Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. John “the Beast” Mugabi: the Boxing Battle

Ugandan boxer John “the Beast” Mugabi’s professional opponents prior to the encounter with legendary African-American world middle-weight boxing champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler (formerly Nathaniel Marvin Hagler until he legalized his boxing nickname, “Marvelous”) were a mixture of weak, mediocre and commendable fighters. Mugabi was born on March 4, 1960 in the Uganda region of Buganda. Mugabi’s strengths were speed, intimidation, audacity, strength, and punching power. Mugabi was mainly a fast-stalking head hunter more than a body puncher, and he was not much of a defensive fighter.

In his initial professional boxing career, Mugabi was progressively pitted against opponents of higher quality from the time he became a professional in Europe. Mugabi’s first fight was in Germany in early December of 1980. Thereby he knocked out Oemer Karadenis of Turkey who had previously only won a fight out of three and had been knocked out in all the three that he lost. In February the next year, Mugabi was again in Germany in the ring with Italian-born Giampaolo Piras. Piras’ record of 4 wins and 66 losses was remarkably unimpressive! By 1984, Mugabi was being matched with opponents with generally good boxing records. The penultimate opponent to the fight with Hagler was Earl Hargrove of the USA who a year ago lost in a bid for the vacant IBF light middleweight title. Hargrove had a record of 26 wins and that only loss to Mike Medal of the United States. The battle with Mugabi was in Tampa in Florida where Mugabi now resided and trained. Hargrove was knocked out in the first round, and by the time Mugabi was scheduled to fight Hagler, Mugabi had racked up a record of 26 wins, no losses, and all the opponents had been knocked out.

But Marvin Hagler’s record was by no means a cake walk! With a mean record of 61 wins (51 by knockout), 2 losses, and 2 draws (one of the most excellent professional boxing records in history), Hagler had long been established as an imposing legend and American icon. And he had never, in his lengthy professional career, been knocked out! Hagler was the undisputed world middleweight champion given that he held the title in all the world professional boxing sanctioning bodies at that time: the WBA (World Boxing Association), the WBC (World Boxing Council), and the IBF (International Boxing Federation).

It was in Las Vegas in April 1985, that Hagler had knocked out the legendary Thomas “Hitman” Hearns (whose only loss in 41 fights had been to “Sugar” Ray Leonard by a late TKO while Hearns was ahead in the bout on points) in Las Vegas. The Hagler-Hearns fight is, given the rapidity of hard exchanges, regarded by many as the most significant brutal first three rounds (the extent to which the bout went) in professional boxing history.

In November 1983, Hagler had beaten iconic Panamanian Roberto Duran by a unanimous decision, also in Las Vegas. Hagler had, undoubtedly racked up an excellent and intimidating boxing resume. In September 1980, Hagler after wresting the world middleweight crown from Alan Minter in London by a TKO following horrendous cuts on a badly hammered Minter, a riot stimulated by Minter supporters ensued and Hagler swore he would never fight in London again. There had recently been racist exchanges between the two opponents. It was still a marvelous victory for Hagler, given that it was after several years of being denied a chance at the world title, though he had been ranked the premier contender for several years. The Englishman Minter fought only three more times, lost the last two and thereafter retired from professional boxing.

Given Hagler’s experience and excellent record that included the previous 10 out of the 11 successful defenses of his undisputed world middleweight title by knockout, Mugabi statistically looked challenging but not one that would beat Hagler. But then, as is known in boxing, surprises happen. And it is common for great boxers to be matched up  with inexperienced and mediocre boxers. But Mugabi had the strength, speed, and audacity to challenge any equally weighted boxer on the planet. The “Beast” had racked up the popularity (at least in Europe, USA, and Africa) as the invincible and devastating boxer! Hagler was feared by most, and there was a large chunk of money to be pocketed at the boxing opportunity to meet with Hagler.

