TRAPPED on the ropes, future Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello absorbed a horrific pounding – more than 20 unanswered punches – before South African referee Stanley Christodoulou stepped in to stop the beating. The passionate crowd of 23,800 at Florida’s Orange Bowl roared with approval, having witnessed one of the all-time great fights between two of the best in the sport at the time.
Aaron Pryor was a whirlwind that night, as he was throughout his career.
He defeated the great veteran Antonio Cervantes in a fight of torch-passing proportions and swirled through eight defences. Pryor looked unbeatable and was thought to have been avoided by the likes of Tommy Hearns (who he defeated in the amateurs), Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran as a pro.
He was so good that he drew comparisons with the legendary Henry Armstrong and was on course to becoming the greatest light-welterweight in history.
The first former champion he defeated was Alfonso “Peppermint” Fraser with Pryor bursting into the ratings with a fifth-round stoppage. As he moved up, he found himself in the position to challenge two-time champion Cervantes for the WBA title and although the veteran floored Pryor in round one, “The Hawk” bounced back to win in four sessions. The defining fights eluded him until Arguello stepped up but even after his historic victory there was controversy when his trainer, Panama Lewis, was caught on camera after round 13 asking for a special bottle that he had mixed. Pryor drank from it and came out for the next round and destroyed his fierce rival.
What should have been Pryor’s greatest night was shrouded in mystery and the Cincinnati star was not able to enjoy his huge win for long.
“I savoured my victory the night of November 12th,” Pryor wrote in his 1996 autobiography, Flight of the Hawk. “But on November 13th the sweet taste of victory became a bitter pill to swallow as vicious rumours were flying about the black bottle of Peppermint Schnapps.”
Still, Aaron left no doubt in their return bout, repeating the victory in a more one-sided contest in 10 rounds. Both retired and so Pryor’s WBA title was declared vacant but when he decided to box on the IBF installed him as their champion. However, from 1983 until his final fight in 1989, Pryor warred with a drug addiction that consumed him and ended his top-flight career. His only defeat came to the average Bobby Joe Young, a ninth-round stoppage loss in 1987, but by then fighting was the least of his problems.
He finally spent time in rehab and, thanks in large part to the love of his wife, Frankie, got a second chance at life even if his career – curtailed by an eye injury as much as anything else – was over.
He later turned his life around and was ordained a deacon at the New Friendship Baptist Church in Cincinnati. Over the years, he has assisted in training of several professional and amateur fighters.
Pryor and Arguello remained great friends in retirement with Pryor even going to Nicaragua to help Alexis further his political career as he became mayor of Managua. They were often reunited at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota during the annual induction weekends but, in 2009, their friendship came to an end when Arguello died. There were conspiracy theories and rumours surrounding his demise but ultimately it was ruled suicide.