War Machine Rumbling Into Second Gear
The rough and tumble, bald-headed southpaw with the lean-muscled physique and fu-manchu fighting out of Rocky Marciano’s hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts by way of Newark, New Jersey was driven, possibly possessed, by the knowledge that he was destined for greatness.
Marvin Nathaniel Hagler was able to comprehend better than your average wide-eyed idealist that many moving parts go into the crafting of a finely tuned machine–the optimal workings of which define the difference between a battle-tested but already war-weary veteran of successfully contested regional conflicts who flops into bed at night holding tight to unrealistic and probably unobtainable delusions of grandeur, and a spontaneously combustible weapon of mass destruction barely able to find sufficient time to sleep and the tempting dreams it offers for want of strategizing and perfecting those strategies, of expelling the endless reserves of frantic physical energy manifested through those restless mental exercises.
He understood one other significant factor, unique to his weight class at that time in boxing history. That if he were to work his tireless way toward world title contention and international recognition as the best middleweight on the planet, his journey out of the dead end environs of New England would have to first take him straight into the heart of Philadelphia.
To confirm the rabid and, on occasion, unruly partisanship of Philadelphia sports fans can be accomplished by doing no more than acknowledging the fact that their baseball team’s mascot was christened The Phanatic. Opened for business in 1971 was the cavernous Veterans Stadium, home to the Phillies and Eagles and their legions of faithful followers, the most disorderly of which would situate themselves in its infamous 700 Level.
Ground was first broken on Vets Stadium just two days after the first paying customer passed through the turnstiles of the adjacent Spectrum which played host to the Sixers and Flyers, as well as Philly’s beloved hometown prizefighters the likes of ‘Joltin’ Jeff Chandler, the tragic Tyrone Everett, and the miraculous Matthew Franklin (soon to be Saad Muhammad). Although he fought only twice at the Spectrum, its most famous alumnus, of course, was world heavyweight champion ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
However, the Philadelphia boxing scene in the 70’s would be defined by, and is still best remembered for, producing an embarrassment of riches in the way of legitimate 160-pound contenders. Jostling for pride of place in the middleweight foxhole with the already entrenched ‘Bad’ Bennie Briscoe and Stanley ‘Kitten’ Hayward were three standouts among the hungry young combatants of the 23rd PAL Gym wars–Eugene ‘Cyclone’ Hart, Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe, and the boxer they called ‘Boogaloo’.
Following almost literally in the footsteps of Joe Frazier, Bobby Watts had come to Philadelphia from South Carolina, born in the city of Sumter in 1949, roughly 130 miles north of Beaufort where Smokin’ Joe’s humble beginnings can be traced back to. Bobby’s interest in boxing originated from the influence of his cousin, future heavyweight title challenger Jimmy Young.
Watts commenced training with Frank Hamilton in the 23rd PAL Gym alongside Frazier, Briscoe, and ‘Gypsy’ Joe Harris in 1964, the home base from where he compiled a 43-5 amateur record and earned his unusual nickname.
It was bestowed onto him prior to an amateur championship bout being held in Vineland, New Jersey when the ring announcer, obviously amused by his having danced his way up the aisle, spontaneously introduced him as Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts. His opponent, Johnny Jones, was given the equally flashy moniker ‘Shing-a-ling’.
Watts hooked up with trainer and manager Augie Scimeca and turned pro not long after his hopes of fighting for Olympic gold in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games were spoiled by Armando Muniz, who pulled the proverbial dance floor from beneath ‘Boogaloo’ courtesy of a knockdown on the way to outpointing and eliminating Bobby from the Olympic Trials in Ohio. Confident in his abilities to avenge this disappointing loss, the 8-1 Watts ventured into Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium to once again stand opposite Muniz, who was at that point undefeated in four previous paid outings.
Despite the fact that he felt he had done more than enough over the six rounds to receive the nod from the officials, he watched as the referee instead raised the hand of Muniz who confided to Bobby that even he knew he was the better man that night.
Watts boogied back to Philadelphia where he reeled off four consecutive victories, three of them at the Blue Horizon where he had also claimed a trio of early wins before having headed to Las Vegas in the spring of 1970 to train with his cousin Jimmy Young and win two of three fights at the Silver Slipper.
