At close to midnight last Saturday, at Bailey's Hotel in London, Marvin Hagler, the new, undisputed middleweight champion of the world, grinned hugely and then pulled on a pint mug of English ale. "Putting some fluid back in my body," he explained. Which also seemed to be the undivided aim of the contingent of 20 or so of his townsfolk from Brockton, Mass., who had traveled to England to cheer him on.
That they all needed a bit of fluid with some potency was understandable. Only now, and slowly, were they beginning to relax from a frightening experience. Somewhat more than an hour earlier, just after Hagler had taken the title from England's Alan Minter in slightly less than nine blood-bespattered minutes of fighting, exultation had abruptly changed to terror as the ugliest crowd ever to show up at Wembley Arena—10,000 strong, many high on booze and crude chauvinism—viciously turned on the visiting Americans and their champion.
To set the scene: 1:45 into Round 3 Minter is bleeding from four terrible cuts, two near each eye, and there is no need to consult the ring doctor about stopping the bout. Minter's manager, Doug Bidwell, concedes the instant Referee Carlos Berrocal steps in to wave Hagler away and take a closer look at Minter's gory face. Hagler goes down on his knees in a Borg-style gesture of thanksgiving but he can barely rise again because beer bottles, many half full, start to rain down on the ring, and a horrifying ululation of howls and boos fills the arena.
"I went down low and my guys protected me," Hagler recalled over his ale at Bailey's. His handlers had done it by forming a human blanket. Goody Petronelli, Hagler's trainer and co-manager, was hit by a bottle. Quickly, helmeted bobbies moved in—"It was beautiful to see them," said Petronelli—and they, with the cornermen, formed a phalanx and herded Hagler safely through the ropes. They would never have made it all the way to the dressing room through that murderous crowd. Instead, they went into a tunnel under the north balcony and straight into police security headquarters.
Meanwhile, up in the south balcony Rita Kechejian, who is the wife of Nishan Kechejian, Hagler's personal physician, had made the mistake of holding up a modest banner that read BRING IT HOME TO BROCKTON, MARVIN! "They ripped our sign down and frightened us," she said, stunned. Bertha Hagler, Marvin's wife, was sitting beside Rita and had been equally shaken. She wisely kept the handkerchief-sized American flag she had planned to wave at the moment of victory tucked inside her pocket-book. Although, mercifully, none of the Brockton 20 in the stands had come to physical harm, each of them had a horror story to tell of how, apparently, Britain's endemic soccer violence had spilled over into boxing.
"I was scared, panicking," Petronelli said later. "I'd been warned that we'd hear a lot of noise, but I never expected the bottle throwing. Not in England. And then, when we finally got to the limo, they'd smashed the windshield. Thank God we weren't in it then." It was fortunate also that the besieged Hagler entourage didn't run into that part of the mob outside that was chanting the obscene racist slogans of the National Front, Britain's version of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a tainted night for Hagler, a disastrous one for Minter and a shameful one for England.
A crowd is a blunt weapon, though, and it has to be honed before it becomes as dangerous as this one was. Perhaps contributing a bit to the mob madness was the thought of Johnny Owen, the Welsh bantamweight, still lying in a coma in a Los Angeles hospital after being knocked out in the 12th round of his title match the week before against champion Lupe Pintor. British newspapers had widely reported how, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, Owen had been pelted by beer bottles as he lay in the ring.
But much of the ugliness at Wembley could be laid directly at the feet of Minter. In front of too many people with notebooks the champion had announced in early September, "I am not letting any black man take the title from me." He claimed to have been angered by Hagler's alleged refusal to shake hands as the two were introduced in the ring in Las Vegas last November when Hagler fought a controversial draw with then-champion Vito Antuofermo. Kevin Finnegan, a former European middleweight champion, said he had gotten the same treatment from Hagler at that fight, accompanied by the memorable words, "I don't touch white flesh."
In subsequent days, though, some fence-mending was done. Minter decided that what he actually said was "that black man," and Hagler, nattily outfitted in a three-piece pinstripe suit, presented himself to the British press and told reporters that his non-handshaking was non-racial: he never shakes hands with a fighter he might meet in the ring one day.
And the civil Hagler seems the true Hagler, outside the ring at least. He is gentle-spoken, articulate and quick-witted. Why does he shave his skull? Well, he had four sisters and they never let him get at the comb. How did he feel about fighting abroad? Why, he never fights broads; he has too much respect for them.