Murphy’s Laws: 46 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 46

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“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 46 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 46 judgments, opinions and observations.

46. Get it?

46. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

3. A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

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7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

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16. I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import — be it artistic, social, political, cultural — opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s often says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter. Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loudly and saying little? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

25. The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it’s the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

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34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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April 15, 1985: THE FIGHT

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IT PROBABLY SAYS SOMETHING about evolution that younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transfiguration.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980?s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was The Best and who could wear The Belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up on new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, relishing every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2015, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

***

Let’s end the suspense and get this out of the way right up front: Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

First, some history: I’m not sure I thought so at the time; I had not seen enough yet. I’ve lived 30 years since then and savored lots of other great sports moments and the passage of three decades has only reaffirmed my verdict. Obviously I would never want to be put in the position of declaring what is the best sporting event (it’s not unlike “the best” anything: does that mean most enjoyable, most important, most influential, most popular, etc.?), but if I want to stand up and be counted, for my money and based on what I’ve beheld, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

Hagler-vs-Hearns

(To be a bit more clear: I did not have any money riding, I did not necessarily prefer either fighter –though I did/do greatly respect both– and in many senses this was not close to the most personally satisfying sports moment. It was not Larry Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 finals, or Dennis Johnson shutting down Magic in ’84, or any number of moments from the Red Sox World Series of ’04 and ’07, or what the Redskins did to the Broncos during the 2nd quarter of the ’88 Super Bowl, or Riggo’s 4th and 1 run in ’83 vs. the Dolphins, or Dale Hunter’s 7th game series winning goal vs. the Flyers, or the glorious shock of Mike Tyson fumbling around for his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas beat his ass, or any number of sublime moments from the various NHL playoff series in the last two decades, particularly the beyond-epic series between the Stars and Avs and then Stars and Devils during the 2000 finals or…you get the picture.)

Secondly, some perspective: in other sports, championship moments are often (or at least all-too-often) lackluster affairs. Consider how many mediocre Super Bowls, World Series and NHL (even NBA) finals we’ve hyped up and been disappointed by. And that is just referring to the ones that are either blow-outs or the function of one team demonstrating their dominance on a day when everything falls perfectly into place. Those are understandable, even inevitable. But how many other times have we been let down by a World Cup final or a boxing match, because one or both parties tried to avoid the loss rather than secure (and/or earn) the win? I think of Brazil in the ’80s: those were the best teams and they probably should have won one or two World Cups (led by the incomparable playmaker named Socrates, but they could not restrain themselves and play it safe. Overwhelmed by their love of their game and their affinity for joga bonito, or allergic to the conservative style employed by the European powerhouses (like West Germany and Italy); they played with flair, audacity and because they could not help it, allowed a combination of chutzpah and zeal to expose their collective chins. My passion for the World Cup is hardly diminished, but I regret seeing teams play too-safe and sit on small leads, resulting in lackluster games on the biggest possible stage. It has only gotten worse in recent years, but it’s an undeniable recipe for success. As soon as Brazil reined in their aggressive and unbridled impulses they finally broke through, albeit it in joyless, aesthetically muted fashion. Their victories were, in many senses, objective fans’ loss: to finally win they had to play mostly sterile and boring soccer. As such I retain a fondness and appreciation for the ’82 and ’86 squads and care –and remember– very little about the ’02 team that won the prize.

The preceding paragraph might underscore why, in addition to loving the sheer entertainment spectacle The Fight provided, I appreciate and am humbled by the way Hearns and Hagler approached the biggest bout of their lives.

Am I supposed to do The Fight justice?

I will say, without too much irony, that in some ways I still feel slightly unworthy of what these two men gave us. I’m serious.

