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2 Era’s Dominated By Greatness



Published on 28 Sep 2022 11:08 pm (UK Time)

In discussing his passion for Boxing, Andy Murray explained: “There are similarities with tennis: taking time away from your opponent, neutralising their strengths, finding their weaknesses. When someone watches a tennis match they say stuff like, ‘Why doesn’t he just play to his forehand?’ But when you get out there on the court, it’s not that easy. The same with boxing. 

There are things I won’t see that boxers would see – like Floyd Mayweather, for instance. You might think he’s easy to back up and get him on the ropes. But, if it was that simple, everyone would do it. It’s the same with tennis. The best players make it look simple, but it’s incredibly difficult. There are times in points and times in matches where you want your opponent to make mistakes, you aren’t trying to hit winners, but you’re trying to put the ball in awkward and difficult positions. Then there are times when you have to go in there and assert yourself, try and finish points. There are definitely similarities between the two sports.” 

Another similarity comes in two era’s of the sports, where the landscape was ruled by 4 men. 4 men whose compelling rivalries with each other captivated audiences from all over the world. Between them they dominated their fields. The “4 Kings” of Boxing were: ‘Hands of Stone’ Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvellous Marvin Hagler and Tommy ‘Hitman’ Hearns. Between them they were World Champions in every weight class from Lightweight all the way up to Cruiserweight. Duran’s record up to his 43rd Birthday was 92 wins in 101 fights, 65 coming by way of knockout. Combining that with the record of the other 4 Kings, saw over 250 combined wins, 190 by knockout. 

The ‘Big 4′ of men’s tennis comprised of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. In 63 slams played between Wimbledon 2004 and the 2020 Australian Open, the Big 4 won 57 of the 63 available slams. Between the French Open of 2005 and Wimbledon 2022, atleast one Big 4 member was in the final in 59 of the 61 majors. They have won a total of 66 slams, and played a combined 104 finals. Between them they have won over 4,000 tour level matches. 

These 8 men were all special in their own right, but what elevated them was their rivalries which will be remembered for eternity. This piece will look at similarities between The 4 Kings and The Big 4, both in individuals and in their rivalries and it will draw comparisons between Leonard and Federer, Hearns and Nadal, Hagler and Djokovic, aswell as Duran to Murray.  

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As the curtains began to come down on the extraordinary career of Muhammad Ali, too slowly and too sadly, as he made his last defences by either carrying no-mark opponents who had no business fighting for the Heavyweight title, or else absorbing cringing punishment against dangerous men, the Boxing business began a frantic search for the man who could replace him. 

In Sugar Ray Leonard, they found the ideal guy. He had everything, as if  manufactured solely for the purpose of being the new face of boxing. He had the Olympic Gold Medal, an even more dazzling smile, easy charm and wit, a charisma which instantly connected him to people watching on the small screen at home, and skills inside the ring only seen once in a generation. Leonard emerged as the perfect fighter for the perfect moment in time, the space Ali had made for Boxing in the public consciousness could never again be filled by just one man, but Ray would come as close as anyone could. 

Roger Federer also arrived on the scene at an opportune moment. ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras left the sport in 2002 having won his 14th major, he retired as the man with the most grand slams in history. His playing style however, aswell as his personality off the court had done little to attract new diverse audiences to the sport, and the 1990′s saw Women’s tennis with stars like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis flourish more successfully. The arrival of the Williams Sisters saw the Women’s game transition seamlessly into a strong new era, whereas the men’s game looked for who would take up Sampras’ mantle. 

The most likely candidate was young Aussie Lleyton Hewitt who defeated Sampras to win his maiden Grand Slam aged 20, and followed this up by becoming World Number 1 and winning Wimbledon the following year. If at that time you’d said a pony-tailed Swiss dude by the name of Roger Federer would soon become one of the most dominant and giant figures the sport had ever seen, it would have been hard to conceive. But that’s exactly what happened. From the moment Federer ugly-cried after winning his first Grand Slam title, he never looked back. He embarked on a period of total domination, winning  5 straight Wimbledon’s and 5 straight US Open’s. 

