The Battle of the Southpaws: Race, Rioting, and Beer on the Canvas

Fightland Blog

By Alexander Reynolds

Race, riot and a fight between two southpaw boxers in the peak of their prime, the middleweight championship between England’s Alan Minter and Marvin Hagler of the USA in September 1980 was a politically incorrect sporting contest that had it all.

Alan “Boom Boom” Minter was the Olympian, the plucky jabbing lad from Crawley in Sussex who was, albeit very briefly, the pride of England and the undisputed middleweight champ of the world. And it wasn’t just personal for the English, it was political. Minter was the hard white man at a time when Spam pink Englishmen were feeling a tad insecure about race and the changing multicultural landscape of England. He was bad. He was English. And as white as a loaf of Mother’s Pride bread. We were very lucky to have him.

Minter’s rise to the top of the charts was rocky to say the very least. He had won 11 pro fights in a row after a bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics but was cut prone and Minter's progress was stalled by blood soaked defeats to “Scottish” Don McMillan, Jan Magdziarz and Ricky Torres between 1973 and 1974. In 1975 he won a 15-round decision against Kevin Finnegan for the British middleweight title and won the European title in a round 5 KO of Italy’s Germano Valsecchi. After two tough matches in 1977 against Ronnie Harris and Gratien Tonna, Minter dug deep to win 8 bouts in a row (including a revenge rematch against Tonna) to land a shot against Vito Antuofermo, the Italian-American holder of the then undisputed WBA and WBC titles, in Las Vegas.

After a win by split decision against Antuofermo in March 1980, Minter successfully defended the WBA/WBC belts in a June rematch at Wembley Arena to a packed out crowd of beer swilling Brits. Minter, the first lime juicing middleweight champ since Ted “Kid” Lewis in 1917 to win a title in the USA, was now game for a ruck and open for biz to all punters.

The next fight was with Marvin Hagler, the number 1 contender and, quite obviously, the most dangerous boxer in the division. Perhaps Minter should have backed out, but things were different back then. Fighters had pride and rep on the mind, not gravy train bouts with journeymen pugs. Nonetheless, Minter was full of his own hubris and pride comes before the fall.

Like Minter, Marvin Hagler was a lefty, and, like Minter, had fought Vito Antuofermo but lost contentiously via a draw in 1979. Many ringside commentators and sports correspondents thought that Hagler was mugged of the title. To Hagler’s mind, the belts were his and his alone. “Minter is only champion,” he said at the time, “because he gained the benefit of the beating I gave to Antuofermo in Las Vegas.” Minter, the English guy in old London town, or wherever, was just the caretaker, the pretender. The only trouble was that Hagler had to cross the pond to get his property back.

And this is where the conquest took a racially charged turn. Right wing racist groups, personified by the National Front (NF), were gaining traction in English society in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Paki bashing” and “nigger knocking” were national sports. All over London, especially South London where I lived at the time, the walls of buildings and properties were daubed with “NF” graffiti and propaganda posters urging forced repatriation of immigrants from countries once under the fold of the defunct British Empire. Asked at the time about his upcoming bout with Hagler, Minter became an unofficial poster boy for white English racism when he told the attendant media, "It has taken me 17 years to become champion of the world. I'm not going to let a black man take it away from me."

Racial slur or fight hype? When Minter’s tactless remark about the color of his opponent’s skin made its way over the pond to Hagler’s camp, all Hell broke loose in Brockton, Massachusetts. The challenger went into full beast mode. He was going to make Minter pay for those foolhardy words, and whup his racist ass in front of a home crowd at Wembley Arena. Poor Minter. The clock was ticking to the inevitable.

Was the English champ an ugly old racist? In England, America and elsewhere, no one was quite sure. But the middleweight boxer was certainly gaffe prone when it came to talking to the press. He once said, "Sure, there have been deaths and injuries in boxing, but none of them serious." And, my personal favorite, "A boxer makes a comeback for two reasons, either he's broke or he needs the money."

