Home Boxing Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Seales: The Unlikely Trilogy

Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Seales: The Unlikely Trilogy

The unlikely trilogy!

“I’m going to kill him. They can’t stop me. I’ll kill them all.” 

It was January 1979 and, wearing Army boots rather than athletic shoes, Marvin Hagler repeated this mantra over and over during his six-mile runs along the sand dunes of the Provincetown shore in the pre-dawn hours, enduring temperatures which were as bone-chilling as the self-affirming phrases he uttered into the frigid, early morning air. 

Sugar Ray Seales, a fellow southpaw and familiar foe from two prior ring wars in which each had been the first to blemish the other’s spotless record, was Hagler’s upcoming opponent, or next victim as Marvin preferred to think of him. Not that Hagler harbored any animosity toward Seales, the way he would another Sugar Ray. Nevertheless, he needed a primary target on which to focus his pent-up rage at being systematically denied a title shot after pounding his way to a record of 42-2-1 in five and a half years as a pro.   

“Look at all that money those Olympic kids got, look at all the money tennis players get,” Hagler grumbled in a New York Times interview. “Leon Spinks got a title shot after seven fights. Some guys have fought for the title four times. This is my 45th fight and I still haven’t gotten one and I know all I’m going to get is one. They won’t give me another. I’m too good for my own good.” 

Among a squad that included Davey Lee Armstrong, Jesse Valdez, Duane Bobick, and future three-time light-heavyweight world champion Marvin Johnson, Ray Seales was the only boxer representing the United States at the ill-fated 1972 summer games in Munich to win a gold medal, outpointing Bulgaria’s Angel Angelov in the finals. It was due to mismanagement in more or less equal measure to the Palestinian massacre which cast a sinister shadow over his achievement at the ‘72 Olympics that Seales didn’t get the keys to the kingdom that some believed, Marvin Hagler obviously being one, the 1976 gold medalists were handed almost as if by birthright. 

To give you a good idea of what Seales had to contend with, his well-meaning but out-of-his-element manager George Yelton considered it an advantageous promotional ploy to put the Olympic champion turned pro boxer on par with the regional restaurant chain he owned, slinging a banner from one end of the rooftop to the other enticing fight fans who happened to be hungry for a Tex-Mex meal to COME SEE SUGAR RAY SEALES AT TACO TIME. 

Marvin Hagler, meanwhile, opted out of the amateur ranks following his victory in the 165-pound division at the 1973 AAU National Championships, raising the curtain on his career as a professional prizefighter at Brockton High School a mere six days later where he recorded number one of an eventual fifty-two knockouts. His first sacrificial lamb was another local kid by the name of Terry Ryan who was also making his pro debut and found himself promptly dissuaded from ever boxing again after that. As mercilessly rough and tumble as Marvin was thanks to his “destruct and destroy” mentality, it’s hard to believe that, having gone toe-to-toe with him once already, anybody would be game enough, or crazy enough, to come back for more. And yet, spread out over the course of his sixty-seven professional bouts, Hagler engaged no fewer than eleven repeat customers. 

After winning the middleweight title from Alan Minter in 1980, the Marvelous One would defend his crown against a trio of recidivists in former champion Vito Antuofermo, Fulgencio Obelmejias, and Mustafa Hamsho. Along the rough road to becoming champion, Hagler violently avenged early losses to a pair of Philadelphia-based middleweights. Having already knocked out Willie ‘The Worm Monroe’ in two subsequent meetings, once in Boston and then back at the Spectrum to send a message to the Philly faithful, Hagler brutalized Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts on national television more than four years after being shamelessly swindled out of a victory in their first fight. In the dawn of his pro career, Marvin had twice dealt with the recycled likes of James Redford, Dornell Wingfall, Jimmy Owens, D.C. Walker, and Kevin Finnegan. Other than Willie Monroe, only Sugar Ray Seales would see fit to throw leather with Marvin Hagler on three occasions.      

“The first fight, we never knew anything about Marvin Hagler, not me or my team,” Seales confessed. “My promotional team at the time, they didn’t know what they were doing.” Nevertheless, Seales had begun his professional sojourn with twenty-one consecutive victories, twelve by way of knockout, and felt confident that “everybody wanted a shot at the Olympic gold medalist.”  