Between 2004 and 2007, Federer won 11 out of 16 majors played, and reached the final of a further 2. Between 2003 and 2005, he won 24 consecutive finals. And yet although they were, it wasn’t the numbers that were the most astonishing thing about Federer. It was his popularity which rose at a meteoric rate and quickly reached a level rarely, if ever seen before in the sport of Tennis. He kept on winning, and the media and fans seemingly never tired of it. They didn’t root for underdogs against him, didn’t want to see new names on the trophies, they just wanted Federer. This was down to a brand of tennis that was uniquely Federer’s, a style which has spawned many copycats since who have tried to recapture some of his magic. 

The effortless easy power which came naturally off his racquet, requiring no grunts of endeavour, racing through matches often without breaking a sweat, without muttering a single word in anguish, as why waste a breath when you can wield your weapon and paint the court like a canvas with one majestic shot after another. The one word most associated with Federer throughout his career is ‘classy’ and that’s because it applied to him both on and off the court. He was near impossible to ruffle either by opponents across the net, or by journalists in the press room. Not that journos would often try to as their fawning over him would not subside for the best part of two decades. 

Boxing had chosen Leonard as it’s new star, Federer gave Tennis no choice, he decimated and wiped the floor with the field. But Leonard quickly proved himself a worthy choice, capturing the Welterweight World title in his 3rd year as a pro by stopping Wilfredo Benitez for his 26th straight win, his 17th by stoppage. Leonard had the looks, he could talk the talk and he could go in the ring and back it up. He threw combinations with lightning speed and he was a complete fighter. He was flashy but substance came with the style, as was also the case with Roger Federer.

The similarities between Leonard and Federer came in that their classy, easy on the eye style made them fan favourites and their approachable, charismatic nature when talking with the press made them media darlings. They had the most aesthetically pleasing style of their contemporaries, their fan friendly eye-catching style meant they transcended their respective sports. You didn’t need to be a big boxing fan to know when Sugar Ray was fighting and you didn’t need to be a big tennis fan to tune in to watch Federer. Such was their mass appeal, they played a big role in growing their chosen sports. 

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Every great athlete needs a great rival. Without one, you will perhaps never know how great you can be, without being pushed beyond the boundaries of what you thought yourself capable of. Sugar Ray found that in the shape of Thomas Hearns. And what a shape it was, Hearns was a physical freak. Standing six feet two inches, with long muscular arms and a slender physique which somehow permitted him to weigh in at the Welterweight limit. Hearns’ ‘Hitman’ nickname was more than fair, he wasn’t a Welterweight who hit like a Middleweight, he was a Welterweight who hit like a Cruiserweight. Knocking out 27 of his first 28 opponents, Hearns then dethroned 4-year reigning champion Jose Cuevas in 2 brutal one-sided rounds. Cuevas came in off the back of 12 successful World title defences but Hearns toyed with him like a Lion with a Gazelle. 

Federer’s great rival was of course the Spaniard Rafael Nadal. The rivalry quickly blossomed into one of the most thrilling and competitive the sport had ever seen. Between 2006 and 2008, the pair faced off in 3 successive French Open finals and 3 successive Wimbledon finals. Nadal won all 3 on the clay as he stormed to 4 successive majors there. Nadal destroyed Federer for the loss of only 4 games in the 2008 Roland Garros final, to get his 9th clay court win against Federer in 10 matches. However Federer led Nadal 5-2 on other surfaces heading into the 2008 Wimbledon final. But Rafa was getting closer. After losing in 4 sets in the 2006 Wimbledon final, he got even closer the following year but went down in 5. The 2008 final saw Federer aiming to become the first man to win six successive Wimbledon titles, and Nadal aiming to become the first man since Bjorn Borg to do the French Open/Wimbledon double in the same season. 

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The hotly anticipated match somehow exceeded expectations, producing what is widely considered the best remembered tennis match of all time. Nadal going two sets up, Federer dragging it into a deciding final set before the Spaniard finally managed to pry Roger’s fingers off the gold cup to end the domination of the Swiss on grass. It is still to this day rightfully considered one of the most impressive and important victories of Nadal’s spectacular career. 

The Ray Leonard v Thomas Hearns meeting had been an inevitability for years. When they met for the first time in September 1981, Leonard had won 30 of his 31 fights and Hearns had won all 32 of his. Leonard was 25 years old and Hearns was coming up to his 23rd Birthday. Together they had defeated every and any possible contender and threat, all roads led to each other. The fight was perhaps the best back and forth of all time. It was expected to be the classic boxer vs puncher, and it was. Only it was the puncher doing the boxing and the boxer doing the punching. Hearns with his much superior reach edged the early goings with his jab, but when Leonard stopped fearing the Hitman’s power, it was instead the Sugarman throwing the bombs and landing the first significant blow by wobbling the legs of Hearns. 