There is nothing in sports (is there anything in life?) that can match the three minutes of that first round. Not a second wasted, too many punches thrown to count, and a simple reality that transcends cliché: Hagler took Hearns’ best shot and stayed on his feet. There is much more involved, but it can really be boiled down to that simple fact. Hearns threw the same right hand that had devastated pretty much everyone upon whom it had ever landed flush; he threw that punch at least a few times and not only did Hagler absorb it, Hearns broke his hand on Hagler’s dome. At the same time, Hagler was inflicting unbelievable damage himself, and once Hearns’ fist, then feet, were shot, it was just a matter of time. It’s fair to suggest that Hearns made it through the next round and a half on instinct and courage alone. Hagler, for his part, used anger, resolve and willpower to, as he memorably put it, keep moving forward like Pac Man.

The second round allowed everyone, especially the viewers, to catch their breath. The gash that Hearns had opened up on Hagler’s forehead fortuitously ran down his nose, and not into his eyes (that could have changed the course of the fight), and when the ref sent Hagler to his corner (even though at this point Hagler had all the momentum) in the third round, it’s possible that this was what inspired—or scared—Hagler into deciding two things: The only person stopping this fight is me, and I need to stop it, now. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get called on a dubious technicality, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him (and, it should be noted, for a man who was notoriously unlucky before and after this fight, it was almost miraculous that the blood didn’t gush into either of his eyes; that would have been an obvious game-changer, or worse, may have given the ref sufficient cause to end the bout). In that classic finish, an almost-out-on-his-feet Hearns jogs away from Hagler, turning to grin (as if to say “that didn’t hurt”) but Hagler is already upon him, literally leaping into the air to throw his right-handed coup de grâce. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

***

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who’d never been a media darling and had been done wrong by several judges and promoters over the years. This fight was his vindication, and it was sweet (the sour taste in his mouth, that he still carries to this day, courtesy of the controversial ’87 fight with Leonard, remains an unfortunate footnote) while it lasted. I love Hagler for the guts, tenacity and resolve he displayed: he deserved to win. I admire Hearns for the respect he showed (to himself, the fans and the sport), willing to lose everything in an all-or-nothing strategy that would be unheard of, today. It was practically unheard of, then. More, he accepted the loss with grace and humor, and it remains moving to see the way he and Hagler embraced after it was over. The mutual respect the two men still have for one another is, understandably, unshaken.

What do we make of Hearns, who finished second in two of the best fights of the decade, both of which could easily be in the Top 10 (if not Top 5) of all time? In both instances, had he chosen to box instead of brawl he very likely could have won. He may still second-guess his strategy in the Leonard fight: if he’d been wise (or craven) enough to just dance away, he would have won handily on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither cockiness nor recklessness; Hearns had a pride that was bigger than winning. I guarantee, despite his understandable regrets about being one of our most celebrated runners-up in sports history, he sleeps like a baby each night and is comfortable looking at himself in the mirror. He should be. In losing, especially the way he lost, Hearns is more inspiring than any number of athletes who own the hardware, claim the victory, and have done little if anything to make anyone emulate them. I’m not suggesting that a go-for-broke approach is advisable, in sports or life, and as The Gambler reminds us, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. On the other hand, when the light is shining brightest, or perhaps more importantly when no one else is looking, you have to be willing to put it on the line and achieve something you’ll be proud to remember.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 4/15/15.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

 

4k

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

bs1

It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Three: The Fight (Revisited)

Let’s end the suspense and get this out of the way right up front: Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

First, some history: I’m not sure I thought so at the time; I had not seen enough yet. I’ve lived 27 years since then and seen lots of other great sports moments and the time has only confirmed my verdict. Obviously I would never want to be put in the position of declaring what is the best sporting event (it’s not unlike “the best” anything: does that mean most enjoyable, most important, most influential, most popular, etc.?), but if I want to stand up and be counted, for my money and based on what I’ve witnessed, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

(To be a bit more clear: I did not have any money riding, I did not necessarily prefer either fighter –though I did/do greatly respect both– and in many senses this was not close to the most personally satisfying sports moment. It was not Larry Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 finals, or Dennis Johnson shutting down Magic in ’84, or any number of moments from the Red Sox World Series of ’04 and ’07, or what the Redskins did to the Broncos during the 2nd quarter of the ’88 Super Bowl, or Riggo’s 4th and 1 run in ’83 vs. the Dolphins, or Dale Hunter’s 7th game series winning goal vs. the Flyers, or the glorious shock of Mike Tyson fumbling around for his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas beat his ass, or any number of sublime moments from the various NHL playoff series in the last two decades, particularly the beyond-epic series between the Stars and Avs and then Stars and Devils during the 2000 finals or…you get the picture.)