The bout, which was billed as a benefit for the United Way, occurred on August 30, 1974 before a few dozen spectators crammed around the ring assembled at the center of the open floor space of Boston’s WNAC-TV studio. “I thought it would be like an exhibition, where I could dance, get a chance to perform,” said Seales who, he would soon find out the hard way, was under a complete misapprehension. “It was freezing in there. I was shivering when I went into the ring,” Seales remembers about the fight’s unusual venue where a nineteen year-old Hagler had been showcased four months before and stopped Tracy Morrison on cuts. “Marvin came out dripping sweat. I knew I was losing after seeing that, but I hung with him and went the distance.” 

Warmed up and primed for action though Hagler may have been, Seales managed to get the better of him in the opening stanza. This advantage would be short-lived, however, when a right hook from Marvin in the second round came close to putting Seales on his back and swung the momentum in the Marvelous One’s direction where it would remain for more or less the duration of the fight. Being that it took place within the confines of a television studio, it seems safe to assume that the bout was broadcast in the Boston area but, if that was indeed the case, there is unfortunately no surviving footage. If the relatively thin margin on the scorecards is any indication (98-94, 97-95, and 97-93, all in favor of Hagler), Ray gave an exemplary account of himself in defeat, which was the first he had suffered. All things considered, Seales states, “I feel we were bamboozled.”  

A rematch was quickly signed, sealed, and delivered to the Seattle Coliseum. “I was having management problems and three months later I fought Hagler again, only this time at home in Tacoma,” recalls Seales. In the meantime, Ray had dispatched Les Riggins in the second round to improve to 22-1 while Marvin managed to squeeze in two quick and easy nights at the office, knocking out both Morris Jordan and the winless George Green, who Hagler stopped in 30 seconds and would retire in 1976 with ten losses in as many fights. 

With the return bout taking place in Seales’ backyard, he was well within reason in expecting to benefit from the same sort of home cooking, in the event of a close fight, that he surmised Hagler had gotten a taste of in their first go-round on his turf. Again, Ray would walk away disappointed. For that matter, Hagler, who the AP reported “survived an early boxing lesson and came on strong at the finish,” was no happy camper either when the decision was rendered as a majority draw. This would be as close as Marvin would come to losing as a professional before ultimately getting jobbed by the partisan Philly judges against ‘Boogaloo’ Watts at the Spectrum fourteen months later. 

Clay Nixon scored the bout 98-96 for Seales, who stood at center ring awaiting the verdict with “a badly bruised cheek and bleeding from the nose.” Frank Pignataro and William Kydd overruled Nixon’s decision by agreeing on identical tallies of 99-99. Like the first fight, the absence of visual documentation makes a contemporary reassessment frustratingly impossible. “The second fight, the draw, I whipped him,” Seales insists. “I know I won that one.” Furthermore, Ray claims, “He knows I beat him!”

Although Seales understandably wishes it were not so, CBS Sports aired a slightly tape-delayed broadcast of their 1979 rubber match which makes it the only one of the three that is available to watch. And it takes less than a minute and a half to do so. “You can’t watch the first two fights with Hagler today, only the third fight,” he laments. “They let you see me at my worst, not at my best!”

Seales’ fate seemed almost pre-determined, as things began to go awry well before the opening bell sounded at Boston Garden on the afternoon of February 3, 1979. Turmoil erupted between the Olympic champion’s handlers two days before, when trainer George Wright became incensed at Seales’ new manager for inviting female companions up to their hotel suite, threatening to quit and head home to Tacoma effectively immediately. Ray was brought before the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission the day after to see what he knew about a suspicious phone call from an individual from Alaska who claimed part-ownership of the fighter and was inquiring about the purse money involved so that he could calculate what his cut would amount to. The final distraction occurred in the locker room shortly before the fight when Seales was informed that his boxing trunks were the same color as Hagler’s maroon ring attire. This is a no-no for televised bouts, as the contrast gives both the broadcast team and viewing audience a visible point of reference to distinguish between the two combatants. Someone had to change, and it wasn’t going to be Marvin. Especially not in Boston.     

“I was the USBA and NABF middleweight champion and Hagler needed to win a title to get a world title shot,” Seales noted. Though the lineage of the NABF title is difficult to ascertain at times, Seales had taken custody of the belt with a unanimous decision victory over George Cooper in 1976. He then won the recently-minted USBA strap by outpointing Doug Demmings over fifteen rounds the following year. If Seales’ recollections are accurate and his championships were indeed on the line against Hagler, there is no official record of the titles changing hands and yet they both appear to have been subsequently vacated. Ronnie Harris would become the next short-term claimant of the NABF title, while Curtis Parker was next in line to capture the USBA belt. Seales would reclaim the NABF title in 1981 with a fifth-round knockout of Sammy Nesmith before dropping it to the up-and-coming James Shuler a year and a half later. But, let’s pick up the action at Boston Garden.