On the other hand, Mugabi had not even challenged for any of the minor professional titles such as the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) title or the United States Boxing Association (USBA) title, not even for the considerably mediocre African Boxing Union (ABU) title. Also, Mugabi had mostly contested as a junior middleweight. Hagler was a world middleweight champion! Apparently, it may have been more logical and less grueling for Mugabi to be gradually prepared and matched up for a world junior middleweight title than to suddenly moved up to number one middleweight championship contender in all the sanctioning bodies: the WBC, WBA, and IBF! But apparently, as is implied, there was big money at stick in a Mugabi Hagler match-up, boxing fans were hungry for this battle! Hagler had felled too many, including many living legends and champions. The “Beast” sporting a 100% knockout record seemed to be just the right man at the moment to challenge Hagler for the money!

Also, notably, Mugabi had been the premier WBC junior middleweight contender for several months and had even been scheduled to fight the WBC champion Thomas Hearns in December 1984, and was later (following the Hagler-Hearns fight in April 1985) scheduled to fight Hearns for the title in November 1985. Apparently, the defeating of Hearns by Hagler and, the eagerness for another formidable challenger to meet Hagler was one of the factors that led to the Hagler-Mugabi fight. Hearns would thereafter be expected to fight the winner of the Hagler-Mugabi fight. Things, again, would not go as envisioned! A fight with the eventual winner never materialized! No Mugabi-Hearns fight or second Hagler-Hearns fight would ever happen!

Months prior to the encounter with Mugabi, Hagler responded regarding his level of readiness: “I realize Mugabi has a dream, but nobody is taking anything away from me because I’ve worked so hard, I’ve worked so long” (in “Mugabi Fight Should be Very Good,” in Lakeland Ledger, March 10, 1986).

Thomas Hearns, looking toward a re-match with Hagler said: “I’d be very disappointed if Hagler lost [to Mugabi]. I wouldn’t be disappointed for Hagler. I’d be disappointed for myself.” …[The Hagler vs. Mugabi fight] will be, “…a war. It is going to be a slugfest. They’re both going to be in there brawling. It depends on who connects first” (in “Hearns Pulling For Hagler: Mugabi, Shuler stand in way of a rematch,” in The Times-News, March 7, 1986)

For the fight, Hagler was guaranteed a gross sum of $2.5 million plus a percentage of other revenues, while John Mugabi was guaranteed $750,000. Hearns would earn between $200,000 and $600,000 for fighting undefeated African-American Olympian and knock-out specialist James Shuler for the NABF middleweight title. A Hagler-Hearns rematch, in light of the spectacular brawl of April 1985 in which Hearns was knocked out in the third round, was expected and planned to follow the Hagler-Mugabi fight.

Hagler, the solid favorite to beat Mugabi, referred to himself as, “A man on a mission,” one inching closer to smashing Argentine Carlos Monzon’s record of 14 consecutive world middleweight title defenses. The fight with Mugabi would be Hagler’s 12th defense of the undisputed title since his London ousting by knockout of Alan Minter in September 1980.

The Mugabi-Hagler bout was scheduled to take place on November 14 in 1985,  but because of a ruptured disc in Hagler’s back and broken nose, was consequently set for March 10 1986.

The time in the ring came! Comparatively, 32 year-old Hagler looked like the aging seasoned and tough veteran in face of a solid and strong youthful Mugabi. The determination on the face was there, but Hagler did not look as firm and determined as he had been in the fight in April with Thomas Hearns. Maybe, after all, Hagler was at least slightly affected by his back injury that had caused the fight to be postponed. But, since his loss to Willie Monroe in March 1976, Hagler had not been defeated in the ring for 10 years!

Round One: The round involves Mugabi delivering guarded left jabs to the face, while Hagler maintains a safe distance away while occasionally throwing left-right combinations. In the last 30 seconds, Mugabi chases Hagler and briefly delivers a barrage of blows. When the bell rings, Mugabi gestures threateningly to Hagler intimidatingly so. As Mugabi walks to his corner, he raises his arms as if to declare that he is confident that he will win–more sooner than later.

Round Two: Hagler appears to be more confident than earlier on. The two trade punches, Mugabi even rocks Hagler, but Hagler maintains his gladiator stance and is not running. At the end of the fight, Mugabi gently taps Hagler’s arm as if to concede, “Man, you are tough!”

Round Three: Mugabi is feeling the pressure. The two are slower and more relaxed, seemingly a evenly scored round. But the exchange of punches is still significant, Mugabi searching to deliver that killer punch. At the end of the round, as Hagler walks to his corner he stares at Mugabi as if to say, “I have got you, I am going to beat you!”

