For the duration of his time at the front of the American sporting consciousness, Marvin Hagler was perceived as someone fighting with chips on both shoulders. This, after all, was a man who was so offended at the refusal of his request to be introduced by his nickname of “Marvelous” that he changed his name by court order.

Hagler, who died on Saturday at his New Hampshire home at the age of 66, has been remembered as not only one of the greatest prizefighters in the storied history of boxing’s middleweight division but one its finest at any weight in any era. The undisputed champion at 160lb from 1980 until 1987, he occupied centre stage as one of the sport’s “Four Kings”, along with Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Durán, whose epochal 1980s round-robin series of classic fights represented a golden era that is romanticised to the present day.

But those days in the sun were only the final chapter of a long, complicated journey filled with dead ends and denied opportunities wrought by the machinations of the sport’s dark forces. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Hagler came up fatherless on the hardscrabble ghettoes of Newark, the once-flourishing New Jersey borough in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. When his family’s tenement was burned down in the 1967 riots, the family relocated to Brockton, Massachusetts. After coming out on the wrong end of a street fight with a local boxer, Hagler found his way to the Petronelli Brothers’ gym in downtown Brockton and declared on day one that he would be a champion. Somehow, it would prove even more complicated than imagined.

A threatening presence with a shaven bullet head and brooding persona, Hagler was a natural right-hander but fought out of a southpaw stance in order to position his thunderbolt right nearer to his opponent. After winning all but one of his 56 amateur fights and capturing the 1973 AAU middleweight championship, he entered the paying ranks rather than wait three years for Olympic fame and went unbeaten for the first three years of his professional career – compiling 25 wins with 19 knockouts and a lone draw to Sugar Ray Seales. As the perhaps apocryphal story goes, Hagler was told he had “three strikes against him” in the early days of his career: “You’re black, left-handed and good.”

In search of bigger game and prestige, Hagler made the southbound journey to the fistic proving ground of Philadelphia, then home to four of the world’s 10 highest-rated middleweights, where he fought five times against local opponents in 31 months. He suffered a pair of losses in narrow 10-round decisions to Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe that were widely disputed as hometown calls, which only fuelled the fire within.

Marvin Hagler on his way to victory against Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980 at Wembley Arena. The referee stopped the fight in the third round.
Marvin Hagler on his way to victory against Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980 at Wembley Arena. The referee stopped the fight in the third round. Photograph: AP

He went on to avenge both insults by early-round knockouts. These days they would have said Hagler was being matched poorly, but the pockmarks on his ledgers amid those years of toiling in near-anonymity on the eastern seaboard would forge an edge that carried him through the deepest waters beneath the brightest lights.

Finally granted a title shot in his 50th professional outing against the champion Vito Antuofermo in 1979, he was denied once more when the one-eyed Las Vegas judges gave him only a 15-round draw. So when the title changed hands and Hagler was given a second crack the next year against Alan Minter, there would be no leaving the outcome in the arbiters’ hands. After entering Wembley Arena amid a cacophony of boos and racial taunts, Hagler badly mistreated Minter over three rounds before the referee intervened. He fled the scene without his belt and before his hand was raised, as the London spectators showered the ring with bottles and debris.

The indignities kept coming even at the peak of his powers. Shortly after he defended his title for a sixth time, against Fulgencio Obelmejias in the autumn of 1982, he was invited by Leonard to a charity event in Baltimore where it was thought Leonard would announce a super‑fight with Hagler – only to announce his shock retirement and regret that a fight with Hagler would never happen. Hagler’s resentment at being used as a prop in Leonard’s show persisted until his final days.

All of this is a necessary backdrop to Hagler’s finest hour: a 1985 clash with Hearns amid the kitschy Roman trappings of Caesars Palace. Two all‑time greats with a combined record of 100-3-2 exchanged 339 punches over eight minutes in a violent encounter that has become known as “the War” – but could more directly be described as the greatest fight ever staged. The third-round stoppage was Hagler’s moment of unalloyed glory after a career spent mostly among the ranks of the unappreciated.

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He fought once more before Leonard finally consented to their long-simmering mega-fight: the Mayweather-Pacquiao of its time. As expected, Hagler was the aggressor, with his opponent fighting off the back foot and the judges awarding Leonard a split decision that is disputed to this day. Hagler departed the ring in disgust and never fought again, retiring with a record of 62 wins, three losses and three draws and moving to Italy to embark on an acting career.

However, the respect he felt had been denied to him throughout his fighting career was undeniably paid by the end – and the interest has only grown with the passage of time. There will never be another quite like him.