Friday, July 3, 2009

Through It All, Class and Grace Defined Arguello

In 1983, the handsome Arguello was flanked by actress Morgan Brittany and entertainer Lola Falana.

He won and lost with class and grace. But it was the inner spirit that defined Alexis Arguello.

He was left with nothing at least four times in his life, but each time he battled back. The first time it was a devastating earthquake that leveled his home in Managua, Nicaragua and caused the walls to come crumbling down. He was left with nothing but a pile of dust and rocks. The second time it was the Sandinista guerrillas that plundered his property and raided his bank accounts, leaving him a penniless exile. The third time it was a host of hangers-on and bad business deals that helped themselves to what was left of a rebuilt fortune. The fourth time it was drugs and alcohol that reduced a once proud man to a hollow-eyed addict looking for his next high.

His early life was defined by extreme poverty and he was forced by his father to quit school in the fifth grade in order to help contribute to the family finances. He first laced on a pair of boxing gloves as a 15-year-old boy and the sport eventually provided him wealth and status beyond anything he could have ever imagined as a child growing up on the dusty streets of Central America.

“I used to fight in the streets and I never thought I would become a fighter,” he said. “I was born into poverty and I thank God that I found something that gave me hope. I always loved boxing and I enjoyed it. And you know something? Once I found boxing that was the end of me being poor.”

He became a triple crown champion in the sport, but it was always the fourth title that he craved with a hunger that threatened to consume him.

In 1982, before he fought Aaron Pryor the first time in an attempt at history, he had three crowns painted on the stern of his yacht in Miami and a space was reserved for a fourth. Alexis wanted to be the first man in boxing history to win titles in four separate weight divisions. He would tell me years later that it was one of the great disappointments of his life – because the fourth crown never came.

He wasn't flashy because his gentle nature and kind demeanor was always the first thing you noticed about him. He wasn't talkative and brash like Ali. He didn't have the 7-UP selling smile like Ray Leonard. He didn't ooze machismo like the feisty Duran and he didn't make the speed bag rattle like the stoic Marvin Hagler.

But Alexis Arguello, who was known as “The Explosive Thin Man” did everything so good that he became one of the best fighters of a generation that was filled to the brim with some of the greatest talent the world of boxing has ever seen.

The last time I saw him was almost exactly 10 years ago, in New York, at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, New York. He was back to drinking to excess then and he chain-smoked Marlboro cigarettes. He was having fun, probably too much, with his good friend and former rival Ruben Olivares.

It was Olivares whom he once called “my idol” and the same Olivares that he rallied back from being being down on points to knock out with one punch to win the featherweight title in 1974. But Alexis Arguello seemed happy with who he was, and for any man that should be enough.

“The people love me,” said Arguello on that night in New York. “What I gave to them over the years – they should love me!” And then he laughed in open mouthed glee as he puffed on a cigarette and drained a cocktail glass. He still retained his thin build and full head of inky black hair. But it was always the dark signature mustache that complimented his olive skin and gave him the handsome appearance of the Marlboro Man and a young Burt Reynolds - all in one. It could easily be said that he was as equally attractive in a tuxedo as he was boxing trunks - and it was true.

The pain of losing both fights against Aaron Pryor dulled over the years. But it never went away. He was a man who was driven to achieve. When three titles didn't become a fourth he felt as though he had failed and let down those around him.

“For the first time, my punching power was not enough to put a man out,” he said of the fights with Pryor. “My trainer was telling me I was behind on points and I went out and I hit him with everything in the ninth round in the first fight in the Orange Bowl. But Pryor came back like I didn't touch him, like nothing had even happened. I knew I was in trouble then. I needed a bat to beat that guy.”

But it's perhaps the story of what happened later that tells the story best of what kind of a man Alexis Arguello was and the type of life lessons he often lived by.

