Hagler had whipped Obelmejias in Boston on Jan. 17, 1981 in his first title defense; he indeed battered Obelmejias around and wore him down before winning on an eighth-round TKO. Going into that bout, Obelmejias was an undefeated mystery—30-0, with 28 KOs—a politically well-connected fighter who had risen to No. 1 in the WBC and WBA by crushing tomato cans. When Hagler whipped him, Obelmejias automatically dropped to No. 4 in the WBA rankings, but he climbed back to No. 1 in the WBA this year by remaining undefeated while two contenders above him lost and the other moved up to light heavyweight. The WBA mandated that Hagler defend against Obelmejias, but the prospect of a rematch was so unattractive that Bob Arum, the promoter, couldn't get a network to buy it. He finally sold the fight to HBO, but only as the first of a three-fight package that is expected to include Hagler's defenses against Sibson and Fletcher.
Obelmejias complained that he had been suffering from a severe cold during his first fight with Hagler (although he never mentioned anything about his illness until after Hagler had won), and so he came to the balmy Mediterranean coast of Italy predicting victory. "It has been more than three months since I began training for this fight," Obelmejias said from his camp in Genoa. "I'm sure it will go completely different this time. If I hadn't been sick in Boston, things wouldn't have gone the way they did and I would have won and been champion. I'd never been in a climate like that. Now everything is O.K."
Hagler seemed unconcerned about his recent inactivity. Goody Petronelli expected Hagler to expose Obelmejias as an artificial contender once again. "He's ready to tear him apart," Goody said. "He has been sparring a lot, his timing is nice, and he has no aches and pains. If Obel wants to come at Marvin, fine; he did that last time and ended up on the short end. If he wants to box, fine. We are ready for anything he wants to do." For years Hagler has trained by the motto "Destruction and destroy," so for the San Remo crowd he added an Italian twist, wearing a shirt that said: DISTRUZIONE E DISTRUTTORE.
Few things infuriate Hagler more than an opponent displaying disdain or contempt for him, and he simply can't abide snickering. It violates the Haglerian canon of proper behavior for what he regards as a very serious enterprise between two men, one that can be settled only in the ring. So Obelmejias made his first mistake about 11 hours before the fight, when he kept smiling at Hagler at the weigh-in, raising his arms above his head and saying, "El campeon [the champion], el campeon. I fix Hagler, I fix." As they left the theater Pat Petronelli said, "He's a punk." Hagler squinted, his eyes like beads. "That's how I like 'em," he said. "I'm gonna hurt him, Pat." Whatever Obelmejias' plan was, it never really got off the ground. Hagler appeared cold in the first two rounds, losing both, but in the third he began to pick up the tempo and take the fight to Obelmejias, who was trying to catch Hagler with uppercuts whenever the champion came in. "As soon as Marvin threw the left, Obel threw the right uppercut to the ribs," Goody said. "We trained for that. He was trying to catch Marvin when he was lunging in."
Hagler intensified the pressure in the fourth round, when he began to find a comfortable distance to fight from. Pat kept urging from the corner, "It's just a matter of time, Marvin. Keep pumpin'. Keep pumpin'."
Now in the fifth, Hagler began to tag his man—jabs, hooks, left hands. Suddenly, at the close of one exchange, Hagler reached back and let fly with that right hook. Obelmejias crumpled to the canvas. He rolled on his back, his mouth open, and stared blankly in the air as if studying the murals depicting medieval scenes painted on the ceiling of the theater. At one point he struggled vainly to gain his legs, only to topple over again.
"Wasn't that a sweetheart of a punch?" Pat said.
"Beautiful," Goody said.
"I feel good, like a little boy in a candy store," Hagler said.
In this candy store, to be sure, there are Sibson and Fletcher, Benitez or Hearns, but there is no sugar sweeter than Ray. Whatever Leonard decides next week, he is making no end of mischief. One day last week in San Remo he approached Pat and teased him about the difference between his 147-pound welterweight limit and Hagler's 160-pound middleweight maximum. "I can fight beautiful at 155!" Leonard said.