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Boxer Alexis Arguello, updated

Matt Schudel

Alexis Arguello, the great Nicaraguan boxing champion of the 1970s and 1980s, died July 1 in Managua, Nicaragua, of an apparent suicide. Last November, he was elected mayor of Nicaragua's capital city and had recently come under fire for allegations of corruption.

But Arguello (pronounced ar-GWAY-yo) was a true national hero in Nicaragua and was one of the classiest boxers, in or out of the ring, in the history of the sport. He was unusually tall -- almost 5-10 -- for someone so slight. He won world championships in three weight classes, featherweight (126 pounds), super featherweight (130) and lightweight (135). At the peak of his talents, in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was considered by many aficionados to be the finest pure boxer in the world.

I never saw any of his fights in person, but I did see him once in the gym....

When I lived in Florida, I used to visit boxing gyms every now and then, and one day he happened to be working out in Miami. He was around 40, well past his prime and was attempting one of his ill-fated comebacks. It had been close to a decade since he had been a champion, almost that long since his epic 1982 fight with Aaron Pryor, when they slugged it out for 14 rounds before Pryor finally vanquished the valiant Nicaraguan.

See the final three rounds of the Pryor fight here:

Even at his advanced age, Arguello was clearly the most skilled fighter in the gym that day. He was still razor-thin, with the darkly handsome looks and mustache. He wasn't sparring with anyone, at least not when I saw him, but was simply shadow-boxing and working out on the speed bag. It was like watching a rehearsal by Horowitz. He was both relaxed and in deep concentration, without a wasted motion. Every moment was quick, tight, controlled and sharp as a blade. I remember thinking that if he looked this good a decade past his peak, he must have been something to behold in his youth.

Arguello had a complicated relationship to his native Nicaragua and to the people vying for power there. His brother was killed fighting for the Sandinistas -- a rebel group that has since become a powerful political party in the country -- but the Sandinistas stripped Arguello of much of his wealth, even going so far as to take over his house and make it the Soviet embassy.

In the 1980s, Arguello supported the Contras (opponents of the Sandinistas) but came to regret it: "I learned that nobody is interested in winning the war. They are interested in making money."

He was a thoughtul and sensitive man who fully understood the brutality of his sport. He fought, he said, because he had no other way to get ahead in life. He lost two fortunes -- one to the Sandinistas and another to the IRS -- and seemed to reserve special contempt for the boxing promoters who claimed much of the boxers' winnings.
"Boxing is a beautiful sport -- it's the art of hitting someone without being hit, but the promoters, they ruin the sport," he said. "They get rich out of our bones, and they don't give antying out. They are like politicians."

It's always said when anyone commits suicide, doubly so when that person seems healthy and in control of his life. But evidently, this was not the first time Arguello had talked about or threatened suicide. When his father couldn't provide for his eight children, he apparently attempted to kill himself by jumping in a well. Firemen threw a rope down the well to pull him out. He put it around his neck and was pulled up and was revived when he reached the surface.

In a 1986 story in The Washington Post by John Ed Bradley, Arguello revealed that he almost killed himself in 1984, after he had lost his championship and the two epic fights with Aaron Pryor. He had become dependent on cocaine and was on his yacht with his 13-year-old son when he put a gun to his head.

His son pleaded with him to put the gun down, and he finally did.

"Alexis Arguello was not born to be a slave or a coward or a fool," Bradley wrote in that story in 1986. "He is full of feelings and sentiment.... The voice kept talking to him, telling him who he was. It was a voice not unlike his own.
...You hurt yourself, you hurt others, the voice said. Alexis Arguello put the gun away."

By the way, personal information about Arguello's family is extremely sketchy and difficult to come by. In the obituary, I mentioned that he had been married three times and had four children. Apparently, he was married at least one more time and may have had other children. It was impossible to find that material when I was preparing the obituary.

There are dozens of Arguello videos on the Internet, besides the savage beating he took from Pryor in 1982. Here is a clip from his first world championship in 1974, when he defeated Ruben Olivares for the featherweight title.
Here's his methodical dismantling Andy Ganigan in 1982. Here is a knockout victory over Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in 1981. And for sheer Wow! power, check out this clip of Arguello's one-punch knockout of Kevin Rooney. The video is of poor quality, but it's weirdly fascinating in a sort of horrible way. Rooney, by the way, later became Arguello's trainer.

By Matt Schudel  |  July 2, 2009; 11:42 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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