Dave Hannigan: Death of Marvin Hagler another piece of childhood stripped away

Passing of sporting icons becoming all too familiar as middle age ticks along

Marvin Hagler is hoisted aloft after beating Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas in 1985. Photo: George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Marvin Hagler is hoisted aloft after beating Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas in 1985. Photo: George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

 

Within minutes of reading about the death of Marvellous Marvin Hagler, I was on YouTube, watching for the millionth time the first round of his fight with Thomas Hearns in 1985. All that elemental fury. The greatest three minutes in boxing. Arguably in all of sport. And then I got to thinking where I saw that bout first. Was it Sports Stadium the Saturday afterwards? Or on a VHS tape my father brought down from Flannery’s pub in Glasheen? Maybe it was both. Memories blend these days. Times and places conflate. A symptom of age.

No matter. Every time I watch I am temporarily transported back to our living room, my father perched on the edge of his armchair, arms flailing, trying to explain the greatness of it all. My ignorant 14 year old self just relishing the gladiatorial aspect of two men fighting like demented kids in a schoolyard, never even pausing for breath. Hagler’s glistening bald dome. Hearns’ spindly legs. One of those moments in time. My dad is long gone. Now Hagler too.

I turned 50 in January and, sometimes lately, it seems like my heroes are all dying, taking little slivers of my childhood along with them. The grim reaper’s roll call of the last few months. Jack Charlton. Diego Maradona. Christy Ryan. Hagler. Those were only in the top echelon. He’s come for plenty of the supporting cast too. Leon Spinks, Ray Clemence, Doug Mountjoy, Tommy Docherty. Never idols but small, significant landmarks on the road map of my youth, names that evoke a time long ago, when, to quote the great Cork bard John Spillane, “our mothers were young, and our fathers were tall and kind”.

Blurry memory

Spinks was in the other corner for the first Muhammad Ali fight that I have even a blurry memory of. Clemence was an ace card in Top Trumps, a weekly columnist in SHOOT! magazine (our holy book), and, in my mind’s eye, can be seen forever stretching in vain to try to reach Justin Fashanu’s epic goal for Norwich. Mountjoy reached the final of the Benson and Hedges, the first ever snooker tournament I watched live on television after we got multi-channel. Docherty was the United manager when they wore that impossibly glamorous white change strip by Admiral, the unmistakable black stripes running down one side of the front, the only replica shirt in our house until the late 1980s.

Diego Maradona with the World Cup trophy in 1986. Photo: Schlage/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Diego Maradona with the World Cup trophy in 1986. Photo: Schlage/ullstein bild via Getty Images

No sport can thrill you like it thrilled you when you were a boy in the first flush of awareness and understanding. No goals are ever quite as wondrous again, no athletic feats as magical, no fights can stir the blood. It is all so new and romantic then and you are not yet cynical and tired and suspicious. You can still wholly marvel. Those names you learn, those things you witness, they stay with you and inform your sporting worldview forever more. Sure, you add to your store of knowledge but the very deepest parts of your brain are exclusively reserved for those characters, the ones who first colonized your imagination when it was at its most impressionable.

Nobody ever expected Maradona to live long and die in gentle repose yet when he went there was still that intake of breath. Every subsequent image that flashed up of him with the inevitable tango ball at his feet, the ball of all our adolescent fever dreams, made us pine to be young again. It is why we lingered too long over L’Equipe’s simple, classic cover shot of him in his pomp. That objet d’art captured a time of infinite promise and potential. When anything was possible. For him. For all of us. His passing a telling nudge in the ribs, a reminder you are in the second half of your own game and, your clock, it too is running down.

The signifiers of middle age are many and varied. The amount of time you whinge about how they’ve distorted so much you used to love about games like hurling and soccer. The realization you played street leagues with the father of Ian Maguire, captain of the Cork Gaelic footballers. The sudden urge to plough through the back catalogue of Lee Child. The constant WhatsApping to you of links to RIP.ie where you read condolences for lads you went to school with or played alongside. Macabre fare that puts years onto you. Yet, nothing marks the inexorable passage of time quite like the departure of your heroes.

Local warhorse

Christy Ryan’s death never made the cover of L’Equipe but on the southside of Cork city, in my native Togher and around The Lough, the mourning for his passing was just as keen. For here was our local war horse, a broad-chested centre-fielder whose misfortune it was to run into Kerry’s greatest generation every summer in the era before backdoors. While I remember him never shirking, even on so many forlorn afternoons in the red jersey, the result long since a foregone conclusion, my abiding memory was of him somehow indomitable in the blue of St. Finbarr’s, seeming to play county finals in hurling and football every single autumn of my youth.

Then, I read an obituary of Ryan that chronicled he actually togged out in 20 and won 11 of them. Sometimes with your heroes you recall it exactly how it was. And, in your head, that’s how it always will be.

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