James Lawton: Boxing's gilded age no match for era when four kings let loose the full furies of youth

Great fights were contested not by men augmenting their pension but in their prime

Don't feel guilty if the prospect of Joe Calzaghe, aged 36, against Roy Jones Jnr, 39, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff later this year is slow to set you swooning. It is no disrespect to the admirable Calzaghe, who would have been a celebrity of boxing on both sides of the Atlantic roughly a decade ago if his sport wasn't almost entirely dedicated to risk avoidance and guaranteed profit.

The trouble is that Calzaghe-Jones smacks most of financial opportunism. This feels especially so if you returned here to the long established capital of boxing for Calzaghe's victory over the 43-year-old Bernard Hopkins.

You just couldn't help remembering how it was back in the Eighties, arguably the sport's greatest epoch, which took up residence in the ruins of the finest of all careers, that of Muhammad Ali.

You couldn't but mourn those days when the great fights came in what seemed to be an unbroken stream and were contested by men not looking to augment their pension funds but operate in the prime of their talent.

Vegas didn't get all the great fights. Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran 1 and 2, for example, were stolen by Montreal and New Orleans. When they did come to fight for the third time, on a chilly desert night here, the best of their ability was already used up, a fact symbolically suggested by the need to wrap them in blankets between rounds. But then there was more than enough to go round.

The point is that, as a sell-out crowd for the Millennium Stadium in November is guaranteed the moment contracts are signed by Calzaghe and Jones, at a combined age of 75, the wonder of the Eighties was that great and inevitable meetings of the most gifted and combative fighters were not automatically put on the slow burner for a decade or more.

The Boston sports writer George Kimball, who as an undergraduate achieved a certain notoriety by running for sheriff against a one-armed incumbent under the slogan, "This county needs a two-fisted lawman", is so haunted by those days he has defied serious illness to produce a book entitled Four Kings.

Published soon in England, it chronicles the days when boxing was so ferociously vital and was dominated by Leonard, Duran, "Marvellous" Marvin Hagler and Tommy "Hitman" Hearns. Maybe the greatest fight of the golden age of those four men who ruled boxing from within and around the middleweight limits was between Leonard, the Olympic champion, and Hearns, the pride of Motown, at Caesar's Palace in September 1981. Leonard was 24. The Hitman was 22. They were about as superannuated as young cobras.

If the weekend fight here was at times more than interesting, if Calzaghe showed some heart-stirring resolution and Hopkins a battery of dark arts, the collision at Caesar's took us to the very heart of man-to-man conflict.

The Hitman turned himself into the boxer and, out of the most biting necessity, Leonard became the street slugger. Hearns was leading on the cards of all three judges, and so comfortably that Leonard's wife, Juanita, screamed from her ringside seat, "No more, baby, no more." No more? She might as well have asked the desert wind to stop blowing.

Before the 14th round, Leonard was told by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, that the fight was slipping beyond him. "The only thing you can do is knock the guy out," said Dundee. Leonard didn't knock out Hearns but he did the next best thing. He went on to an attack so fierce, so irresistible the referee stopped the contest. Some complaints were made – from outside the ring, of course – that Hearns had been robbed of a deserved victory. They were made absurd when you observed the style of his departure. He was carried away by two hulking security men with his feet trailing in the dust.

What happened when Hearns met Hagler in April 1985 was not the greatest fight of the ages but it was maybe the most elemental spectacle produced in a boxing ring in living memory. Hearns was now 25 and Hagler was 28.

Hagler was so wound up before the fight as he pounded his gloves against his head, it was observed that if the national anthem had gone on bursting on air for a more few bars he might well have knocked himself out. As it turned out, it was Hearns who leapt into the attack and for a round and half he did it so mesmerisingly and so powerfully you felt Hagler had to be swept away. Hearns threw punches from every angle and, even when Hagler bore in, blood streaming from a cut on his nose, and drove Hearns against the ropes, the taller man from Detroit continued to rain down blows.

You knew it was over towards the end of the second. The steam was going out of Hearns' punches and the life from his legs. Before the end of the third he was defenceless. Later Hearns said, "I knew the moment the fight was over, I should have been more patient, should have used my jab more, but when I got in the ring and saw his power I worried if I would go the distance against such a man. So I gambled and I lost."

At ringside the novelist and screenplay writer Budd On the Waterfront Schulberg admitted to trembling involuntarily at the height of the the action and added, "I never expected to see anything so intense outside of war."

Schulberg was at the Calzaghe-Hopkins fight and agreed it was not without interest and intrigue. However, it did perhaps suffer a certain shortfall in the full-blooded furies of youth. Schulberg knows all about that. He is 94.

Sir Tom poses question that all fighters must answer

Sir Tom Jones' spell-binding rendition of the Welsh national anthem in the ring before Calzaghe-Hopkins was a reminder of his interest in the sport through a close friendship with Tommy "Hitman" Hearns.

"I suppose fighters and singers have something in common in that that they have to go out to perform under pressure, though in my case I've never actually been hit," he said on a night out here with his friend a few years ago. The "Hitman" was at a point in his career when he was causing much concern by his decision to fight on, one which threatened a split with his long-time mentor Emanuel Steward.

In his dressing room before his duties at the showroom of the MGM Grand, Sir Tom gently shifted the conversation to the eternal dilemma of when a man should seek new roads in life. This, he suggested, was probably a more pressing issue for a fighter, in that everyone you met professionally was anxious to knock your head off.

His own challenge in Las Vegas was merely to continue to entertain matronly farmers' wives from such places as Kansas and Iowa. He put on his face and strode on stage to receive an ecstatic reaction for belting out, "What's New Pussycat?' But perhaps his earlier musings still played on his mind. He said from the stage, "Ladies, you know we've been doing this for 30 years – and on a night like this it doesn't seem a minute less."

Harrison's hollow victory leaves sport on the ropes

If the BBC hadn't once paid him a million pounds worth of our licence fees, Audley Harrison's appearance on the undercard of the big fight here would probably have carried a little more poignancy. As it was, you had to weep mostly for boxing.

Eventually, Harrison produced a one-two combination which finished someone from Florida called Justin Barnett, who boasted a record of 10-6. As he showed distinct distaste for the idea of throwing a punch and exposing himself to the possibility of receiving one, it was quite hard to imagine the quality of the men he had beaten. Barnett is a small, round figure with a sad face, which on this occasion probably had more to do with the shrill admonishments from his wife at ringside than the obvious menace of a man who still claims that one day he will be world heavyweight champion.

It maybe says much for the compassion of the promoter Frank Warren, who was a searing critic of the BBC decision, that he is prepared to give Harrison another chance. Rather less, though, when you think about it, than his concerns for the sensitivities of the paying public.

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