Hearns continued to box and move, whilst Leonard stalked, a complete reversal of the approaches both men had been expected to take. It was Hearns who was benefitting the most however, as Leonard went in search of one big shot, whilst Hearns continued to pop him with the jab that was winning him the fight. Everything changed when Leonard’s trainer Angelo Dundee got straight to the heart of the matter by telling his fighter “You’re blowing it now son, you’re blowing it. We need fire and you’re not firing. Take it away from him.” And that’s just what Leonard did by twice battering Hearns through the ropes in the 13th, with twenty-five unanswered punches thrown at an absurd speed given it was the Championship rounds of a tough, draining fight. Hearns fought on with nothing but heart, until in the penultimate round the referee called a halt to the contest, with Leonard continuing to pummel the Hitman at will. 

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The rematch would take place 8 years later, though Leonard fought just 4 times  in-between largely due to suffering a very serious eye injury. Thomas Hearns was only 30, but was already considered over-the-hill having been knocked out inside 3 rounds against Iran Barkley 2 fights prior, before hobbling to a majority decision against a fairly mediocre opponent. But Hearns had been left to wait 8 long years for his shot at redemption against Leonard, and now it was here. Not even his brother being arrested 48 hours before the fight for the murder of a young woman could break Hearns’ laser-focus on finally beating his bitter rival Ray Leonard. 

Hearns knocked Leonard down for the very first time in the 3rd round of their second contest, and when Leonard came back at him in the 5th with an onslaught of pressure, Hearns stood up to it refusing to go down. The second knockdown of the fight went Hearns’ way, as he put Leonard down again in the 11th. Leonard got up and continued to hunt for the knockout he surely now needed to avoid defeat, but Hearns was not content to coast, desperately looking to finish Sugar Ray inside the distance. In the end, both men heard the final bell and there was little doubt who had won the fight. However, a truly shocking decision from the judges deprived Hearns of a much deserved win and instead ruled the contest a split decision draw. They were the only people in the world who held that view however, with even Leonard admitting afterwards that Hearns should have got the decision. 

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Federer and Nadal met many times after the 2008 Wimbledon final, but never again was it so hyped up and anticipated until 9 years later when they met in the 2017 Australian Open final. Going into the final, Federer had won just 1 Grand Slam in the past 6 years, and had not reached a major semi-finals for 3 years. Nadal had not won a slam for 3 years, and it had been 4 years since he’d won one off the clay. Both guys had been suffering with significant injury problems, but against all odds they reached the final for their first Grand Slam final meeting for 6 years. 

Nadal led 9-2 in Grand Slam matches and 6-2 in Grand Slam finals. Nadal had won their last 6 matches in Grand Slams, but it was Federer who got off to the better start taking the first set. Nadal levelled it up before Roger romped the 3rd set 6-1. Again though Rafa came back at him to force a 5th and final set. Up to that point, Federer and Nadal had failed to play well at the same time, in the decider though both guys began to produce some of their best tennis of the match in a setting of incredible intensity and pressure. It was Federer who came out on top to win his first Grand Slam title for 5 years. 

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There are similarities to be found between Thomas Hearns and Rafa Nadal in that they are both heavy-hitting powerhouses who would relentlessly pummel their opponents into submission. They are pure fighters with an all-action style which made them appealing to the regular man in the street. However, they both struggled for a time to be recognised for their skill aswell as their strength, but they earned that recognition by showing it in their rivalries with Leonard and Federer respectively. 

These rivalries too had somethings in common, with Leonard always having great difficulty against Hearns’ style. Hearns long-reach & aggressiveness, combined with his hand speed and power always gave Leonard great problems. Nadal’s ability to keep hitting into Federer’s single-handed backhand for many years prevented the Swiss from being able to dominate baseline rallies in the same way he did against everyone else. Nadal won 15 of 19 meetings between 2008 and 2014, this however forced Federer to improve and find new ways of dealing with Nadal which he did by winning 5 of their last 6 meetings.

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Marvin Hagler was shaped by a tough upbringing which saw him drop out of school at the age of 14 and take work in a factory to help support his family. Around this time, his home was caught in the crossfire of the 1967 Newark Riots. For 3 days, he and his family could travel around their apartment only by crawling across the floor in order to avoid potential bullets, such as the two that smashed through their bedroom window.

