THE great Alexis Arguello was such a class act both in and out of the ring that it came as a huge shock when he took his own life in 2009. But then problems in everyday life can overwhelm even the greatest of fighters – and the Nicaraguan was definitely one of those.
Many will remember him for his two defeats by Aaron Pryor in light-welterweight title battles, but one could argue that those came when he was already past his best. By the time of the first Pryor fight in November 1982 he had turned 30 and had already held world titles at feather, super-feather and lightweight.
At his best the man from Managua was a superb technician with a vicious punch in either hand.
Former Boxing News editor Graham Houston saw Arguello for the first time on US television in April 1978. Alexis retained his WBC 9st 4lbs belt with a fifth-round stoppage of Filipino Rey Tam and Houston was seriously impressed: “He punched Tam to a standstill with as classical a display of power punching as you could wish to see. Arguello’s red gloves flashed through and around Tam’s guard as if guided by radar. And they landed with sickening impact.”
At 5ft 9 1/2ins Arguello was tall and slim, hence the nickname “El Flaco Explosivo”, or The Explosive Thin Man. He was always tall for his weight, although of course that advantage lessened as he moved up through the divisions.
Houston noted that opponents had to take chances to get near him, although he added the warning: “Taking chances with Arguello is like going into the water with sharks when you’ve got a nose bleed. Something is bound to happen.”
Watching Arguello was like seeing a boxing textbook come to life. He had an educated, hard left jab; mixed up punches to body and head; was equally dangerous with long rights or short left hooks; his anticipation was excellent; and he cleverly ducked, slipped and blocked punches.
He wasn’t perfect, though. In June 1978, when he was reigning WBC super-feather champion, Arguello shockingly lost a majority decision to Vilomar Fernandez in a non-title lightweight 10-rounder at Madison Square Garden. But then Fernandez was a “runner” and Arguello was never at his best against those.
The loss scuppered plans for a dream fight against Roberto Duran, then the world lightweight champion; Don King had a promotional deal with both men. Arguello went back to defending his 9st 4lbs belt and it wasn’t until 1981 that he moved up to 9-9 and took the WBC title from Scotland’s Jim Watt.
And Arguello could also be tagged and decked. A 1980 non-title fight saw him floored by future champ Jose Luis Ramirez, but Alexis won on points. In 1982 Andy Ganigan, a big puncher, dropped Arguello only for the Nicaraguan to rally and retain his lightweight crown on a fifth-round stoppage.
Courage and hard work were never a problem for Arguello. He went to work at 13, training to spray-paint cars to support his family. He was boxing for pay at 16 and by February 1974 was good enough to challenge Ernesto Marcel for the WBA featherweight title. He was outpointed, but before the year was out had ko’d Ruben Olivares to win the same belt (Marcel had retired).
Weight woes eventually forced him up to super-feather, where he ripped the WBC belt from Alfredo Escalera (rsf 13) in January 1978. A rematch 13 months later saw Arguello knock out the Puerto Rican with a perfect left hook, also in the 13th session.
British fans got to see him up close in June 1981 when he came to Wembley and outboxed Watt over 15 rounds for the WBC lightweight title. Watt was a good fighter but always second best to the classy Nicaraguan.
As Arguello kept winning, and growing, he looked towards a historic achievement: earning a world title in a fourth weight class, something that had proved beyond even the legendary Henry Armstrong. His chance came against Pryor, a whirlwind who swamped opponents with volleys of punches.
They met at Miami’s Orange Bowl in November 1982, and Arguello was the crowd favourite. He had become very popular in the United States, having settled in Coral Gables, Florida following the 1979 Sandinista revolution in his homeland. There he supported a wife and four children, his mother and several siblings.
He had a survived a series of setbacks: his home had been destroyed in the 1972 Nicaragua earthquake; his house and possessions totalling half a million dollars had been confiscated by the Sandinistas; and a younger brother had been killed fighting with the Sandinista guerrillas.
But Pryor proved too much in a thrilling fight, wearing down the better-boxing Nicaraguan for a 14th-round stoppage. There was a question mark over a substance from cornerman Panana Lewis gave him from a bottle, but nothing was ever proved and the result stood.
A rematch in September 1983 saw Pryor score a 10th-round knockout and it was effectively the end, although Arguello’s last fight didn’t come until 1995 when he was 42.
Sadly, he didn’t have a happy time outside the ring. Despite having that property confiscated during the Sandinista takeover he returned to Nicaragua and ended up working with them. In 2008 his place in his country’s sporting history was recognised when he was chosen to carry the flag at the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Also that year, he won the mayoral election in Managua, but he had his demons and the following year took his own life with a gun.
IN the build-up to the 1982 Aaron Pryor match, the great Eddie Futch, who was then training Arguello, compared Alexis to great lightweight champions Ike Williams, Benny Leonard and Joe Gans.
Said Futch, “He’s not flashy but he’s so technically sound I don’t think he has a weakness. His concentration is probably the best I’ve ever seen and everything he does has a purpose.”