Revising Revisionist History: Another Look at Sugar Rayís Victory Over Hagler and Mike Tysonís Place in History
By Brent Matteo Alderson from Boxing Scene
Today itís trendy to take a look at past events and put another spin on them, which often times are in direct contrast with the original perspectives. The two contemporary revisionist perspectives that Iím in complete disagreement with are that 1) Mike Tyson wasnít a great heavyweight and 2) Sugar Ray Leonardís victory over Marvin Hagler wasnít astonishing due to the fact that all the factors revolving around the fight were in Leonardís favor.
Recently itís been kind of shtick to downgrade Sugar Rayís victory over Hagler. A lot of guys that havenít seen or donít remember the fight still claim that the Marvelous one was robbed, a victim of boxing politics. Other more informed individuals agree that Leonard deserved the decision, but feel that the victory was cheapened not by Leonardís inside the ring movements, but by his outside the ring maneuvers.
You see Leonard knew that Hagler really needed the fight so that he could finally break out from Rayís shadow all the while cementing his legacy as well as his bank account. So in order to make the fight come to fruition Hagler conceded to a number of demands. He let Leonardís people decide on the size of the ring and he conceded to making it a 12-rounder instead of a 15-rounder, which were still being sanctioned at the time, but were in the process of being phased out.
Mike Trainer, Rayís advisor and lawyer through out his career stated, ďHagler gave us everything we wanted, he was just worried about the money, but we didnít care about the money, we wanted to win the fight, so we gave him the money and he gave us everything else.Ē Instead of trying to gain an edge by negotiating about the fightís particulars, Hagler bickered about the money and conceded certain advantages that may have changed the final outcome of the bout. Itís those very advantages along with the fact that Hagler looked like he had slowed down a bit coming into the fight that people point to when they downplay Leonardís win over Marvin.
I have a question for those people. Why wasnít Hagler worried about the fightís particulars? Why did he give all those concessions to Leonard? You know why, because Marvin Hagler along with the vast majority of the fight press thought that Marvin was going to kick Leonardís butt back to Maryland.
When the fight was first rumored, boxing writers came out in droves to criticize the possible dream match and many of them openly feared for Sugar Rayís health as well for the sport of boxing because they though that if Leonard was seriously hurt that it would really damage the sportís reputation since Sugar Ray was a genuine American hero. Dick Young, a columnist for the New York Post wrote, ďA Leonard-Hagler fight would supply powerful ammunition to the American Medical Association and other lobbyist who have campaigns for the abolition of boxing.Ē And Tom Crushman, a recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award wrote that the idea of Leonard even taking the fight without a tune up was ďmadness.Ē
There was some validity to those perspectives. First off Leonard had never fought as a middleweight through out his entire career and he had only fought once in a five year period in a bout that took place three years earlier when he was unceremoniously knocked down by fringe contender Kevin Howard.
To make matters worse he was going to face Marvin Hagler, a man considered to be the best pound for pound fighter in the world, the undisputed middleweight champion who had knocked out and ruined the undefeated knock out artist John the Beast Mugabi in his very last fight. Even if Leonard had a couple of minor advantages such as a slightly bigger ring and the 12 round-distance, he was still facing almost insurmountable odds. Hagler knew it. The public knew it. Even the boxing fraternity knew it.
The only one that didnít know it was the Sugar Man himself who went into the ring and implemented his strategy to win the most important fight of his career. That night, Sugar Ray didnít only defy boxing history, he defied logic. Thus donít diminish Sugar Rayís victory over Hagler because if he had been viciously knocked out that night like he was supposed to have been, it would have been a lot easier for you to demean Haglerís victory.
Another qualm I have about a recent perception of boxing history is that it seems of late that a lot of writers have drastically diminished Mike Tysonís place in history by describing him as an over-rated heavyweight that used his reputation to decimate a sub-par group of heavyweights. They point to his losses to Buster Douglas, Lennox Lewis, and Evander Holyfield to validate this belief and they also downgrade the length of his reign as well as the quality of his opposition.
Letís get a couple of things straight. First the Mike Tyson that fought Lewis and Holyfield was a shell of his former self. Tyson hasnít been remotely close to being a prime Tyson since before his incarceration in 1991 and counting those wins against Iron Mike would be like counting Sugar Ray Leonardís loss to Terry Norris or Wilfredo Benitezís loss to Matthew Hilton. Ray was only 34 at the time of the Norris fight and Benitez was still in his twenties.
