By Dave McKee : In 1968, at the age of sixteen, the son of a shoemaker stepped into a ring in his home town of Managua, Nicaragua. Alexis Arguello won that fight by first round knockout and set his sights on world domination.
Arguello’s first bid for a world title came against Panama’s Ernesto Marcel in 1974. This was Marcel’s eleventh defense of his WBA featherweight title. After 15 rounds of hard fought action Arguello lost a unanimous decision. This loss seemed only to light a fire in his belly.
Nine months later Arguello would go on to knock out Ruben Olivares, taking the WBA featherweight title Marcel had abandoned by retiring. Having defended his belt four times the man who had come to be known as ‘El Flaco Explosivo’, or Explosive Thin Man, packed on a few pounds and laid siege to the super featherweight division. In his first bid for a title at 130 pounds Arguello cut up Alfredo Escalera. Eight successful defenses from April 1978 to April 1980 removed any doubt that Arguello was a champion worthy of note.
In June of 1981 Arguello travelled to England and wowed British boxing fans with a unanimous decision win over Scotland’s Jim Watt. He was now WBC lightweight champion of the world and only the seventh man to conquer three weight classes. Arguello defended the title four times before looking to rule a new division.
His target was Aaron Pryor, a formidable champion and an intimidating man. He had a public persona very much unlike that of Arguello, who was viewed as humble, classy and easygoing. Pryor was going to break his opponents, and he did not mind them knowing about it ahead of time. On the evening of November 12, 1982 Pryor had fought thirty-one times. He had never lost.
The fight was a brutal, back-and-forth display of skill and determination. Arguello played the role of counter-puncher, trusting in his strength to sap Pryor’s will. Pryor assaulted the challenger with wicked combinations and severe intensity. Each round was a war unto itself. By the 12th period each fighter had taken his share of damage. However, Pryor appeared slightly invigorated. Perhaps it was a small thing that his corner had switched water bottles between rounds.
Perhaps not. Between rounds 12 and 13 Panama Lewis, Pryor’s trainer and the man who would later be banned from boxing and imprisoned for egregious acts of cheating, called for ‘the one [bottle] I mixed.” Again Pryor returned to the fight with increased vigor. He would go on to batter Arguello remorselessly and win by knockout in the 14th round.
Arguello blamed himself for the loss. He felt he had not trained well, had succumbed to the temptations of fame and wealth. He won a couple fights then suffered another knockout at hands of Pryor in a rematch. Though he had been defeated a handful of times before, the losses to Pryor were devastating. They marked the end of Arguello’s upward trajectory in the sport that had won him worldwide respect. Sadly, his ultimate undoing had begun three years earlier, far from a boxing ring.
In 1979 the Sandinista rebels, who took control of Nicaragua, confiscated all Arguello’s properties. They left his mother and sister homeless. Arguello they left penniless. This was particularly painful, as Arguello’s brother had fought and died for the Sandinistas.
Having retired from boxing Arguello charged into Nicaragua with new purpose. He was no longer penniless, having earned millions fighting Pryor and selling his image in commercials. Not content to simply write checks, he took up arms with the Contra rebels and determined to fight the brutal regime that had hurt his family so deeply. Arguello’s righteous passion was soon doused by the hypocrisy of Contra leaders who lived in fine houses, yet were unwilling to help the ailing poor all around them.
Arguello returned to the States after only a few months. He began using cocaine. His aid to the Contras and questionable financial moves by those he trusted most had left him broke again. Arguello briefly turned to boxing to save himself from the latest disaster.
In 1992 Arguello was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
In an election widely regarded as corrupt he became deputy mayor in the town of his birth in 2004. This was a fairly obvious public relations move by the Sandinista government. Arguello had been used by the Contras, and he was being used now by the Sandinistas. When he presumed to speak about issues, the Sandinista controlled Managua city council reduced his powers.
Five days later he decided to resign. That night he was visited by the treasurer of the Sandinista party, who is believed to have advised Arguello resignation was not an option. Arguello was found dead of a pistol wound to the chest the next morning, July 1, 2009. Investigators claim he committed suicide.
Alexis Arguello, son of a shoemaker, never lost a title in the ring. He lost his greatest fight in a shroud of controversy. He lost his political naiveté fighting with the Contras. Twice he lost fortunes. He may finally have lost hope. Still, he was an all-time great in the ring and a class act. The sport of boxing was elevated by his presence.