“I remember, after I lost to Pryor, I had made a bet to my little son A.J. that if I lost the fight I would shave off my mustache,” he recalled. “I came back to the house after the fight and I was crying – he was crying. He said, 'Dad, you don't have to shave off your mustache, it's O.K.'

“But I wanted to teach my son a lesson about honor and about living up to what you promise in life and about doing what you say you are going to do. So I shaved off my mustache, something I hadn't done since I was nineteen years old. After that I went to London to try to hide from the fans because I didn't want to face them. It was a big hurt in my life. By the time I went for the biggest step in my life against Pryor – I finally met a man I couldn't beat.”

To help ease the pain he turned to alcohol, and like many who lived in South Florida during the drug fueled decade of the 1980's, he developed a cocaine addiction that threatened the very reputation he had cultivated since he first pulled on a pair of boxing gloves.

He told me the story of late night parties on the beaches of Miami and of having lived a reckless life that consisted primarily of sleep deprivation, women and drugs. He said during one of these parties that his wallet was stolen, his credit cards were charged to their maximum and that he was continuously forced to explain away his transgressions to his wife and family.

“I always felt as though I had a responsibility to the public,” he said. “I always wanted to put on a good performance for the fans and for myself. I never wanted to be an embarrassment to anyone. That's why I trained the way that I did. But I am embarrassed by the way I conducted myself when I got away from boxing and got away from what made me what I was.”

He was put together in such a fashion that he looked like a rubber band with muscles and a mustache. After only one amateur fight, he turned pro, and only five years later he won the WBA featherweight title in spectacular fashion from Ruben Olivares. After the fight he said, “I will defend this belt with every drop of my blood.”

And that he did.

Arguello said that his punching power came to him naturally and he agreed with the notion that punchers were born – and not made.

“It's natural,” he said of his power. “My grandfather once got into a street fight and my father told me that he hit a guy on the chin and knocked him through four tables in a bar. My punching power came from the Nicaraguan Indians and from Central America. We are strong by nature.”

He would defend his featherweight super featherweight and lightweight titles 16 times. He never lost any of the titles in the ring. From 1968 until 1995, Arguello fought with passion and valor. He had completely mastered the art of boxing and was utterly composed in the ring. He knew how to size up an opponent, expose his weaknesses and then go in for the kill. He threw textbook punches that were straight and powerful and he was as focused and as tireless a fighter the world has seen. When he called it a day at age 42, his record stood at 82-8 with 65 knockouts.

“In the beginning, boxing was something that was forced on me and that I had to do,” he explained. “I never wanted to be a bum or a crook or anything like that. Over time I got to love the sport so much because I was really able to put together a style that was a counter-puncher and a technician. Day-by-day I got to love it more and more to where it got to the point that I loved it so much, I don't know what would have become of me.”

He was a national hero in Nicaragua and when he arrived home after winning his first world title, over half a million people greeted him at the airport. But it was the United States where he would make his name and his money. After the Somoza regime was overthrown by the Communist Sandinistas, they inexplicably threw Arguello out and forced him to the U.S.

“At the beginning of my career I always wanted to come to the States,” he said. “I feel so secure here and that's the reason I love it here. If you respect this country, this country will respect you. I made my career here and I am very thankful for that.”

Arguello eventually returned to his hometown of Managua, the largest city and capital of Nicaragua, and he began a career in politics. At the time of his death, he was the mayor of the the same city that he grew up in.

Besides his class and his endearing charm as a person, if there is any one thing that may have defined Arguello as a fighter, it may have been that he never lost any of his titles in the ring. He defended them honorably and then simply moved on to conquer another weight division.

“I never lost my titles,” he proudly said. “I'm unique because I'm the only one that never lost the belts. My kids grew up playing with my title belts and they were original because I never lost them in the ring. When you lose your titles, they take away your belts and give you a copy. Mine are real, they are genuine and that is something that nobody else has.”

And that was Alexis Arguello. Unique. Original. Real. Genuine.

Rest in Peace, Champion.

July 2009

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