I met Alexis Arguello in 1986, six months after The Black Lights (my initial foray into boxing writing) was published. The book tracked the career of WBC 140-pound champion Billy Costello and culminated in his successful title defense against Saoul Mamby. In his next bout, Billy suffered the first loss of his career at the hands of Lonnie Smith.
Meanwhile, Arguello was nearing the end of a hall-of-fame career that had seen him dominate in three weight classes. His place in history as a Nicaraguan icon and one boxing’s great fighters was secure.
Arguello and Costello met in the ring on February 9, 1986, in Reno, Nevada. That morning, I had breakfast with Eddie Futch, who trained Alexis. James Shuler (an undefeated middleweight also trained by Futch) joined us. Four weeks later, Shuler was knocked out in the first round by Thomas Hearns. Seven days after that, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
After breakfast, Futch brought me upstairs and I spent some time with Arguello. He had movie-star looks with an elegance and grace that conjured up images of Omar Sharif.
Arguello-Costello was scheduled for ten rounds. Alexis was a 2-to-1 favorite. Billy won the first three stanzas on each judge’s scorecard. One minute into round four, Arguello landed a textbook righthand followed by a left hook that separated Billy from his senses and deposited him on the canvas. Forty seconds later, the fight was over.
I have many memories from the decades that I’ve been writing about boxing. Most of them are good. One of the most painful is the recollection of Billy sobbing in his dressing room after the fight. Twenty-six years later, I can still see it; I still hear him. His heart was broken.
Those thoughts came flooding back when I read Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Arguello by Christian Giudice.
Arguello was born in Nicaragua in 1952 and turned pro at age sixteen. He lost four fights early in his career and won his first world championship at 126 pounds with a thrilling thirteenth-round come-from-behind knockout of Ruben Olivares in 1974. Victories over the likes of Alfredo Escalera, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Castillo, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, James Watt, and Ray Mancini followed.
As a fighter, Arguello was a consummate professional. He was tall with superb technique and power and deployed his weapons with consistency and patience. In the ring, Giudice notes, “he pondered each punch, carefully analyzed each open space, and never rushed to get to the finish line.”
He also conducted himself like a champion should, never mocking an opponent or disrespecting the sweet science. “Boxing is a beautiful sport,” Arguello said.
“No one could prepare you for how hard he hit,” Mancini (a fourteenth-round knockout victim) added.
The magic carpet ride came to an end for Arguello with a brutal fourteenth-round knockout loss at the hands of Aaron Pryor in 1982.
“Arguello fought a winning fight,” Steve Farhood said of that night. “There was nothing he didn’t do.” But Pryor was greater. The bout ended with Alexis battered into submission, lying unconscious on the ring canvas.
“That was his night,” Arguello said later, “like it was my night against Olivares. It happened to Sugar Ray Robinson; it happened to Muhammad Ali; and it happened to me. That is a life cycle that none of us can avoid. What we do when we come in, they do to us when we go out.”
Ten months later, Arguello and Pryor fought again with Aaron ending the contest on a tenth-round knockout. Alexis’s final record was 77 wins against 8 losses with 62 knockouts.
Larry Merchant calls Arguello and Roberto Duran immediate forerunners of the Latino dominance of boxing in the United States. He adds that Duran was “a tough street kid” while Arguello was cast in the role of “a Spanish gentleman.”
In reality, they both came from the streets.
After retiring from boxing, Arguello fell victim to liquor and drugs. During the course of his life, he had five stormy marriages and numerous children.
There’s a wealth of information in Beloved Warrior. On the negative side of the ledger, the writing is a bit flat. And the slow progesss from fight to fight recalls the words of George Bernard Shaw, who was given a copy of Gene Tunney’s autobiography by the author. After receiving the book, Shaw wrote back to the former heavyweight champion, “Just as one prayer meeting is very like another, one fight is very like another. At a certain point, I wanted to skip to Dempsey.”
The most interesting portions of Giudice’s book detail Arguello’s involvement in Nicaraguan political life and his relationship with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. After the Sandinistas overthrew Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Samoza in 1979, Arguello’s financial assets and real estate holdings were confiscated. Eventually, he reconciled and aligned with Ortega, who, for his own political ends, engineered Arguello’s 1994 election as vice mayor of Managua.
“Arguello was reduced to a punch-drunk journeyman when he decided to allow Daniel Ortega back into his life,” Giudice posits. “Although he told himself his decision had to do with aiding the poor and resolving bitter conflict, when he made his final pact with this devil, failure was the only outcome. In the ring, few could match his boxing IQ. In the political arena, he was clearly overmatched.”
Then, in 2008, Ortega engineered a campaign by Arguello for the mayoralty of Managua. “I gave you three titles,” Alexis told the voters. “I represented you honestly. Now I need you.”
He was narrowly elected amidst widespread allegations of voting fraud. Thereafter, Giudice writes, “All Nicaraguans knew that Arguello was involved in an illegitimate election. A clearly frustrated Arguello had to live with the reality that, having cemented his role with the Sandinista Party, he had to blend in with its ugly charade. Thirty years earlier, Arguello, a champion, had the power to question authority. He no longer had leverage. As a former addict rescued by the Sandinista Party, Arguello was powerless, a puppet for Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo to control at their behest.”
“Alexis knew that the Sandinistas were manipulating him,” journalist Edgar Tijerino told Guidice. “During his several months as mayor of Managua, he knew he was handpicked because he could be controlled. No longer was Arguello allowed to think for himself or act on his own accord.”
On July, 2009, Arguello was found dead in his bedroom, killed by a single shotgun wound to the chest. The official explanation was suicide. Recounting and weighing the evidence, Giudice finds this explanation more likely than not and concludes that Alexis “fell victim to the self-pity and recklessness” that characterized much of his life after he retired from boxing.
Is there a moral to the story?
Arguello carried the Nicaraguan flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The standard-bearer for the Philippines at the same games was Manny Pacquiao.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His newest book (And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) will be published later this summer the University of Arkansas Press.