The two fighters meet at center ring and circle around one other, extending a jab or two of the getting-to-know-you variety despite having gotten acquainted over twenty rounds previously. Of course, that was four years ago and a lot had changed since then, especially for the vastly-improved Hagler who had honed his craft to championship level and rode a sixteen-fight win streak into Boston. Seales had run up a more than respectable record of 46-5-2 by that time, but was coming off a close loss to Ayub Kalule three months before.  

Marvin dispensed with the pleasantries after roughly twenty seconds, pivoting suddenly and sharply from his southpaw stance to orthodox, arching his right foot and swiveling his hip to generate maximum velocity behind the right hook that he unleashed like the hounds of hell upon Seales’ chin. It all took place in the blink of an eye. His equilibrium immediately destabilized, Ray’s limbs are unable to correspond with one another or come to a consensus on obeying commands from his central nervous system. His back foot lifts off the canvas from the force of the blow while the right remains momentarily planted before finally joining its counterpart in an uncoordinated retreat. Not that there was anywhere to go except for the nearest corner, nor was there sufficient time to get there. Hagler saw to that by wasting no time in following up with a left hook that sent Seales tumbling onto his backside. 

“I’m going to kill him,” Hagler had promised himself back on the beach in Provincetown.

Regaining his footing, Ray shakes his head in disbelief as if puzzled by how things had gone so terribly so quickly as referee Tommy Rawson administers a standing eight count and wipes off his gloves. Seales manages to flash a smile, maybe reassuring himself as much as Rawson, before marching back into battle where Hagler, one of the most ruthless finishers in the fight game, moves in for the kill. Hagler walks Ray down as Seales attempts to fend off his predator by stabbing out with a few defensive punches thrown with the intent of self-preservation. A straight right lead from Hagler initiates an ambidextrous three-punch salvo that culminates with a pair of hooks delivered with the left hand and then the right in bewilderingly quick succession, and down goes Seales for the second time. 

“They can’t stop me,” Marvin had vowed.

By way of strenuous effort exerted largely through muscle memory, not to mention a show of great courage, heart, and recuperative power, Ray somehow hauls himself up to a vertical position, using the ropes for leverage. Having beaten the count, Tommy Rawson allows Seales to continue, but the stay of execution is issued with a miserly time limit. Hagler bounds out of the neutral corner directly toward Seales and cleanly lands the very next punch, a thunderous left hook that sends Ray collapsing face first onto the canvas, his shoulder thankfully absorbing some of the impact as he pitches forward at a slight angle. Rawson’s count is conducted for strictly academic purposes as Seales gets up after two groggy attempts, but wobbles about like a kite in a gentle breeze, remaining aloft only because the ring strands at his back permit it. Just like that, the fight was over.         

“I’ll kill them all,” swore Hagler, who now had another notch to add to the belt he did not yet possess.   

“We were two left-handers, but he switched to right-handed, and he caught me with a hook,” recapped Sugar Ray Seales. “I got paid and they bought him a world title fight.” A world title contender, as Seales ruefully pointed out, Hagler brought home a $15,000 paycheck for eighty-six seconds worth of work, a meager sum that equaled the biggest purse he had earned to that point. 

Not until he was threatened with a Congressional investigation by Ted Kennedy, Paul Tsongas, and Tip O’Neill did Top Rank’s head honcho Bob Arum finally make good on his long-standing guarantee to deliver Marvin a championship bout. Promised shortly before the third contest with Sugar Ray Seales that he would oppose the winner of the upcoming title fight between current middleweight king Hugo Pastor Corro and Vito Antuofermo, which was delayed twice before Vito could claim the crown courtesy of a fifteen-round split decision that June, Hagler rattled off three stay-busy knockouts in the nine months between squaring off against Seales and Antuofermo. We all remember the robbery at Caesars Palace that took place five months later, as well as the coronation which was disrupted by an atrocious display of hooliganism inside Wembley Arena. 

