In 1967 Marvin Hagler found himself in the thick of the Newark riots. He emerged from them with the mindset that made him one of the greatest fighters in history, writes Declan Warrington
FIFTY-THREE years have passed since Marvin Hagler, then aged 13, had to spend five harrowing days on the floor of the modest family home in which he grew through fear of being shot while the Newark race riots raged.
Instructed to do so by the mother for whom he had such respect, if it was the reason Hagler survived becoming collateral her wisdom was demonstrated three days into those riots by the death of Rebecca Brown, a nurse’s aide killed by a bullet from a policeman or National Guardsman in front of her four children having approached a window to prevent her two-year-old daughter suffering that same fate.
Brown – like Hagler, his mother Ida Mae, brother Robbie Sims and four sisters – lived in New Jersey’s cramped, deprived, almost exclusively black, increasingly tense neighbourhood Central Ward, and by extension was another to find herself in the centre of the unsettling riots that started on Wednesday 12 July 1967 and that three days later took her life. By the time of its conclusion, she was one of 26 victims – one policeman, one fireman and 24 residents – officially, for suggestions persist that there were others, recorded from the thousands of bullets shot, and which also contributed to over 700 injuries and almost 1,500 arrests.
John William Smith, an unpretentious, trumpet playing, cab driver was simply attempting to do his job on a hot day when he drove around a police car double-parked on Newark’s 15th Avenue. Objecting to him doing so, the white police sat in that car pulled the black Smith from his cab, beat him, took him to Central Ward’s Fourth Precinct, and beat him some more.
When the residents of a large public housing development witnessed Smith’s beating – racism then laced many of the actions of those in the US entrusted to enforce the law – they followed them to the precinct, and formed the start of a crowd that swiftly grew. When a false rumour then spread that Smith was dead, their anger heightened. Already aggrieved at high unemployment, the political system and poor schools and housing, another abuse by police was too much for Central Ward’s black residents to bear. Those urging non-violent protests were ignored. A firebomb was thrown, and the riots began.
For five days Hagler, who had only recently entered his teens, and his family slid across cushions when they needed to use the bathroom or enter the kitchen, existing as prisoners in their own home. For those same five days it was only overhearing neighbours in their apartment building discuss what they had seen outside, the sounds of gunshots and of police and National Guardsmen on the roof, and that of looting, burning, and ultimately $10m in damage, that informed them as to what was unfolding. “It was like the end of the world,” Hagler later said.
If, regardless of his extraordinary success and evolution into one of the finest middleweights of all time, Hagler was – and indeed perhaps remains – a resentful figure fuelled by a sense of injustice, that resentment can be traced back to those five days as much as it can the imperfections and injustices of a remarkable career. The most intimidating and disdainful of fighters was being forged amid the fires of Central Ward.
In researching and penetrating the painful backstories of Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard for his newly-released book The Superfight, about their unforgettable fight in 1987, the author Brian Doogan became the first to visit the extent to which Central Ward shaped Hagler’s psyche, and he told Boxing News: “Brockton, with its strong connection to Rocky Marciano, naturally became a somewhat romantic link for Hagler.
“But Marvin Hagler is defined more by Newark than he is by Brockton or even Provincetown, that bleak terrain where he trained. Provincetown, in the depths of winter, was like a ghost town and its wildness and rawness reflected something of the Hagler persona.
“I remember reading as a teenager a very brief piece in Boxing Illustrated about the race riots in Newark and Hagler, though there was very little detail about what it all meant. Over the years Marvin never really talked at length about Central Ward, but what he did say about it he described in almost apocryphal terms. Brockton, however, was the place with which he would become synonymous, and it became recognised as his hometown.
“With Hagler’s great rival, Ray Leonard, Hugh McIlvanney made the point that for him to fight the way he did, there had to be something really dark buried deep inside. If that darkness was there in Ray, you could certainly see similar signs in Hagler. There’s no question about that. He was a tremendously skilled, technical boxer and he worked prolifically on those skills in order to perfect his dark art, but he also had an almost barbaric dimension, a place he could go to that was beyond most people’s imaginings.
“As a young boy growing up in Central Ward, Hagler came to know a social worker whose name he recalled only as ‘Mr Joe’, and this man was able to recognise how determined the young Hagler was to get out of Newark. Even then he knew there was something better than the reality of his own existence and that of his family in a quarter of a city which was blighted by institutionalised racism. You can detect the legacy of all of this in the character he became and some of the traits in his personality. But the extent to which he was marked by it very much remains within those impenetrable walls which protect his inner self.
“When he won his world title in London, it was Ida Mae who spoke about what they had come through as a family, and she made the point very tellingly that some experiences are too horrific, too painful to even recall in the mind, let alone speak about. Pervasive poverty, segregation and destruction of people’s lives was cemented into the soul of the city in which he grew up.”
Housing blocks built as recently as the fifties had been slipping into disrepair, prompting a push for urban renewal – funded by federal money – across so significant a number of projects that Newark was given the nickname Brick City. Earlier in the sixties the Great Migration and what became known as the white flight to the suburbs had transformed the city’s demographics; 20,000 manufacturing jobs had also disappeared since 1950, but during that same period black migrants had arrived in waves from the segregated south.
By the time Smith was attacked the state was also seeking to build a medical school across over 150 acres of Central Ward, fuelling the feeling of a wider plan to uproot its black population, and ultimately the increasing tension and sense of persecution that essentially made the reaction to his attack inevitable.