Novak Djokovic grew up in a war-torn Serbia where he and his family had to wait in line for essentials like bread and water. Night-time trips to a bomb shelter were at one time a regular part of his life. He vividly remembers a time he was awoken by a huge explosion, and in the panic his mother was knocked unconscious by hitting her head. As his family fled the building, Novak recalls turning to see a plane flying above and the ground shaking. Such traumatic events such as the ones suffered by Hagler and Djokovic in their formative years cannot fail to impact you and shape you into the man you become.

Hagler had to wait a long time for his shot. It wasn’t until his 7th year as a pro and his 50th fight that he was finally given a World Title fight. The wait didn’t end there though as Champion Vito Antuofermo was awarded a generous draw by the judges to retain his title. Hagler had to travel to the UK to fight Alan Minter to finally get his hands on the Middleweight Championship, this time not giving the judges a chance to get involved by stopping Minter inside 3 rounds. It had been a long time coming, it was Hagler’s 54th fight and in it he recorded his 50th win. However if he thought that now was the time to bask in his glory and finally get the respect of the boxing world he felt himself long overdue, he was dead wrong as angry Brits rained down beer bottles onto the ring in ugly scenes that required police to safely escort Hagler back to the dressing room.

Hagler had long been a man with a chip on his shoulder, in fact two giant chips were firmly placed on each shoulder. Such was his frustration that the media would rarely refer to him by his nickname ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, he legally changed his first name to Marvelous, giving them no choice. He envied the likes of Thomas Hearns and Ray Leonard especially, who had always enjoyed the media coverage and access to mainstream America that he had not. He desperately wanted to get one of them in the ring, so he could finally get the credit he felt he was due. For the time though, he had to busy himself with taking care of lesser known names which he did in devastating fashion, winning his first 5 title defences by stoppage.

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By the end of 2010, Federer had won a men’s record 16 Grand Slams, and Nadal had won 9. And the Tennis world would have been perfectly happy to watch these 2 men continue to square off for every available Grand Slam for the foreseeable. Such was the quality of their matches, the brilliance of their tennis, everyone was prepared to watch them go on splitting the titles almost equally. It seemed almost certain that noone else would be capable of reaching the level required to challenge them anytime soon. Novak Djokovic won his maiden slam in 2008, but in the 2 years following reached just one other slam final, in which he was soundly beaten by Nadal, who in doing so became the youngest man to win all 4 majors. 

But in 2011, Djokovic produced one of the greatest individual seasons in tennis history, and suddenly there was three at the party. Between 2011 and 2016, Djokovic reached an extraordinary 16 slam finals, winning 11 of them. In this time, he established himself as one of the greats, on atleast equal footing to Federer and Nadal. But like Hagler, he did not receive the same level of credit when he won as when his more glamorous rivals did. Federer and Nadal had got their first, established huge fanbases around the world and had completely won over a Sports media that revelled in their victories. They were huge superstars. Djokovic found that he could beat Federer on the court, but he could not beat him for popularity. In the 2015 US Open final, he had to beat not just the Swiss but an American crowd who made zero secret of how badly they wanted him to lose, and their man to win. It was perhaps the most hostile crowd he had played in front of and the Serb dealt with it brilliantly, but there was no getting away from his desire to be loved by the crowds in the same way Nadal and Federer were.

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Marvin Hagler met Thomas Hearns on April 15th 1985. In the build-up, it was billed simply as “The Fight”. Given what would transpire in the ring, it would henceforth be known as “The War”. Hagler, a notoriously slow starter took it to Hearns at once, deciding to trade blow for blow with one of the hardest hitting middleweights in history. If it was a bold play, Hearns was equally cavalier, as he neglected to use his reach and size advantage and instead stood in the pocket to trade with Hagler. The outcome was a first round in which Hagler threw 82 punches and landed 50, every punch thrown a power punch, not a single jab. Hearns landed 56 punches including 45 power punches. It will surely always be regarded as the greatest opening round in boxing history.

Hagler was already cut and the fight continued in the same vein for “8 Minutes of Fury” until Marvellous smashed Hearns to the canvas with a vicious right hand followed by two uppercuts to his falling foe. Hearns got up but was in no state to continue and Hagler finally had the recognition he’d dreamed of. Hagler would later say: “I have to say that was my favourite fight, I took the best Tommy Hearns could throw at me. I was so worked up, I felt like a monster. I wanted him to get up so badly so I could knock him down again. The way I felt I would have beaten an army that night. Whenever I watch that fight I still get chills.” Hearns said: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off. It happens to the best of us. It hurts. But the man showed his greatness tonight.” 