Round Four: Like Hagler has apparently noticed, Mugabi has slowed down. Hagler’s blows are harder and more accurate. Though tough Mugabi does not fall, this is a turning point in the fight with the round apparently heavily favoring Hagler.

Round Five: Mugabi comes out charging to the middle of the ring in his signature intimidating way. The two cautiously trade punches. The round is relaxed but the solid blows are still there.

Round Six: The two are tired. But Hagler inches close to Mugabi’s body, seemingly having sensed that Mugabi’s punches are weaker and that Mugabi (a head hunter from a distance) is not much of a close-contact and body-puncher. Boxing while leaning against Mugabi also helps Hagler relax while delivering. Hagler’s tactics and experience, and the fact that he is an ambidextrous boxer who can easily slide from being a southpaw to an orthodox boxer all confuse and reduce Mugabi’s efforts. Mugabi ultimately gets a thorough beating from Hagler’s combinations, though he bravely hangs on and delivers some at the end of the round. In the flurry Mugabi has tried to hold a warding-off Hagler, indication that he is worn and hurt and might fall. Mugabi was severely rocked. This is another significant turning point heavily in favor of Hagler. The experience of the older boxer has outscored the youthfulness, strength and speed of the younger boxer!

Round Seven: The two are comparatively relaxed, but Hagler confident from battering Mugabi in the previous round aggressively goes after Mugabi. Hagler is hitting Mugabi, but Mugabi is a hard nut to crack. Mugabi counter-punches in response to Hagler’s delivery.

Round Eight: Mugabi looks tired but somewhat rejuvenated. He attempts to deliver a killer punch as Hagler keeps on inching towards him. Although Hagler is punching, his punches are not as solid as was in the previous two rounds–he seems to be taking it easy in this round.

Round Nine: The two come out boxing as if they are sparring partners. They are exchanging soft blows. There is not much action in this round apart from mostly Mugabi who delivers some solid shots in the last half-minute of the round. Mugabi seems to be back into the fight, although Hagler gets the better of him when the two are in closer proximity.

Round Ten: The two come out fighting hard. Then Hagler leans in closer to Mugabi’s body, now that is well aware that Mugabi is not efficient when at close quarters but quite powerful when the fighters are arms’ distance apart. Hagler manages to deliver a thorough beating. Mugabi even tries to hold Hagler as he wards him off, Mugabi is apparently hurt and fatigued. Hagler even taunts Mugabi at the end of the round. Mugabi stares menacingly at Hagler while responding with challenging gestures to communicate that he is undeterred by Hagler’s blows.

Round Eleven. About halfway in the round, Hagler rocks Mugabi with a combination of punches. A sharp accurate hook causes Mugabi’s head to shoot up, a sign that Mugabi is finished. Hagler follows with a combination that drops Mugabi. A shaken Mugabi sits on the floor as referee Mills Lane counts him out.

Indeed, after the Hagler fight young Mugabi still became more like a docile ferocious fighter of his former self. Notwithstanding, Hagler had also taken a thorough beating such that the fight with Mugabi would be his last victory. Hagler happened to angrily lose in his next (and last ever professional) fight with resurrected “Sugar” Ray Leonard, who eager for a comeback, introspectively watched at the ringside the Hagler-Mugabi fight. Remember, it is only Leonard and Hagler that had ever defeated Thomas Hearns. Leonard, though a couple of years ago medically advised not to fight again because of an injury in the eye area, felt confident enough to tackle Hagler. Many believe that Hagler was a shadow of his former self after the fight with Mugabi.

Hagler was to lose to a characteristically elusive Ray Leonard in a split decision on April 6, 1987. To date, the winner of the fight with Ray Leonard remains a moot question. A disgruntled Hagler who said he had been robbed migrated to Italy to pursue (one of his biggest dreams) a career of acting.

After the fight with Marvin Hagler, a beaten Mugabi would never again be the devastating terror he had previously been known to be. Many years later, Marvin Hagler would comment, “…another huge moment…was the fight with..Mugabi…he didn’t give me any respect. He had that big poster in the press conference and he was walking around with that big cowboy hat on and then he punches a hole in my picture… I told him “punching a hole in the picture isn’t me, that picture isn’t going to be in the ring with you, I am. That really got me going about that fight and you know he was never the same after I was finished with him” (Aladdin Freeman in, “Up Close And Personal With The Legendary Marvin Hagler,” July 17, 2004, Doghouse Boxing).