Secondly, some perspective: in other sports, championship moments are often (or at least all-too-often) lackluster affairs. Consider how many mediocre Super Bowls, World Series and NHL (even NBA) finals we’ve hyped up and been disappointed by. And that is just referring to the ones that are either blow-outs or the function of one team demonstrating their dominance on a day when everything falls perfectly into place. Those are understandable, even inevitable. But how many other times have we been let down by a World Cup final or a boxing match, because one or both parties tried to avoid the loss rather than secure (and/or earn) the win? I think of Brazil in the ’80s: those were the best teams and they probably should have won one or two World Cups (led by the incomparable playmaker named Socrates), but they could not restrain themselves and play it safe. Overwhelmed by their love of their game and their affinity for joga bonito, or allergic to the conservative style employed by the European powerhouses (like West Germany and Italy), they played with flair, audacity and because they could not help it, allowed a combination of hubris and zeal to expose their collective chins. My passion for the World Cup is hardly diminished, but I regret seeing teams play too-safe and sit on small leads, resulting in lackluster games on the biggest possible stage. It has only gotten worse in recent years, but it’s an undeniable recipe for success. As soon as Brazil reined in their aggressive and unbridled impulses they finally broke through, albeit it in joyless, aesthetically muted fashion. Their victories were, in many seneses, objective fans’ loss: to finally win they had to play mostly sterile and boring soccer. As such I retain a fondness and appreciation for the ’82 and ’86 squads and care –and remember– very little about the ’02 team that won the prize.

The preceding paragraph might underscore why, in addition to loving the sheer entertainment spectacle The Fight provided, I appreciate and am humbled by the way Hearns and Hagler approached the biggest bout of their lives.

Am I supposed to do The Fight justice?

I will say, without too much irony, that in some ways I still feel slightly unworthy of what these two men gave us. I’m serious.

There is nothing in sports (is there anything in life?) that can match the three minutes of that first round. Not a second wasted, too many punches thrown to count, and a simple reality that transcends cliché: Hagler took Hearns’ best shot and stayed on his feet. There is much more involved, but it can really be boiled down to that simple fact. Hearns threw the same right hand that had devastated pretty much everyone to whom it had ever landed flush; he threw that punch at least a few times and not only did Hagler absorb it, Hearns broke his hand on Hagler’s dome. At the same time, Hagler was inflicting unbelievable damage himself, and once Hearns’ fist, then feet, were shot, it was just a matter of time. As was covered in the previous post(s), it’s fair to say that Hearns made it through the next round and a half on instinct and courage alone. Hagler, for his part, used anger, resolve and willpower to, as he memorably put it, keep moving forward like Pac Man.

The second round allowed everyone, especially the viewers, to catch their breath. The gash that Hearns had opened up on Hagler’s forehead fortuitously ran down his nose, and not into his eyes (that could have changed the course of the fight), and when the ref sent Hagler to his corner (even though at this point Hagler had all the momentum) in the third round, it’s possible that this was what inspired –or scared– Hagler into going for broke. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get stopped, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him. In that classic finish, an almost-out-on-his-feet Hearns jogs away from Hagler, turning to grin (as if to say “that didn’t hurt”) but Hagler is already upon him, literally leaping into the air to throw his right-handed coup de grace. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who had never been a media darling and had been done wrong by several judges and promoters over the years. This fight was his vindication, and it was sweet (the sour taste in his mouth, that he still carries to this day, courtesy of the controversial ’87 fight with Leonard, is an unfortunate footnote) while it lasted. I love Hagler for the guts, tenacity and resolve he displayed: he deserved to win. I admire Hearns for the respect he showed (to himself, the fans and the sport), willing to lose everything in an all-or-nothing strategy that would be unheard of, today. It was practically unheard of, then. More, he accepted the loss with grace and humor, and it remains moving to see the way he and Hagler embraced after it was over. The mutual respect the two men still have for one another is, understandably, unshaken.

