Fighters in the ring, the crowd filmed and Dick Johnson he pulls out his saxophone to play the national anthem. It starts, it becomes jazzy, dirty. The folks at the Civic Center in Providence play a backing track for him, a more classic performance with a large, massive orchestra. He should have fun with it, but he doesn’t. Either he can’t or he doesn’t want to. And that’s what causes this weird, dissonant mess. It’s scary, it makes you feel bad hearing it.
The music gets into Wilford Scipio’s head, it disturbs him. He tries to combine these two melodies, create one anthem, adjust them to each other. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, into a large family, Scipion has always tried to fit everything together. He dreamed of getting out and turned to boxing as the ticket. He had a long, successful amateur career, and when he turned pro, he had his twelfth fight, knocking everyone out. Scipio also knocked out his thirteenth opponent, but he wished with all his heart that he had not done so.
November 23, 1979. Scipion fought Willie Classen in New York. Classen was knocked unconscious, and Classen died five days later in the hospital. It’s a dark boxing nightmare that hovers over every fighter. A black crow sat in the rafters of every stadium on the night of the fight. Scipio almost retires. And as the saxophone wrestles with a pre-recorded version of the anthem, the memory of Classen overlaps the ring, where the undisputed middleweight champion of the world stands opposite Scipio, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Hagler also grew up in poverty, in the Newark, New Jersey projects. Like Scipio, he was desperately looking for a way out. As a child, he witnessed the 1967 riots that destroyed entire Newark neighborhoods. Holed up in a small apartment, neighbors came to tell his family who had been killed, who had been robbed. The townhouse where he lived was destroyed, and Hagler’s family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, where he began boxing in 1969.
Both men from the projects, both with the same drive and the same dream, both of the same size. So why does Scipion look so uncomfortable in the ring? Why does Hagler look so perfect? What makes such a champion? It cannot be just the circumstances of his life, his will, his desire. Most warriors have similar stories of bad luck. Why do some people succeed and others don’t?
It should be mentioned that Hagler was particularly sharp that night, and his unique combination of smooth boxing and vicious aggression was as strong as ever. Champion for almost three years, the best middleweight in the world for at least five, and he looked like he hadn’t lost a step, just gotten better. Fast, accurate, deadly. Starting fast, he hits Scipio with a counter left hand at the end of the first round, which causes the challenger to stagger backwards in the middle of the ring. And just like that, the fight is over.
Lucky Blow? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, Scipio requirements have good luck. It can happen. A powerful shot that hits at the right moment in the right place on the opponent’s chin or temple. Or an accidental injury, a broken arm, a pulled muscle, a bad wound. Happiness can always strike, it can always end unexpectedly, taking part in various cases. In training camp and in the ring, it’s about doing everything in your power to keep your opponent from getting lucky. The best professionals understand this.
But if luck ever favored Wilford Scipio, someone else would have been in the ring with Willie Classen that night in 1979. Or someone would notice that Classen is in bad shape and stop the fight. That black bird in the rafters would fly away. And someone might have thought to check if Dick Johnson’s saxophone was in line with the soundtrack.
Give Scipio credit: he never stops trying. In the fourth, he takes on Hagler, throwing Texas-sized punches to the champion that are easy to slip and easy to counter. The kind you cast with your eyes closed, hoping for a bit of magic. He even hits a couple, but nothing happens. At the end of the round, Hagler catches him with a shocking one-two combination, left lead with right behind. Scipio tries to stay on his feet, but Hagler refuses to let him off the hook, he lands a big left, another one-two, and Scipio falls and stays there for ten seconds. This is the end.
See Hagler after the fight smiling, chanting “Champion! Master!” Perfect. Beautiful. And very rare.
After his career, Hagler became an action star in Italy, married a beautiful Italian woman, watched the sun rise every morning from the porch of his villa, and lived in luxury until the end. And rightly so always remembered as one of the greatest middleweights of all time. His dreams came true and for years he lived new dreams he never imagined in the Newark Ghetto until his untimely death earlier this year.
On the other hand, Scipio came full circle. He lost plenty of fights before quietly retiring and then returning to Port Arthur. Little was known about his post-boxing life other than that he suffered from disabilities directly related to his career. His health deteriorated and in February 2014 Wilford Scipion died. Both men dreamed of getting out, but only Hagler kept getting up. It’s work, it’s training, it’s dedication. Of course it is. But some guys just seem to get lucky. —David Como