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How the Hagler-Leonard superfight changed the combat sports landscape

Hagler vs. Leonard

Thirty years ago this week and long before Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor were in the public consciousness, a true pugilistic "superfight" took place.

On Monday, April 6, 1987, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler made the thirteenth defense of his world middleweight championship against “Sugar” Ray Leonard. And, when it was over, the wildly popular Leonard, returning from his second retirement, had clawed out a 12-round split decision victory.

Controversial and passion-inducing - as so many all-time great tilts are - the outcome of “The Superfight” as it was billed, only told one part of that night’s story. Side sagas abounded, some which have helped to cement a foundation that has lasted to this day.

To that point, Leonard vs. Hagler became the most-ordered boxing pay-per-view ever with an estimated 150,000 buys in a wired universe that was under five million homes. Las Vegas hotel and casino Caesars Palace established a record bid for a site fee, putting up $6.7 million for the right to hold the event. 12,379 paid come through the turnstiles, generating a record-breaking gate of $6.2 million.

The show also established a high-water mark for fighter purses as well as Hagler was guaranteed $12 million, while Leonard took home $11 million.

Hagler earned more than Leonard, but not for the obvious reason of coming into the bout as the defending champion. Instead, it was due to accepting a deal which would see the fighter paid off with a percentage of what the fight grossed, as opposed to a flat fee. By doing so, Hagler raked in millions upon millions more.

Leonard, who long distrusted promoters, including Top Rank Incorporated maven Bob Arum, instead negotiated for the largest guarantee ever received. And, while $11 million was still an incredible payday, the deal that was turned down reportedly featured an $8 million base guarantee, plus a thirty percent slice of all closed circuit and pay-per-view revenue, which was reported later to be upwards of 2.5 million viewers combined that night. (Though, Leonard’s deal did grant the Palmer Park, Maryland, native half of all Baltimore-Washington DC territorial closed-circuit profits, as well.)

Recalling the bout during an November 1989 interview with The New York Times, Arum opined that because he didn’t have to share any profit with Leonard, Top Rank cleared “$4 million to $5 million.”

Two days after the event, The Boston Globe wrote, “If the projected combined revenue... is accurate, Leonard may have sacrificed a lot of money by insisting on a straight $11 million guarantee, supposedly because he didn't trust promoter Bob Arum's counting.” Which led to Arum reportedly sighing, “I wouldn't trust me either.”

Utilizing the spaciousness of the 20-foot ring Leonard’s camp had negotiated, “Sugar” would attempt to evade trouble for much of the round, avoiding exchanges with his heavier hitting opponent and attemping to steal rounds with dazzling displays of defensive prowess and punching speed. A universal betting underdog coming into the fight, the technique earned Leonard a highly controversial decision with its fallout echoing throughout the sports world quickly.

Fans of Leonard rejoiced. Conversely, fans of Hagler were incensed. Feeling as though Leonard was consistently beaten through a majority of most rounds, and relied solely on dazzle, some fans and many in the media would ponder aloud if such controversial decisions would finally be the nail in the sport's coffin.

Judging from the thirty years that have followed, the answer is a resounding no.

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A superfight in every sense of the word, a week leading into the bout, Steve Marantz penned this in The Boston Globe:

“As hammers pounded at ringside, the whole city throbbed in anticipation of the event. It is expected to lure 200,000 visitors and pump about $300 million into the local economy, according to hotel officials. All 60,000 of the city's hotel rooms are booked, and the 20,000 seats for closed-circuit telecasts at six hotels are sold out… The bout already is setting sales records, according to Arum. In New York City, Tavern on the Green restaurant sold out its 1,000 seats at $125 each.

"Radio City Music Hall sold 6,000 seats at $60… Indications are that two million closed-circuit seats will be filled, and 700,000 homes will buy the bout on a pay-per-view basis, Arum said. By comparison, when Hagler-Hearns took place in 1985, about 700,000 closed- circuit seats were sold, and about 100,000 homes bought it as pay-per-view.”

It were those 100,000 homes, paying around $25 each, that continued to sound an alarm to the powers-that-be in canvassed matted promotions. That alarm started a few years prior when Leonard fought the other two members of the legendary 80s foursome he and Hagler would be associated with: Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns.

Despite closed circuit arena gatherings still ruling the roost, the past success of Leonard’s bouts against Duran (1980) and Hearns (1981) opened the eyes of keen observers, including Arum, as to the future of audience participation. For Leonard’s fight against Hagler, the promoter focused on the rising interest of the new technology by severely limiting access of clubs, restaurants, and bars to show the event, instead concentrating on closed circuit and home pay-per-view only.

On June 22, 1986, a day before Arum promoted a pay-per-view between Hearns and Mark Medal, The Los Angeles Times talked to him about his philosophy when it comes to the burgeoning technology, writing: “With risk comes reward. With some 3.5 million homes wired for this kind of event, and with a traditional average of a 5% sale, Arum calculates 175,000 buyers. Of the $15 they pay, Arum collects $8 a head. Do your own math, but it tends to work out to a nice profit of $1 million for Arum's Top Rank company.”

By the time Leonard and Hagler rolled around the next year, the bout’s suggested retail price would be set by Arum at $34.99-39.99. While some bristled, the promoter correctly predicted that consumers would be able to justify it due to the magnitude of the matchup and the hullabaloo which surrounded it.

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Premium cable channel HBO paid Top Rank $3.1 million dollars to rebroadcast the bout only four days later, much to the chagrin of cable operators and closed circuit facilitators. Believing that kind of turnaround was too quick, pundits were already complaining the station, which often reaired bouts only seven days after they took place, was ultimately bastardizing live viewership.

Theories that consumers would be content to wait were shot down quickly. The desire to be “in the moment” of an event would only grow in the upcoming years, which happened to coincide with the rise of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Pay-per-view replays airing the following Saturday on both HBO and Showtime would become an accepted practice by the end of the 1990s.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports would lock up network broadcast rights, which was a practice that had already began moving in the opposite direction. With premium networks, who also handled the show’s production, taking on larger roles, paying increasingly larger sums, and growing in overall reach, the practice of allowing for over-the-air networks to rebroadcast big fights in a timely fashion became passe.

Despite the hopes that the highly decorated 1984 United States Olympic team would spark interest, by 1987, networks were still reeling from the brutal 1982 encounter between Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Duk-koo Kim on CBS which resulted in Kim’s death from a subdural hematoma. That tragedy, along with being squeezed out of the top tier fights, difficulty in negotiating with some of the sport’s personalities, and general consumer/advertiser interest waning, network sports executives had already begun losing their zeal for the boxing business. And, to this day, not much has changed.

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An ardent boxing supporter for many years, Anheuser-Busch brewery’s flagship product, Budweiser, invested heavily into the “Superfight” promotion, incorporating the event into its own advertising, and using its relentless presence across media platforms to saturate the marketplace. In doing so, Budweiser would set a standard for future events which would continue to evolve as the pay-per-view boxing industry did.