What do we make of Hearns, who finished second in two of the best fights of the decade, both of which could easily be in the Top 10 (if not Top 5) of all time? In both instances, had he chosen to box instead of brawl he very likely could have won. He may still second-guess his strategy in the Leonard fight –if he’d been wise (or craven) enough to just dance away, he would have easily won on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither hubris nor recklessness; Hearns had a pride that was bigger than winning. I guarantee, despite his understandable regrets about being one of our most celebrated runners-up in sports history, he sleeps like a baby each night and is proud to look at himself in the mirror. He should be. In losing, especially the way he lost, Hearns is more inspiring than any number of athletes who own the hardware, claim the victory, and have done little if anything to make anyone emulate them. I’m not suggesting that a go-for-broke approach is advisable, in sports or life, and as The Gambler reminds us, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. On the other hand, when the light is shining brightest, or perhaps more importantly when no one else is looking, you have to be willing to put it on the line and achieve something you’ll be proud to remember.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

You can –and should– search for parts 2-4 of this series: same title; just add “part two”, “part three” and “part four”. And enjoy…

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Three: The Fight

Let’s end the suspense and get this out of the way right up front: Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

First, some history: I’m not sure I thought so at the time; I had not seen enough yet. I’ve lived 27 years since then and seen lots of other great sports moments and the time has only confirmed my verdict. Obviously I would never want to be put in the position of declaring what is the best sporting event (it’s not unlike “the best” anything: does that mean most enjoyable, most important, most influential, most popular, etc.?), but if I want to stand up and be counted, for my money and based on what I’ve witnessed, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

(To be a bit more clear: I did not have any money riding, I did not necessarily prefer either fighter –though I did/do greatly respect both– and in many senses this was not close to the most personally satisfying sports moment. It was not Larry Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 finals, or Dennis Johnson shutting down Magic in ’84, or any number of moments from the Red Sox World Series of ’04 and ’07, or what the Redskins did to the Broncos during the 2nd quarter of the ’88 Super Bowl, or Riggo’s 4th and 1 run in ’83 vs. the Dolphins, or Dale Hunter’s 7th game series winning goal vs. the Flyers, or the glorious shock of Mike Tyson fumbling around for his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas beat his ass, or any number of sublime moments from the various NHL playoff series in the last two decades, particularly the beyond-epic series between the Stars and Avs and then Stars and Devils during the 2000 finals or…you get the picture.)

Secondly, some perspective: in other sports, championship moments are often (or at least all-too-often) lackluster affairs. Consider how many mediocre Super Bowls, World Series and NHL (even NBA) finals we’ve hyped up and been disappointed by. And that is just referring to the ones that are either blow-outs or the function of one team demonstrating their dominance on a day when everything falls perfectly into place. Those are understandable, even inevitable. But how many other times have we been let down by a World Cup final or a boxing match, because one or both parties tried to avoid the loss rather than secure (and/or earn) the win? I think of Brazil in the ’80s: those were the best teams and they probably should have won one or two World Cups (led by the incomparable playmaker named Socrates), but they could not restrain themselves and play it safe. Overwhelmed by their love of their game and their affinity for joga bonito, or allergic to the conservative style employed by the European powerhouses (like West Germany and Italy), they played with flair, audacity and because they could not help it, allowed a combination of hubris and zeal to expose their collective chins. My passion for the World Cup is hardly diminished, but I regret seeing teams play too-safe and sit on small leads, resulting in lackluster games on the biggest possible stage. It has only gotten worse in recent years, but it’s an undeniable recipe for success. As soon as Brazil reined in their aggressive and unbridled impulses they finally broke through, albeit it in joyless, aesthetically muted fashion. Their victories were, in many seneses, objective fans’ loss: to finally win they had to play mostly sterile and boring soccer. As such I retain a fondness and appreciation for the ’82 and ’86 squads and care –and remember– very little about the ’02 team that won the prize.

