The riddle all of last week in Boston was what does it take to be the undisputed No. 1 middleweight contender? Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the champion of all the world's 160-pounders, supplied the answer in that marvelous old relic, Boston Garden, Saturday night: not a hell of a lot.
The No. 1 challenger according to both the World Boxing Association and the World Boxing Council was Fulgencio Obelmejias, a 28-year-old Venezuelan with a thirst for American history, a hunger for clam chowder—which he called chipi chipi soup—and all the fighting ability of a quahog. He came to the U.S. with a 30-0 record, which included 28 knockouts, and went on to prove that while it might be possible to learn how to fight in a cemetery, it isn't possible if you only take on the residents.
"How did he get to be No. 1?" Hagler wondered aloud, along with everyone else, a few days before his first defense of the title he'd won with a third-round knockout of Alan Minter of England in September. The 28-year-old champion pondered that question before a blazing wood fire at the Provincetown Inn on the frozen tip of Cape Cod, 120 miles from Boston. It was there that he had trained for six weeks in preparation for a fight whose outcome would be obvious by the second round but wouldn't end until 20 seconds into the eighth round. Outside the cozy inn, a strong wind sent clouds of swirling snow whipping across the frozen seascape. Occasionally the forlorn call of a complaining seagull would pierce the whistle of the wind.
"When I was working my way up the ratings, Obelmejias wasn't behind me," Hagler said, staring into the fire. "Nobody was jumping me over anybody, from seventh to fourth, or fourth to No. 1. But all of a sudden I get to be champ, and here's a guy from nowhere right behind me. I've got to figure somebody in the WBA or the WBC said, 'Hey, I think this guy can beat Hagler,' and they jumped him up to No. 1. And when I knock him out they'll find somebody else they think can beat me and jump him into No. 1. If that's the way it is, why even have ratings?"
While Hagler's voice is soft, his words are hard, his demeanor chilling. The title hasn't thawed him a bit. He can't forget the many lean years when others got the title fights he thought he deserved. He smolders when he thinks of the fat purses, of the recognition that should have been his. Now he's the champion, but the hunger is still with him. That's why he sometimes screamed at the early morning sky, startling the gulls into flight, as he ran along the dunes.
"I remember everything they did to me. I'll never forgive them," says Hagler, referring to the WBA and WBC. With his shaven head and hairy lip and chin, the champion takes on a Mephistophelian look when angry. "I want to stay bitter. I use it; I feed on it. That's why I put myself in jail like this to train for a fight. I want to be mean. All I want to think of is destruction. Then nobody can take from me what's mine. The only way they'll get the title from me is to kill me."
In Boston, Obelmejias seemed to be training more for an exam in American history than for a fistfight. His first request upon arriving was to be taken to Plymouth Rock, and then he wanted to see the U.S.S. Constitution, which is moored to a pier in Charlestown.
The No. 1 contender also trained, but not very well. Mornings, heavily bundled against the bitter cold, he ran along the Charles, from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge and back. When he wasn't sightseeing or spooning up clam chowder, he usually stayed in his hotel room studying an English-Spanish dictionary or watching television. Sesame Street, with its Spanish/English lessons, was his favorite. On the Wednesday before the fight he caught a cold.
"Can he fight?" said Rodolfo Sabatini, an Italian promoter, smiling at the question. Sabatini had promoted Obelmejias' last three fights, all in Italy. "Yes, he can fight. He can punch and he can move his hands. The only thing I don't know about is his heart. I've never seen him in trouble because he never fought anybody who could get him in trouble."
The people Obelmejias fought to gain his ranking included George Lee, an American he knocked out in one round in November of 1979. From March 15, 1979 until that November, Lee had four bouts, losing all four. From Nov. 17, when Obelmejias fought him, until Jan. 27, 1980, a period of 71 days, Lee was knocked out five more times on three continents, in four countries and in five cities. Still, Obelmejias' victory over Lee earned the Venezuelan a jump from No. 5 to No. 4 in the WBC rankings.