Hagler threw 173 punches in 8 minutes, landing 96. Hearns landed 94 of 166, and his contribution to one of sport’s most memorable ever spectacles will never be forgotten. Referee Richard Steele said of the contest: “I was shocked at the pace they set and the ferocity of the fight. I always made sure I stayed in shape as a referee, I did my running. But that fight, after the first round, I felt tired. After the second round, I was exhausted. I remember thinking to myself going into the third round, how these two guys could not keep up this pace. I was spent. It was just toe-to-toe action for every minute of each round.”

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If two perfectly conditioned athletes in Hagler and Hearns had exhausted physics by landing 190 punches in 8 brutal minutes, Djokovic and Nadal would take tennis to new levels of physicality, not least in their extraordinary battle in the 2012 Australian Open final. Just to reach the final had taken strenuous effort on Djokovic’s part as he edged out Andy Murray in a 4 hour 50 minutes semi-final. 2 days later he was back in action to take on Rafa Nadal. It took 40 minutes to complete the first 6 games and 80 minutes for Nadal to close out the opening set 7-5. Almost 2 and a half hours of play took place before Novak could level the match up at one-apiece. Djokovic took the lead by taking the 3rd set 6-2 but Nadal refused to go away, winning the 4th set via a tiebreak in a set that lasted just shy of 90 minutes. 

In the deciding set, Nadal broke first to take a 4-2 lead but Djokovic broke back instantly and then levelled the match. At 4-4 the opening point of Nadal’s service game saw an incredible 31-shot rally, with both players having to sprint from one end of the court to the other and back again until Djokovic hit long and collapsed to the floor breathing heavily. In the end though it was the Serb who somehow outlasted the Spaniard to take the final set 7-5 and win in 5 hours, 53 minutes. The match is considered to be perhaps the most high quality match ever and without doubt the most physically and mentally gruelling. It remains the only Grand Slam final Nadal has ever lost after winning the first set.

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After the contest Djokovic said: “It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies, we made history tonight and unfortunately there couldn’t be two winners.” Nadal commented: “I really understand that was a really special match, and probably a match that’s going to be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played.” Both players could barely stand during the trophy ceremony, with both physically, mentally and emotionally spent. But by giving every ounce of their being to win, they took tennis to new heights. 

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Marvin Hagler had 12 successful title defences, he was unbeaten for 11 years but he still had one box left to tick. He desperately wanted to prove to Leonard and the world, that he was the better of the two fighters and the best on the planet. Hagler assumed that chance would never come, Leonard once teased a fight with him only to then announce his retirement.  But now it was on, Leonard had come out of retirement once more to fight for Hagler’s world Middleweight crown. The Sugarman had fought just once in the last 5 years, whereas the active Hagler had stopped all but one of his last 12 opponents. Fight fans feared that Leonard already with a fragile right eye was making a grave mistake. Leonard had one big demand, a 12-round fight rather than 15. Hagler didn’t give it a second thought, in his mind the fight would not go near the distance anyway. 

The fight and the decision that followed it remains to this day the most contested in Boxing history. Sugar Ray flurried with fast combinations at the end of the rounds to huge roars of approval from excited fans who could hardly believe what they were witnessing. Leonard was the star and he was the story, and he controlled the narrative of the fight which undoubtedly impacted on some scorecards such as judge Jose Juan Guerra who gave the fight to Leonard by a margin of 118-110. 

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Leonard fought like a man who was winning, he looked like a man enjoying himself, playing to his adoring audience. Hagler fought like a man behind on the cards, brows furrowed, menacingly stalking his prey. Hagler looked that way of course not because he believed he was losing, but because he wanted to hurt Leonard and knock him out. But it all played into the optics of the fight, and a fight this close, this difficult to score, was always going to come down to such things. Leonard understood this perfectly and played the part of a winner brilliantly, Hagler did not. The fight seems to get closer with every watch, and the outcome will be debated for an eternity, but it was Sugar Ray Leonard whose hand was raised at the end of the fight to the disgust of Hagler, who never fought again and who could never let go of his bitter feelings towards Leonard, whom he felt had robbed him of the thing he held most dearly, the Middleweight crown.