Race wasn’t the only bone of contention in this sporting soap opera. Hagler had refused to shake Minter’s hand at an earlier meeting in 1979 (Hagler said that he preferred not to get friendly with future opponents) and Minter took the slight very personally. In the build up to their own fight, the Minter camp took umbrage over the stubble headed Hagler, who might use his bristly cranium in clinches to open up their chap’s cut happy face; in turn, the Hagler camp cast a wary finger at Minter’s cut man, Jackie McCoy, if they spotted him applying any illegal looking substance, he would be reported and Minter stripped of the title in the event of a win.  

Weighing in at 159lbs, Minter, in Union Jack underpants and baby blue flat cap, was the bookies favourite to win. On the night, the limey crowd were up on their feet for the respective national anthems. Though, it must be said, not many Americans were in attendance that packed night in Wembley Arena. There must be some Americans in the crowd, joked commentators at ringside, if only they could make themselves heard above the braying din of the flag waving skinheads. Bob Arum, the American boxing promoter, had never seen anything quite like it. It was, in his words, "a huge, drunken orgy.”

In the ring, head to head, Minter towered over Hagler. A cautious pug would have used this height advantage and boxed behind his lead. Not Minter. He was cut under the left eye in the opening minute by Hagler’s gangly, problematic jab and not really in a position to wear the American down to a possible victory on the cards. Hagler proved to be a determined and dangerous foe for Minter, too much, in fact. It was all going pear shaped. Maybe the white boy from Crawley should have kept his trap shut about not losing his title to a black guy from Massachusetts.

In round two, Minter got into some furious exchanges and shook Hagler with a sweet right hook. The challenger winced, and, led on by the chanting 10,000 strong crowd of boozed up Brits, Minter threw away his game plan to wear Hagler down and went toe-to-toe. It was a foolish strategy. Minter’s right eye opened up and his nose began to spew blood. In the third and final round, there was more claret on Minter’s face from another cut, and Hagler even managed to punch the gum shield out of his mouth. The English champion’s face bore testimony to the savagery and punishment of Hagler’s fists. It was the punishment of seven fights rolled into one. This was Hagler’s time and the end of Minter’s.

Minter’s corner caught the eye of Carlos Berrocal, the Panamanian referee, who stepped in and stopped the bout midway (1.45) in round three due to cuts. Minter had four in total that would later require 15 stitches to mend. One of the worst was above his left eye—which Hagler had opened up with explosive glee in the opening minute of round one. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre.

Hagler won and sunk to his knees. He wasn’t allowed to savor the big moment of victory. Beer cans rained down from the stands and Hagler’s corner formed a Roman tortoise to cover him until a posse of tit hatted bobbies could escort them safely out of Wembley Arena. It was, said Harry Carpenter, the unflappable BBC boxing commentator at ringside, a “shame and disgrace to British boxing.” The promoter of the fight, Mickey Duff, later apologized to Hagler “for everyone in boxing in this country… They (the fans) were animals.” It was an exciting night for boxing fans in America, but a shameful episode for the English hosts.

It took three rounds for Hagler to win and all Hell to break loose in London town. Did Hagler shoving his head forward cause the cuts to open up on Minter’s face? Possibly but not certainly: the champ was a bleeder and had lost four previous bouts due to cuts. After the riot at Wembley, Hagler vowed to never fight in the UK again. Newly reborn as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, he dominated the middleweight division until a controversial loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987.

As for Minter, the Englishman never got another shot at the world title and lost two subsequent bouts against Mustafa Hamsho and Tony Sibson (both of whom went on to fight Hagler). He retired from boxing with a record of 39 wins, 9 losses, 1 no contest and 23 wins by KO.

These days, Minter is an elderly pensioner in England. Looking back, he deeply regrets the racially tinged gaffe. “People like to talk about the Hagler fight. I did say that ‘black man’ comment but it wasn’t meant, I was told to say it. It was a ridiculous comment but my reaction after showed how I felt. I know I shouldn’t have said it.”

At least the ex champ knows now. 


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