The preceding paragraph might underscore why, in addition to loving the sheer entertainment spectacle The Fight provided, I appreciate and am humbled by the way Hearns and Hagler approached the biggest bout of their lives.

Am I supposed to do The Fight justice?

I will say, without too much irony, that in some ways I still feel slightly unworthy of what these two men gave us. I’m serious.

There is nothing in sports (is there anything in life?) that can match the three minutes of that first round. Not a second wasted, too many punches thrown to count, and a simple reality that transcends cliché: Hagler took Hearns’ best shot and stayed on his feet. There is much more involved, but it can really be boiled down to that simple fact. Hearns threw the same right hand that had devastated pretty much everyone to whom it had ever landed flush; he threw that punch at least a few times and not only did Hagler absorb it, Hearns broke his hand on Hagler’s dome. At the same time, Hagler was inflicting unbelievable damage himself, and once Hearns’ fist, then feet, were shot, it was just a matter of time. As was covered in the previous post(s), it’s fair to say that Hearns made it through the next round and a half on instinct and courage alone. Hagler, for his part, used anger, resolve and willpower to, as he memorably put it, keep moving forward like Pac Man.

The second round allowed everyone, especially the viewers, to catch their breath. The gash that Hearns had opened up on Hagler’s forehead fortuitously ran down his nose, and not into his eyes (that could have changed the course of the fight), and when the ref sent Hagler to his corner (even though at this point Hagler had all the momentum) in the third round, it’s possible that this was what inspired –or scared– Hagler into going for broke. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get stopped, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him. In that classic finish, an almost-out-on-his-feet Hearns jogs away from Hagler, turning to grin (as if to say “that didn’t hurt”) but Hagler is already upon him, literally leaping into the air to throw his right-handed coup de grace. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who had never been a media darling and had been done wrong by several judges and promoters over the years. This fight was his vindication, and it was sweet (the sour taste in his mouth, that he still carries to this day, courtesy of the controversial ’87 fight with Leonard, is an unfortunate footnote) while it lasted. I love Hagler for the guts, tenacity and resolve he displayed: he deserved to win. I admire Hearns for the respect he showed (to himself, the fans and the sport), willing to lose everything in an all-or-nothing strategy that would be unheard of, today. It was practically unheard of, then. More, he accepted the loss with grace and humor, and it remains moving to see the way he and Hagler embraced after it was over. The mutual respect the two men still have for one another is, understandably, unshaken.

What do we make of Hearns, who finished second in two of the best fights of the decade, both of which could easily be in the Top 10 (if not Top 5) of all time? In both instances, had he chosen to box instead of brawl he very likely could have won. He may still second-guess his strategy in the Leonard fight –if he’d been wise (or craven) enough to just dance away, he would have easily won on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he  just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither hubris nor recklessness; Hearns had a pride that was bigger than winning. I guarantee, despite his understandable regrets about being one of our most celebrated runners-up in sports history, he sleeps like a baby each night and is proud to look at himself in the mirror. He should be. In losing, especially the way he lost, Hearns is more inspiring than any number of athletes who own the hardware, claim the victory, and have done little if anything to make anyone emulate them. I’m not suggesting that a go-for-broke approach is advisable, in sports or life, and as The Gambler reminds us, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. On the other hand, when the light is shining brightest, or perhaps more importantly when no one else is looking, you have to be willing to put it on the line and achieve something you’ll be proud to remember.

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