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At the very end, in his final moment of triumph and vindication, after the sound of the bell that signaled completion of his finest hour as a prizefighter, the instant came when sheer exhaustion finally did to Sugar Ray Leonard what Marvelous Marvin Hagler could not.
Moving across the middle of the ring Monday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, after 12 rounds in battle against a champion who had defended his middleweight title 12 times and who had not known defeat in 11 years, Leonard sagged and collapsed to his knees. He appeared about to swoon to the canvas when two of his seconds, Janks Morton and Ollie Dunlap, grabbed him by the arms, lifted him to his feet and helped him back to his corner. Leonard's face, drained of expression, reflected the will, effort and intensity that he had brought to, and expended on, this fight.
By all logic, in the face of all history, Leonard should never have been in that ring in the first place. Except for one sad, brief encounter with an unknown fighter in May 1984, he had not fought in five years and 50 days. And yet here he was, facing one of the most remorseless, murderous punchers in the history of the middleweight division, without a single tune-up to hone his boxing skills. What he was trying to do was unprecedented in the history of this consuming sport.
When the final round began, he was battling on will and instinct alone. There was nothing left. He had extended himself past his limit. But he had to survive one more round, three minutes of what turned out to be sustained fury. Desperate and sensing that he was in trouble, Hagler opened the 12th by lunging and missing with a right hand. Off a left hook, Leonard caught Hagler with a three-punch combination that brought the crowd of 15,336 roaring to its feet. Then Hagler nailed Leonard with a stiff right and suddenly the two men were talking to each other. They had been doing that all night.
"They were using certain words in the ring that I would not care to repeat," said referee Richard Steele. "They were going at each other verbally as well as physically."
After the chatter stopped, Hagler caught Leonard with a sweeping hook, but Leonard bobbed beneath another, escaping, and began moving laterally and then backward as the stalking champion bulled in and finally caught him in a neutral corner. Here Hagler banged him with a sharp left hook, but he missed another left as Leonard dipped, then missed again. But Hagler still had Leonard pinned to the ring post, and he belted him with lefts and rights.
Suddenly, when Hagler seemed to lave the tiring challenger where he wanted him, Leonard began throwing lard, flashing punches in a sustained burst that left Hagler bewildered and covering. It was the longest flurry of the fight, a dozen rapid-fire punches on Hagler's face and arms that ended with Leonard slipping free and now moving left and right. Once again Hagler advanced and trapped Leonard on the ropes, and once again Leonard summoned up a flurry, not only getting away but actually sticking out his chin and mugging at the champion, just as he had lone when he forced Roberto Duran to surrender in the "no m�s" fight of 1980.
This had been a Hagler crowd from he outset—Leonard was even booed at the weigh-in that morning, when he showed up at 158 pounds and Hagler at 158�—but chanting had been heard for Leonard in the middle rounds, and now, as the end drew near, the chants grew louder and more sustained: "Sugar Ray! Sugar Ray!"
Hearing that, Leonard began dancing to the left, out of reach of Hagler, circling the ring while raising his right hand in the air. Hagler moved in, raising his right hand, too, and maneuvered Leonard onto the ropes again. He drilled Leonard to the body and then landed a crackling left that sagged the challenger. The bell then rang to end it.
That last round, in certain key particulars, reflected the ebb and flow of the bout. And if the outcome was a surprise to the legions who backed Hagler and gave Leonard no chance, the manner in which the two men went at each other was not. Leonard had said all along that he would box Hagler, move around him, give him more angles than he had ever seen, try to frustrate him, make him miss, tie him up. For himself, citing Joe Louis's old dictum—"He can run, but he can't hide"—Hagler insisted that he would stalk Leonard, cut off the ring on him and beat him inside.