a performer, as powerful as Leonard in his charismatic prime. The glinting dome, the sheer force of his will transformed in a ring made him a formidable and attractive presence.

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