“Hagler’s experience of all that was happening at that time around Central Ward instilled in him very naturally a deep suspicion of white people,” Doogan explained. “When he and his family moved to Brockton he felt very much out of place, in his own words moving from an all-black society to a mixed society. It was only through getting to know and trust the Petronelli brothers that he relaxed and began to develop an understanding of how people really were. In Central Ward in the late 1960s we’re talking about deep-seated systemic racism; the institutions of the city serving to suppress the local black population. Brockton was very different but it took a long time for Marvin to recognise this and Goody and Pat were central to him developing that understanding.”
Ron Borges, who during a career that took him to both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald perhaps got closer to the guarded Hagler than any other writer, told BN: “Maybe 10 years after he retired, I went with him to South Africa for a story I was doing on him. He was going there to do a television broadcast on a Roberto Duran fight outside of Johannesburg. We were there for around two weeks, flying around the country, including Cape Town to meet [Nelson] Mandela. When we landed in Cape Town they had a government guy, bodyguard and driver pick us up.
“Right outside the airport was a shanty town, and you could see all of these black people walking around in mud, basically, and these corrugated tin huts. Marvin was looking, and turned to me and said: ‘Shit, that’s worse than Newark.’ That was the first thing he thought of.
“He always believed: ‘Everybody’s out to get me; everybody’s out to put me down; everybody’s out to hold me back’. That’s where he came from.
“[Co-trainers and managers] Goody and Pat Petronelli, other than his present wife, are the last people he really trusted. Joe Frazier told him at one point: ‘You’ve got three things going against you. You’re good, you’re a southpaw, and you’re black.’ Hagler must have told that story 200 times.
“Even today, I’ve talked to him a number of times – joked – saying we’ve got to do a book, and you can see him immediately, his whole demeanour changes. It’s, ‘What’s this guy trying to get out of me?’ He still has a wall around him. I’ve never got beyond that, and it’s not personal. It’s just him.”
For even a teenager with Hagler’s ambitions, the thought of transforming his life to the extent he did would almost certainly have seemed implausible. It took until he met the Petronellis before he had a father figure; Ida Mae even suspected his sensitive nature would drive him to become a social worker.
Instead, during one of those five days, the anger and contempt that came to define his decorated career perhaps began to grow as police seized upon the circumstances to take retribution, often by stealing from and destroying black-owned shops. If on the second night the violence and lootings spread and there were further beatings, by the third, the little-trained National Guard – heavily armed, white, and fearful of blacks – was also called in, worsening those circumstances by shooting into apartment buildings at snipers who were never found and driving tanks through Central Ward’s streets. It took until the Monday for them to be withdrawn, by when the neighbourhood was close to burned to the ground.
“During the five days in which Newark and Central Ward in particular remained under siege, Hagler and his family remained in their flat and dared not move. A couple of stray bullets from the street battle below smashed a bedroom window, ripping straight through the plasterboard above one of the beds,” Doogan said. “Marvin was a very quiet kid with had an introverted personality and all of these experiences were absorbed deep into his psyche. The resentful side of his nature is deep-rooted and it would become something of a constant throughout Marvin’s life.
“He would have plenty to be resentful about in terms of how he was overlooked for so long before he gained a shot at the middleweight title and how his purses were never on a par with Leonard’s, for example. But the resentments emanated most profoundly in Central Ward and that always stayed with him.”
“He moved to Italy [to Milan], he told me, and he told others, partially because he felt there was a lot less racism there, compared to the United States,” Borges recalls. “To have seen the things he saw – they basically burned a whole city down. It was crime-infested to the max. You can’t grow up in those circumstances and forget it, just because you made millions of dollars as a boxer. He was old enough to remember the things he’d seen, and the general despair of the environment. He hadn’t forgotten.”
For all that so worthwhile a point had been made by the long-suffering residents of Central Ward, it is widely accepted that conditions in Newark deteriorated further before they improved. The city’s reputation made those based in the suburbs reluctant to shop there, contributing to numerous businesses permanently closing; the completion of two highways made it even easier to entirely avoid. With absentee landlords also burning properties to make claims for insurance, its economy continued to unravel.
If she didn’t do so while the riots were unfolding and the buildings around her were burning, the formidable Ida Mae required little time to conclude that she needed to take her young, impressionable family elsewhere. In 1969, Brockton, Massuchusetts was where she moved them to. Hagler met Goody and Pat Petronelli, so suitable at nurturing the cold, near-impenetrable barrier and physical gifts he had developed, and in 1973 he threw his first punches in a professional boxing ring.
“When he moved to Massachusetts it wasn’t like he was living in the greatest part of Brockton, but compared to where he’d come from it was a lunar landscape,” Borges said of a fighter whose mind is likely to revisit his youth when he sees athletes take a knee today.
“He’d have been better from a boxing [promotion] standpoint if he’d stayed in Newark. New England fighters aren’t really looked upon as much as anything, so it was easy to dismiss him early on.
“He was able to overcome all of that, and do a pretty good job of, finally, once he broke through, doing the deodorant ads, being a superstar and being on the Johnny Carson show. I think he never forgot where he came from, but that he also came to understand he was more than that. Bigger than that.”
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: December 10, 2020 – Join the team and be a Boxing News subscriber