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In Tennis, points are not awarded based on individual interpretation. Narratives or fan sentiment do not come into deciding the outcome of a match. If they did Roger Federer would have beaten Novak Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon Final. The Swiss was approaching his 38th Birthday and had not beaten Djokovic in a slam final since their first meeting in 2007. The 32-year old Serb had won both their Wimbledon final meetings in 2014 and 2015 and aswell had won 8 of their last 10 meetings, any betting man would have given him a clear edge going in. 

But Federer rolled back the years, producing a near-perfect performance. Despite this he lost the opening set on a tiebreak. If this was a blow for Federer he didn’t show it as he destroyed Novak in the second taking it 6-1. Djokovic weathered the storm and hung in as he so often does, taking Federer into a tiebreak for the 3rd set and again winning it. Roger outplayed Djokovic once more in the 4th to take the match to a 5th set decider. After breaking Novak to lead 8-7, Federer brought up match point but couldn’t convert and was instead broken back. 

At 12 games each, the third tiebreak of the match took place and for a third time it was won by Novak Djokovic. In a match where Federer had hit more aces, fewer double faults, had a higher win % on both his 1st and 2nd serve, won more points at the net, won more break points, won 14 more points in total and 4 more games in total, he had lost. The only area in which Djokovic had bettered Federer was in the unforced error count, with the Swiss hitting 10 more. This was key in the tiebreaks where Djokovic played at a perfect level, saving his very best for the biggest points. In Boxing terms it was a classic rope-a-dope, Djokovic was down on points, but he was saving himself for a big late flurry and with a knockout blow he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Lasting 4 hours and 57 minutes, it is the longest Wimbledon final in history. 

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Hagler and Djokovic share similarities in that they are winners, pure and simple. They did not always enjoy the same level of credit and appreciation as their rivals and were not always received as warmly by the masses. But they continued to grind out win after win regardless with minimum fuss. Hagler had one of the best chins in boxing history, and is considered one of its most durable fighters. Djokovic too is an expert in soaking up pressure and punishment but never wilting to it. They’ve had to earn more respect inch by inch over time, but as more time passes their position amongst the all-time greats is undoubtedly secured. 

There are similarities in their rivalries too, Hagler and Hearns being one of the most eye-wateringly brutal wars of attrition the sport has seen. The back and forth battles of Nadal and Djokovic have been similarly gruelling and grimacingly physical.  And Hagler struggled for fans love and media acceptance against Leonard in a similar way to Djokovic has had to against Federer, and this no doubt fuelled their rivalry somewhat at certain points.

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Roberto Duran was Panama’s favourite and most famous son. The Central American country situated between Colombia and Costa Rica contained around 2 million people when Duran was in his prime, and most of their lives would come to a standstill in order to follow the fights of their hero Mano de Piedra (Hands of Stone) as he brought pride and honour to the tiny nation by delivering knockout win after knockout win. 

Andy Murray represented a significantly bigger nation in the United Kingdom, a country that was one of the first proponents of tennis alongside the USA and Australia, but unlike those nations had not enjoyed any success in Men’s tennis since the Second World War. Only one man representing Britain had reached a Grand Slam final since 1938, and he was born in Canada, only switching his allegiance to Britain aged 24 due to moving to Britain to live with his British wife. No British man had won a Grand Slam title since Fred Perry in 1936. When a prestigious young talent named Andy Murray came onto the scene, hope and expectation exploded that he could be the one to end the embarrassing wait for a country that hosted the biggest tennis tournament in the world, yet never won it. 

Despite holding the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, Murray was not the recipient of unconditional appreciation and support from the tabloid media nor the British public that read it. Born in Glasgow, Scotland Murray was reported on by UK journalists usually residing in London. Many of whom looked to twist a joke he made about supporting “anyone who plays England” at the 2006 World Cup, a comment he made in response to a jibe made by Tim Henman about Scotland’s failure to qualify, into a chance to hammer the still-teenage Murray. The smiling, clean-cut, well-spoken Henman from Oxford was the image of how the British press expected a tennis player representing Britain to be. They had trouble accepting the ‘dour’ scot, with his often unkempt hair, less polished answers and a demeanour on court that did little to hide his raw emotions, which were often that of anger and frustration.  

