MARVIN Hagler died last week and suddenly, I was back on the window sill of the senior common room in St Pat’s Armagh, stunned and elated. It was 1985.
Hagler had just knocked out Tommy Hearns in an insane street fight that happened to take place in a boxing ring in Caesar’s Palace.
The referee and crowd were merely incidental. Half a minute into the third, Hagler’s face a mask of blood, the ref was about to stop the fight. He called a time out, and the doctor and corner men inspected the damage.
The ref said he would let it go but not for much longer. Hagler mounted one last, ferocious onslaught and 20 seconds later, Hearns was unconscious on the canvas. I sat on that window sill for ten minutes after it was over, soaking it all in.
In 1980, a week after I arrived at the college which was to be my home for the next seven years, I had been kidnapped from the main hall by a group of seniors along with another first year, Tommy McCrystal from Beragh, and frogmarched to that same common room.
Seniors were sitting on those same sills, smoking. Some were playing darts. When we came in, they spat on us from above. Then one of them, Gabriel Graham, who wore tinted glasses in the manner of a loyalist paramilitary leader, said “We are going to show you little bastards what happens to anyone that steps out of line in our school.”
They were holding another senior boy who was whimpering for mercy. They spreadeagled him by his arms and legs. Then, Graham carefully took the three darts from the board and one by one, threw them thunk, thunk, thunk into the victim’s left leg, as he screamed in agony.
When they were finished, they dropped him on the floor and as he writhed in pain, Graham said “Tell your friends what you saw here today.” The following week we discovered that the boy, John Toal, had a wooden leg.
Life was more colourful in those days. Hagler, who was knocked down only once in his astonishing career (he got up immediately and as one hack had it, “battered Roldan all over the ring for his impertinence”) had gained the undisputed middleweight title by beating England’s Alan Minter.
Minter had made the mistake beforehand of saying that he would “never let a black man beat me.” Hagler – who could take punishment like you wouldn’t believe and continue as though nothing had happened – promised “ He will pay for saying that.”
As the fighters came into the ring, legendary BBC commentator Harry Carpenter said “the rancid stench of racism is heavy in the Wembley air.”
When the ring announcer introduced the fighters at Wembley, Minter should have taken the mic from him and publicly apologised to Hagler. “Look Marvin, I want to apologise sincerely for what I said and I intend to donate 25 percent of my fee to BLM…. Not enough? 50 percent?”
Instead, eight bloodthirsty minutes later, with the black nightmare upon him, the ref waved it off with Minter looking like the two-for-one-offer on steak mince at the Tesco meat counter.
That was Hagler. As the boxing journalist Phil Berger wrote once of his sparring partners “They left camp looking like extras from The Living Dead.”
After he retired, Marvin got into Italian B movies, appearing as an enforcer in such classics as Indio, Indio 2 – La rivolta and Across Red Nights. Much like Derry’s foremost enforcer, the great Henry Diamond, who starred for Newbridge, Derry and Ulster in an era when fist fighting was respectable and one had to be able to look after oneself.
Gerry Donnelly recalls Henry’s debut for the Bridge.
He said “From the moment he took the field, Henry was like Popeye after eating a can of spinach. He was a goliath on the pitch.” He was only 17 and his opponent, a wily veteran from Magherafelt, sought to take advantage of his youth and began digging him into the ribs from behind.
A few minutes later, during a break in the play, the referee noticed that the Magherafelt man was stretched unconscious on the turf. “Did anyone see what happened?” said the ref. “He must have fainted” said Henry. He was never a dirty player but was a superb fist fighter, whose fights, in Donnelly’s words, “only ever lasted one punch.” He played in a forbidding defence that included Patsy McLarnon.
Once, they were both playing for Derry against Tyrone. Henry takes up the story. “Patsy was corner back and our manager, old Master John Fay from Lavey, had warned Patsy beforehand that the Tyrone corner forward was a small tricky player who mooched and that he was not under any circumstances to let him inside him. Anyway, a few minutes into the game, he got inside Patsy, a high ball came over the top, your man caught it and put it in the net. Fay roared “Jesus Patsy I told you not to let him inside you.” Patsy shouted back “He’s not out yet.” Nor did he come out. The goal was his last contribution.”
I was thrilled when the historian, author and Derry fanatic Seamus McRory told me that he had actually been at the game. “Joe, the Tyrone footballer in question was Paddy Hughes.”
Even better, it turned out that before Christmas, Seamus had been corresponding with Paddy about the Derry Tyrone rivalry from that era. Paddy, who, like Seamus and me, was a past pupil of the college, e-mailed Seamus before Christmas as follows:
“I remember a game in 1969 between Tyrone and Derry at Coalisland. I had to go off after “colliding” with Henry Diamond. Years later, after both of us had emigrated to America, I met him at a 7 a side tournament in Florida where we settled our past dispute over a couple of pints of Guinness.”
As for Seamus? “ I remember it well because until Henry’s intervention Paddy had been running the Derry defence ragged. Henry put the running out of him.” “So it wasn’t Patsy who hit him?” I said. “No Joe. Definitely Henry.”
So typical of Henry’s modesty that he gave the credit to Patsy McLarnon.
Sadly, like many young men of 20, Henry had to leave the country in his prime during the northern bother, and went on to become one of the most beloved Irish men in New York. Here is where Diamond’s fate intertwined with that other great puncher Marvellous Marvin.
Henry, who has a well lived in face, in the manner of an old time prizefighter, was bartending in Clancy’s on 53rd and 3rd when the legendary film director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection etc) came in one night for a few jars.
Friedkin struck up a conversation with this fascinating Derry man and by the time he was leaving the bar at closing time, he had signed Diamond up to play the role of the bank robber in the movie “Sorcerer.” Only Diamond…
Minter and Hagler have died within six months of each other, both in their 60s, reminding us of Joe Frazier’s line “I got my money took, my brain shook and my name in the undertaker’s book.”
Diamond meanwhile, is alive and well. There is no record of him ever being knocked down, on either side of the Atlantic.