Ray Leonard says he always knew he would eventually fight Marvin Hagler. He just didn't know when.
Using boxing history as a judge, that makes sense. The best of welterweights inevitably move up to challenge middleweights and the sport's biggest names almost always make comebacks.
That will be the case April 6 in Las Vegas when Hagler fights for a guaranteed $12 million and Leonard for $11 million. Leonard, a former welterweight and junior middleweight champion, has not fought since 1984.
"I never lost that feeling for Marvin, Marvin was always there," Leonard said. "For me, he is the ultimate."
Champions from the 147-pound division usually find the 160-pound title the ultimate. Like light heavyweights who often try the heavyweight ranks, welterweights move up for the extra glamour and bigger paydays the middleweight division brings.
Unlike light heavyweight champions, who had no success winning the heavyweight title until Michael Spinks upset Larry Holmes in 1985, welterweights have done fine at the higher weight. The history of the 160-pound division is filled with former welterweights.
Sugar Ray Robinson, Mickey Walker, Carmen Basilio, Emile Griffith, Tommy Ryan and Lou Brouillard all successfully made the jump from welterweight to middleweight champion. Many other top welterweights, including 147-pound champions Henry Armstrong, Kid Gavilan, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Jose Napoles, tried and failed to win the middleweight title.
Hearns and Duran--who lost to Leonard in welterweight title fights--failed against Hagler in 160-pound championship fights. Leonard, 30, was undisputed welterweight champion in 1981-82 and briefly held the World Boxing Association junior middleweight title in 1981.
Hagler-Leonard was expected to come off in 1982, but Leonard retired after surgery to repair his left retina. His 1984 comeback again was to lead to a fight against Hagler, but Leonard retired again after stopping Kevin Howard in nine rounds.
"The only reason this fight is taking place is because I'm giving him the opportunity," Hagler said. "When I beat this man, they won't say 'who did you beat?' This will be the one to make me satisfied."
During his 35-month layoff, Leonard has grown into a full middleweight. At 5-foot-10 1/2, he is an inch taller than Hagler and expects to weigh between 156 and 158 pounds.
"Weight doesn't matter, it's the height and Leonard has the advantage there," said Basilio, who moved up in weight to take the middleweight title from Robinson in 1957. "I pick Leonard to win because of his speed. He's two years younger than Hagler, and has the speed and reflexes to move away from him."
Basilio said he moved up to middleweight because he had increasing trouble making 147 pounds. But he weighed only 153 1-2 pounds when he defeated Robinson, who won the title back six months later.
"It was an opportune fight, to fight Robinson," Basilio said. "There weren't any top challengers in the middleweight division. Obviously, it was the biggest payday of my life."
Griffith also earned his biggest payday up until then when he won the middleweight title from Dick Tiger in 1966. Griffith weighed 150 1/2 against Tiger, and later returned to the welterweight division.
"I moved up for the money," Griffith said. "I was a freak, I could move up and down in weight. Guys up there (middleweights) are bigger and stronger. I felt the weight difference, but I was determined.
"It was a challenge for me, and I came through. Tiger had never been on the deck before, I knocked him down and won the title."
Gil Clancy, who trained Griffith and is now a boxing TV commentator, says Leonard would be better off nearer his old weight. The heaviest Leonard has been was 153 for his junior middleweight title fight against Ayub Kalule.
"They have Leonard 157-58 pounds--I don't think it's a good idea," said Clancy, who has worked with both Leonard and Hagler as a commentator. "They've changed Sugar Ray Leonard and I don't think now that he's a full-fledged middleweight he'll be able to out-cute Hagler. He'll have to slug with him."
Griffith, who trains fighters including former heavyweight champ James "Bonecrusher" Smith and former welterweight champ Juan LaPorte, thinks Hagler will win by kockout. But he said it is the layoff more than the weight that will doom Leonard.
"Hagler's been working hard all his life; he didn't do it for nothing," Griffith said. "He's not gonna let Sugar Ray come out of retirement after three years and cut his winning streak short.
"And you can't tell me you operate on his eye and later on he can see fine."
History does not favor boxers fighting in title bouts after long layoffs. Of 14 champions who fought in title bouts after two years or more of inactivity, only three were victorious.
"I've never gone traditional ways, I've always been unique," Leonard says of his comeback without a tuneup. "I am such a big underdog, that's my tuneup."
"I just hope this doesn't hurt boxing," said Hagler, a 5 to 2 favorite. "I'm taking this fight very seriously."
Leonard has been working in the gym for nearly a year to free himself from ring rust, but he has yet to face a champion like Hagler in the gym.
"It's not the same in the gym," Griffith said. "It's not the same as being out there in front of the crowd, with all that tension."