Ironically, though champion Marvin Hagler had racked up a superb boxing record over the many years, it is his last three fights (with Hearns, Mugabi, and Leonard) that really catapulted his name to immortal legend. It is fellow boxers that were scared of and avoided Hagler and for so long reduced his chances at the fame that he deserved. For Mugabi, his fight with Hagler would elevate him to world legendary status but it would in a way spell his demise. Mugabi would never be among the elite skillful and devastating force of world middleweights of the 1980′s: Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Ray Leonard.

After the fight with Hagler, Mugabi would take more than half a year off in his native Uganda where he was welcomed as a national sports hero. In December of 1986, even without a single tune-up fighter after such a lengthy layoff, Mugabi was back in Las Vegas to fight African-American underdog Duane Thomas for the vacant WBC light middleweight title (vacated by Thomas Hearns). Duane Thomas, a 25 year-old unassuming native of Detroit and one of the Detroit Kronk Boxing Gym managed by coach Emmanuel Stuart (Thomas Hearns was also trained in the Kronk Gym) was relatively unknown but had an impressive record of 28 wins and only one loss. His only loss (in 1982) had been to future IBF light middleweight champion Buster Drayton by knockout. In the fight, Duane was intimidated by Mugabi, but he took his time while carefully studying Mugabi and looking for an opening. Mugabi was far from being the ferocious beast during and before the Hagler fight. Thomas managed to punch or thumb Mugabi in the eye, Mugabi turned in agony turned away as if in submission. Mugabi’s eye socket had been dislocated; Mugabi was declared technically knocked out. Protests and pleas by Mugabi’s manager Mickey Duff to declare the bout a “No Contest” were rejected. This time, Mugabi took time off for more than a year. His next bout would be in January 1988 against Bryan Grant. Grant was knocked out in the early rounds, and so were the next 7 opponents prior to Mugabi’s next opportunity for a world title.

Again for the WBC light middleweight title, Mugabi would in July 1989 in France be pitted against Frenchman Rene Jacquot who had 5 months ago wrested the title from highly regarded Texan Donald Curry. The defeating of Curry was dubbed by Ring Magazine, “The Upset of the Year.” Donald Curry had in July 1988 delivered a TKO over Italian Gianfranco Rossi who had previously knocked out Duane Thomas to claim the title.

Mugabi’s championship fight with Rene Jacquot was eerie, short-lived, and controversial; and could easily have been declared a “No Contest.” Mugabi was declared the winner by TKO in Round One after a retreating Jacquot slipped on the canvas and injured his ankle. Protests by the Jacquot camp did not help. Mugabi had unconventionally, at age 28, become world champion.

Mugabi would defend his title twice in Europe, and thereafter be gruesomely knocked out in Round One by legendary Terry Norris in Tampa in Florida. Two won bouts later, in November 1991, Mugabi would in London be knocked out in Round One by Gerald McClellan for the vacant WBO (World Boxing Organization) middleweight title. Mugabi thereafter went into semi-retirement, and re-emerged in Australia 5 years later in 1996. The sensational knockout power was gone and the bouts he won were mainly by decision. That included the vacant Australian super middleweight title whereby he defeated Jamie Wallace in Queensland.

The illustrious career of John “the Beast” Mugabi would end after his defeating at the hands of Anthony Bigeni in July 1998 in New Zealand for the PABA (Pan Asian Boxing Association) light heavyweight title; and in January 1999 when Mugabi was defeated by Glen Kelly in Sydney in the bid for the Australian light heavyweight title concurrent with the IBF Pan Pacific light heavyweight title.

John Mugabi’s professional boxing record stands at an impressive 42 wins (with 39 knockouts), 7 losses, and one draw. The Australians have a fondness for Mugabi. Mugabi lives in Australia where he has been married and has children, and is a national.

Jonathan Musere

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One Response to “Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. John “the Beast” Mugabi: the Boxing Battle”

  1. Sammy Says:

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