Now 12-2, Watts made his Spectrum debut on August 10, 1971 with a 5th round TKO of Junious Hinton and was back again just six weeks later to pick up a decision over Luis Vinales in 10. After going 2-0-1 in a consecutive series of non-title fights against NABF Super-Welterweight Champion Ralph Palladin over a six and a half month period extending into 1972, Bobby got a taste of the big time when he headlined a small card at Madison Square Garden on October 20. Though he had fought a year ago almost to the day at the adjacent Felt Forum, a 5th round TKO victory over Roy Edmonds, his unanimous decision win over the crafty Cajun Alvin Phillips marked both the first and last time Watts would compete in ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’.
Don Cobbs ruined Bobby’s homecoming on November 20 by knocking Watts out in the 2nd round of what was his first defeat at The Spectrum. And, as it would turn out, also his last loss in what would be ten eventual bouts that he would contest there. After icing Cobbs in the 3rd round of their return engagement, Watts’ toughest test yet occurred at The Spectrum on October 8, 1973 against Carlos Alberto Salinas who was then 33-22-9 and had fought his fellow Argentinian, middleweight legend in the making Carlos Monzon, four times. Unsuccessful in each bid, Salinas did twice manage to take Monzon the full distance with their third bout declared a draw. ‘Boogaloo’ put Salinas away in round eight.
Watts made a name for himself by flourishing in a 1974 Spectrum tournament designed by promoter J. Russell Peltz. First knocking Eugene ‘Cyclone’ Hart through the ring ropes and out for the count in the opening round and then taking the measure of Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe by way of unanimous decision. Bobby was led to believe that he would subsequently be matched against the winner of the bout between Emile Griffith and Bennie Briscoe, who had been given a free pass from Peltz’s round-robin to pursue the opportunity.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Griffith beat Briscoe but Watts, rather than be rewarded with a high-profile shot at the fading former five-time world champion or even against Briscoe as a consolation prize, was made to spin his wheels in neutral gear during a ten-month layoff that he suspected may have been deliberately imposed.
His hiatus having been terminated by finishing off heavy-handed James Marshall inside of nine rounds in what wound up being his only fight of 1975, ‘Boogaloo’ would usher in the new year by signing off on a contract to meet Pat and Goody Petronelli’s undefeated practitioner of what he still to this day refers to as “the Noble Art”.
Welcome to Philadelphia, Marvin Hagler!
Whereas Watts was reduced to one lone outing in 1975, Marvin Hagler had stepped between the ropes on seven occasions. In fact, he had been fighting professionally for fewer than three years but already Hagler had participated in 26 scraps, winning all but one, which was a stalemate with 1972 Olympic gold medalist ‘Sugar’ Ray Seales whom Marvin had previously outpointed three months before and would later demolish within ninety seconds at the Boston Garden on national television in their 1979 rubber match.
Hoping that the experience itself would prove more lucrative than the purse, Marvin prepared for his $2,000 payday by setting up shop at Joe Frazier’s Gym where the former heavyweight champion, just a few months removed from the hellacious ‘Thrilla in Manila’, famously warned Hagler that he had three strikes against him in the eyes of the Machiavellian puppet masters who manipulate the bureaucratic workings of the fight game: “You’re black, you’re left-handed, and you’re good.”
In a promotional ploy that was decidedly atypical for the no-nonsense silent assassin, Marvin ripped a page from the Muhammad Ali guidebook to mandatory pre-fight hype and recited a poem during the press conference detailing what he intended to do to ‘Boogaloo’ Watts.
A crowd slightly in excess of 6,100 (well below half-capacity) jammed into The Spectrum on January 13, 1976 to see if the menacing-looking southpaw with the shaved head could make good on his rhyming taunts. Bobby Watts wore baggy yellow trunks that came down past his knees, a look which was a little ahead of its time and offered a visual contrast to supplement the stylistic one that separated the slick Philly stick-and-move dancer from the utilitarian destruct and destroy Brockton brawler.
Hagler backed ‘Boogaloo’ up with a straight left to open up what was an otherwise unremarkable getting-to-know-you type first round. Both fighters landed simultaneously with right hands in the early moments of the second and Watts let his hands go in earnest for the first of many times that night with his foe crouched in the corner. Hagler’s strictly defensive posture was short-lived as he bounded up, punching and smiling, driving ‘Boogaloo’ backwards across the ring and into the opposite corner with two right jabs and a left hook.
In what would become a common theme throughout the evening, Marvin relentlessly pursued Watts, moving forever forward in an attempt to cut the ring off, bobbing and weaving and employing constant head movement to deflect the worst of the salvos fired off by ‘Boogaloo’ who was repeatedly reprimanded by referee Hank Cisco for holding behind the head to prevent Hagler from engaging in any meaningful infighting.
