A Rude Awakening – Any swagger I had left disappeared early into the second round. That’s when I discovered I could no longer hit the guy. He was bobbing and weaving and I was trying to land a left jab somewhere in the vicinity of his head. Or at least where his head used to be, because it kept moving and I kept throwing a jab that wasn’t landing where it was supposed to land.
He was slipping inside my punches, hitting me with hooks I never saw coming. It was like being beat up in your dreams. Your arms are heavy, your eyes are half-closed and suddenly, you can’t duck a rusted Chevrolet up on blocks.
It was the spring of 1974 and I was in Denver fighting in the National Golden Gloves Tournament, earning a trip to Denver after winning the Upper-Midwest Golden Gloves lightweight title in Minneapolis a week earlier.
In Denver, I won my first two fights by quick knockout, moving me into the quarterfinals, which meant I was one of only eight lightweights in the country fighting for a national title.
That’s about the time the swagger showed up. Scoring two knockouts in a national tournament, I suddenly felt like King Kong having his way with the terrified villagers. I was ready to take on the next poor SOB who had to fight that “skinny white kid out of Minnesota.”
Besides, I had something to prove.
I won the same Upper-Midwest lightweight title the year before, but fighting in the national tournament in Lowell, Massachusetts, I lost my first fight and had to spend the rest of the tournament going to bars, drinking beer and cheering on my teammates, which was highly over-rated. So I was back to the nationals with a vengeance.
The format for the tournament had you fight twice in quick succession, eliminating 24 of the 32 fighters in most of the weight divisions. If you won both your fights, you got a little time off. You had time to give your body a chance to heal, time to rest, and time to put on 10 or 12 pounds before you had to weigh-in again the next day.
That’s what happened to our Upper-Midwest light-heavyweight champ. Fighting out of South Dakota, he won his first two fights in Denver and then found his way to the buffet line, forgetting he had to weigh-in again. He put on about 18 pounds overnight, putting him into the heavyweight division. Unfortunately, you can’t change weight classes in the middle of a tournament.
I remember watching my trainer, Jim Morgan, sweat all 18 pounds off the light-heavyweight in just a few hours. Coach Morgan bundled him up in heavy clothes and stuck him in the bathroom of his hotel room with the hot water running in both the shower and the sink.
Somehow, they got him down in weight and he was able to fight in the quarterfinals, but taking the weight off took a lot out of him. He made a pretty good showing, but he still lost on points. And he had no one to blame but himself.
But I didn’t have that problem. Weighing in before the quarterfinals, I easily made 132 pounds and immediately went to the hotel restaurant and had a steak.
On the day of my quarterfinals fight, they put me in the same small room with the guy I was fighting. Some boxing officials came in and talked to both of us about the rules and what the process was and what time we were going to fight. And then they left, leaving me and the other guy alone in the room.
I remember glancing over at him and thinking he was kind of small for a lightweight. Small and a little cocky. He just kept smiling and loosening up.
But I wasn’t too worried. After all, I was on a roll. I had won my first two fights easily and if there was anyone who deserved to be a little cocky, it was me.
After checking each other out in that room like fighters will do, the two of us moved along from one checkpoint to another, getting gloved up, getting checked for cups and mouthpieces, and finally getting a chance to warm up with our trainers as we got closer to getting into the ring.
Our last stop was in the arena itself. We sat near ringside waiting for the fight ahead of us to finish. And when it was finally over, my opponent and I were escorted into the ring and given our final instructions.
A Rude Awakening
Still thinking I was pretty hot stuff, I went out at the opening bell expecting to make it another short fight. But the guy I was fighting had ideas of his own. When the first round finally ended, I remember going back to my corner and telling Coach Morgan and my other cornerman, Bill Koehn, that the guy I was fighting was pretty good. I thought I might have won that first round, but I knew it was close.
The second and third rounds were all his. I couldn’t hit him and he seemed to find ways to slip inside my punches and nail me with hard hooks.
Fighters are notorious for denying that they got beat. Any time they lose a decision, they somehow believe they got robbed; that the judges didn’t see the punches they landed or the damage those punches did.
When my fight was over and they gave my opponent the win by decision, I didn’t argue. It was one of the few times – maybe the only time – I admitted I had gotten beat. No question.
After the fight, I asked Jim if he knew anything about the guy. He told me he heard the fighter was some kind of former national champ.
“Do you know his name?” I asked Jim.
“I think his name is Pryor,” he said. “Aaron Pryor.”
“Well, he’s pretty good,” I said. “He might win this tournament.”
I turned pro shortly after that, but I always wondered what happened to that Pryor kid. I learned later that he was the 1972 National AAU champ at 132 pounds, and he was an alternate at 132 pounds in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He won back-to-back National Golden Gloves titles and beat Thomas Hearns in the finals of the 1976 tournament.
I was about 12 fights into my pro career, still wondering what happened to Pryor when I ran into a fighter I had beaten in my first main event fight. His name was Al Franklin and he told me he had just fought a young pro prospect who would be a good guy for me to fight.
“His name is Aaron Pryor,” Franklin said. “He’d be a real good fight for you.”
I remember smiling and not saying a word.
A few years later, in November 1979, I was in Omaha, Neb., working as a sparring partner for a junior-welterweight named Dale Hernandez. The hometown fighter, Hernandez was getting ready to face contender Lennox Blackmoore of Guyana in the main event at Omaha’s City Auditorium.
To help promote the show, they asked me to put on an exhibition with Blackmoore a couple days before his fight with Hernandez. After sparring with him for a couple rounds, I knew Hernandez was in for a rough night. A couple days later, Hernandez put up a good fight, but lost a split decision to Blackmoore.
I also fought on the card, winning a decision over a tough Nebraska farm kid named Tom Crowley. Unfortunately, I suffered a detached retina in the fight and my career was suddenly over.
Almost two years later, in June 1981, I was living near Laughlin, Nevada when I heard Pryor was going to be fighting Blackmoore for the WBA junior-welterweight title at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas.
Since I had been in the ring with both guys, it was a fight I couldn’t miss. I figured Blackmoore would be a tough fight for Pryor. I drove the two hours up to the Hacienda, bought a cheap, standing-room-only ticket to the fight and watched Pryor destroy Blackmoore in two brutal rounds. That’s when I realized just how great he was.
I’ve seen and talked to Pryor several times since we fought each other, the last time a few years ago in Tampa when he was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
He’s aged like we all have, but I still remember him as a young man – the Hawk – and how dominant he was against the best fighters in the world.
Me, I use Aaron for bragging rights. I don’t tell people who I fought as a pro; I tell them who I fought as an amateur.
It’s funny but as many times as I’ve told people I fought Aaron Pryor, no one has ever asked me who won.
(Editor’s Note: Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.)
A Rude Awakening