Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Alexis Arguello (1952-2009)

Former featherweight, superfeatherweight, and lightweight champion of the world Alexis Arguello was found dead in his home in Nicaragua this morning, after he apparently shot himself in the chest.


The majority of Arguello's career took place before I was born, and long before I became a fan of boxing only a handful of years ago. Nonetheless, I have watched a number of his fights on video, either on ESPN Classic or on Youtube, and have been a fan of him ever since I watched my first Arguello fight.

When I think of Arguello as he was in the ring, it makes the circumstances of his death (an apparent suicide) extremely hard to comprehend. Inside the boxing ring, there has never been an individual who displayed more professionalism and class than Alexis Arguello, both in the way that he fought and in the way that he carried himself before and after a fight.

Before a fight, Arguello was calm, quiet, and collected, seemingly immune to the nervous, bouncy energy of so many fighters in the moments before the opening bell. During the fight, Arguello never showed emotion, never became rattled when his opponent put pressure on him, never lost his footing, never found himself in a position where he couldn't, at any moment, unload a devastating blow. And after the fight, most of which ended with his opponent on the canvas (65 of his 82 career victories ended in knockouts), he was often the first to his opponent's side, congratulating him and his cornermen on a valiant fight. (For two examples, fast forward to about 3:00 of the first video below.)

His road to stardom was unusual by boxing standards. For starters, he lost his first professional fight in 1968, and then his fifth, before winning 23 of his next 24. In 1974, he had his first fight for a world championship (featherweight), and lost, but came back to win the title nine months later. In 1978, after a number of successful defenses of his title, Arguello moved up to super featherweight and won that world title. In 1981, he moved up again, winning the lightweight world championship. That made Arguello only the sixth man in boxing history to own world championships in three different weight divisions. (On top of everything, he became a political exile of his native Nicaragua after the Sandinistas took power in the late 70s, after a complicated dispute that I won't get into here, but you can feel free to research if you'd like.)

Arguello tested history one more time in 1982, when he tried to become the first man ever to own championships in four different weightclasses by fighting Aaron Pryor, the undefeated light welterweight champion. The fight went down as one of the best epic battles in boxing history (which you can see here, here, here, here, and here). In an all-action fight from the opening bell, Arguello stole the momentum in the middle rounds, scoring one particularly nasty right hand on Pryor, which he later said he expected to end the fight, cocking Pryor's head straight back until he could see the stadium lights. Pryor made it through the round, fighting on, and unleashed a barrage of punches on Arguello in round 14, forcing referree Stanley Christodoulou to stop the fight.

The last significant fight of Arguello's career came a year later, when he again fought Pryor for the light welterweight title, this time losing by stoppage in the tenth round. The younger, faster, bigger Pryor (an all-time great in his own right) simply proved too much for Arguello, a man then past his 80th professional fight.

In his retirement, Arguello faced the kind of demons that many fighters do - namely, alcohol and drugs. At times, he spoke openly of having suicidal thoughts. Recent years had seemingly brought some peace to Arguello. He became mayor of his native city Managua, the capitol city of Nicaragua, in 2004. More recently, he was the honorary Nicaraguan flag-bearer during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Every time I see a cocky young boxer (or MMA-guy) these days, I think about what would happen if they had to look across the ring at Alexis Arguello. More than likely, they'd absolutely piss themselves. For a nice guy, he must have been downright frightening to face.

As one close friend said about Arguello: "He was one of those champions who acted like one outside the ring. You don't hardly see those kind of fighters around today."

He was a bad, bad man. But a true gentleman at heart.

No comments: