Tony Sibson ventured into the Worcester Centrum two days before fight night. Not to engage in some obligatory last-minute public relations to promote his challenge for the world middleweight title, which certainly was not wanting for supplementary ballyhoo, but to see Johnny Cash perform in concert. Better than that, Sibbo was given VIP backstage treatment by the Man in Black himself. “He was one of my heroes and he sat there in his dressing room jamming for me,” Tony later recollected. “Boxing, and all sports, can take you places you never dreamed you would go.”
It’s probably safe to assume that Worcester, Massachusetts was not on Sibson’s list of places he dreamed of going as an apple-cheeked youngster in Leicester, England or, for that matter, as a respected middleweight contender who had fought on foreign soil just once to that point. Especially seeing as how his arrival in America was greeted unceremoniously by one of New England’s typically severe mid-winter blizzards. Neither the locale nor the weather seemed to dampen Sibson’s enthusiasm.
“I’m excited about fighting him because I think he’s the best middleweight probably since Sugar Ray Robinson,” Sibson rhapsodized about Marvin Hagler. “And I say that even though Carlos Monzon was my boyhood idol.”
All 13,577 seats inside the recently christened Worcester Centrum had sold out well within forty-eight hours of the press conference announcing that world middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler would be putting his crown on the line there against top contender Tony Sibson. Construction began on the new arena located in the central region of the Bay State in December 1977 and it wasn’t until September 2, 1982 that the Centrum first welcomed paying customers through the turnstiles when Frank Sinatra brought his scaled-up lounge act to town.
After Ol’ Blue Eyes crooned to the swooning masses, but before Johnny Cash unleashed his melodious murder ballads onto his legions of faithful followers in Worcester—Tony Sibson among them, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden stopped through town on their 1982 co-headlining tour, Van Halen set up shop for a three-night stand that October—as did the J. Geils Band on New Year’s Eve and the first two days of 1983, and other acts as diverse as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, the Charlie Daniels Band, The Who, and KISS all tried their best to blow the roof off the Centrum.
No stacks of Marshall amplifiers would be required to test the integrity of the structure on the night of February 11, 1983, when a capacity crowd would be on hand at 50 Foster Street in Worcester to rock the rafters on behalf of Marvin Hagler who may have originally come from Newark, New Jersey but had long since called Rocky Marciano’s birthplace of Brockton, Massachusetts home.
“Certainly in the area of sports it’s hands down the biggest thing we’ve had, or will have, for a while,” said Brian Weiner, publicist for the Centrum which outbid the Boston Garden for the rights to the Hagler and Sibson title fight. This was a major coup for the fledgling venue as the Garden had hosted Marvin Hagler on eleven previous occasions, from a fifth-round knockout of Bob Harrington in only his ninth professional fight on a 1974 card featuring the legendary Emile Griffith to the Marvelous One’s first two middleweight title defenses against Fulgencio Obelmejias and former champion Vito Antuofermo, both in 1981. The significance of this was not lost on Weiner who elaborated, “For the first fight to be the world champion fighting the top world contender, you can’t have a better match and you just can’t get a bigger formula for success.”
Michael Dukakis even issued an official proclamation from his governor’s office which began, “It is with great pleasure that I, like thousands of other Massachusetts residents, congratulate the people of Worcester County on the return of world championship boxing to the Commonwealth.” The press release went on to say, “Concerts, championship fights, basketball and hockey games, ice shows, expositions, theatre presentations, and many other family events are but some of the presentations you’ll be able to enjoy over the coming months and years. Good luck…and enjoy.”
Symbolically, the Revolutionary War was set in motion due in part to small-scale rebellions such as the one carried out by radical Worcester colonists in September 1774. Dozens of militiamen seized the local courthouse and refused entry to the Crown’s appointees who were set to begin a new session. Instead, the magistrates were herded into Daniel Heywood Tavern where they were forced to sign statements renouncing their commission by King George III. No shots were fired and no blood was shed. The same could not be said of the Battle of Worcester which would occur at the Centrum 209 years later.
“The British people want nothing more than to take him home a hero. They’ve led him on, and they’ve led him to destruction,” declared Marvin Hagler with his typical sneering contempt. “But he’s courageous. That’s good. I won’t have to look for him.” Marvin might as well have been licking his chops while favorably assessing Tony Sibson’s style in comparison to the herky-jerky movements of Vito Antuofermo he had been forced to contend with. “This guy here stands up more,” said Hagler of Sibson. “He stands outside. I know he can’t outbox me there.”
