From where he stood in the bleachers -- somewhere on the sixth or seventh row of the open-air fight barn at Caesars Palace last Monday night -- Carmen Basilio tried to make out the words of Dr. Donald Romeo, the ringside physician who had been called into the crucible to check the open forehead wound of Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
This was, from that distance, no easy task for Basilio, himself a former boxer and world champion, both in the welterweight and middleweight divisions. He had just witnessed one of the most spectacular opening rounds in boxing history -- with both Hagler and Thomas Hearns giving and taking shots in a confrontation that promised to make rubble of storied savage brawls such as Louis-Schmeling and Dempsey-Firpo, and of his own ring wars with Sugar Ray Robinson. And maybe his mind was only reading words it thought his heart wanted to hear. What Basilio made out, trampled under the violent storm of 15,088 voices lifting in the night, went something like this: You keep bleeding like that, Marvin, and after four rounds, we stop it.
"After the first, when the doctor checked Hagler in the corner and let it go again," Basilio said on the phone the other day, "Tommy Hearns hit the cut several more times, seeing how it was opening up. It was possible, I think, that if Marvin had kept bleeding like he was -- with Hearns hitting him there again and again -- the doctor would have stopped it on cuts after the fourth round."
The end came eight minutes and one second into what may endure as boxing's meanest human wreck ever, when Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion defending his title for the 11th time since winning it against Alan Minter in 1980, decided to finish the brawl before someone else -- Romeo or referee Richard Steele or maybe even Hearns, whose powerful right hand, though broken in the first, continued to make contact -- could. One thing about the Hit Man, trying to win his third title: when he went down, finally, at 2:01 of Round 3, he didn't fall face-forward, the way fighters do when they are certain never to get up and fight again.
"I once saw two guys in a fight, going up and down like window shades," Angelo Dundee, trainer of champions such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, said recently. "I thought that was the most fierce battle ever fought until this one. Only thing, when one man finally went down, everybody pretty much knew it was finished. These two people, fighting like the end of the world, managed to compress 15 rounds into three."
Hearns, who had predicted a third-round knockout of Hagler, was on his back staring vacantly into the overhead bank of ring lights when a fellow in a tuxedo scooped him up and carried him away like a giant sack of bird seed. This image of Hearns, as fragile and manipulatable as a puppet, dangling on broken strings, continues to burn in the minds of those who never figured to look upon him that way. Hearns? Carried out of the ring? It was a little like discovering that the Wizard of Oz was human.
"Hagler just decided he would win no matter what," Teddy Brenner, the matchmaker for Top Rank Inc., which promoted the fight, said. "And it had to be a knockout. Watching him, with all that intensity, I was reminded of Jake La Motta, who would come off the stool and almost dare you to knock him out. Rocky Graziano was the same way. 'End it quick,' they seemed to be saying. 'Because if you don't, I will.' "
Now, after only six days, why does it seem so utterly important to place the Hagler-Hearns brawl on some historical shelf, easily available to all who choose to reach out and handle it and believe that boxing -- when done by champions of terrific heart, willing to confront each other without pretention and denuded of all hyperbole -- is the purest and most satisfying sport of all? Even when blood flowed from the jagged tear on Hagler's forehead, staining Hearns flesh, and both men felt compelled to charge and stab away when retreat might have been in order if survival was to ensure victory, it was not at all odd to turn to someone and say, "Isn't that pretty?" Or lovely? Or wild? Because it was all these things, it was also very good.
"I read Jim Murray's column (in The Los Angeles Times) and he wrote that it was not a contest, it was a collision," Jose Torres, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and a former world light heavyweight champion said. "It was also a supreme contest of character and of will, unlike any I have ever seen or probably will ever see. As far as action, right off the bat, this was the greatest fight there ever was, with the best first round. Both guys were getting hit. And both guys -- they were in superb physical condition -- had decided they would not go down. It was a true test of character, and if you think about it, no one really lost. Hagler just came away with the fight. Tommy Hearns showed how very courageous he was."
Once the opening bell sounded, it seemed as if time did not exist. Torres, who had stood in the ring before the fight, in a huddle of champions called front and center for a gratuitous bow, said he returned again and again to the memory of the discussion he'd had with Hagler a few days before.
He remembered telling the champ he would have to establish himself early, and Hagler had agreed with him. But somehow, all too suddenly, there he was, no longer sitting in a hotel room, but dressed in blue velvet trunks with Marvelous stitched across the elastic belt and running across the ring to confront his challenger with the manic gaze of one bent on complete destruction, and on proving the one thing he believed entirely of himself, which was his greatness. This meant seeing Tommy Hearns as evil personified, and busting straight through like some terrible gust of wind bound for the other side.
"There was so much noise," Torres said. "All perspective of time was lost, and I was screaming. In New York, because of my work, I repress all deep feelings like that. But in Vegas, it finally poured out of me, I could get involved. It was such an emotional experience, and I was proud."
