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THE ILLUSION OF VICTORY
Hugh McIlvanney
April 20, 1987
Another view of the Leonard-Hagler decision
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April 20, 1987

The Illusion Of Victory

Another view of the Leonard-Hagler decision

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It is not only in Las Vegas that professional boxing's system of scoring shows all the intellectual consistency of a rolling pair of dice.

Don't blame the desert air for the rush of blood to the brain that caused Jose Juan (Jo Jo) Guerra, a WBC judge, to make Sugar Ray Leonard a winner by 10 rounds to 2 over Marvin Hagler while another official, Lou Filippo, was giving the April 6 fight at Caesars Palace to Hagler 7 rounds to 5. If the record of judges sanctioned by its State Athletic Commission is anything to go by, Nevada is a congenial environment for officials with the glorious eccentricity of mind brought to his work by Guerra. But bad decisions know no boundaries.

The simple truth is that at this stage of its long and erratic history, prizefighting is still nowhere near establishing any consistently accurate means of measuring performance. If the comparative effectiveness of two fighters is so difficult to calibrate (or so open to extravagantly subjective interpretations) that Guerra and Filippo can contradict each other as outrageously as they did, then even when everybody stays honest, boxing clearly carries a far higher risk of recurring injustice than any other sport.

When judges talk about focusing on paramount criteria—on identifying effective aggressiveness, clean punching, ring generalship and quality defense—they are merely emphasizing the complexity, perhaps the impossibility, of the exercise. Much of the time all they can do is review a fighter's performance, much as a theater critic would an actor's, making the pseudoscientific adjustment of putting their impressions into figures.

No one has ever understood the boxing judge as reviewer of theater better than Sugar Ray Leonard. Even Muhammad Ali, who substituted histrionics for real fighting often enough in the latter part of his career, was usually more concerned with disconcerting his opponent and getting the crowd on his side. Leonard sought those dividends too against Hagler. But the overriding priority for him appeared to be the manipulation of official minds.

Naturally, to achieve that end, Ray had to bring a lot to the party. Physically and mentally, he was astonishingly strong, sharp and resilient after what had been, essentially, a five-year layoff.

Thus, looking and moving so much better than anyone had a right to expect, Leonard was in a position to exploit the Schulberg Factor. This phenomenon—a compound optical illusion—may not have been discovered by Budd Schulberg, the novelist and fight aficionado, but he receives credit here for pointing it out to a few of us who were asking ourselves how Hagler came to be so cruelly misjudged. Budd's reasoning was that people were so amazed to find Sugar Ray capable of much more than they imagined that they persuaded themselves he was doing far more than he actually was.

Similarly, having expected extreme destructiveness from Marvin, they saw anything less as failure and refused to give him credit for the quiet beating he administered.

What Ray Leonard pulled off in his split decision over Hagler was an epic illusion. He had said beforehand that the way to beat Hagler was to give him a distorted picture. But this shrewdest of fighters knew it was even more important to distort the picture for the judges. His plan was to "steal" rounds with a few flashy and carefully timed flurries and to make the rest of each three-minute session as unproductive as possible for Hagler by circling briskly away from the latter's persistent pursuit. When he made his sporadic attacking flourishes, he was happy to exaggerate hand speed at the expense of power, and neither he nor two of the scorers seemed bothered by the fact that many of the punches landed on the champion's gloves and arms. This was showboating raised to an art form, and the brilliance with which it was sustained was a tribute to Leonard's wonderful nerve, which is cut from the same flawless diamond as Ali's.

But, however much the slick ploys blurred the perceptions of those on the fevered sidelines, they never broke Hagler. He has a different kind of spirit, but it is no less resolute than Leonard's. The hounding intensity that kept him unbeaten through 11 years from 1976 will soon be a memory, but he had enough left to press on through his early frustrations, throw the superior volume of hurtful punches. I'm convinced Hagler won the fight; a draw, and the retention of the title, was the very least he deserved.

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