For devotees of an always-troubled sport, Alexis Arguello‘s death on July 1 at 57 brought back memories of the elegant boxing master of the 1970s and early 1980s. It also reminded me of the conversation I had with him at Graziano’s Inn in Canastota, New York, during the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s June 2004 induction weekend. The IBHOF is like no other sports shrine, because mass media, advance men, security buffers, and the rest of the trappings that make pro sports so inaccessible today are practically nonexistent there. You can talk to the fighters you grew up watching if you’re patient enough. I had a few beers with Leon Spinks, discussed the Marine Corps with Ken Norton, and hugged Aaron Pryor (probably after the beers with Spinks).
Arguello was every bit the gentleman of reputation, and he exhibited no attitude, no aura of self-importance. He didn’t even look much older than his fighting days, still wearing that Omar Sharif moustache. He was a former Nicaraguan exile who had left his country and settled in Miami during the 1980s. He’d initially supported the Sandinista revolutionaries, but he got on their bad side, refusing to be their propaganda tool. They eventually confiscated his property and evicted his mother from her home. In the mid-eighties, he even took up arms against them briefly, fighting with the Contras. So I was surprised by Arguello’s answer when I asked him for his thoughts on the recent death of Ronald Reagan: “I mourn the death of a good man, Mr. Reagan. But he started a war in my country that didn’t have to be.”
This sparked a spirited debate between us about Russian influence in Central America, the Cold War, and American power. It was difficult to hear Arguello, since Graziano’s was pulsating with a live band and packed with boxing greats — Pryor was holding court a few feet away — and legions of fans. His main argument seemed to be that the Sandinistas of the eighties had committed injustices, and that he was no fan of Soviet communism, let alone Soviet interference, but that the U.S. intervention had made a bad situation infinitely worse. It was one of those moments when one understands that he is talking to a real person with real experience of an historical event, not listening to cable-news pundits armed only with plug-and-play opinions. Whatever the merits of Arguello’s views, he’d earned the right to them, while I’d earned only the right to listen, to the extent possible over the din.
I don’t recall Arguello telling me that he had in fact joined the latter-day, less revolutionary incarnation of the Sandinistas. But he did say that he intended to run for mayor of Managua, the capital city. He was elected four years later, in November 2008, though opponents charged the Sandinistas with election shenanigans and Arguello faced allegations of financial improprieties once in office. Then on July 1, he was found dead in his home of a single gunshot wound to the chest. His death has been ruled a suicide, though some, like boxing historian Bert Sugar, wondered about foul play. It was fair to wonder, given the violence of Nicaragua’s modern history and Arguello’s prominence (he was mourned nationwide) in his country’s political upheavals.
He usually had much more control over events in the boxing ring, where he was one of the sport’s immortals. A champion in three weight divisions — featherweight (126 lbs.), junior lightweight (130 lbs.), and lightweight (135 lbs.) — he was an artful boxer and lethal puncher, known as the “Explosive Thin Man.” He wore his opponents down with a steady and methodical attack, taking them apart, piece by piece, as the rounds progressed. The way he held his hands and blocked punches seemed to come right out of a classical boxing manual. And on top of all of that, he was a true sportsman who won over opponents and the media with his humility and grace. His breakthrough with American fans came in 1981, when he defeated challenger Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in a stirring match punctuated by a brutal Arguello knockout — and then an unforgettable embrace in which he lauded Mancini and his father, a near-champion to whom the young fighter had dedicated his efforts. If one wanted to defend boxing against its most ardent detractors, he could do no better than pointing to Arguello.
The list of boxers Arguello fought between 1978 and 1981 alone would put him in special company. Sure, their names sound like a gang of outlaws from a spaghetti Western, and they are remembered today only by long-time, diehard boxing fans (themselves a vanishing breed), but they were among the most formidable lower-weight fighters of their era. Many were champions themselves at one point or another, but Arguello beat them all: Alfredo Escalera — in a bout the referee called “the most brutal fight I have ever witnessed” — Rafael “Bazooka” Limon, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Castillo, Rolando Navarrete, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Jose-Luis Ramirez, and Mancini. In 1981 Arguello also beat Jim Watt, whose name doesn’t belong in a spaghetti Western but who happened to be lightweight champion before running into the Thin Man. That victory gave Arguello his third world title. He set his sights on becoming the first boxer to win titles in four weight divisions. That would mean beating Aaron Pryor.
Pryor and Arguello met in Miami’s Orange Bowl in November 1982. Both weighing slightly under 140 pounds, they fought for over $1 million apiece, purses never thought possible in previous eras for such small men. It was boxing’s last golden age, and it was driven mainly by fighters at the lower weights, led by Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler. Pryor always felt that he was their equal, if not their better, but he didn’t have great competition at the 140-pound weight class to prove it until Arguello came along.
I was 16 in 1982, a boxing fanatic eagerly ordering black-and-white Super 8 films of Joe Louis fights, scanning the back pages of Ring magazine for news on obscure bouts, and gobbling up the smorgasbord of boxing then available on weekend network television. I felt sure that Arguello’s boxing ability, strategic mastery, endurance, and experience would prevail. I imagined him landing that artful right hand over Pryor’s wild, improvisational lunges. I saw him using his unparalleled body-punching skills to take the starch out of Pryor in the middle rounds. But Pryor had a surprise in store: he could box, too, and he could think. Realizing that his cyclone-style early-round aggression was not going to finish off Arguello, Pryor down-shifted a gear and boxed, jabbing, dancing, exhibiting artful skills of his own. Both men fought furiously through almost every round. Then as the fight turned to the homestretch — where most experts felt sure that Arguello’s experience would be decisive — Pryor made another charge, and this time Arguello wilted, backing to the ropes and absorbing a frightening series of blows. The knockout in the 14th round was memorable for its brutality and final sequence, with Arguello’s head snapping back from the force of Pryor’s punches before the referee finally jumped in. Only then did Arguello collapse to the canvas, unconscious for several minutes. They met again a year later, and this time Pryor dispatched Arguello in the 10th round.
Arguello fought on after the Pryor bouts, in need of money, but his great period was over. He fell into a difficult cocaine habit, which he kicked, but he suffered more chronically from depression. He told an interviewer years ago that he’d contemplated suicide when he’d been at his lowest point, but that point seemed safely behind him as he found a new life. Boxing people who knew him well — including Pryor, who traveled to Managua to campaign for him — said that he seemed upbeat and excited about the future. But there is no reckoning with depression; when severe enough, it doesn’t bother sending warning signals.
Remembering his former rival, Pryor told ESPN that in their post-boxing friendship, Arguello had taught him how to carry himself and how to act in public. Arguello did a lot of teaching in his life, in the ring and out (and at Graziano’s Inn). He was a philosopher-king in a trade more often ruled by violent princes, a dignified sportsman in a post-Ali age of crassness and boasting. These are not great days for boxing or for sportsmanship, but Alexis Arguello showed us how majestic both could be.