Marvin Hagler did make one return trip to Seattle in January 1984 to reacquaint himself with Sugar Ray Seales. Not for the purpose of defending his title, but to attend a fundraiser at the Tacoma Dome benefitting his former three-time ring rival. Faced with the reality of dangerously diminishing eyesight and nearly $100,000 worth of outstanding medical bills, Seales had forcibly retired the year before upon the demand of his trainer George Wright and retinal specialist Richard Chenowith, both of whom had Ray’s personal attorney Tim Lowenberg draft an affidavit revealing the sad truth that the boxer was totally blind in his left eye and legally blind in the right. 

After getting thumbed in the eye by Jamie Thomas in their 1980 bout, Seales was diagnosed with a detached retina and underwent corrective surgery to repair the damage. Not only did Seales share a ring moniker with Hagler’s nemesis Ray Leonard, they had both been Olympic gold medalists and would soon have this unfortunate plight in common. It goes without saying that the comparisons end there. The boxing gods would smile far more kindly upon Leonard than his Olympic compatriot, including a controversial decision over Marvin Hagler which sent the Marvelous One into a self-imposed exile in Italy where he still lives to this day. 

Seales would later have his other eye operated on as well, concealing the severity of his deteriorating vision from state athletic commissions by falsifying information on applications to obtain licenses for several subsequent fights, inconceivably winning all but the James Shuler bout and scoring a first-round knockout of Max Hord in what would be his fistic curtain call.

Happy to appear at the benefit on behalf of Sugar Ray Seales, Hagler joined an all-star lineup which included Muhammad Ali, Ray ‘Boob Boom’ Mancini, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, and Sammy Davis Jr., who would bring his Las Vegas Review to Seattle, renaming it “The Candy Man Sings for Sugar” for this special occasion. Sadly, the fundraiser was in danger of being canceled due to poor advanced ticket sales and, though the show would go on, the event filled only 4,000 of the Tacoma Dome’s 25,000 seats and wound up losing approximately $26,000 after all expenses were paid.      

Living in Indianapolis these days, Seales proudly wears his Olympic gold medal around his neck wherever he goes, whether it is a personal appearance to help promote the Indiana Boxing Hall of Fame which was established in 2018, or training aspiring fighters at the Indy Boxing and Grappling gym, or simply running errands around town. Even if he has spent the last four decades literally shadowboxing his way through life because of what a bittersweet experience the fight game proved to be for the Sugar man, prizefighting is still and always will be in his blood. Although Ray’s vision was  permanently compromised, his optimistic outlook remains intact.   

“I can see better in here,” Seales says, referring to the boxing gym. “Because this is where I belong.”

     

Sources:

boxrec.com

Candy Man Sang for Sugar, But the Turnout Was Sour (Jet Magazine, February 13, 1984)

Michael Katz. Hagler Awaits a Title Shot (New York Times, February 2, 1979, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1979/02/02/archives/hagler-awaits-a-title-shot-the-bitter-taste-of-boxing.html)

Zak Keefer. He’s Nearly Blind. He’s Flat Broke. But He Carries Olympic Gold in His Pocket. (Delaware Online, April 12, 2018, accessed at https://www.delawareonline.com/story/sports/2018/04/12/blind-and-broke-boxing-champ-whos-teaching-indys-youth/498411002)

George Kimball. Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing (McBooks Press, 2008)

Marvin Hagler/Sugar Ray Seales III (accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_UedQFTVRM)

William Plummer. Boxing’s Sugar Ray Seales Gambled His Eyesight on a Championship—and Lost (People Magazine, February 27, 1984, accessed at https://people.com/archive/boxings-sugar-ray-seales-gambled-his-eyesight-on-a-championship-and-lost-vol-21-no-8/)

Ringside. The Remarkable Boxing Journey of 1972 Olympic Champ ‘Sugar’ Ray Seales (World Boxing News, April 10, 2020, accessed at https://www.worldboxingnews.net/2020/04/10/remarkable-boxing-journey-1972-olympic-champ-sugar-ray-seales)

James Slater. Sugar Ray Seales Exclusive Interview: “I Whipped Hagler” (Boxing 24/7, August 7, 2019, accessed at https://www.boxing247.com/boxing-news/sugar-ray-seales-exclusive-interview-i-whipped-hagler/124903)

The Tale of Two Sugar Rays Boxing Documentary (accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huG3CU0GN2k)

UPI. The Plight of Blind and Broke Sugar Ray Seales (UPI Archives, January 6, 1984, accessed at https://www.upi.com/Archives/1984/01/06/The-plight-of-blind-and-broke-former-boxer-Sugar/5857442213200)