Marvin Hagler and Tony Sibson were like two sides of the same coin, both introverted power-punching 160-pounders who came to boxing’s big stage by way of humble blue collar work in hardscrabble hometowns. Sibson was a converted lefthander and a carefree spirit (sometimes to his detriment) whose barrel chest and broad back supported a stocky, beer-keg frame capped off with a Beatles-style mop-top head of hair.
The switch-hitting southpaw Hagler, on the other hand, was quite literally lean and mean. His shaved head and goatee only served to accentuate Marvin’s scary intensity, and his slender body was a sculpted masterpiece of angled, rigid muscle. “When I’m not fighting, I try to be a good human being,” Hagler assured the public. “Instead of the terrible monster you see in the ring.”
Seeking cold comfort in the harsh New England winter with the reality of standing toe-to-toe with Marvelous Marvin Hagler no doubt creating a chilling effect all its own, it seems only natural that Tony Sibson would establish a home away from home in nearby Leicester. A mere six-plus miles from Worcester, there was some semblance of familiarity to be enjoyed in the fact that the Massachusetts town had taken its name from Sibson’s stomping grounds over in England. Never mind that he found its American counterpart to be a little “too built up” for his taste.
Dozens of Sibbo’s countrymen similarly made the trek across the Atlantic to cheer on the world title contender despite the fact that Tony was a 7-to-2 underdog even in London’s betting parlors. The odds were stacked so high against Sibson in the States that Las Vegas reportedly didn’t even bother to put an official line on the bout. “If Sibson wins, he’ll go home a national hero. If I win, I’ll just go home,” admitted a lachrymose if pragmatic Marvin Hagler who was well aware of the value he contributed to the proud tradition of the middleweight division, even if some were reluctant to concur with his sense of self-worth.
Sibson had earned the esteemed status as Hagler’s mandatory challenger by toughing out a win over Dwight ‘Dynamite’ Davison in a WBC title eliminator in Birmingham almost a year before. One of the more underrated Detroit-based boxers who fought out of the star-making Kronk gym, Davison boasted impressive victories over the likes of Murray Sutherland, Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe, Doug Demmings, Jamie Thomas, Sugar Ray Seales, Curtis Parker, and Wilford Scypion. He lost only once prior to tangling with Sibson in a huge upset by way of a unanimous decision which went to Robbie Epps on the Larry Holmes vs. Trevor Berbick undercard at Caesars Palace.
Five months prior to defeating Davison, Tony Sibson made the boxing community sit up and take notice when he demolished recently unseated world middleweight champion and former sparring partner Alan Minter inside of three rounds at Wembley Arena. The setting and outcome of Minter’s title defense against Marvin Hagler the year before were identical. Actually, Hagler needed fourteen fewer seconds than Sibson to violently snatch the 160-pound crown from off of Minter’s bloody cranium amidst shameful hostility raining down from Wembley’s cheap seats where nationalist hooligans hurled beer bottles at the new champion.
Win, lose, or draw, Sibbo was guaranteed a $537,000 payday, by far his biggest to date. Hagler, as the star attraction and defending undisputed champion, would make $1.1 million. All things considered, not too shabby for the likeable lad from Leicester who elevated his station in life from grinding out a humble, meager existence in abattoirs and on construction sites to gaining renown and respect by winning British, Commonwealth, and European boxing titles.
Word started to get around that Sibson had been curiously abstaining from sparring, at least since touching down in Massachusetts if not before. “I seldom spar too close to a fight anyway,” Tony said dismissively at the time. “How can I beat up my sparring partners and then go take showers with them?” These self-effacing remarks were consistent with Sibson’s laissez faire demeanor but raised eyebrows nevertheless, and the concern was warranted as Tony would admit after the fact.
“I got injured and couldn’t spar for six weeks before the fight, and that was a massive blow because that’s how you get your distance and timing,” he later divulged. Sibson sublimated this with increased endurance training by running half-marathons every day, hoping if he could last the distance with Hagler inside the ring that all else would somehow fall into place along the way.
“I’ve got the power, the strength, and maybe the awkwardness to beat Hagler,” surmised Tony Sibson. “I watched him for three days in his last fight against Fulgencio Obelmejias in San Remo, Italy. I respected much of what he did, the way he is able to dismiss outside interference. I’m going to be like for that for this fight. But I got so close to Hagler on that stage in San Remo that I could read his thoughts,” he continued with a display of bravado. “He got caught with certain punches early on that he cannot afford to take from me. That’s an absolute guarantee.”
