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Slobberknockin': Combat Sports and The Art of the Brawl

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We all love it, no matter how much we claim to be "purists" who turn our noses up at such vulgar displays as UFC's "Griffin vs. Bonnar 1" in favor of technical chess matches like "Severn vs. Shamrock."

As mind-bogglingly frustrating as it was to see Paul Daley abandon any and all semblance of strategy in favor of winging his arms like someone trying to swat a fly after a few too many schnapps, the resulting slugfest against Nick Diaz at last weekend's Strikeforce event was certainly one to remember.

Originally, I had a big spiel about what exactly makes a brawl, the existence of "technical brawls," and dissections of several examples planned.

 

Looking at the calendar, however, I noticed that today is a very special day: The twenty-sixth anniversary of something spectacular.

 

Since you all seemed to enjoy my "Fear the Reaper" story of "Chavez vs. Taylor,"I thought I’d give you another story, one with a slightly happier ending (provided you're not from Detroit). This is the story of the greatest eight minutes in boxing history.

 

"The War."

It is April 15, 1985. The golden age of heavyweights has come to an end. All that remain are Larry Holmes and a cadre of challengers woefully unprepared to end his reign. In its place stands a new era: The era of the "Four Kings." Whether through providence or sheer luck, the four greatest fighters in the world are all within a handful of weight classes.

 

One is Roberto "Manos de Piedra" Durán, a Panamanian destroyer who won 72 of his first 73 bouts, all but 16 by knockout. A legendary lightweight, Durán has taken it upon himself to conquer the higher weight classes.

 

Another is "Sugar" Ray Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist and one of the slickest boxers in the history of the sport. Since his entrance into the pro circuit, he had lost a grand total of one fight, which he went on to avenge.

 

And then there are the stars of this show: Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

 

That’s not to say this era is red-hot; at the moment, it is faltering. A detached retina courtesy of "The Hitman" has forced Leonard into an early retirement and both men have already dispatched Roberto Durán: Hagler by twelve-round decision and Hearns via a right hand that likely gave half of Panama a headache for the rest of the week.

 

All that remains is for these two to fight.

 

You'll notice that, when naming the combatants, I didn’t use quotation marks around the word Marvelous. This is because, like some bizarre combination of Mr. T and Rodney Dangerfield, Hagler felt he was getting no respect and was so peeved that the media would not use his nickname that he had his name legally changed from Marvin Nathaniel Hagler to Marvelous Marvin Hagler. An ambidextrous wrecking ball built like the proverbial brick shithouse, Hagler has run absolutely roughshod over the middleweight division; he will be stepping into the ring tonight to defend his title for the eleventh straight time.

 

Only Durán has made it to the judges.

 

In addition to his substantial skills, Hagler possesses great power, particularly in the right hand he leads with. Perhaps most dangerously, he has a chin that can only be described as adamantium; in sixty-four fights, the only "knockdown" he had received was due to being pulled down by his opponent, who was rewarded for his efforts with a ten-round mauling.

 

With a career defined by being overlooked, Hagler must win this fight.

 

Thomas Hearns, a personal hero of mine, was an unremarkable amateur, his only distinctive attribute his incredible height and reach. At 6’1", Hearns made his debut in the welterweight division (147 lbs.) a memorable one with a vicious knockout.

 

Then another. And another.

 

All told, his first seventeen opponents and thirty of his first thirty-two were stopped inside the distance.

 

An absolute freak, Hearns was blessed with one more trick: A right hand that could kill decent-sized livestock. A boxer when needed and destroyer when he wanted, Hearns’ welterweight years were nothing short of a reign of terror.

 

In a nod to my first article, he faced Mexican murder machine Pipino Cuevas for the WBA welterweight title in his twenty-ninth fight. Cuevas was on a rampage of his own, knocking eleven out of his past twelve opponents cold.

 

Hearns finished him in two. Cuevas could not put three straight wins together for the remainder of his career.

 

The sole blemish on "The Hitman’s" resumé comes at the hands of Ray Leonard, who, down on the scorecards, rallied late and stopped an exhausted Hearns in the fourteenth round. Moving up to super welterweight, Hearns picked up where he left off, defeating the legendary Wilfred Benitez and Durán before deciding to move up and face Hagler in a bout that Hearns broken pinky had nixed years before.

 

The two have embarked on a media tour across the nation, each progressively getting more and more on the other’s nerves. Hearns had promised a knockout in three, heaping trash talk upon the increasingly-anxious middleweight champion.

 

In Las Vegas, the two camps prepare. Marvin Hagler sits with his coaches, while a supremely confident Hearns lounges with his entourage, who bang on the sides of the dressing room in anticipation. Hagler merely mentions that Hearns can’t take them with him into the ring.

