The following is an excerpt from The War: Hagler–Hearns and Three Rounds for the Ages, by Don Stradley. This section was selected from pages 120–124 of Chapter 7, “A FERRARI AND A BAZOOKA.” Copyright © Don Stradley, September 2021
A strange thing happened as April 15 neared.
Hagler and Hearns were reversing roles.
The change was noticeable in how they dealt with reporters. Hearns, who had talked endlessly during the press tour, was talking less, while Hagler was becoming more accessible. It was another example of Hagler wanting the spotlight for himself, spreading out under its warmth as long as Hearns wasn’t around. A proposed Sports Illustrated prefight cover was actually botched because Hagler didn’t want to appear with Hearns. When Hearns wasn’t in the room, though, Hagler gave reporters all they desired. He was talkative, thoughtful, and funny. “There’s a lot of shtick to Hagler’s act these days,” wrote Pete Hamill for the New York Daily News. “But that’s a craftsman’s acknowledgement that boxing is, after all, a branch of show business.”
Yet when it came to the public, Hearns was the more open character, stopping to sign autographs, mingling with the locals. Hagler was gruff, moving through crowds briskly, his face usually hidden by dark sunglasses and a baseball cap. Hagler admitted that he was distrustful of people, and didn’t care to be bothered in the days before a fight. This was the opposite of what most people thought they knew about the fighters. Hearns, though he lived a rather extravagant life, was revealing himself to be a man of the people. Hagler, though billed as the no-frills fighter next door, ignored the people.
On Monday night, April 8, Hagler arrived in Las Vegas. Welcomed to Caesars Palace by a parade of costumed Roman guards and princesses, he surveyed the crowd that surrounded him in the lobby and said, “I have come to destroy.”
In an interview conducted in his suite, Hagler told a small gathering of reporters that he didn’t want to train in the hotel facility because he’d feel like “a circus performer.” Wanting the rawness of a real boxing environment, he’d planned some private workouts at Tocco’s Ringside Gym, a dour cinderblock building five miles north of the Strip. Hagler told the press that he craved a dank, empty setting where he and the Petronellis could get their work done without interference. At Caesars, Hagler said, “every time you fart it winds up on television.”
Tocco’s gym on Charleston Boulevard was basically a shabby old storefront with an iron-grated fence. The owner, Johnny Tocco, was a longtime boxing operator who had been a promoter in St. Louis and had once been Sonny Liston’s manager. He’d worked the corner of fighters ranging from Willie Pep to Mike Weaver, and though he was in his seventies and in poor health, he remained a fixture of the Las Vegas fight scene. His gym, which had the ramshackle atmosphere seen in old 1940s boxing movies, was a favorite of fighters coming to Las Vegas. Tocco had once owned a bar, The Zebra Room, which had been adjacent to the space where fighters now trained. Tocco’s favorite joke: “I got so tired of breaking up fights, I figured I might as well be running a gym.”
Many journalists were surprised that millionaire boxers would bother with such a decrepit joint as Tocco’s. As Wallace Matthews recalled, “There was just about enough room for a boxing ring and a payphone.” The ring itself was wretched, its ropes held together by black electrical tape. “The ceiling,” reported the Miami News, “painted a hideous dark red, is pockmarked with holes, while the floor is a nightmare patchwork of blue, bright orange, brown, red, and green carpet remnants.” The neighborhood alone was repugnant, seemingly made up of abandoned buildings and liquor stores; degenerates roamed the sidewalk drinking popskull. At least once every ten years there was a fatal shooting or stabbing nearby, usually the result of robberies gone wrong. “This is one of those transient neighborhoods,” Tocco once said, explaining that he’d installed a special gate with a buzzer to keep the riffraff out. “The bus station is just around the corner. You get some of those bums around here, they haven’t had a bath for thirty days, they’re covered with blood, they walk [in] off the street and want to take a shower. Forget it. This way I let who I want into the place.”
Hagler loved the isolation of Tocco’s, and the unique aroma one reporter described as a mix of coffee grounds, dirty socks, and sweat. It was a blast furnace, temperatures rising so high that the faded old fight posters seemed on the verge of melting into the walls. Regulars kidded that a fighter once put a raw chicken on a plate in the morning and placed it next to the ring; when Tocco closed for the night that piece of poultry was cooked. “When Marvin comes to train,” Tocco once said, “he stands outside that back door, shaking the bars, and yelling to me: ‘Warden! Warden! Let me in warden!’”
Hagler liked Tocco’s because it reminded him of the early days in Brockton. “My life don’t change just ’cause I got successful,” he said. “You ain’t gonna see me out there like it’s a circus, showboating, putting on a show for everybody, acting real cute, looking at all the beautiful women around and showing off. You know what I mean.”
“Tocco’s wasn’t flashy but it was good for us,” remembered Tony Petronelli. “We wanted to keep things quiet and get Marvin ready. It could be a little bit of a challenge to keep people away.”
Mike Bruton of the Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the few journalists allowed in. Like a field reporter relaying grim images from the war front, he described Bobby Watts wearing padding to protect his sore ribs from Hagler’s sledgehammer attack. Columnist Mike Downey of the Detroit Free Press reported a visit to Tocco’s where Hagler and Watts sparred “as if the championship were at stake this very night.”
To Watts, though, Hagler was merely a fighter in training.
“It was a great experience,” Watts recalled in 2020. “Later in my life I trained a lot of fighters, and I learned so much by watching the Petronellis work with Marvin Hagler. They had great teamwork. They were great guys. They made me feel at home and told me what they expected from me. You see, I was similar to Hearns in style. I was tall and slim, just like Hearns, and I moved like him. They used me so Marvin Hagler could get acclimated to that style.”
Though Watts had handed Hagler his first loss many years earlier, and had been knocked out in a rematch, there were no bad feelings in the training sessions. “Marvin was mostly all business. In the morning when he showed up, he’d talk to you and stuff like that. But once we began training he was all business,” Watts said.
Hagler loved the image being created, that Tocco’s was where he went to undergo a secret transformation. “The monster is coming over me again,” Hagler said, relishing the bare-bones atmosphere. “There was a time years ago when I thought I’d have to kill somebody for anyone to notice me. And Hearns thinks he can hurt me?”
Since Hagler didn’t go to Tocco’s until the early evening, he made himself available to reporters in the mornings. He provided them with a fresh new quote every day, usually along the lines of how he would beat Hearns without mercy and destroy his soul. “When I finish with Hearns, he’s never going to get his confidence back,” Hagler said. When told that Hearns was gaining traction at the betting windows, Hagler barked, “I hope they have him 10-1, so when I knock his shoes off they’ll know about it.”
He talked about his future in commercial endorsements, and his concern about Las Vegas judges, the ones who had given him poor scores in his bouts with Antuofermo and Duran. The question that reporters never tired of asking was whether he really hated Hearns.
“I have nothing personal against Thomas,” Hagler said. “I just don’t like him. What do you want me to do . . . kiss him?” Hagler explained how his feelings about Hearns were somewhat manufactured. “But I have to take those feelings into the ring with me,” he said. “If someone tries to take your job away, do you love them?”
Perhaps the most revealing comment from Hagler was given to Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News. “My popularity is going to grow so much that I am going to lose my privacy,” Hagler said. According to Pepe, Hagler announced this “almost regretfully.”
For now, though, Hagler was embracing the attention. He was especially happy when an ABC camera crew wanted to follow him on one of his morning runs across the Dunes Hotel golf course. As he chanted, “Destruct and destroy,” an automatic sprinkler gushed out of the ground and drenched him.