It's probably incomprehensible to younger boxing fans and followers that back in 1982 no pro fighter had ever won world titles in four different weight divisions. But Alexis Arguello was about to give it a try, as he prepared for a November 12 bout against the young, undefeated, and, in the minds of some, untested Aaron Pryor, who held the WBA championship at 140 pounds.
An interesting fight was anticipated, though I would venture to say that few fans expected the match that was to come. And for me, it provided perhaps the most indelible memories of my early years of involvement around boxing.
That's because Miami, which had not played host to many fights of world significance for some time, was chosen as the site for this mega-bout, something that in a sense, was actually quite appropriate, given the fact that Arguello lived in nearby Coral Gables and had a strong appeal among the Latin community in the area.
I was 21 years old, and was publishing a small boxing newsletter at the time, zipping around from fight to fight like a lot of aspiring internet writers are doing now. As such, I was able to wangle a press credential for the event.
I also had two general admission tickets for the fight, which were situated in the “peanut heaven” section of the Orange Bowl. I was set to go to the fight with Brad Jacobs, who some of you now know as the advisor to WBA heavyweight champ Roy Jones. At the last minute my girlfriend decided she wanted to go, so I left them with the tickets and took off to join the rest of the “press”.
They wound up with a much better view of things than I did.
Because of my “status” in the media, I was situated in, or perhaps to put it more accurately, relegated to, the auxiliary press area, which was nowhere near ringside, but instead in the Orange Bowl press box, which was probably closer to Key West than it was to Pryor or Arguello.
There was a sprinkling of press up there; mostly people who represented so-called “secondary” outlets – weekly newspapers, small radio stations, even smaller boxing magazines, some international people, and me. They were all stationed toward the entrance of the press box, seated in front of the press counter.
All the way at the other end, I noticed a small TV set, hung up in the corner. On it, they were showing the HBO feed of the broadcast. I sat down in front of it, all by my lonesome.
This was not really meaningful at the outset, because even those guys in the press box who could not see the action clearly from such a distance were able to watch on two giant video screens on each end of the stadium. I was the only one watching the small screen on the far end. And as it turns out, I may have been the only one in the stadium, at least as far as I've ever known, who was actually listening to the audio component of the telecast – something that became significant, since I would have been one of the few people in the entire building (including the television crew) who was able to fully witness one of the more controversial moments in recent championship history.
Pryor's trainer, Panama Lewis, had been asking for a certain “bottle” in between some of the rounds, which Pryor drank, presumably to the exception of pure water. Before the 14th round, he said those words – clearly – that will be remembered by many people forever – “Give me the other bottle. The one I mixed”, he told his assistant. I remember wondering just what the hell was in that bottle. All I know is that Pryor sprung out of his corner in the 14th, with what seemed like renewed vigor, and laid a frightful beating on Arguello, thus ending one of the more brutal fights in recent memory.
Most of the “cognoscenti” who were at the Orange Bowl that night did not even bother to watch the walkout fight, which featured a “washed up” Roberto Duran laboring to a decision over Jimmy Batten; instead, they departed for one of the several post-fight parties at hotels around the area.
When I got to one of those gatherings, I sought out some of the boxing people I knew and told them about some of the strange things I had heard in Pryor's corner. Nobody seemed to know what the hell I was talking about. The video screens in the stadium, to my recollection, had muted the sound.
I don't really know what was recorded in all the newspaper accounts after the fight, but over the course of the next few days, of course, the “mystery bottle” was a big issue. A few things contributed to that – one is that the next day, Deu Koo Kim suffered the injuries in his bout with Ray Mancini that would kill him a few days later. The way Arguello had been knocked out had a lot of people worried. And the feeling was that if Pryor was using some kind of artificial stimulant, it would be something that would haunt everybody forever.
A lot of people had questions, naturally, but there were very few satisfactory answers. Lewis' subsequent explanation was that he had put together a carbonated mix with water because Pryor had been having some problems with diarrhea that may have been the result of a stomach virus or something. If that's the case, the solution he used would be relatively benign, except for some alleged commission rules that disallowed anything but water.
But no one was ever going to know for sure, and primarily, it traces back to the way commissions were set up in Florida at the time. You see, back in 1982, the state of Florida did not in fact have a boxing commission. Each municipality was authorized to set up its own commission as it was needed. Miami Beach had an active commission, because there were a reasonable number of shows at the Convention Center and other locations along the beach. But the city of Miami, where the Orange Bowl is located, did not have a commission.
So one had to be established, rather late in the game, and to paraphrase words of the late Paddy Chayefsky, “its debut was not auspicatory”. At a hearing that was held to address the issue of the “mystery bottle” in the Pryor-Arguello fight, it was revealed that the Miami Boxing Commission had only taken urine samples of the fighters before the fight, and not afterward. Why? Well, it was simple, though it took the responsible parties quite a while to admit this – they only brought two vials with them. It didn't occur to them to take samples after the fight. Among other things, the commission had also forgotten to bring a bell (though one was eventually hunted down that night).
Neither fighter was ever really the same again after that fateful evening. Sure, they fought a rematch, in September of 1983, and this time Pryor had to get off the deck to score a 10th-round TKO, but the fight was not as thrilling or fast-paced as their first meeting.
Pryor moved to Miami full-time, became involved in drug use, fought twice more, retired, then came back in Fort Lauderdale with a TKO loss to Bobby Joe Young in August of 1987. That was his only professional defeat. He ended his career in 1990, amid controversy because of eye injuries, fighting in Oklahoma, a non-commission state at the time, with a win against Roger Choate, who had all of four pro fights on his record.
Arguello made a couple of different comebacks in search of his elusive fourth world title, but never got there. His last fight was in January of 1995, losing to the late journeyman Scott Walker. His personal problems over the years have been somewhat well-documented.
The Miami Boxing Commission made a few cameo appearances, but drifted away with the formation of the statewide commission in 1984.
Seven months after the Pryor-Arguello fight, Panama Lewis received a lifetime ban from boxing by the New York State Athletic Commission for his role in doctoring the gloves of Luis Resto before a fight with Billy Collins, leaving the previously undefeated Collins with ring injuries that were completely unnecessary (Collins fell into depression and later died in a one-car accident). Lewis still works in gyms around New York and elsewhere, but doesn't work any corners.
And to this day, the “mystery bottle” remains a just that – a mystery, at least as far as conspiracy theorists are concerned. And you know what? That's okay with me.
'Cause I heard it all first.