Who would have thought? One of rock and roll’s biggest superstars is also one of boxing’s biggest fans. Affectionately known by his fans as “The Red Rocker,” Sammy Hagar’s boxing roots date back to the days when his father was a professional fighter. Fighting under the assumed name of Bobby Burns, his father Robert Hagar was a respectable fighter back in the‘30’s and 40’s. Early on, Sammy thought about following in his father’s footsteps until the early 1960’s when groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones turned him in the direction that would eventually make him famous around the world.
After paying his dues in the rock world much like a club fighter first pays his dues, Sammy Hagar first gained fame and fortune in the early 1970’s with the band Montrose. After tensions within the group forced him to leave Montrose, Sammy launched a successful solo career in the mid 1970’s. Classic hits such as “I Can’t Drive 55” and “Three Lock Box”
proved to the world that whether in a band or as a solo artist, Sammy Hagar was a force to be reckoned with in the world of rock and roll.
Despite being a success on his own, Sammy Hagar’s music career took an unexpected turn in 1985 when he became the front man for the legendary group Van Halen, replacing the departed David Lee Roth. Sammy’s career with the band lasted twelve years, along the way producing such hits as “Best of Both Worlds,” “When It’s Love,” “Runaround,” and “Right Now.”
Sammy’s departure from Van Halen in 1996 also prompted the beginning of another career for “The Red Rocker,” that of entrepreneur. Sammy became the owner of the Cabo Wabo cantina in Mexico and soon after began marketing his own brand of tequila. Unlike most rock stars whose careers are destroyed by alcohol, Sammy Hagar’s career seemed to be fueled by it.
In 1999, Sammy bridged his love of tequila and his love of music with the release of the song “Mas Tequila.” The song became an instant hit and once again reestablished Sammy Hagar as a successful solo artist in the world of rock and roll.
Throughout his life, Sammy Hagar followed boxing as closely as his managers were following the music charts, befriending many of the world’s best fighters along the way.
Despite his extensive touring schedule, he often attends championship fights live and never misses a chance to view a fight on television. One need only hear him talk about the sport to realize that the same passion Sammy Hagar displays on stage as a rock icon, he also has for the sport of boxing.
NABF: I know your father boxed, as a featherweight I believe. Is that how you first got interested in the sport of boxing?
SH: Absolutely. My father actually fought as a bantamweight, a featherweight and a lightweight. He fought Manuel Ortiz seven times. He fought him five or six times as an amateur and then I think a couple of times as a pro. My dad’s first eight professional fights as a bantamweight were knockouts. The guy could really punch. That was his trip but it ultimately ruined him as a fighter because when he realized he could just walk in there, hit somebody and knock them out, that’s all he tried to do. He got himself nearly beat to death. I think my dad had potential to be probably be a great fighter but after a while, he would fight anyone. It became a money thing for him. He had us kids and he had to make a living. So he’d take a fight for a couple hundred bucks and fight a guy that weighed 160 pounds. He didn’t care. My dad would pack his bags and get on a bus with my uncle and go down to the border towns in California and fight Mexicans for any amount of money, any size guy, on a minute’s notice. Later on, he tried to make me a fighter.
NABF: If you yourself were a professional boxer, is there any particular fighter whose style you would you try and imitate?
SH: Let’s see, one who doesn’t get hit a lot! I was more like a Sugar Ray Leonard type fighter. I was not a big puncher. My dad was a puncher and he trained me so when you’re a kid, the first thing you learn when you’re fighting a grown man is how to jab and move. My dad was so slow compared to me that I learned to become a very fast jabber. That’s the style that I was heading towards because I had brother who was three years older than me who was also into boxing, and I had my father. Those were the guys who I always put on the gloves with every day. Therefore, I learned to be fast.
NABF: Much of your music contains direct references to boxing. For example, you’re pictured on the cover of your greatest hits box set, “Unboxed,” in a boxing ring wearing trunks with gloves around your shoulders. And at the end of your song “Mas Tequila,” you say the phrase “no mas, no mas” which is what Roberto Duran said to the referee when he quit against Sugar Ray Leonard. Are these boxing references conscious efforts on your part are they just coincidence?
SH: Even though boxing has always been such a big part of my life, they’re really just coincidences. To this day, I’ll drop everything to watch a good fight. I own Direct TV, only for boxing matches. You can ask my wife. I can watch any other sport imaginable now, but I’m just looking for boxing all the time. Boxing has always been part of my world. That photo of me in the ring was for a Rolling Stone photo session in New York. I suggested Gleason’s Gym so the next thing I knew I was dressed up in boxing gear. They used it in their book of greatest “Rolling Stone” magazine covers and I decided to use it for the cover of my “Unboxed” CD. The “no mas, no mas” thing just stands for anything when you’ve had enough. But when I use it, it’s about drinking shot after shot after shot of tequila! That was a classic line though to use in a fight.
NABF: Several years ago, you recorded the song “Winner Takes it All” for the soundtrack of Sylvester Stallone’s movie “Over the Top.” Did you ever get the chance to meet him and talk boxing?
