Boxing


The Weigh In: The Grand Illusionist

leonardBy Michael Klimes: The magnificent Irish/Anglo-American poet Michael Donaghy wrote poems of startling subtlety and shifts in perspective. He became known as a modern metaphysical writer and can be associated with English poets like Andrew Marvell or John Donne and American ones such a Richard Wilbur or James Merrill. The set moves of these poets are superb techniques original turns of phrase and the staggering ability to ambush yet delight readers with their endlessly elaborate conceits. Consequently, they continually trick you and you are left scratching your head in wondered amazement. One of my favourite Donaghy poems is called ‘Auto de Fé’, published in his must read collected poems by Picador. It goes like this (page 23):

“Last night I met my uncle in the rain
And he told me he’d been dead for fifty years.
My parents told me he’d been shot in Spain
Serving with the Irish volunteers..
But in this dream we huddled round a brazier
And passed the night in argument.
‘El sueño de la razón...’ and on it went.
And as he spoke he rolled a cigarette
And picked a straw and held it to an ember.
The shape his hand made sheltering the flame
Was itself a kind of understanding.
But it would never help me to explain
Why my uncle went to fight for Spain,
For Christ, for Caudillo, for the King.”

As we can read, this poem is beautifully restrained yet also arrestingly powerful as it considers the interaction of poetry and politics, the past and the present, the familiarity of loved ones yet also the estrangement we have from them. There is also a yearning for a greater understanding from the speaker to explain his uncle’s motivations for fighting in a highly complicated conflict yet there is an inability to conclusively say why he did. Many of the issues raised by Donaghy’s brilliance are also present in the Sugar Ray Leonard’s splendid career.

Couldn’t we declare that Leonard was an illusionist himself? Clearly, between 1979 and 1981, he was an exemplary synergy of sophisticated combination punching and raw, concussive power. He could also absorb a punch as well as any other fighter in history. However, his most stunning coup came in his victory over Hagler. How is it that Leonard, a boxer who had only fought once in six years, never campaigned at middleweight limit and was past his prime manage to best the defining middleweight of his generation? The only answer can be that Sugar Ray Leonard, during his career, was to boxing what Donaghy was to British poetry: an elusive practitioner of his art that could make illusion appear to be tangible reality.

This bout represents a transitory phase in boxing. By the time they finally met the four fighters that had represented the best of the lighter weights in the 1980s: Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, along with Leonard and Hagler, had all become somewhat antiquated. They still all retained massive star power, considerable boxing skills and were living icons but a new generation of fighters was beginning to crowd them out of the stage, which can only hold a finite number of protagonists at any one time and an audience can only focus on so much.

The attention of boxing fans was beginning to move in two new directions. Firstly, in 1986, a young heavyweight named Mike Tyson became world heavyweight champion. He was perceived as being far more exhilarating than his predecessor Larry Holmes who was viewed as technically efficient in his style and solid in his achievements but not sensational in his finishing. Tyson made the heavyweight division the epicentre of the pugilistic world again, which had lost a little sparkle under the reign of Holmes as the welterweights and middleweights were the true superstars.

Compounding the re-emergence of the heavyweight division were a group of ambitious and young fighters, inspired by the quartet of Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran that were active at light middleweight and middleweight. They were all desperate to prove themselves against the old guard and included Terry Norris, Michael Nunn, James Toney, Chris Eubank, Julian Jackson, Michael Watson and Nigel Benn. They would all go onto have memorable careers and become world class fighters.

Nonetheless, there was one part of the narrative of the Leonard generation that had not yet materialised: a blockbuster clash between Hagler and Leonard. Rarely in boxing, do two legends meet in their primes but it is better later than never and this is what transpired with Leonard versus Hagler in what became known as ‘The Showdown’. Leonard won a split decision over a twelve round distance but his victory remains controversial. The controversy is best explained by four reasons: the sectarianism of Hagler and Leonard fans, the trickery of Leonard, the inability of Hagler to decode the riddle that was presented to him and how fan judge fights. Invariably, Leonard talk about Leonard’s boxing ability while Hagler fans dismiss this as showboating and claim Hagler did the better work. I happen to take the former view.

Still, it is one of the more peculiar super fights in history as Hagler, through his unusual incompetence, helped Leonard win the fight with his flawed strategy. The first two rounds of the fight presented a spot of great fortune for Leonard as Hagler, instead of engaging Leonard from his southpaw stance, decided to try and outbox Leonard from an orthodox position, which was the worst thing he could do at any point in the fight. This allowed Leonard to establish a rhythm and steal rounds one and two with his lucid boxing and masterful ring movement. Hagler, although an excellent boxer, should have looked to impose his size, power and doggedness from the beginning bell. Why he never did is a mystery I can never decode.

Furthermore, Leonard had added a number of impressive tricks to his formidable natural gifts. These included clinching Hagler a number of times in round two, which helped him command the pace of the fight. He also threw lead rights (offensive to Hagler because it suggested he was slow enough to be hit with one and from Leonard’s perspective was more likely to hurt Hagler than a number of measly jabs), fought in spurts and showboated. All of these tricks, apart from frustrating Hagler were a secret acknowledgement by Leonard that he could not fight at the same level of intensity as he did in his early days. To compensate, he had to project the image that he could and his blend of his old style and new self was a copy of what Muhammad Ali had done from the early 1970s after he returned from his three year exile. Ali was forced to conceal his loss of athleticism due to his aging by clinching, lead rights and theatrics. Leonard had to do the same.

In round four, Leonard increased his cheekiness and psychological warfare on Hagler by landing a bolo punch to the body. He won the first four rounds emphatically and did the same in the fifth but Hagler started to come back at the end as he was beginning to make adjustments to the range of his punches by better positioning. However, both fighters demonstrated their ages in round six as their work rates slowed and Leonard’s punches slowed in speed and reduced in power. Fortunately, Leonard flurried enough at the end to clinch the round. In round seven, Hagler established control of the fight and from then on he would do the more devastating work in round eight. Round nine proved to be the most exciting round Leonard searched to reassert his authority by punching more. In the last thirty seconds he was stationary and desperate as Hagler unleashed clanging punches.

It was Hagler’s finest round and it was his style of fight, which suited his natural assets, namely his power and marauding offense. For those that think Leonard acted his way through the whole fight, the evidence is not in their corner. He fought back with everything he had against Hagler in round nine, took a considerable beating while doing so and boxed gracefully for the three remaining rounds.

In my opinion, Leonard’s victory against Hagler is his masterpiece. He came back after six year layoff and demonstrated he still possessed dangerous amounts of speed, intelligence, determination, toughness and attitude. Furthermore, he not only exploited Hagler’s weaknesses including his ponderous footwork and mechanical style but also added more layers to his boxing. The lead right hands, clinching and cocky persona all contributed to Hagler’s demise. Conversely, one does have to consider Hagler’s fundamentally flawed performance as well. His first two rounds, where he attempted to outfox Leonard from an orthodox position was a shocking mistake from a fighter of his ability and experience as was the absence of his excellent body punching and straight left hand which he looped during the most of the fight.

For all of Hagler’s immense accomplishment, discipline and prowess, Leonard revealed what the greatest boxers have and that is true imagination. Hagler could beat anybody in a rematch after he had unlocked their style yet Leonard could do it the first time. Hagler was a legendary fighter yet Sugar Ray Leonard was a legendary boxer and visionary. Everybody said that it was an illusion that Sugar Ray Leonard could beat Hagler yet he took that illusion and made it into reality. Now that is the sign of originality, which cannot be learned.

Article posted on 24.06.2010



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