When Sugar Ray Leonard took on Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987, few people gave Leonard a chance. The buildup to this remarkable meeting and its appeal even to non-boxing fans resulted from the immense respect Leonard commanded as an athlete and the odds against him.
Mostly everyone thought he was crazy to get into the ring with such a destructive force. People feared for Leonard. He was moving up in weight to challenge a stronger, fearsome fighter, one of the great middleweights. Leonard had fought only once in five years, and in that appearance against a little-known opponent had been on the canvas, looking embarrassed, before winning. He had scored his most impressive victories six to eight years earlier. Hagler had been undefeated for 11 years. He was vastly overconfident. Leonard won on points in a demonstration of boxing artistry.
Now comes a match scheduled for next Saturday in Las Vegas that, in these lean days of boxing, promises to be a bona fide attraction, one that in some ways echoes Leonard-Hagler. It's the "Golden Boy," Oscar De La Hoya, who won his first title a decade ago at a mere 128 pounds, moving up to meet the Hagler of his time, longstanding middleweight king Bernard Hopkins. "Hopkins is the best out there now," said Angelo Dundee, who trained both Muhammad Ali and Leonard. "He works, he trains, he's got the body of a 21-year-old. He's 39, but his tank is not empty, like with Muhammad. Bernard Hopkins is a remarkable human being."
Hopkins-De La Hoya hasn't received nearly the buildup of Leonard-Hagler -- but it's an intriguing fight.
Hopkins is one of the best ever to come out of Philadelphia, hardly the city of brotherly love when it comes to boxing. But he lacks the personality needed to transcend the sport. Hagler was no self-promoter, but he came along at a time when more people were interested in boxing, and being part of a middle-division elite of himself, Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, he enjoyed a higher profile than Hopkins does now.
De La Hoya is a personality somewhat like Leonard, but the golden one's popularity principally is limited to the West. In addition, he has lost too many major fights coming into this one. He has been beaten twice by Sugar Shane Mosley and once by Felix Trinidad. Still, De La Hoya has managed fortune and fame -- with emphasis on fortune -- beyond his achievements, really, even if he has held titles in five weight classes. He has been able to combine good looks, a gift of gab and good-enough ring skills. In terms of talent, he is no Leonard.
(Leonard's final bouts tend to blur his legacy. He never applied himself in training again as he did for Hagler. The Leonard who fought several times after beating Hagler was a multimillionaire but still was trying to cash in on the pay-per-view windfalls that he missed in his heyday, when he established himself as a consistent winner of big fights and a strong finisher.)
De La Hoya did not finish well in his three big losses, especially against Trinidad. Overly cautious and probably tired, he all but gave the last rounds and victory to Trinidad.
Nor has De La Hoya shown a knack for inventiveness in the ring. Leonard was such a natural at wizardry he could fool even the judges. Even De La Hoya's longtime promoter Bob Arum, during a recent stopover in Washington, expressed concern about the "Golden Boy's" resourcefulness. "Oscar has not shown the ability to change styles on his own during a fight," Arum said. "Bernard has that adaptability. It's one of the things that makes him great. Oscar gets hit and he tends to revert back to his street style regardless of what his corner tells him."
De La Hoya, as Arum noted, failed to carry out a strategy in his latest fight against the mildly acclaimed Felix Sturm. De La Hoya barely won a decision.
In no way does De La Hoya deserve the payday he is about to get. Yet minus the body of work of a young Leonard, he still is able to attract enough interest, in fighting a seemingly unbeatable foe, to guarantee himself a reported $25 million to Hopkins's $10 million. That's what's to be expected in an era when there's money available, but few fighters with the drawing power to make a big-money match.
Notably, money was not the principal motivation for Leonard when he fought Hagler, that being one of the fight's many appealing aspects. Leonard settled for less than half of Hagler's $20 million, giving no thought to dividing a purse before seeking the bout because he was obsessed by Hagler. Leonard's idle time was haunted as he constantly thought about a possible challenge. Finally one day, he blurted with a spontaneity that characterized his career: He wanted Hagler.
As it turned out, the champion compounded the error of his thinking that Leonard had no chance. A ring southpaw, Hagler came out in the early rounds and boxed right-handed, as if it was he who needed some trick punch. That enabled Leonard to build a critical, early lead that enabled him to win a split decision, a narrow victory that made the fight memorable.
Hopkins is not likely to outwit himself. "Hopkins," Dundee said, "is a mechanic -- he takes you apart. He's a book on boxing."
To win, De La Hoya would have to be aggressive and clever. He would have to pile up points and perform consistently through every round, especially the late ones. He would have to be surprising at times. It's how Leonard did it against Hagler. And years before that, it's how Willie Pastrano did it in winning the light heavyweight championship from Philadelphia's Harold Johnson, whom Dundee described as "a complete fighter -- when he takes his robe off, he scares you."
It was how Sugar Ray Robinson was beating the bigger Joey Maxim, until Robinson was done in by the heat of the night.
But De La Hoya has never imposed his will on an opponent as he would have to against Hopkins. Could he? "The world of fistiana is full of surprises," Dundee cautioned.
De La Hoya would have to bring what he seldom has for his most important fights, and what Leonard brought for Hagler: a fire within.