Specifically citing the recent death of Duk Koo Kim following his nationally televised war of attrition with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, the WBC implemented a rule change in December 1982 limiting championship fights to twelve rounds rather than fifteen. Good intentions notwithstanding, the announcement was met with mixed reactions. Even the grief-stricken Mancini, for example, referred to the precautionary measure as “a farce.” WBC president Jose Sulaiman waived this stipulation for the Hagler/Sibson bout due to the fact that the fight contract had been signed prior to the new directive having taken effect.
Furthermore, Sulaiman relented to a regulation on the books kept by the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission which allowed for the referee, Carlos Padilla in this case, to score the fight in addition to two assigned judges. Tony Perez and Marcello Bertini would preside over the Centrum’s main event from ringside. As it would turn out, the point tallies and additional rounds were rendered meaningless by Marvin Hagler’s fists.
“It’s just you and me now,” Sibson had said during the morning weigh-in, poking at Hagler physically as well as verbally. Whether his motivation was to try and bully the bully or simply psyche himself up for the unenviable task ahead, this was an ill-advised mind game. When it finally came down to just the two of them at center ring inside the Worcester Centrum, Hagler wasted no time getting to work. Marvin was in the destruct and destroy business, and business was good. Hagler’s first two right jabs connected cleanly, the second snapping Sibson’s head back and followed up by a straight left that also hit its mark.
The champion quickly established an upbeat tempo with varied, irregular beats to keep Sibson off pace and unable to get into a rhythm of his own. Another rapid fire one-two, a double jab, a left lead, a single jab, a rat-a-tat-tat three-punch combination that consisted of a short right uppercut, straight left, and right hook. Less than a minute into the first round, Marvin Hagler made it quite clear that he would keep Sibson at arm’s length with his 75-inch reach and ramrod jab then make the Brit pay a heavy price for his walk-forward aggression and preference for fighting in phonebooth-type proximity. That cost would only get steeper.
As the fighters emerged from their corners for the second round, Sibson’s face was already beginning to exhibit signs of discoloration and swelling. Hagler continued to force feed his challenger a steady diet of punishing jabs just seconds later and Sibson ate each one. Exactly as he had in the opening stanza, Hagler threw a lead right uppercut which landed flush and set up a straight left followed by a right hook. With increasing frequency, Sibson did manage to sneak inside of Marvin’s range-finding jabs long enough to make contact to both the body and head but this success was negligible and fleeting as Hagler would return fire or tie him up, subsequently regaining the momentum with both the volume and precision of his punches.
As he was wont to do, Hagler changed stances in the first half of the fourth round in rapid fashion and random patterns so that the difference was nearly undetectable but served to further confuse Sibson’s footing and timing. Another distraction presented itself to the challenger within those same three minutes, as Tony began pawing at his nose which was now bleeding profusely from the blunt force trauma of Hagler’s right jab.
One more matter for Sibson to pay mind to was the grisly cut above his swollen left eye which was sliced open by three consecutive Hagler jabs early in the fifth which compelled him to fight with renewed urgency and an obvious sense of desperation. A furious exchange in the closing moments of the round culminated with Sibson landing a left hook after the bell. A perturbed Hagler lifted his right glove threateningly while boring through Sibson with a menacing scowl. Sibson made an earnest attempt to quell the situation by repeatedly patting Marvin on the cheek although, given the heightened level of aggression with which Hagler responded in the sixth and ultimately final round, the apologetic gesture didn’t seem to have the impact Tony had hoped for.
Like a shark swimming intently toward blood in the water, Marvin came bounding off his stool for the sixth round and focused his attack on Sibson’s left eye, employing those lethal right jabs to rip open a fresh wound originating at the bridge of Tony’s nose. Though Sibson’s vision was compromised, his heart was not. He soldiered forward valiantly, standing and trading with the champion at center ring, but Hagler made him hop in place with two hard right hands and his number was just about up. Glancing hooks thrown with both the left and right hands while Sibson was in a defensive crouch sent the challenger to the canvas, but it seemed to be the straight right that landed high on Tony’s temple that was the culprit, causing a delayed neural response which deposited him on the seat of his pants while the partisan Worcester crowd erupted.
There was more distress still for the beleaguered Brit. Veteran promoter and matchmaker Mickey Duff was among Sibson’s seconds that night and couldn’t fathom why his fighter, once he had regained an upright posture, turned toward them to expose his backside. It seems that Sibson’s groin guard had snapped and was, in his own words, “hanging off my bum and bouncing around in my shorts.” With the benefit of this knowledge in hindsight (pardon the pun), you can plainly see him squirming around in obvious discomfort and fidgeting with his waistband. “I wanted them to cut it off (the protector) in my corner, but they could hardly cut my shorts off in the middle of the fight,” Sibson later clarified. “How could I concentrate on the fight with all that was going on downstairs?” For what it’s worth, this would not be a concern much longer.
