Forty or so years ago, when the middleweight division was producing boxing's sweetest scientists, Marvelous Marvin Hagler's brand of controlled mayhem undoubtedly would have fired up the cognoscenti at New York's old Madison Square Garden. Hagler has rarely been blessed with opponents or settings conducive to high artistry, but the undisputed—well, sort of—middleweight champion was received like a warrior from the golden era last Friday night when he made his New York debut, in the present Garden, by stopping a typically outclassed challenger, Mustafa Hamsho, at 2:31 of the third round.
In essence, the arena became Marvin's, Garden for the night, testimony to the 30-year-old champion's four-year monopoly of a divison and 12-year pro career during which he had somehow never before fought in New York. His dismantling of Hamsho brought his record to 60-2-2, with 50 KOs, and was his 10th successful title defense. The adulation he received from the 14,000 fans persuaded the oft-slighted Hagler to call the evening "the highlight of my career." Such is the state of boxing, however, that after the bout, the WBC stripped Hagler of its version of the title because the fight had been scheduled for 15 rounds instead of the WBC-sanctioned 12. Hagler still holds the WBA and IBF titles.
Hagler withstood butting tactics and some sneaky right hands by Hamsho, a 31-year-old Syrian-born southpaw now living in Brooklyn, in the first two rounds before putting him down—for the first time in his 43-fight career—with two right hooks midway through the third. When Hamsho struggled to his feet, Hagler patiently set him up for a sweeping, leaping, finishing right that looked like a mirror image of the catapult left hook employed by one of Hagler's idols, Floyd Patterson.
In a 1981 title defense, Hagler had hit Hamsho steadily for 11 rounds without this sort of effect, and last Friday's early explosion somewhat eased the memory of Hagler's tentative performances in recent defenses against Roberto Duran and Juan Roldan. But these days Hagler is being held up to a harsher light than his own division can provide. Thomas Hearns, the WBC junior middleweight champion, whose two-round demolition of Duran on June 15 has once again made him a supernova, looms as the test that could measure Hagler's claim that he's the equal of a Robinson or a Zale.
At ringside for Friday's fight, Hearns, who was resplendent in tuxedo, gold HIT MAN medallion and high-tech sunglasses that looked suitable for viewing a 3-D movie, was besieged by autograph seekers; he seemed to love the attention. "Marvin didn't show me anything new," said Hearns after the bout. "I can beat him any way he wants to fight. There was nothing for me to be concerned about other than Marvin winning the fight. He made me very happy."
For good reason. Promoter Bob Arum is hustling to put together a $10-million package that would make a Hagler-Hearns bout the richest middleweight fight of all time. One hang-up is that the Hearns camp insists that the purse be split 50-50; Hagler's people are asking for 55%. If an agreement is reached—a similar arrangement fell through in 1982—and Hearns beats hard-hitting but raw John (The Beast) Mugabi later this year, the fight would be held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in early spring.
Hagler got ready for Hamsho, who as No. 1 contender (his record: 38-2-2, with 22 KOs) was a mandatory challenger, in typically Spartan style in Provincetown, Mass. He didn't meet with the New York media until the day before the fight, when he announced, "I'm feeling especially mean." That condition was brought on by his acute antipathy for Hamsho, who had incurred Hagler's ire in escalating stages. First Hamsho said the Duran fight proved " Hagler is coward, he has no heart." The Roldan fight, Hamsho added, taught him that Hagler "knows how to thumb." Retorted Hagler, "Hamsho was better off when he didn't speak English. I don't want to see this man's face anymore. I don't want to hear his name. Eliminate."
Hamsho wasn't intimidated, even though it had taken 55 stitches to put together his shredded brows after the '81 fight. He has a style his late manager, Paddy Flood, who died suddenly in March 1983, said was "strictly La Motta." Hamsho planned to become more elusive against Hagler the second time by carrying his head lower and bobbing and weaving. For inspiration Hamsho had a green and white robe made by Flood's widow, Jean, and the knowledge that the fight would be televised in Syria, which he left 10 years ago.
Hamsho's night began inauspiciously when the two large Syrian flags that accompanied him into the ring aroused scattered booing, as did the playing of the Syrian national anthem. The challenger came out at the bell with a strong right to Hagler's head, but did himself more harm than good by butting Hagler twice. At the end of the round, which judges Eva Shain and Vinnie Rainone gave to Hamsho, a livid Hagler shouted at Hamsho, "You want to play dirty, I'll show you how to play dirty. I'll hurt you."
It took Hagler another round to collect his emotions and put punches together with his usual efficiency. Hamsho was bobbing and weaving, but a seemingly possessed Hagler was finding him.