So do you consider Matthew Hilton and Terry Norris to be greater than Sugar Ray and Benitez? No, of course not because even though age is often times the primary factor that diminishes fighters abilities, sometimes their skill level just fades away whether itís from drinking, women, or just plain fate.
Still thereís no denying that a near prime Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas by knockout in indisputably the biggest upset in boxing history. At the time Buster was a mediocre 29-4-1 and had been stopped by such ordinary fighters as Mike the Giant White and David Bey. Without a doubt the loss does irreparable damage to Tysonís place among the heavyweight greats, especially those in the first tier. Ali or Louis never lost to a journeyman when they were young champions and they never would have, but you also have to put that loss into perspective.
We all know that Mike, like most fighters came from a rough background. He grew up on the streets of Brooklyn and was arrested on 38 different occasions by the time he was 13. Imagine coming from that type of background and then becoming one of the worldís premiere athletes with millions at your disposal. I grew up in a nuclear family with a supportive environment and I might not have been able to handle the situation that Mike Tyson found himself in.
Another facet of his loss to Douglas that many boxing aficionados fail to recognize is that on the night that James Douglas fought Tyson, he was one of the greatest heavyweights in history. Iíve seen the tape countless times, take a look at it. Douglas was a 6í4 230-pound man bouncing on his toes, doubling up on the jab, and throwing perfectly timed combinations with the precision of a marksman from the United States Marine Core. I truly believe that with the exception of Ali or a couple of other heavyweight greats on their best nights that on that night in Tokyo that Buster Douglas would have beaten almost any heavyweight in history.
Another qualm that historians have against Mike is his level of competition. Yes, Tysonís reign does not compare to Muhammad Aliís in that regard. He didnít beat Liston, Foreman, and Frazier but what Heavyweight champ besides the Greatest has that many-quality wins. As great as Louis was, the most impressive thing about his reign was itís longevity unless you think that a come from behind win against the 174-pound Billy Conn or his first round knock out over a past his prime Max Schmeling are quality. And really Mike had some good wins. Heís the only man ever to knock out Larry Holmes who four years later went twelve fairly competitive rounds with Holyfield and he almost decapitated a slew of other top contenders that held their own with guys that are still around today.
He took out Tubbs in two rounds and three years later a lot of observers thought that Tony deserved the decision in his fight with Riddick Bowe. Even though historians devalue Tysonís win over Michael Spinks, nobody else ever beat Spinks who was 6í2 and had been fighting as a heavyweight for almost three years when the two finally met in June of 1988.
So when it comes down to it how can you belittle Mikeís place in history without scrutinizing the careers of other heavyweight greats? Come on, my favorite heavyweight of all time, Jack Dempsey, drew the color line and only defended the title 6 times in seven years. Marciano may have retired undefeated, but he beat Jersey Joe Walcott for the title who at the time was the oldest man to ever win the title. And the Rock went life and death with Charles, who was already past his prime, and the great Archie Moore who was a Light-Heavyweight.
I can go on and on criticizing the careers of every single champ in history, but Iím not going to, I just want the boxing fraternity to allocate the same type of treatment to Tyson that they have afforded to all the other champs. All Iím saying is look what Mike Tyson did; he came and restored the prestige to the heavyweight championship. He cleaned out the division, captivated the public, and took on all challengers during the course of a three-year period.
At one point he was considered unbeatable and was categorized as the best pound for pound fighter in the world for almost a two-year period. When was the last time a Heavyweight was almost universally recognized as being the best pound for pound fighter in the world? Down below Iíve listed Ring Magazineís Heavyweight rankings from the month when Tyson knocked out Berbick for the WBC title and look at what Mike did! He almost cleaned out the entire division. Plain and simple, Tyson is a heavyweight great in the tradition of his idol Jack Dempsey and deserves to be recognized as such.
The Ringís Heavyweight Rankings/March 1987
(Tyson defeated all the men whose names are underlined)
Linear Champ: Michael Spinks
1. Mike Tyson
2. Tim Witherspoon
3. Pinklon Thomas (Beaten)
4. Tony Tubbs (Beaten)
5. Trevor Berbick (Beaten)
6. James Smith (Beaten)
7. James Douglas
8. Tony Tucker (Beaten)
9. Frank Bruno (Beaten
10. Tyrell Biggs (Beaten)
Leonard beat Duran, Hearns, Benitez, and Halger. Sugar Ray may only have 36 victories to his credit but those men had a combined record of 204-3-2 coming into their fights with Leonard.
Iíve written it before and Iíll write it again. Leonard would have beaten De La Hoya, Trinidad, Sugar Shane Mosley, and Pernell Whitaker in their primes.