One of the fight game’s most fearsome finishers, Hagler dismantled the broken down man before him in a way that was paradoxically merciless yet merciful. Not surprisingly, it was a series of punishing right hands that spelled disaster, some taking a direct route toward Sibson’s skull and others looping in from around the corner while a pair of killshots arrived at their fatal destination by way of a Marciano-like overhand clubbing motion even as Tony crumpled to the mat in a heap of smashed flesh and bone. Muscle memory and admirable resiliency prompted Sibson to his feet in a matter of moments, but referee Carlos Padilla had seen enough as Tony stumbled about like an inebriate unaware of his physical limitations who had just been ejected from a pub before closing time. Indeed, he had had one too many. Rather than whiskey shots poured by a negligent barkeep, it was right hand shots delivered by Marvin Hagler that brought a premature and rather undignified end to his evening.
Even so, Sibson had the presence of mind to give Hagler a congratulatory hug just before Marvin’s lifelong trainer Goody Petronelli hoisted him into the air where the conquering hero enjoyed the spoils of victory, draping himself in his WBC and WBA title belts and blowing kisses to the adoring fans crammed inside the Centrum which, on this night, he claimed as his personal kingdom. Despite the rousing success the event had been for all involved, with the obvious exception of Tony Sibson, Hagler would not fight at the Worcester Centrum again.
“For me, it was the most frustrating six rounds of my life. Looking back, what happened with my protector was quite comical, I suppose,” submitted Sibson. “I did my best, but I was just a kid. I don’t believe he was fitter than me and I always had a puncher’s chance, but his technique was better. And so was his protector,” he laughed. In a more sobering moment of self-reflection, Sibson declared, “I never believed anyone could do to me what he did. After the fight I had a couple of Cokes and then looked into the mirror. I said, ‘God almighty!’ I didn’t know fighters could look like this. That Hagler is an artist in there.”
Marvin Hagler retrospectively put Sibson in the same company as John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi as the strongest opponent he ever faced. “I remember seeing Tony Sibson at the weigh-in. This guy was strong,” recounted Hagler. “I remember he hit me on the chest, he looked much stronger and bigger than me, and he’s supposed to be a middleweight.”
Asked by HBO’s Larry Merchant to evaluate Tony Sibson as a credible threat to his title reign during the fight night postmortem, Marvin Hagler replied, “I tried to move away from his left hook. I realized that was his big punch. I’ve been in there with some of the great fighters, you know? But right now I’m starting to think I am the greatest middleweight of all-time. I wanted to bring this recognition to the middleweights, now I have to start giving myself credit because I beat a hell of a fighter here today.”
Marvin responded to Merchant’s insistence that his status among the greats was a matter for others to determine by professing, “I feel I’m getting better all the time with every fight, and when I’m finished with this game that’s the way I want to go down in history.”
His subsequent wins over Roberto Duran, Juan Domingo Roldan, Thomas Hearns, and John Mugabi were the stuff legends are made of, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler could not be denied his place in history or the boxing hall of fame or the hearts of fight fans the world over.
Patrick Bernstein. Setting The Record Straight: The Worcester Revolt of September 6, 1774 (Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution, January 23, 2013)
Matt Bozeat. The Night Marvin Hagler Snapped My Groin Guard (Boxing News Online—accessed at https://www.boxingnewsonline.net/the-night-when-marvin-hagler-snapped-my-groin-guard)
Andrew Harrison. In Proper Style: Tony Sibson in America (Hannibal Boxing Media, February 7, 2019)
Michael Katz. Hagler vs. Sibson: Battle of Workmen (New York Times, February 11, 1983)
Pat Putnam. Another Small Step Toward Greatness (Sports Illustrated, February 21, 1983)
Anson Wainwright. The Best I Faced: Marvelous Marvin Hagler (ringtv.com, April 20, 2020)
Battle of Worcester: Hagler vs. Sibson Official Onsite Program
12 Round Limit for WBC (AP report, New York Times, December 10, 1982)
Centrum Beats Out Boston Garden For Hagler Fight (UPI Archives, December 13, 1982)
Marvin Hagler vs. Tony Sibson Full Broadcast (YouTube, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8uNVMC_oMU&t=1051s)