 

For all the fanfare in Hearns’s room, there is trouble. Unbeknown to his trainer, Emanuel Steward, "The Hitman" received a leg massage in his hotel room courtesy of a member of his posse. His legs are completely spent, and Steward is worried; the potentially-winning strategy of utilizing Hearns’s phenomenal reach and wicked jab to keep Hagler chasing him all night is in jeopardy.

 

But Hearns has no plans to dance tonight.

 

The two men enter the ring; the third man tonight is Richard Steele, who somehow makes his voice heard over the palpable tension between the fighters.

 

The bell rings. We begin.

 

Hagler wastes absolutely no time, launching a leaping attack at his lanky foe. Hearns responds with a right hand that looks like it would have killed a lesser man. Slightly wobbled, the bigger Hagler forces him into the ropes and regains his footing.

 

The first fusillade has been fired, but if it has any effect on either fighter, they refuse to show it.

 

All strategy immediately packs its bags and exits the arena as these two great champions proceed to slug it out, Hearns using his murderous left hook and deadly right to full effect while Hagler walks through an unending wall of punches, answering viciously with his own.

 

Unknown to the audience, however, damage has actually been done; the megaton right hand Hearns used to welcome Hagler into this piece of history broke on impact.

 

Hearns continues punching with it.

 

Hagler effectively gets inside to clinch and work his foe’s body, but is answered with wicked power punches. Steele, unusually quick to break up the clinches, is almost caught in the crossfire as they continue to trade. Neither has the advantage at the bell; everyone in the arena wins in that legendary first round.

 

As the second round starts, they continue to strike, but the momentum starts inching towards one combatant. The massage’s effects begin to show themselves, as Hearns’s legs refuse to respond properly to the ever-growing onslaught from the champion. He still has his fists, however, and makes full use of them in an attempt to end it immediately, but perhaps the fight is already over. Hagler has eaten Hearns’s hardest punch, a feat no man before him has accomplished, and continued.

 

The second round is relatively sedated compared to the first, by which I mean it is a slightly less psychotic brawl between the finest fighters alive. Hagler is cut from the stinging "flicker" jab of "The Hitman," but the latter is paying dearly for it.

 

After six insane minutes, they meet in the center again as Hearns turns to the strategy his coaches had wanted him to use, dancing around the ring and targeting the rapidly-leaking cut with jabs. A particularly mean one causes it to go into overdrive, forcing Steele to call the ringside doctor, who asks Hagler if he can see.

 

He merely asks the doctor, "Well, I ain’t missing him, am I?"

 

Convinced, the doctor allows it to continue. Hearns attempts to renew his steady dissection, but his legs are gone; even the effort of gliding about the ring almost brings him to his knees. Hagler dives forward with a right and catches Hearns behind the ear.

 

The lights seem to go off. The pride of Detroit stumbles, turning his back to the southpaw juggernaut.

 

Earlier in his career, Hagler got his first shot at middleweight gold against Italian titleholder Vito Antuofermo, outworking his opponent such that referee Mills Lane congratulated him before the scores were read. Further fueling Hagler’s resentment, which was already so great that he would literally go to his opponent’s hometown just to get him to fight, the judges rendered a draw.

 

He will not be denied again. A monster hook narrowly whiffs, but the follow-up right catches "The Hitman" right on the jaw. Hagler moves in close and is about to work the body, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is the only thing holding Hearns up. He steps aside and the towering Hearns crumples.

 

Steele rushes over and begins the count, although there seems to be no need. "The Hitman" is flat on his back, breathing heavily. Unbelievably, he rolls to his knees at eight. At nine, he stands.

 

He stumbles forward; his heart has carried him through eight minutes of hell and has let him stand once more, but that is all. Steele calls the fight, supporting the immobile Hitman.

 

Hagler celebrates, tasting vindication for the first time in his career. Hearns is carried out of the ring by one of his supporters, utterly beaten in one of the finest slugfests in the history of boxing.

 

For one, brief moment, the wonder of boxing is there for the whole world to see.

 

Hagler will fight twice more, stopping vicious puncher John Mugabe’s twenty-six fight knockout streak with an eleventh-round TKO before losing an incredibly controversial decision to a returned Ray Leonard. Infuriated and unable to secure a rematch, he retires with a 63-2-2 record. He is remembered as one of the greatest middleweights of all time.

 

Hearns continues his climb up the divisions, winning titles as high as cruiserweight. He loses three times more, twice to Iran Barkley and once to Uriah Grant at the age of forty-one. In that time, he fights to a draw against old foe Ray Leonard in a fight many, including Leonard, believe Hearns won.

 

He finally retires for good in 2005, ending a brilliant career that spans almost thirty years.

 

In today’s environment of "I’m the best and I’ll prove it so long as you give me one-hundred million dollars," it’s always good to look back at men who were out to do nothing but prove that they were the greatest.

 

So, Maniacs, what’s YOUR favorite brawl in combat sports?

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