At the conclusion of the regular home-and-away season, Hawthorn had finished on top of the ladder with 19 wins and 3 losses. Geelong had finished third (behind Essendon) with 16 wins and 6 losses. The Cats also set a new record for the highest points total scored in a home-and-away season, having scored 425 goals and 366 behinds for a total of 2916 points, an average of nearly 133 points per game.
In the finals series leading up to the game, Geelong lost the Qualifying Final to Essendon by 76 points, before beating Melbourne by 63 points in the First Semi-Final, and then defeating Essendon by 94 points in the Preliminary Final to advance to the Grand Final. Hawthorn had a much easier run, defeating Essendon in the Second Semi-Final to advance straight to the Grand Final.
The Grand Final was played in near perfect conditions. Geelong made their intentions clear right from the start when Mark Yeates ran through Hawthorn's champion centre half-forward and enforcer Dermott Brereton. As Geelong coach Malcolm Blight would later admit, this had been a premeditated strategy to protect star midfielder Paul Couch and negate Brereton, who constantly used his aggression to unsettle the opposition. Yeates was chosen to carry out the deed, partly as payback for when Brereton had flattened him in the classic Round 6 clash earlier in the season. Amidst the chaos in the middle of the ground, the Cats rushed the ball forward to Gary Ablett, who kicked the first of his nine goals for the afternoon. Yeates' hit left Brereton with broken ribs and a bruised kidney, which caused him internal bleeding. Hawthorn physiotherapist Barry Gavin recalled the scene years later:
"The thing that really struck me was how bad he was when I got there. He'd lost all the color in his face and was vomiting. He'd dragged himself back on his feet by this stage. But he was doubled over, dry-retching and his color was grey... There was no way he could stay out there. I remember looking up at [Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans] in the box and starting to try to get him off. Dermott said, 'No, no. Just get me down to the pocket'. Terry Gay (Hawthorn's team doctor) came out. He was more worried than me. He recognized the gravity of it."
Despite the insistence of the club doctors and trainers, Brereton refused to leave the field and instead was helped to the forward pocket. Moments later, the ball came into Hawthorn's attacking zone. Brereton, only moments ago on the ground and seemingly out of the game, took a strong mark, steadied, and kicked truly to open Hawthorn's account. Brereton's inspirational act lifted the Hawks, and they slammed on a further seven goals to take a commanding 40-point lead at quarter time. However, Geelong's physical approach was starting to take its toll. Besides the injury to Brereton, John Platten had been concussed and Robert DiPierdomenico was crunched from behind by Ablett while going backwards to take a mark, and suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung, although at the time the full extent of the injury was not known.
Geelong captain and ruckman Damian Bourke was replaced by Darren Flanigan in the second quarter, and began to have an immediate impact in the ruck contests. Then Ablett went on an inspired purple patch, booting three goals in a couple of minutes - the most memorable of those when he grabbed the ball from a boundary throw-in and snapped truly from a tight angle - and Geelong were back in it. Scott Maginness, Ablett's opponent up to that point, was moved onto Billy Brownless while Chris Langford was assigned to mind Ablett for the rest of the game. Despite nine goals from Geelong champion Gary Ablett and a spirited final quarter fightback by the Cats, Hawthorn held on to win by six points to take back-to-back flags, and cement their status as the most successful team of the 1980s. Jason Dunstall, Dean Anderson and Gary Buckenara each kicked four goals for the Hawks.
Ablett's nine goals equaled the record for most goals kicked tying Gordon Coventry's overall record of goals in a Grand Final set in the 1928 VFL Grand Final. The Norm Smith Medal was awarded to Ablett for being judged the best player afield. This is only one of four instances of a Grand Final player having won a Norm Smith Medal without being on the winning premiership team.
By the end of the match, Hawthorn had only 13 fit players on the field. Scottish soccer player Ray Stewart observed the game, and was recorded to have said "I would not play this game for a million dollars."