Who can understand Marvelous Marvin Hagler's cold capacity for violence? Or the fierce hand that controlled his heart this night before 15,088 in an outdoor arena at Caesars Palace?

Fighting for greatness, and fighting to retain the undisputed middleweight championship he has held nine years, he fought with the fury and desperation of a man possessed. He unleased a vicious assault against Thomas Hearns, the World Boxing Council junior middleweight champion, and won what might well be remembered as the fiercest confrontation of the decade. Although victory came with little under a minute left in the third round -- after Hagler finally dropped the stubborn challenger to the canvas -- the eight full minutes that preceded the glorious end will live as an enduring testament to both Hearns' and Hagler's struggle for greatness and ring immortality.

"I have to tell you something," Hagler, who is 61-2-2, said after the fight. "I thank God for strength and courage. All I prayed for was for Him to give me strength and I knew I could do the rest myself. Tommy's a good fighter and a very courageous man. But you can't come out and expect to take it away from the champ. Tommy's very cocky and I had something for him -- what you call a sweet victory. This is war!"

Hearns, hoping to win his third title, lost only the second fight of his career. He has won 40. "I'll just hold my head up," he said. "They always say, 'Even the greatest lose sometimes.' I know that this is not the end for me. I'm a winner, I don't take defeat easily. But I have to give Marvin proper respect for being a great champion. He has not held (the title) that long for nothing."

In the beginning, before the opening bell drew the fighters to center ring, Hagler punched himself on the head, as if to remind himself of what was ahead. The brawl started with Hagler attacking the body of Hearns, who came back with quick combinations that seemed to stun the champion. Early on, the pace was too quick, the intensity too great. Before one minute was gone, both fighters had hit and hurt the other. Hagler popped Hearns with a right hand, then Hearns did the same, cutting Hagler severely on the forehead. Blood flowed in intricate rivulets down the champion's nose, feeding his reckless determination.

"I was afraid a little bit when I saw the blood," Hagler said. "But once I see it, I turn into that bull. That's when I know I've got to get serious and get it done quickly. I have to admit: Tommy gave me some good shots in the first round. I think he threw everything at me. But I showed him. I showed him I could take that big right hand. The rest is history now."

The heavy flow of blood stained Hearns' flesh, and Hagler would not relent. At one point, he pushed Hearns against the ropes and put his fists into what might be called manic overdrive. Still in the first, he send Hearns reeling across the ring, which obviously wasn't in Hearns' fight plan.

"I wanted to show Marvin that I deserved some respect," Hearns said. "He was there to make me run and to show he was a much better man than I was. I was there to win. I was hoping to make history."

So was Hagler. And the assault -- given and taken by both sides -- continued.

The blood wiped from his face, Hagler opened the second round on the offensive, as he had in the first, fighting as a southpaw. There was a slick glaze of blood and sweat on the ring floor, and both men had trouble with footing. At one point, Hearns seemed destined to fall, spinning around with arms askew and legs outstretched like those of a large, ponderous insect. He came back, however, throwing that long left jab and countering with the right. In the meantime, Hagler's wound had opened again, and the blood beclouded his vision. But somehow, that iron cold capacity for meanness once again overcame him. How could the marvelous one smile in such combat?

"I can't take nothing away from the man," Hagler said. "It takes two to tango and two to fight. I just hope Tommy gives me the credit for being the better man, like I'm giving him credit right now."

By the third round, it was obvious that something of a most extraordinary nature would end the fight, and end it soon. Hagler tried to stay in close to Hearns and pound away at his body. But the blood continued to flow, and less than a minute into the round, referee Richard Steele called time out and had Dr. Donald Romeo, the ringside physician, check Hagler's cut.

"I had to get a medical opinion on the cut," Steele said. "The doctor said it wasn't that bad. The blood didn't seem to be blocking his vision. Most of it was coming out of his forehead and flowing down his nose and mouth."

When the fight was resumed, Hagler charged and hit Hearns with a huge right hand. The blow stunned the challenger, and Hagler seemed to smell victory, as if standing, suddenly, at the edge of an abyss, looking out on forever. Hagler then went after Hearns, chasing him and throwing the right. Hearns, off-balance, backed clear across the ring and turned his back to Hagler, who responded by throwing his third consecutive right. This proved to be the last.

As Hearns fell to the canvas in a heap, Hagler retired bloodied to his corner, arms upraised. This was it. Who had ever doubted him? Who had said he could not win? In the desert heat and dust and in the buzzing glare of ring lights, the marvelous one had taken his 11th consecutive title defense, three short on Carlos Monzon's record. "History," he would say later; "I was going for history."

The fight made TV history, too. Earlier today, promoter Bob Arum said about 1.7 million people would be watching on the more than 700 closed-circuit and pay-per-view outlets, making it the largest grossing telecast of its kind in history, bigger even than the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier brawl in 1971.

But the most dramatic history came at 2:01 of the third round, when Steele stopped the fight and found a hand to raise.

"Somebody had to fall," Hagler said. "And I knew it wouldn't be me."