Lunging forward with a right hook just as Watts took a timely step back, Marvin went down on his rear end. ‘Boogaloo’ picked up the pace in the third round, throwing a variety of body shots, looping left hooks, and short right uppercuts, some of which missed or were picked off by Hagler who finally forced ‘Boogaloo’ into a corner where he ripped a left to the midsection, followed by a right uppercut that snapped Bobby’s head back just prior to the bell.
Delivered with the intention of slowing Watts down, Hagler went to work with blows directed at his body, occasionally straying below the belt line. This proved to be an effective short-term tactic as Marvin twice had an immobile ‘Boogaloo’ backed into the corner and in apparent trouble. Both times, Watts was able to punch his way out of the trap set by Hagler and seemed little worse for wear, especially as he got off to a great start in the very next round.
‘Boogaloo’ confused and frustrated Hagler in the 5th with flurries which were more a nuisance than a real and present danger in addition to toying with Marvin by utilizing a variation on some of his more unorthodox dance moves, standing in front of him one moment and shimmying around to his backside the next. Watts completed the stanza by rapping two consecutive rights off of Hagler’s gleaming dome.
Exhibiting signs of fatigue as the fight passes beyond the midway point, ‘Boogaloo’ attempted to create an invisible barrier between the gladiators with a persistent left jab only to see Hagler breach it time and again with straight lefts, as Watts continually allows his right hand to drop. Bobby consequently catches nothing but air with an errant left hook and pitches face forward, landing atop the iconic Spectrum logo emblazoned onto the canvas. He regained his footing and composure quickly enough, snapping off a quick pair of left hooks, one to the body and the other to the head. Hagler gets the better of the fierce exchange which ensues by virtue of a heavy volume barrage but Watts’ resiliency is equal to the test and his left jab begins to penetrate Marvin’s guard with increasing regularity in round eight.
A short right hook from Hagler sends Watts retreating to the nearest corner and Marvin stalks his prey, banging to the body until ‘Boogaloo’ successfully spins around and temporarily out of harm’s way. Watts begins the 9th as the aggressor and lands an inadvertent low blow in all the excitement. The sportsmanlike aspect inherent to the customary touching of gloves that follows is betrayed by Hagler’s grim scowl and the ferocious nature of the continuation to his body attack.
Watts’ disorienting side to side motion throws Marvin’s rhythm completely off in the 10th round, making him a most disagreeable dance partner. Hindered by his inability to close the distance between them or connect with power shots when he does, Hagler walks back to his corner at the tolling of the final bell, escorted by ‘Boogaloo’ who drapes an arm across Marvin’s shoulders.
Hagler bounces and shadowboxes while awaiting the decision as if warming up to go another ten if called upon to do so, although no doubt certain that his effort to inflict maximum damage would win out over Watts’ safety-first strategy to compile the greater total of points. If so, Marvin was sorely mistaken.
Based on Pennsylvania’s 5-point scoring system, referee Hank Cisco had it dead even at 46 apiece. Ringside judge Earl Vann gave ‘Boogaloo’ a two-point edge while his co-hort Nate Lopinson awarded Watts a more lopsided 48-44 victory. While it may not have been of Shakespearean proportion, the betrayal of The Spectrum faithful must have hurt Bobby Watts as they jeered while he ran a small and half-hearted victory lap with his gloves raised toward the rafters. Marvin Hagler, meanwhile, performed a handful of bows and threw kisses in the general direction of the ringside seats in acknowledgement of the applause his gutsy performance received.
The following morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer ran a headline over its recap of the fight exclaiming “Welcome to Philadelphia, Marvin Hagler!” Stan Hochman of the Daily News took it one step further by swapping the verses improvised by Hagler during the press conference with ones of his own to summarize the previous night’s robbery. “Marvelous Marvin, a fighter from Brockton/came to the Spectrum and barely got socked on/Boogaloo Watts up did he carve/But guess what happened to Marvelous Marv?”
Even promoter J. Russell Peltz had to admit, “It might not have been the worst decision of all time, but it was a pretty bad one.”
Marvin would make four return trips to The Spectrum with mixed but mostly favorable results. Not quite two months after dropping the majority decision to ‘Boogaloo’ Watts, Hagler would be unanimously ruled against to the benefit of Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe, his second defeat in three fights. It would also be the last until his controversial loss to ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard eleven years later.
