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Home Boxing Requiem For A Class Act
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Requiem For A Class Act

 

alexis_arguello“I do think the heart can balance out the mind, if your heart is in a good place it can give you the strength to do the right thing and behave the right way and overcome the mind.” - Alexis Arguello

Long before Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy good looks graced boxing magazines, another Latino heartthrob created flutters in the ladies at ringside. Tall, lean, and mustached, Alexis Arguello cut a dashing figure which embodied the spirit of Hispanic elegance. Never ostentatious, his poise in the ring was legendary. He was a symbol of pugilistic nobility, and the apotheosis of dignified Machismo.

Fighting out of Managua, Nicaragua, as a featherweight, Arguello earned the nickname “El Flaco Esplosivo.”  His explosive career got off to a lurching start when he lost his pro debut by TKO in the first round at the tender age of sixteen. In his first thirty-nine fights, all but one taking place in Managua, he lost three times from 1968-74, two by TKO.  But he remained undeterred and tenaciously honed his craft.

alexis_arguello_boxerArguello was a classic standup boxer with one twist – he could flatten you with either hand.  Occasionally a bit stiff, he always moved forward with hands held high, elbows tucked in, and punched straight from the shoulder. There was never a wasted movement. While he was not the quickest fighter, his right hand was as straight as a laser beam, and if you happened get caught at the end of it, it was nightie-night.

After losing his first WBA title bid to Ernest Marcel on a 15-round decision in 1974, he won the Featherweight Championship by KO’ing Ruben Olivares in the 13th round only ten months later. Olivares was ahead on the scorecards when he ran into an Arguello uppercut. The new champion’s purse was $15,000.

alexis_arguello_boxer01Sixteen wins later, and after a close split-decision scare against Jose Torres in 1976, Alexis decided it was time to move up in weight. His arch-rival while campaigning as a Super Featherweight was Alfredo Escalera, a terrific inside fighter whose looping punches connected around Arguello’s guard in both their contests. Arguello won the first encounter on cuts in the 13th round, and became WBC Super Featherweight Champion on January 28, 1978. His defenses of the crown included a Who’s Who of the Featherweight division, including “Bazooka” Limon, Bobby Chacon, Rolando Navarette, Cornelius Boza Edwards, Jose Luis Ramirez, and a bloody rematch with Escalera.

In the summer of 1981, Arguello again moved up in weight, travelling to London to take a unanimous 15-round decision over WBC Lightweight Champion, Jim Watt. With this win, he became the fifth boxer to win titles in three weight divisions, the first since Henry Armstrong, and the first Latin American to achieve such a feat.

He would defend the crown against Ray Mancini, Roberto Elizondo, James Busceme, and Andy Ganigan before testing the waters of the Junior Welterweight Division against Kevin Rooney at Bally’s Casino in Atlantic City in July of 1982. Weighing in at 140 pounds - 16 pounds heavier than his lowest confirmed weight as a Featherweight - “El Flaco” had definitely filled out. Rooney, who had only one loss to that point, was knocked cold with one perfect right to the chin in the 2nd round.

With that win, the stage was set for a meeting with one of boxing’s most unconventional fighters. With a style much like that of Alfredo Escalara, “The Hawk” would do what Escalera couldn’t. He would take everything in Arguello’s arsenal and keep on coming. This epic battle was to become Alexis Arguello’s Waterloo.

Alexis Arguello’s first battle with Aaron Pryor on November 12, 1982, was one of the most anticipated fights of its time, ranking #8 in Ring Magazine’s 1996 list of “The 100 Greatest Title Fights of All-Time.” Arguello, the emotional favorite, was dreaming of becoming the first man to win crowns in four different weight divisions, and a vast phalanx of aficionados were rooting his cause. It appeared to be destiny.

alexis_arguello_boxer02At the time of the fight I was singing the opera “Tosca” at Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. I had not missed an Arguello fight since he’d won the Featherweight title. Unfortunately, the fight was carried by HBO, and was not available at my hotel. I scoured cast and company for somebody with premium cable. On the day of the fight I received a call from a colleague saying he knew somebody who’d ordered the fight and was then called out of town. Hearing of my plight, he had made arrangements for me to get into his friend’s condo. After a series of long distance calls, some hurried arrangements, and a long taxi ride, I found myself sitting alone in an absent stranger’s luxurious living room, watching fourteen rounds of boxing history unfold before me. 