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With Duran fighting for literally an entire nation that relied on him to bring joy to their tough lives in his native Panama, and Murray competing for a nation desperate and impatient for success, with a media unlike anyone else’s in their demand for success, and their brutal condemnation of anyone unable to deliver it for them, Duran and Murray faced a level of external pressure on another level to that of their rivals. 

When Duran rematched Sugar Ray Leonard in what will forever be known as the “No Más” fight, he would discover just how much he was relied upon by his people. When he lost the WBC Welterweight title to Leonard, the Panamanian people did not take solace in the fact it was only the second career defeat their man had suffered in 74 bouts, nor did they care that Sugar Ray Leonard was one of the top handful of fighters on the planet. And that is because of the manner in which Duran lost, by appearing to quit in the 8th round of the fight. Panamanians could not comprehend their lionhearted warrior quitting mid-fight and during the round to boot. Whatever the reasons for Duran’s decision and there appeared to be multiple (cramps, injury, frustration at his lack of success against Leonard’s tactics), it’s likely that had he been aware of the backlash to follow in his homeland, he wouldn’t have made that same decision again. 

5 months earlier Duran had returned to Panama after beating Leonard the triumphant all-conquering hero, welcomed by thousands of fans who wanted to revel in their idol’s glory. Now, Duran’s home in Panama was graffitied and for days he was unable to leave his house. When he did he brought with him his pet lion on a leash, such was his need for protection against his fellow countrymen.

Andy Murray may not have walked his border terrier Maggie-May on a leash for the same reasons of safety, but when walking the streets near his London home he too faced the shouts and jeers of his compatriots. He had become just the second man to lose in 4 successive Grand Slam finals and despite winning many other trophies, he was labelled a loser and a nearly-man. The man in the street and the media did not believe in him. He had lost 3 of the 4 finals against Roger Federer, including the most painful of the lot, the Wimbledon final. Playing on a court in close proximity to his house, Murray had taken the opening set but Federer had snatched the title away from him and left the Scot with that familiar painful feeling. This time Murray bared his soul to the watching audience, talking to the public in a way he never had before. It brought him closer together with fans who were seeing a side to him they hadn’t seen before. Murray’s willingness to be vulnerable and open up in this moment seemed to help his tennis as though a weight had been removed from his chest. 

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Duran’s pride which had been heavily dented in the  “No Más” farce only fully recovered 3 years later with a fight against Marvin Hagler. Duran had been in poor form ever since the Leonard fight and appeared to now be washed-up. Hagler was considered perhaps the most dangerous man in boxing at the time, and the fight was thought to be a mis-match, perhaps just one final payday for Duran. Instead Hands of Stone showed the fighting spirit that had once made him the Pride of Panama, and after 13 rounds he was up on the scorecards. That Hagler took the last 2 rounds to retain his title scarcely seemed to matter. Duran had his redemption and won back the respect and support of his nation. 

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Just 2 months on from his Wimbledon heartache, Murray was back in a Grand Slam final knowing a defeat would make him the first player to lose his first 5 major finals. In his way stood the formidable presence of Novak Djokovic. It took 87 minutes for Murray to just take the opening set, which featured a 54-shot rally. Murray went 2-0 up in a slam final for the first time, and was just one set away from his first major. However, it hadn’t been easy to win one up to now, and it wasn’t going to start now. In what felt like no time, Murray went from 2 sets to the good, to level at 2-2. Suddenly the momentum was with Djokovic, and Murray looked in danger of capitulating. If he couldn’t win from 2 sets up, surely he’d never win one. 

Murray left the court to take a bathroom break, in which he looked into his eyes in the mirror and told himself out loud “I’m not going to lose this.” Murray flew into a 3-0 lead, which gradually became 5-2 with the Brit serving for the match. He held his nerve and ended Britain’s 76-year wait for a men’s champion. It had taken 4 hours and 54 minutes and by defeating a Champion of the calibre of Novak Djokovic and in the fashion he did by taking the final set after squandering a 2 set lead, Murray had silenced all his doubters once and for all. After the match Djokovic said: “He deserved to win this grand slam more than anybody because over the years he has been a top player, he has been so close, lost four finals. Now he has won it so I would like to congratulate him. Definitely happy that he won it. Us four, we are taking this game to another level. It’s really nice to be part of such a strong men’s tennis era.” It is to date the only 5-set final Djokovic has ever lost, the Serb winning the other 5 he has played. At the very next Wimbledon Murray also ended Britain’s 77-year wait for a men’s champion there, again beating Novak Djokovic this time in straight sets. It is the only Wimbledon final Djokovic has lost, his sole defeat in 8 finals.

