They were just nine fights between four men over 10 years. But the bouts in the 1980s between Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns changed a sport and the way we judge it forever.
They became known as “The Four Kings” and captivated the world with their talent, machismo, tenacity and competitiveness. Hearns, the youngest of them by three years, is now 62 years old and retired for 15 years, yet they all maintain outsized presences in their sport.
An argument could be made that each of the rivals deserves a place among the 25 greatest boxers who ever lived.
The late Boston Herald boxing writer George Kimball wrote a book on their rivalry called “The Four Kings,” and Steve Marantz wrote an excellent one on Leonard-Hagler called “Sorcery at Caesars.”
On Sunday, Showtime will premiere a four-part documentary on them known simply as “The Kings.”
It is a compelling and fantastic look at not only their in-ring rivalries, but how their times shaped them and the perception of them.
The series will debut on the same night that Floyd Mayweather, the greatest of the current generation, will return for an exhibition match with social media creator Logan Paul in a Showtime Pay-Per-View bout.
“You can’t compare my era to what has come afterward,” Duran told Yahoo Sports by telephone from his home in Panama. “After our era, there are no more extraordinary boxers who jumped off the page like we did.”
They were unique boxers from varied backgrounds. Duran grew up in harsh conditions in Panama at a time when U.S. forces were occupying part of the country. Leonard, Hearns and Hagler were Americans, but they had divergent paths.
Hagler was the biggest of the three and fought almost exclusively at middleweight. He was dominant from the mid-'70s to 1980, but he was avoided and not getting a title shot.
Top Rank’s Bob Arum, who promoted the four, told Yahoo Sports in 2017 that it took threats from then-Speaker of the House "Tip" O’Neill and then-Senator Ted Kennedy for Hagler to get a title shot.
“He was a guy who had the reputation of being surly and not having the greatest personality,” Arum said. “He wasn’t a guy people were begging to work with.”
O’Neill and Kennedy were from Massachusetts, as was Hagler, and they wrote to Arum urging him to give Hagler a shot at the middleweight title.
“It scared the s*** out of me,” Arum said in 2017. “I was like, ‘OK, OK, we’ll get him in there.’”
Leonard came from the suburbs in Maryland and earned a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, arguably the greatest American amateur boxing team ever put together. He became an instant star with his dazzling smile, pleasing demeanor and otherworldly skills in the ring.
Hearns was raised in poverty in Detroit and literally punched his way to prominence. Duran became known as the greatest lightweight of all-time before moving up to challenge Leonard for the welterweight title in 1980.
That, Duran said, was what was expected of fighters. He said the reason for fights against YouTube stars and NBA players escaped him.
Part of the reason for their popularity nearly 40 years later, Duran said, is the willingness of each of the kings to challenge the best opponents possible. Duran was rankled when Mayweather’s self-styled nickname, “TBE,” or “The Best Ever,” was mentioned.
“Mayweather couldn’t possibly be the best of all-time because he didn’t fight in the era of ‘The Four Kings:’ Duran, Leonard, Hagler, Hearns,” Duran said. “He fought nobody, really. Like Leonard said, if Mayweather had fought in the era that we were in, he would have gone nowhere.
“If he’s fighting an exhibition, that’s totally fine. He’s at a point in his life that he doesn’t need to be out there challenging anyone. But in our time, we all believed we were the best and we wanted to fight each other to prove that.”
Roberto Duran: 'Leonard was just outstanding to me'
Duran was 1-4 against the other kings. He defeated Leonard in 1980 to win the welterweight title in a compelling bout, handing Leonard his first career defeat. Leonard stopped Duran in the eighth round of the rematch five months later in what became known as “The No Mas Fight,” in which Duran quit in the middle of the fight as he was being outboxed.
They fought again in 1989 when they were past their primes and Leonard won a decision. Duran lost a close 15-round decision to Hagler in a middleweight title fight in 1983 and eight months later, was knocked out in the second by Hearns in a super welterweight championship match.
But it didn’t take long for him to pick his most difficult rival.
“Leonard was just outstanding to me,” Duran said. “He wasn’t like most Americans who would try to punch and then run away. He went in there and tried to beat the s*** out of you. He was always willing to exchange punches. In making the distinction between them, Hagler wasn’t as smart inside the ring as Leonard was, and that’s what made Leonard so unique.
“He was smart, he was aggressive, he had a great fighting style. I respect him so much.”
Fewer boxers have been tied as closely together after their careers have been over than Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns. They produced fireworks in and out of the ring.
That they remain compelling figures so long after they walked away from the sport speaks volumes to their skills and their impact upon the world.
The documentary is brilliantly done and is can’t-miss television.
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