At uncertain intervals, the strange forces of boxing conspire to dish up a prize fight that has all the trappings of a war. This is one of those times, or at least that's the promise of Hagler vs. Hearns Monday night.
For weeks, the battle mood has been that of mutual hate, with spoken threats of the violence they intend. These are backed by the history of the champion's zest for unremitted slugging and by the challenger's documented bombs-away capacity with his right hand.
Tommy Hearns wants Marvin Hagler's world middleweight title, then. In this ambition, he is defying the fate of 10 challengers before him who were left with their wounds by a champion who has not been beaten in nine years. As for Hagler, he is determined that Hearns will pay for all the prefight insults.
Hagler has said of Hearns, "I'll eat him alive." In turn, Hearns has been saying of Hagler, "I'll eat him alive." Only on the duration of the fight scheduled for 12 rounds do they agree, Hagler saying, "I'll knock him out in three rounds." And Hearns saying, "I'll knock him out in three rounds." Somebody is wrong.
The confrontation will be in the 20-foot ring pitched over the tennis courts at Caesars Palace Casino, enclosed by 15,128 seats for spectators privileged to pay as high as $600 per ringside view.
The two men committed to the struggle are a champion who hasn't lost any of his last 77 fights and a challenger who has lost only one fight in his life. Hearns won the other 40.
When the bell rings, they are not expected to waste much time in a get-acquainted process. Both have been impatient to get on with the work at hand. Ringside connoisseurs will be on the watch for the first early clue to the final outcome: when the first big punches are unloaded, who will be the first to blink?
Hagler has a useful gimmick to counter the physical advantages of Hearns, who rises to 6 feet 1 inch in contrast with Hagler's 5-9 and also has a clear reach advantage. Hagler is the only completely ambidextrous fighter in memory, and Hearns will need to ponder from which side this man in front of him will be attacking. It will not be a contribution to Hearns' peace of mind and could have the makings of a disaster for the challenger.
There is debate whether Hagler's a right-hander or natural southpaw, so imperceptible is the change in his stance. What is well known is that so many of his opponents have been suckered by Hagler's sometimes-abrupt change in style; he's boxing's most effective switch-hitter.
One of Hagler's latest victims, Wilford Scypion, was ahead of a right-handed fighting Hagler for three rounds until he came to a sudden end in the fourth. Almost subtly, Hagler had changed to southpaw and now the left that he aimed at Scypion's chin was no longer merely a jab, but a punching southpaw's straight left lead to the chin, and the surprised Scypion was no more.
Let Hearns beware.
From the start, Monday's affair shaped up as a confrontation between the tall, skinny Hearns, who can snap off a dreaded right-hand punch, and the compact brawler Hagler, he of the gleaming skull and formidable biceps who, in appearance, might have given Mr. T the idea for a television career.
Hearns has been the jaunty one in their workouts here, Hagler the dead-serious champ content to hone his arts in a grubby off-the-strip gym, in private, while Hearns has occupied center stage in his gaudy Ceasars Palace convention hall workshop. The cautious Hagler allows no filming of his workouts, only still pictures, determined that Hearns' private eyes will bring him no edge.
Hagler has a gripe against the Las Vegas judges, who, he believes, have shown a bias against him in past fights, especially when they had Roberto Duran ahead of him on points after 13 of the 15 rounds it took Hagler to win the fight. "This time, these will be my judges," Hagler said, exhibiting his fists.
Duran, as an opponent of both Hagler and Hearns, and thus a common denominator, stands as a plus for Hearns.
Seven months after he took Hagler the full distance, Duran lasted only two rounds against Hearns.
Hagler counters that by saying, "I softened up Duran for Hearns," but the Hearns camp calls that "more of Hagler's guff."
For all of his threats, it has not been Hagler's habit to go all out early in his fights. "Let's face it," said a member of his camp, "Marvin is a great, gutty fighter, but he prefers to win the safest way he can."
His script calls for Hagler to go to the skeleton-like body of the challenger, inflicting damage that will bring Hearns' hands down.
Like everybody else, Hagler knows that Hearns' biggest and best tool is that flashing overhand right, leveraged by all that height and ending with a violent snap. It has been Hearns' equalizer against everybody except Sugar Ray Leonard. But Hagler says, "I know how to deal with his right hand." He wouldn't say how he would deal with it.
Hearns has prepared for Hagler's body assaults by exposing his stomach to a huge medicine ball flung at him by a 280-pound employe. "I'm proving I can take it there," Hearns said. But a Hagler man insists otherwise, saying, "That medicine ball, with its big circumference, don't prove anything. It don't have the concentrated impact of a boxing glove with Marvin's fist in it."