Marvin’s first measure of Spectrum success came that same September when he dropped Eugene Hart in the 3rd and ultimately earned the victory when ‘Cyclone’ failed to summon the wherewithal to answer the bell for round nine, reportedly telling his trainer Sam Solomon, “The hell with it. Why don’t you just throw in the towel?”
Having already gained revenge over Willie Monroe with a 12th round TKO at Boston’s Hynes Auditorium on February 15, 1977, Hagler found himself opposite ‘The Worm’ once again back at The Spectrum six months later. This time in front of Monroe’s home crowd, Marvin stopped him in two.
Riding a fifteen-fight undefeated streak into August of 1978, Hagler would add yet another notch in the win column (his 3rd in a row at The Spectrum after the two initial losses to Watts and Monroe) by decisioning Bennie Briscoe, who had recently crested the 60-win plateau, in what was to be Marvelous Marvin’s Philadelphia swan song.
All things considered, the win over Hagler did shockingly little to boost Bobby Watts’ public profile. It was followed by two lackluster knockouts of inconsequential opponents and, presumably fed up with floundering around Philadelphia with no promotional contracts awaiting his signature, ‘Boogaloo’ accepted an invitation to partake in the 1977 U.S. Championship Tournament orchestrated by Don King.
After a successful first round in which Watts decisioned Reggie Ford (who may or may not have been making his pro debut according to conflicting newspaper accounts) in Pensacola, Florida, his prospects looked good against David Love who had a rather pedestrian record of 28-12 but boasted points wins over Li’l Abner (Perry Abney, a lesser known Philly middleweight) and Chucho Garcia, among others, and was just coming off a knockout of Willie Monroe at the Spectrum. Love would make it two knockouts in a row over Philly fighters by taking out an admittedly overconfident Bobby Watts in the 4th round.
This squandered opportunity was followed by nearly fifteen months of inactivity after which ‘Boogaloo’ finally returned to the ring with a humdrum win over Johnny Heard who would subsequently suffer the agony of defeat several times over, most notably to ‘Sugar’ Ray Seales, Fulgencio Obelmejias, Wilford Scypion, Robbie Sims and, believe it or not, Tony Danza who, in his last fight before committing to acting full-time, showed Heard who the boss was in 1979.
An additional bitter loss also lingered in Watts’ near future, this one to another southpaw from the East Coast, the fast ascending Syrian middleweight from Brooklyn, Mustafa Hamsho, who scored a 6th round TKO over ‘Boogaloo’. Just a little over two months later, Watts was in Sicilia, Italy earning a points win over Norberto Rufino Cabrera on the undercard of Marvin Johnson’s victory over WBC Light-Heavyweight Champion Mate Parlov.
Absent from any Philadelphia boxing ring for more than four years by October 1979, Watts returned to run through Clifford Wills and Fred Johnson, both 3rd round knockouts, at the Forum in Upper Darby and what wound up being his last fight at the Spectrum respectively. Already tiring of the fruitless grind his labor of love had devolved into, ‘Boogaloo’ would receive a short-notice offer he couldn’t refuse. Even if he probably wished he had.
Marvin Hagler sought to entertain himself with a pair of low-risk bouts of the stay busy variety during early 1980 in preparation for his second shot at the world middleweight crown, the first ending in a much-disputed draw with Vito Antuofermo who then lost possession of the WBA and WBC belts to Alan Minter. While Antuofermo exercised his rematch clause against Minter in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to regain his titles, Hagler camped out at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine where he dispatched Loucif Hamani in the 2nd round and was contracted to next take on Mexican journeyman Marcos Geraldo.
A ten-year veteran of the prize ring, Geraldo had laid claim to middleweight titles in Mexico and California State and come out on the wrong end of a unanimous decision versus Ray Leonard eleven months earlier. By the time all was said and done for Geraldo in 1995, he could boast about having shared the ring with (though never claiming a victory over) an impressive sampling of overlapping generations of the middleweight division’s elite competitors, a who’s who consisting of Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Michael Nunn, and Virgil Hill. Not to mention Marvin Hagler. But not just yet.
Due to injury, Geraldo withdrew from the April 20 fight with Hagler, opening the door to Marvin’s four-years-in-the-making opportunity to get his gloved hands on the man responsible for the first truly ugly blemish on his otherwise nearly spotless record. So, with their careers currently taking divergent trajectories, Marvin Hagler and ‘Boogaloo’ Watts would resume long-held hostilities (in Marvin’s case anyway) on national TV.
