35 years ago, Hagler and Hearns traded blows in 'The War'

‘Whenever I think back to it, I can still feel those huge punches’: 35 years ago, ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler and Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns traded blows in the most primeval three rounds in boxing HISTORY

  • Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns waged one of boxing greatest battles
  • The rivals traded vicious blows in the historic bout in Las Vegas in 1985
  • Originally billed as ‘The Fight’ it was referred to afterwards as ‘The War’
  • On the 35th anniversary, Mr Marvelous will raise a glass to The Hitman 

For once in her bubbly lifetime of mischievous laughter, Joan Rivers was not being funny as she shielded her eyes from the most primeval three rounds in boxing history and in hushed tones asked her ringside companion: ‘Is it always like this?’

No it wasn’t. Not even back then in the golden age. Not quite every time two of the four kings of that gilded era came to blood-drenched battle.

Whether she felt privileged at being there in Caesars Palace or traumatised by the first public fisticuffs she attended, Ms Rivers witnessed the full spectrum of prize-fighting’s majestic brutality being compressed into eight phenomenal minutes. Plus one unforgiving second. 

Marvin Hagler (right) and Thomas Hearns waged one of boxing greatest battles 35 years ago

Thirty years on, when the two gladiators were reunited at their induction into one of those Halls of Fame, Thomas Hearns, now aged 61, threw down this challenge: ‘Let’s do it again.’ Marvin Hagler, now 65, chuckled and replied: ‘Don’t you remember what happened last time?’ 

How could anyone forget that steamy Las Vegas night of April 15, 1985? Least of all Hitman Hearns after the hell which befell him at the fists of the Hagler monster, who had added the prefix ‘Marvelous’ to his name by legal document. 

Originally entitled ‘The Fight’, this epic was rebranded by the pundits as ‘The War’ the minute it was over. 

Emanuel Steward, Hearns’ master trainer at his fabled Kronk gym in Detroit, had a different label: ‘The Massage.’ In the last hours before the fight, behind Steward’s back, Hearns allowed one of his pals to give his legs a long, hard rub-down. 

Hagler (left) and Hearns trade vicious blows in the historic bout in Las Vegas in 1985

Steward was furious when he found out and his anger was justified as he watched those drained legs start to buckle at the end of a first round of ferocious punishment taken by both fighters. 

Hearns would admit: ‘My legs were already gone.’ He had come up in weight from his epic duels with the two other reigning monarchs of the glorious Eighties, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, to make his bid for the undisputed world middleweight title Hagler had held through 10 defences in five years. 

Although Hearns stood an unusual 6ft 1in tall for a fighter in the middle divisions, Steward knew his lean man would need to be mobile against Hagler’s power. 

Not that Hearns was overawed by the first boxer of note to emphasise his intimidating presence by shaving his head. ‘You just look funny,’ he told Hagler during their US tour of 21 — yes, 21 — promotional media conferences. ‘Don’t get cocky,’ said Marvelous Marvin.

Referee Richard Steele gives the count as Thomas Hearns tries to rise in the third round

Steward warned: ‘My Tommy comes into the ring like a leopard let loose to feed.’ Hagler snarled: ‘I’m an animal bursting out of my cage to rip his head off.’ Hearns, the puncher of scary renown, retorted: ‘I’ll knock you out in three.’ 

At least he got the round right. But Hagler predicted a third-round stoppage in his favour and would prove himself correct. Hagler was festering in his perception that he had been receiving less appreciation compared with the adulation heaped on Hearns, Leonard and Duran. 

Hagler’s instant charge was a gamble which almost failed. He was met at once by a trademark Hearns right and he staggered back but somehow stayed on his feet. Still, Hagler said afterwards: ‘I’m glad he landed that punch. It told him that against me his best shot wouldn’t be enough.’ 

Hearns placed a wager of his own by going after his man immediately. He was rocked by a Hagler left and by instinct they both went hell for leather massive punch by crushing blow, in probably the greatest of all first rounds. In the midst of that mayhem, Hagler sustained a gaping gash to his forehead. 

Hagler celebrates victory in the world middleweight title fight in Las Vegas in 1985

Worse still, The Hitman had broken that howitzer of a right hand. As Hearns came out for the second, he was wobbling from side to side and Leonard, analysing the fight for television, said: ‘I don’t like how Tommy’s moving. His legs have gone rubbery.’ 

Hagler went violently for the kill but Hearns was still landing enough huge blows himself for one of the three judges, though not Britain’s Harry Gibbs, to give him the round. Early in the third, blood resumed cascading from the gaping wound in Hagler’s head, down the front of his face. 

Referee Richard Steele called the only pause in the relentless action as a doctor asked him if he could still see. Hagler answered: ‘I ain’t missing him, am I?’ No he was not. Nor did he after Steele told them: ‘Box on.’ 

Still fearing he could lose his title to that cut, Hagler launched into a pair of neck-snapping uppercuts, then a combination finishing with a steamhammer right. Hearns fell on his face, rolled flat on his back, yet still lurched shakily to his feet on the count of nine, then slumped upright against the referee. 

‘He’s gone,’ screamed Leonard. Mr Steele agreed and the limp body of Hearns was carried to his corner for several minutes of resuscitation. 

The firefight itself had lasted just two rounds, two minutes and one second. Still enough by far in its scorching intensity to be acclaimed Fight of the Year by the bible of boxing, Ring magazine. 

On today’s 35th anniversary, Mr Marvelous will raise a glass to The Hitman: ‘As I always do whenever we meet. I give Tommy huge credit for the part he played in making ours one of the greatest fights. 

‘Whenever I think back to it, I can still feel those huge punches. Whenever I watch the film, I’m happy when it ends.’ Hearns says: ‘Marvin proved his greatness that night.’ 

Bob Arum, still the doyen of promoters, recalls how the hard old game was under pressure at the time from politicised abolitionists and says: ‘This fight was our referendum for boxing. And boxing won.

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