LAS VEGAS — Sugar Ray Leonard's enormous bravado, which was nearly offensive in the pre-fight buildup, became a promise fulfilled Monday night when, after what was essentially a five-year layoff, he returned and upset boxing's dominant champion, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The sheer audacity of what he attempted was somehow matched by the strategic elegance with which he did it.
The comeback, culminated before the largest world audience to ever see a bout, had been judged foolhardy by most. The symmetry of their careers, their destinies so intertwined, somehow forgave the circumstances of the obvious mismatch. They deserved each other five years ago, but this was better than never.
Still, only those who believed in time travel gave Leonard any chance against Hagler. Leonard would have to return five years, to a time when hands were fast and legs tireless, to meet the foreboding Hagler on anything near equal terms.
Well, he wasn't the welterweight of 1982, when he first retired after eye surgery. But there was more about Leonard than his tasseled shoes that recalled his time of greatness. For 12 tactically brilliant rounds, he circled and countered, confusing and confounding the bewildered middleweight champion, until he had secured a split decision.
Though the judges did not entirely agree on what they saw--Lou Filippo had it 115-113 for Hagler, Dave Moretti 115-113 for Leonard, and JoJo Guerra 118-110 for Leonard--the only person near the ring in the parking lot at Caesars Palace to voice any genuine surprise at the decision was Hagler himself. "I beat him and you know it," he said immediately afterward. "I stayed aggressive. C'mon. I won the fight."
But Leonard's game plan never let Hagler in the fight. He circled outside, daring Hagler to stalk him, occasionally entangling the champion in a brisk flurry. Hagler missed monumentally as he chased Leonard. Although neither was hurt or in any danger of going down, it was clear that Leonard was hitting more than Hagler was.
It was also clear that Leonard meant to clinch as often as possible, perhaps turning Hagler and gaining angles on a man not particularly known for his balance.
"Hit and run, stick and move, taunt and intimidate," explained Leonard, facing the press in a jaunty yachtsman's cap afterward, "a variety of things."
It was not always pretty and may have disappointed the nearly 300 million people watching, in that it lacked boxing's concussive conclusion. But it was not ugly, as even Leonard's attorney, Mike Trainer, has predicted when the comeback was announced a year ago.
Richard Steele, the referee, said: "Maybe he fought him the only style he could win with."
Leonard, of course, knew better than to lead Hagler into any kind of brawl. Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KO) had leveled Thomas Hearns, the last fighter do try that, in just three rounds. In fact, he did fight Hagler the only possible way.
And he fought him that way the entire night. Leonard (34-1, 24 KOs) danced outside from the first round. The clinching was plentiful. And at times, Leonard leaned back into the ropes, imitating the last great popular champion, Muhammad Ali. It was obviously frustrating for Hagler. His long looping rights missed by feet, it seemed. Once he threw a punch, followed it into a ring post, while Leonard bobbed and returned to the center of the ring.
Leonard gave him head feints, his hands dropped, offering his chin disdainfully. Once, in the seventh round, Hagler threw three large right hands in a row. They sailed wide, tremendous arcs in the desert air.
Leonard was masterful in his attempt to frustrate Hagler. In the fourth round, Leonard mocked his opponent with a bolo punch to the stomach.
Hagler, of course, would not be unnerved in the way that Roberto Duran was, when Leonard frustrated him into submission. Still, he was mad, and the two often crossed stares at the bell, and several times had to be escorted to their corners. Hagler was often exhorting his long time nemesis, "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he kept repeating.
"Once," said Leonard, shrugging his shoulders, "he called me a sissy."
In the later rounds, when Leonard was obviously and desperately tired, Hagler began to close the distance between the fighters. In the ninth round, Leonard appeared in trouble in his own corner, but he battled out of it with a vicious fury. At times, he seemed to die against the ropes. Or was he inviting Hagler in for that staccato counter-punching?
In that ninth round, the best of the fight, Leonard four times ensnarled Hagler in some reckless flurries.
It was dangerous and, considering the scoring up to that point, unnecessary. In the 11th round, Leonard got cute. He got up on his toes, smirked as he circled the champion, and threatened yet another bolo punch.
In the 12th and final round, with Hagler continuing to miss, Leonard mocked him by raising his right glove, apparently in anticipation of victory.