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19 APRIL 2014

 

Alexis Arguello – A Champion In And Out Of The Ring




By Matthew Hurley: There isn’t much I can say about Alexis Arguello’s ring accomplishments that haven’t already been articulated in much better prose than I am capable of. He was simply a magnificent fighting machine. A technician who studied his opponent until he noticed a weakness and then exploited it, usually with a laser beam of a right cross. He was one of those rare athletes who you didn’t simply enjoy watching – you knew you were witnessing something very special.

And then his gentlemanly nature elevated him even further into that rarefied stature of beloved sports icons. He was a man who lived for the precision and, yes, the brutality of his profession, but when the job was done became conflicted by the violence of what lifted him to both athletic greatness and into the hearts and minds of his countrymen who adored him and boxing fans who revered him. That gentle nature and killer instinct left him at odds with his inner nature and why he was ever celebrated in the first place. He spoke often of his inability to reconcile himself with a sport that gave him an identity but constantly challenged his kind nature.

His rushing to a fallen opponent and embracing him, offering him solace in that lonely space that is defeat, so often exemplified Arguello’s inner struggle over the violence of his art. Never was that more evident than in his nationally televised bout with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini on CBS in 1981. After stopping the popular young fighter in the 14th round Arguello cradled Mancini’s battered face in his hands and told him how much he loved him and his father. Mancini’s father, a former fighter who never reached the level his son did, was sitting ringside and broke down at the sight of his son’s defeat and the noble Arguello’s immediate commiseration. It was an emotional afternoon that I will never forget and have recently relived on what is now a sacred DVD.

Alexis Arguello’s father, a shoemaker who toiled day and night to feed his eight children, had tried to commit suicide by jumping down what he thought was an empty well. When he hit the bottom there was a high level of water and he survived. When medical personnel were called to the scene to get him out they tied a chair to a rope, lowered it down and told him to sit on the chair.

Guillermo Arguello, still in the throes of turmoil, tied the rope around his neck and then told the firefighters above to pull him up. When he reached the fresh night air his face was blue and he was near death from strangulation, but he survived.

The lingering doubts about his life’s worth were, apparently, passed onto his son Alexis. The strange dichotomy of unending achievement, which one would think would generate inner peace, and the sinister shadow that is depression, haunted Alexis throughout his life. He attempted suicide before, in front of his young son AJ, but seeing the tears in his baby’s eyes he lowered the gun from his temple and tried to find the strength to carry on.

Arguello won titles in three weight divisions – featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight. However, he is probably most famous for a fight he lost; his epic first battle against Aaron Pryor in 1982 for a then unprecedented fourth title at junior welterweight. The fight simply speaks for itself – a brutal, yet artistic fistic masterpiece. It pitted two all time greats at the height of their powers pushing each other to the limits of human endurance. It stands alongside the first battle between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns in 1981 and the middleweight showdown between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns in 1985 as the best fight of the decade.

Arguello slipped into unconciousness after a 23-punch fusillade from a relentless Pryor in the fourteenth round. He would never be the same again. It was a defeat that seemed to cripple him emotionally. A rematch in 1983 led to an even more conclusive defeat. Yet he and Pryor became good friends, comrades in arms.


I was privileged enough to see both men embrace warmly at the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in 2008. There was such love there. I also noticed how protective Arguello’s son AJ was of his father. Arguello embraced me for what is now a treasured photograph and autograph session. As always, he was movie star handsome, decked out in an elegant gray suit. The man loved nice clothes. When I leaned forward and rather awkwardly told him how much I loved him he hugged me, as he did every fan I saw him with that day and he said to me, very simply, “Thank you so much. That means so much to me.”

He seemed a happy man that day. But in retrospect perhaps his family was clinging to him so tightly and protectively because they knew more than we ever truly did.

Arguello’s life after retirement saw a brief comeback and then a slip and fall into cocaine addiction and endless financial problems. His troubles in his homeland had led this celebrated public figure to see his mother and sister thrown out of their home by the Sandinistas, who he once supported, in 1979 during the Civil War in Nicaragua. His brother Eduardo would eventually be shot and killed fighting for the Sandinistas. They subsequently took from Alexis everything he had and he fled to Miami, Florida. This personal tumult was both forced upon him from outside forces and then attacked him from within as inner demons brought him to his knees.

Arguello would soon fight, rifle in hand, for the Contras against the Sandinista regime. But the war would leave him shattered emotionally. War, ultimately, made no sense to him.

Years later, after seeking refuge in the United States, the IRS would come calling. The financial strife would lead to an aborted comeback in the ring. After a surprise knockout victory over former junior welterweight champion Billy Costello in 1986 he would lose to unheralded Scott Walker by decision and then be diagnosed with what doctors called a heart “defect” or murmur.

In a wonderful article by Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith in 1985 the author speaks of the endless contradictions in Arguello’s character. But the one trait that commentators, family, friends, opponents and fans always agreed upon back then and now is that Alexis was a genuinely nice man. A gentleman who cared so much about people that he ran for political office in his country and won, becoming Mayor of Managua. He also carried his country’s flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

In the aftermath of his death by suicide I’ve found myself asking, like so many who thought they knew him in some small way, “Why?” In the end the mystery of such a tragic ending only reminds us that even people who seem to have every gift God can give can still suffer inside. The fragility of the human psyche, the heart, should never be underestimated.

I will forever remember Alexis Arguello as a great champion and a true gentleman. A nice man who gave a little bit of his time to me and made me very happy by his gesture. I will never forget his reply to me when I so clumsily told him how much I loved him. “Thank you so much. That means so much to me.”

Thank you Alexis. You will be forever missed.

Author’s note. Gary Smith’s 1985 profile of Alexis Arguello can be found in the Sports Illustrated Archive Section at http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1120040/index.htm.

July 6, 2007


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