Pryor was a quirky fighter. He was the Prince Nasim Hammed of his time. Despite his many technical flaws, his footwork was fluid and he could punch from unlikely angles. This unorthodox approach was the perfect foil to Arguello’s standup style.

alexis_arguello_boxer03From the outset, the speed difference between the two fighters was painfully evident. Arguello came forward in his classic stance, using his left as a rangefinder. Pryor dipped and slipped, countering with quick, seemingly impossible punches. I waited for Arguello to land that one fight-changing shot - but it never came. Weary and pummeled, he sank to the canvas after a relentless barrage in the 14th round. In an instant, the dream of four titles was gone, a destiny that would finally be realized by Thomas Hearns in 1987. 

The Pryor fight also had its controversy. It was revealed that Pryor's trainer, Panama Lewis, had given his fighter a drink from a suspicious black water bottle in the late rounds. Because of Pryor’s enormous burst of energy at the end of the fight, this prompted speculation that the container might have contained an illegal stimulant. The Florida State Boxing Commission failed to administer a post-fight urine test, and Pryor’s corner swore that there was nothing illegal in the bottle. It was later discovered, however, that Lewis sometimes crushed antihistamine tablets into his fighter’s water bottle, the idea being that it would provide greater lung capacity. Absolute proof was never uncovered, but the debate prompted a rematch several months later.

The rematch was a shorter replay of their first fight, with Pryor’s speed and resiliency frustrating Arguello. After three knockdowns, “El Flaco Esplosivo” sat on the mat looking across the ring at Pryor, shaking his head as if to say, “I hit you with everything I have, so why am I the one sitting here?” Arguello took the ten count.

There is a rumor that on the night of the first fight, an armed man approached Arguello’s dressing room with the intent of killing him. The man was arrested after Arguello’s his handlers hid him in the shower while they got the police. During interrogation it was discovered that the assassin had Sandanista connections - which brings us to another complicated aspect of Alexis Arguello’s life.

alexis_arguello_boxer04Bordered by Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua is part of the thin band of nations linking the Americas, and is the largest country in Central America. Many political complexities have plagued the country since its independence from Spain in 1821. When the Somosa Family Dictatorship fell to the communist-leaning Sandanistas in 1979, many Nicaraguans fled the country. Arguello became part of this exodus when his property and bank accounts were confiscated by the new Sandanista government in the early 80’s. Arguello moved to Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami; but sometime in 1983, he returned briefly to fight the Sandanistas alongside his brother, who was killed in the struggle. His son, Alexis Arguello, Jr., said, "He was only gone three weeks. I don't think my mom was going to let him stay too long. I didn't really think he was going to be on the front lines but he actually was. He shot some guns and he got shot at and he saw some people die. It was real war."

Sometime after his KO win over Billy Costello in 1986, Arguello retired. He fell into a deep depression purportedly exacerbated by drug and alcohol use during an eight–year layoff. He attempted a brief comeback in 1994-95, but announced a final retirement after a ten-round loss to Scott Walker on January 21, 1995.

In 1992, the Nicaraguan government returned some of his property, and Arguello returned to his homeland to start a new phase of his life. An ardent patriot for his beloved Nicaragua, he resolved to go into politics.

alexis_arguello_boxer07Arguello became Vice-Mayor of Managua in 2004, and was later elected Mayor with 51% of the vote. There were allegations of widespread voter fraud and intimidation by Sandanista factions with whom he was now aligned, despite his years of struggle against them. Following his election there were allegations of misappropriation of funds for personal use, and a scandal brewed.

alexis_arguello_boxer06On July1, 2009 Alexis Arguello, age fifty-seven, was found dead in his home on the outskirts of Managua. He had suffered a bullet wound to the chest with a 9mm pistol. The official ruling of the Nicaraguan government was suicide, but there is speculation about this finding. Many, including Arguello’s son, believe that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was responsible for his father’s death. Some skeptics think that the FSLN exploited Arguello’s popularity to usher him into office, only to use him as a “straw man” for their graft and corruption. Others believe the FSLN feared that he may have made a future run for President.

Even though the room he was found in appeared to be undisturbed, autopsy photos and coroner’s sketches clearly indicate a gash on the bridge of Arguello’s nose and severe bruising on his arms that look like self-defense wounds. The details surrounding his death were hushed and his body was autopsied and buried and before an independent forensic analysis could be made. His family has vowed to pursue the case until proof can be found that he was a victim of foul play.

alexis_arguello_boxer08But for those of us who cheered him, this is of little comfort. We may never know the truth. The man is gone, and all that remain are memories and videos of a great warrior who retired with a career record of 82-8-0 with 65 KO’s. Here was a man who graced our sport with his very presence. And so the best we can do is eulogize him, and pass his legacy on to a new generation of boxers.

Good night Sweet Prince, El Gran Campeon De Nicargua. Descanse en paz.

Charles Long
www.convictedartist.com

 

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