SH: Oh yeah. We spent something like fourteen hours making that video. That was the first time that I met him. My partner in the Cabo Wabo tequila business Shep Gordon is great friends with Stallone. I’ve spent three or four Christmases and New Year's Eves with him over in Maui at Shep’s house. We’ve talked boxing a little bit but it’s funny, we’ve never really, really gotten deep into it.
NABF: If you were part of a celebrity boxing match, what celebrity would you want to get in the ring with and smack around for a few rounds?
SH: That’s good. Let me really think about that for a second. There’s some people that bug me even worse than some guys that I’ve been in bands with. It would have to be Eddie (Van Halen).
NABF: That would be a one round fight for you though. That’s a cakewalk for you.
SH: Well aren’t those the ones you want? Like I said, you want to be fast and not get hit. That’s the name of the game.
NABF: How did your relationship with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini first come about?
SH: I was always a fan of Ray. I’ve always loved those kinds of fighters like Ray and Arturo Gatti who get in the ring and are ready to die in there. Guys like that have always been my favorite kinds of fighters to watch. In Ray’s case, I think he became more famous for losing a fight probably than any fighter in history, the way he lost to Arguello. People saw his heart and soul in that fight and everybody fell in love with him, including me. My manager at the time, Ed Leffler, met Ray at a restaurant in Los Angeles and told him that I was a big fan of his. It turns out Ray was a big fan of mine as well. So we hooked up on the telephone soon after and from that day on, I knew he was my kind of guy. Ray has become a great friend of mine. He came to my wedding. He’s been to house many, many times. He comes to my concerts whenever I play in LA. Because he’s such a great human being, I really think the tragedy of the Duk Koo Kim fight affected him tremendously. He’s one of the most sensitive, sweetest people on the planet. I think that was devastating to him and he never really got over that.
NABF: Besides Ray Mancini, who are some other boxers that you’re friends with?
SH: Carlos Palomino is a gentleman and a really great guy. Ruben Castillo has always been a buddy of mine. I met Jerry Quarry a couple of times. We sat and watched some fights together at Ruben’s house. This was before he had his real problems. I can remember being at Ruben’s house with Ray Mancini, Ruben, Jerry and Mando Ramos watching Tyson and Razor Ruddock with the Jeff Fenech – Azumah Nelson fight on the undercard. It was a pretty strong room that night. I don’t know many heavyweights. Most of my fighter friends are in the smaller weight divisions. I’ve always found boxers to be the nicest, most gentle people that you’d ever meet.
NABF: Who’s your favorite fighter of all time?
SH:I think Sugar Ray Robinson was just one of the greatest ever. Muhammad Ali as well. They were both such innovators of the sport. They brought new things to the sport. They could stand right in front of you and not get it. That’s just such an art. And now you got Roy Jones. At first, I liked Roy Jones. Then there was a period when I disliked him. Then when he knocked out Virgil Hill with one punch to the body. My God, it was like, wait a minute, this guy really is great. It’s just such a unique style of fighting. It’s sort of what Pernell Whitaker started. I think Whitaker was a great, great fighter. That guy could stand right in front of you, and you couldn’t hit him. Those are the kind of guys you want to see get beat all the time but you got to hand it to them. I think Sugar Ray Robinson was the first of those kind of fighters. It’s tough to find a better fighter than him.
NABF: What’s your favorite boxing movie of all time?
SH: Without a doubt, “Raging Bull.” DeNiro was so unbelievable. He played my father in that movie. That was my dad right there. Beating the shit out of his brother, beating the shit out of his wife, hotheaded, accusing everybody of everything, doing all the wrong shit. I got goosebumps watching that movie. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
NABF: Powerful, motivating type music (like the theme from “Rocky” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”) often accompanies a boxer’s gym workout. What songs of yours do you think would be good selections for a fighter to listen to in the gym?
SH: I think a song that I wrote with Van Halen called “Get Up” on the “5150” album has a lot of good boxing lyrics in it. Another song that I wrote with Van Halen called “Dreams” really motivates you mentally to really make it happen and go for it. If you’re listening to songs like these, you are not gonna quit. They’ll drive you. It’s like having a good trainer.
NABF: Knowing the demands and potential rewards and pitfalls of both, would you prefer your teenage son to become a rock star or a professional boxer?
SH: Certainly a rock star. In some respects, they’re very similar. The careers are short lived. If you make it, there’s huge money and unbelievable opportunities for about five years. They’re both a lot of hard work though. People think that rock stars are people that do nothing for a living. It’s the writing and the recording process that really takes up every second of your time. It’s a lot like training for a fight. The performance is like the fight. You stay focused for your two and ½ hours on stage. But when you’re writing or recording, you have to be in dreamland. You can’t have any distractions and you have to just let those ideas come.
NABF: If you were a professional boxer, what do you think your nickname would be?
SH: I’m sure I’d be called “The Red Rocky.” It just kind of fits.
NABF: Are any other of your pals in the rock world also big boxing fans like yourself?
SH: A guy who’s not necessarily my pal because I’ve never met him but I know that Billy Joel is a big boxing fan. Like myself, I think he used to box too. My old drummer from my days with Montrose, Denny Carmassi, is a huge fan. We’ve been to more fights together than any two human beings on the planet. Denny is definitely a boxing fanatic.