‘Boogaloo’ didn’t exactly groove out of his corner in customary fashion. Appearing noticeably flat-footed, the majority of Watts’ bodily motion could be directly correlated to the blunt force of Hagler’s landed blows. Bobby did manage to momentarily knock Marvin off-balance when he popped him with a nice left jab which caused Hagler to stumble into the nearby corner. This, however, would be Watts’ lone offensive highlight.
Watts lost his equilibrium and fell in a heap when Hagler ducked under a wild right hook and played a dangerous game of peek-a-boo with Marvin, getting rocked by a left/right combo despite catching the brunt of the shots on his gloves. Fighting strictly in survival mode, ‘Boogaloo’ has precious little time left.
A right uppercut lands flush on Bobby’s chin after which Hagler bounces ‘Boogaloo’ backward with a straight right and then puts him down with a left to the body with a pair of hooks hot on its heels, one right, one left. Watts is pummeled mercilessly by his seething predator and, with his back against the ropes (literally and figuratively), swings and misses repeatedly in a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable. Which would come soon enough, in round two.
Lunging forward like an unfed lion sprung from its enclosure and let loose on the Serengeti, Marvin pounces with a right hook and Watts is left with no option other than to sink to one knee with three seconds remaining on the clock. Unheedful of the rule put in place by the Maine State Athletic Commission that a fallen fighter can be saved by the bell, the timekeeper takes no action and allows referee Rene Laliberte to proceed with the count as ‘Boogaloo’ pulls himself upright with the assistance of the ring ropes at eight. Unable to support his full weight on essentially dead legs, Watts collapses again and is counted out.
After a brief, frantic conference among the ringside officials, the result was allowed to stand. The same could not be said of ‘Boogaloo’ whose questionable condition at round’s end rendered the controversial nature of the timekeeper’s lack of adherence to the rulebook completely academic.
During the post-fight interview, Hagler alluded to his disgruntled state of mind after his first go-around with Watts and stated in no uncertain terms that he was intent this time out to “set this man up and put his lights out”.
Four months later, Marvin Hagler unseated middleweight title-holder Alan Minter, commencing his nearly seven year-long reign of terror. Marvin’s most marvelous victimization would undoubtedly be his blood-soaked dismantling of Thomas Hearns. Looking for tall, lanky sparring partners to stand in not merely as crash test dummies but as suitable physical surrogates for ‘The Hitman’, Hagler welcomed a familiar face into training camp. That of Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts.
“Trying to help you get there,” Watts said to Marvin as recorded by Judith Cummings of the New York Times. “Want you to get rid of him.” After Hagler had pounded into submission Larry Davis, a work horse whose 83-inch reach could not keep Marvin at bay, Bobby Watts took his turn in the practice ring and let loose with a series of flurries like the ‘Boogaloo’ of old even after absorbing some punishing combinations to both head and body for his trouble.
“Looks like he was hurt to me,” one woman observed of Hagler from a safe distance. Watts was the one who had endured the hurt in the five years since he and Marvin had last crossed paths. In terms of career stagnation anyway. Money seemed to be the only motivation left for Bobby to continue fighting long after the requisite desire had departed.
Returning to South Carolina to attend a funeral, Watts was lured by a local promoter into an extended stay for a trio of quick, easy paychecks against glorified club fighters with a combined record of 12-30-1. ‘Boogaloo’ knocked out each one.
Upon retirement in 1983, following a four-round TKO loss to Mark Kaylor in London that cemented his career record at 39-7 (22 KOs), Bobby later trained Buster Drayton, Calvin Grove, and Charles Brewer (world champions all) in addition to mentoring many inner-city youths from Philadelphia in the decades since.
Just as he had gone his entire career without having been considered for contention in a world title fight, Watts had never been extended an official invitation to attend the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend to the best of my recollection. ‘Boogaloo’ and a carload of friends made the four and a half hour drive to Canastota, New York last June regardless. Wearing a blue tracksuit and large white cowboy hat, Watts wandered the grounds mostly incognito, happily stopping to sign autographs for the handful of fans vigilant enough to recognize him and meeting up spontaneously with Roberto Duran with whom he shared a handshake, hug, and group photo.
Later Saturday evening, Bobby Watts must have had to pay his own way into the Banquet of Champions held in nearby Syracuse. If so, the cost and inconvenience didn’t seem to bother him. With spirits running high in more ways than one, ‘Boogaloo’ got to reminisce about bygone glory days and enjoy a couple of chuckles in the company of a Marvelous old buddy he hadn’t seen in over thirty years.
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