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Duran and Murray shared similarities in that they were often the underdog of the quartet and had to come back most often from being down and out. They had to endure more losses than the others, but because of their huge hearts, fighting spirit and pure grit, aswell as superior talent to 99% of their opponents, they enjoyed glory of their own. Both men were also unapologetically themselves, never bending to what others expected them to be and in the end they were accepted and celebrated for the way they are. 

There were also similarities in their rivalries in that Duran enjoyed his main “4 Kings” success against Leonard, who he beat in the “Brawl in Montreal” their first fight, one of the most exciting action-packed Boxing fights ever held. Murray had his best “Big 4″ success against Roger Federer, winning 11 of their first 20 meetings, including a straight sets win to take Olympic Gold in the 2012 final. However Leonard and Federer faired better against Duran and Murray respectively as time went on, Leonard winning their last 2 encounters to edge the trilogy and Federer winning his last 5 encounters with Murray to take the overall head to head 14-11. Duran achieved redemption against Hagler, in the same way Murray did against Djokovic. Duran’s worst match-up in the “4 Kings” was with Thomas Hearns who obliterated him in 3 rounds. The most one-sided “Big 4″ match up was Murray against Nadal, who he trailed 17-7.  

Due to their love of their respective sports, Duran and Murray went on competing when most athletes would have called it a day. Duran fought until he was 50 years old, losing 7 of his last 18 fights but such was his competitive drive he found it difficult to walk away. A hip injury for Murray kept him side-lined for 3 years and in the end it had to be removed and replaced with a metal hip. No singles tennis player before has gone through such a procedure and returned to the game but Murray’s drive brought him back. Though no longer the player that made it to number 1 in the world, and now having to endure more regular defeats against players he would once have defeated comfortably, Murray’s love of his sport and desire to keep proving people wrong has kept him fighting in the top 50 of the world rankings. 

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The lead-up to the Brawl in Montreal between Duran and Leonard in 1980 saw psychological warfare taken to a level rarely seen even in Boxing. As Bob Arum remembers: “They were in two different hotels in Montreal and Duran had a spy who watched Juanita (Leonard’s wife) each time she left the hotel. Duran would get a call to hurry to a car that was waiting. He would have the car drive up next to Juanita and say things like, ‘I fuck you after I beat your husband.” Duran got Leonard so mad, the master-boxer turned into a slugger for 15 rounds, desperate to hurt Duran for the disrespect he showed. It was Leonard who left more hurt on this occasion, his ego bruised after having to taste defeat for the first time in his career. However 5 months later, Leonard inflicted the most humiliation Duran had ever had to endure, taunting and toying with him in the middle of the Superdome, New Orleans until “Hands of Stone” reportedly said “ No Más.” The extraordinary thing about Boxing and sport in general, is that both men moved on from this to share not just a mutual respect, but an actual liking of each other. 

During a battle with Covid-19 which hospitalised Duran in 2020, Leonard summed up much of his feelings towards Duran in a video message he recorded for him saying: “I love you so much, I respect you so much and your family, I want to send you my well-wishers, my prayers, my friendship and my love for you. You’ll pull through champ, you’re the best.” 

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The Big 4 have had to share the spotlight with each other for so long. Federer solely dominated the sport until he had to share the spoils with Nadal. Nadal’s ownership over Roland Garros would surely have seen him reach an uncatchable number of Slams if not for the all-surface excellence of Novak Djokovic. Andy Murray would have a number of slams more fitting of his supreme ability if not for sharing an era with the 3 greatest players ever, facing Federer or Djokovic in 10 of his 11 finals. Yet despite this, and despite suffering the most painful losses of their respective careers against each other, The Big 4 of Men’s tennis also share relationships that go beyond respect and into friendship. Certainly now that the first member of the quartet has announced his retirement. At the recent Laver Cup that friendship was plain to see as the 4 men bonded together on and off the court. There were extraordinary scenes on the night of Federer’s final ever match, as his long-time rival Nadal was just as emotional, the two men crying alongside each other in a touching moment that will not be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it. 

The friendships that have materialised not despite of, but because of their extraordinary rivalries shows the uniqueness of sport and why it holds such a special place in all of our lives.  

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