I am an Indian from Nicaragua

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

The Alexis Arguello story

by Tony Robles/PNN

It was 1982. My uncle and I were at the New Mission Theater to see the big fight. Pay per view was in its infancy and my uncle had bought tickets for the fight between Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor to be shown on closed circuit TV. The theater was packed with Arguello fans (and a few Pryor fans). Arguello entered the ring. He was tall and slender. He moved gracefully under the sky of Miami’s Orange Bowl. His movements reminded me of the palm trees lining Mission Street--strong and firm yet moving to songs that only the wind can sing.

At stake was the undisputed Junior Welterweight Championship of the world held by Pryor, a great champion destined to occupy a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The introductions were made and the bell rang. “He’s pretty thin”, I said to my uncle, referring to Arguello. “Yeah, but it’s those thin guys that can lay you out”, my uncle replied. We were 3000 miles away in the Mission, our eyes taking in the spectacle of one of the biggest fights of the decade.

I was saddened when I learned of the death of Alexis Arguello at age 57 on July 1st. Mainstream media is framing the death as a suicide in his home in Managua where he was elected mayor in December 2008. Many question and doubt this as being the cause. Many believe that Arguello was an effective leader who truly cared for and had the support of his people. I remember him as beautiful, humble and always a gentleman. In describing the profession that brought him fame and love worldwide he said, “I am not a fighter. I am an artist. Boxing should be beautiful…it should be like ballet dancing”. It is an art that challenges the will—a test of endurance and spirit. Nobody personified boxing’s metaphorical beauty and essence better than Alexis Arguello.

“I am an Indian from Nicaragua”, he often said. He referred to himself as a “third world mover”, an indigenous man who was always in transition, adjusting to life’s changes inside and outside the ring. He was born in the barrio of Managua to a family of 8 children. His father Guillermo was a shoemaker, struggling to put food on the table. Sometimes Alexis went without shoes. One story recounted Alexis’ mother once jabbing a fork into his hand for taking food from his brother’s plate. He attended school but stopped when his family could no longer afford tuition. He worked on a farm for a year before returning home. A year later he left for Canada where he worked 2 jobs. He returned a year later, giving his parents the money he had saved. He was 13 years old.

Aaron Pryor came out for round one in a rage. He punched like a windmill from all angles. Arguello retreated, jabbing and landing his famous right hand that had stopped so many opponents but Pryor was relentless. The energy from the crowd was like a wave, slowly rising then breaking through, crashing into everything. Would there be a knockout? Arguello had knocked out countless men with that overhand right; Pryor absorbed it and smiled. Moving and jabbing, Arguello was in the toughest fight of his career.

At age 14 Alexis Arguello discovered a local gym where he began honing his skills. 2 years later he fought and defeated the National Champion of Costa Rica. He sparred with the great champion Ruben Olivares, receiving a swolen eye in a heated session. Years later the two would oppose each other for Olivares’ world featherweight title. Prior to the fight he reminded Olivares of their sparring session years before. “He didn’t remember” recalled Arguello. He went on to capture 2 more titles: Jr. lightweight (130 lbs.) and Lightweight (135 lbs.). He faced some of the best fighters of the era: Olivares, Bobby Chacon and Alfredo Escalera, and was considered unbeatable at 130 lbs. It was a golden era of boxing with Arguello sharing the stage with fighters such as Ali, Frazier, Carlos Monzon and Roberto Duran. In 2002 Ring Magazine rated Arguello as one of the 20 best fighters of the previous 8 decades and among the top 20 best punchers of all time. A lightweight shootout with the great Roberto Duran of Panama—a fight that would have been the equivalent of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier—never materialized. In 1982 he stepped into the ring against Aaron Pryor on his quest win an unprecedented 4th world championship.

He was a man of contradictions. He spent money lavishly but disdained it. He loved his wives yet could not be faithful to them (3 wives, one for each championship). He was a tactical general in the ring but vulnerable to those intent on taking kindness and generosity for weakness. In the midst of his country’s revolution, he was ensnared in the web of contradictions and opportunism in politics. Was he a revolutionary or not? He was a fighter. He was indigenismo. Mixed signals were given, things were said and not said and things that were of good heart were turned upside down. He was given an honorary membership in Somoza’s National Guard, a whimsical gesture to honor him as a hero. He gave his support to the contras and, upon seeing the contradictions on that side (alleged freedom fighters driving Range Rovers and BMW’s while the indigenous peoples starved), became disenchanted with the cause. As a result, he lost a brother in the war, assets and bank accounts. He ended up in Miami. Is there any other way for a fighter who, at the very core, was a poet?

It was a war. Sitting with my Uncle at the New Mission Theater, the bell rang for the 14th round. It was one of the best fights I’d ever seen. Arguello and Pryor, like Ali and Frazier, traded their best shots, earning each other’s respect. They demonstrated the depth of the human spirit, how beauty could be snatched out of the ugliness of humanity showing a glimpse of hope and possibility if we believe in ourselves. With Arguello against the ropes, Pryor unleashes an unforgettable assault. He lands 23 unanswered punches leaving Arguello sinking to the canvas, barely supported by the ropes.

What I appreciated most about Alexis Arguello was his graciousness in both defeats. He did not offer excuses and praised Pryor as a great fighter (The fights were not without controversy, as Arguello’s corner suspected that Pryor’s trainer Panama Lewis had spiked his fighter’s water bottle with a questionable substance. Pryor’s corner later said was Peppermint schnapps). Arguello retired after the fight then made several comebacks. He retired for good in 1995 with a record of 82 wins and 8 losses (65 wins by knockout).

Arguello’s post fighting years saw him endure financial hardships resulting from bad decisions and advice and people taking advantage of his generous nature. He sold almost everything to pay creditors. He struggled to find a purpose in his new life of former professional fighter. His sensitivity to the issues of social justice was always with him. He worked with young people in his boxing academy in Managua as an alternative to drugs and gang culture. He was an advocate for a pension system for ex-fighters, who make money for promoters and the media yet end up penniless, requiring health care and other services.

He was elected Mayor of Managua as part of a coalition including the FSLN (who he opposed years earlier) and Convergencia Nacional, winning 50% of the vote. He worked to improve literacy among young people and to promote property title distribution to poor folk in Nicaragua. In the Bejing Olympics, he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremonies.

I won’t forget the gentleness and grace of Alexis Arguello. The New Mission Theater has been closed, boarded up for years in a city bombarded by developers and gentrifiers, but that place is still alive in my mind. I’ll never forget the night my uncle and I watched one of the greatest fights ever fought between Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor. The palm trees are still on Mission Street, and my Uncle and I are still here.


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