In the second round, Torres said he knew Hagler would win. He knew it as plainly as he knew there was blood on his friend's face, spitting from the forehead cut and the abrasion under his right eye. And in the third, when Hagler connected with a right, sending Hearns in a clumsy waltz across the ring, and then landed another right, spinning Hearns around, who could doubt that the end was imminent? Hearns looked like a frightened animal frozen in the glare of headlights, with nowhere to go but down.
The last right hand might have been a big, hard one, but what counted was that it was the third of a series, and the last, directed with the force of impending triumph. Hearns' knees buckled and his back found the floor. Hagler had said his opponent's four-inch height advantage only meant he would take up a lot of room when he hit the canvas, but he was wrong. Thomas Hearns looked very little lying on his back under a spread of night that was only half the size of his dreams.
"I ran to the ring," Torres said, "and when Hagler stepped between the ropes and into the crowd, he embraced me. I was so emotional, feeling so much. And he whispered in my ear, 'Just like we said, Jose. Just like we said.'
"There was a party after the fight, and (promoter) Bob Arum had invited me to come, even though I didn't have an invitation, he said to just come over and have a good time. It was . . . not long after the fight, and I went walking. I walked all over the place. I felt as if I'd fought 15 rounds myself. There was no energy left in me.
"For some reason, I thought I'd go up to my room in the hotel for a while, and I ordered room service, a salad. I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd just seen -- it was so extraordinary -- and I lay back in bed. The next thing I knew, somebody was telling me to wake up. It was (writer) Pete Hamill, and he said it was 8 o'clock in the morning, time to get going."
John DeJohn, who with Joe Netro managed the 13-year professional career of Carmen Basilio, did not buy a ticket to attend the closed-circuit showing of the Hagler-Hearns fight in his hometown, Canastota, N.Y. "I didn't care to see it," he said a few days after it was over. "I managed fighters, I know all about it. These fighters today, they're not as rugged as they were years ago."
The way DeJohn figures it, history generally embraces a larger truth than that which seemed very plain and simple when it was happening. Take the first of the two Basilio-Robinson fights, fought on Sept. 23, 1957. When his fighter, the son of an onion farmer, took on the legendary middleweight from Detroit, also the home of Thomas Hearns, "whatever happened to you happened a little different than what what you read about later."
"Hagler-Hearns was a good fight," DeJohn continued, "and it will go down as one of the greatest fights in history. That's what time does to you. But I think both of those men, both Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler, they're all right, but I don't think they're in the same class as Sugar Ray Robinson. In the long run, you see, history might make them out to be that."
Fight people remember the Basilio-Robinson middleweight title bouts as being the most intense in the history of the ring, topping even the Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano brawls of the 1940s and the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights of the 1930s. Every generation has its warriors. Basilio won the first encounter with Robinson, but lost the second, about six months later.
"Both times it was war," Basilio said. "But the fight the other night, you saw enough action in three rounds to match what me and Ray went through in 15. This computer count showed there were about 170 punches in those eight minutes. Now if you can believe that, that's a lot of leather. I couldn't believe it, but then, I could hardly believe what was happening in there. For three rounds, it was the most exciting fight I ever saw. All you saw was two men banging away at each other."
After the first few punches were thrown, Basilio said, it became apparent that both Hagler and Hearns had abandoned strategy and relied strictly on instinct. But Hank Kaplan, a fight historian now living in Kendall, Fla., said that Hagler, early on, had aimed to "throw all caution to the wind and apply pressure, keeping Hearns from establishing rhythm. When that happened, Hearns had to fight on Hagler's terms. But the fight swayed back and forth like a pendulum, and either man could have fallen in the first round. I think Hearns weakened first, he's not as durable as Hagler. He's an elongated kid with legs like pins, and he has a welterweight body. You heard about how big he was, but that had nothing to do with it."
Dundee agreed. "Looks are deceiving," he said. "After they took turns whacking each other, the big guy started terrorizing the little guy. Tommy Hearns may have been over six feet tall, but so what? It's what's in the body, it doesn't matter how a guy looks. Hagler was the natural middleweight, strong as a bull. Before the fight, I said Hearns had the ability to take on anybody in the middleweight division. I still think that. But there's still this one person to deal with. And his name is Marvelous."
There will come a time when this fight is once for all whittled down to proportion, to the size, say, of a mountain rising from a simple field of sorghum. The enormous payday both fighters enjoyed -- Hagler made at least $5.7 million, Hearns $5.4 million -- has already become an insignificant conversational footnote. But nothing about it will ever be small, as nothing about it -- except maybe the unworthy fact that somebody lost and somebody won -- should be.
"The man showed his greatness," Thomas Hearns said 30 minutes after it was all over. "He's one damned good fighter. But if it happened once, I say let's do it again."