Best Junior Welterweight – “Beast” is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of former IBF junior welterweight champ Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor who passed away early Sunday morning from heart disease at age 60. From Cincinnati, Pryor (39-1, 35 KOs) was voted the greatest junior welterweight of the 20th Century (I would say ever) by the Associated Press and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 after retiring in 1991.
As most know Pryor struggled with substance abuse during his career and it eventually led to him suffering the only defeat of his career fighting above his natural weight. But he eventually beat drugs in retirement and spent much of his post fighting days trying to educate children and adults on the dangers of drugs.
The Pryor I remember as a fighter was something else…yeah, a beast. And what most fail to realize is that because of his cocaine addiction, we really never saw the best Aaron Pryor that could’ve been. His battle with crack cocaine robbed him physically as a fighter. The drugs caused him to go up and down in weight. His power and reflexes were never the same after beating Arguello in their 1983 rematch. I always believed after winning the series versus Alexis in the two signature bouts of his career, and then losing out on fighting Sugar Ray Leonard and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, he never took boxing all that serious and succumbed to drugs and partying.
From almost the inception of his stellar career he had misfortune. He was an alternate on the Olympic team that took home five gold medals at the 1976 games. His misfortune was that he wasn’t a conventional boxer the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Howard Davis. Amateur judges in those days always favored the stylistic boxer when it came to sending American fighters to the Olympics. Pryor’s style of attacking in flurries and being an in-and-out fighter was seen as not being a good fit or international scoring…..and it was Howard Davis, who beat Pryor in the finals of the 1976 Olympic Trials, who many of those in power believed had the ideal style to thrive at the highest level in amateur boxing. And with Davis winning a gold medal, perhaps they were right.
Pryor turned pro as a lightweight after failing to make the Olympic team. As a lightweight he had a hard time getting fights on the way up and was avoided by most of the notable fighters in the division. So at the urging of Muhammad Ali, Pryor made the move up from 135 to 140. After realizing he wasn’t going to fight for the lightweight title, Pryor moved up to challenge defending champion Antonio Cervantes for the junior welterweight title in his 25th fight. Cervantes, who had been stopped only once in 100 fights, was knocked out in the fourth round and Pryor became the WBA super lightweight/junior welterweight champ. In all, Pryor made 10 successful defenses of the title, winning eight by stoppage. After taking a two-and-a-half year hiatus, Pryor came back fighting as a welterweight and lost for the only time in his career when he was stopped by Bobby Joe Young.
The career of Aaron Pryor has been well chronicled. However, what made him a great fighter hasn’t been. Throughout boxing history there have been a plethora of fighters who had speed and power, and Pryor had both. What set him apart was that he was so unconventional. His jab had the power of a welterweight’s right hand and he could throw it whether he was on the attack or in retreat. His uppercut and right hands were bone-jarring, although he wasn’t much of a hooker unless he was crowding his opponent. He had an uncanny way of sensing when his opponents wanted to engage or when they were looking for a breather, and once he was locked in on them, he’d force them to do exactly what they were looking to avoid.
Nothing illustrates that more than his 24 rounds fighting Alexis Arguello. When Alexis was on the attack, Pryor backed off and waited for him to reload, and then he’d attack with a fuselage of powerful punches thrown with purpose from every imaginable angle. Conversely, during the stretches when Arguello was looking to coast and pick his spot, Pryor would open up and force Arguello to engage with him. As Arguello stated after both bouts, it was Pryor’s faster than advertised hands, unpredictability, and power that drove him nuts. And in addition to that, Pryor had a great chin and unending stamina; when he was in his prime, he never tired. He was susceptible to going down, but that was more of a balance issue. In his two wars with Arguello, Alexis hit him with a few right hands that would’ve dropped an elephant, yet Pryor roared back and shook Arguello. He had recuperative power that rivaled Muhammad Ali’s during an era in which championship fights were scheduled for 15-rounds.
Aaron Pryor at 140 was a physical dynamo in his prime. He could out-box or out-slug his opponent and he was relentless when he turned it on. It’s hard to imagine another fighter who officially held the junior welterweight title beating him prime for prime. I rate Pryor above such greats as Niccolino Locche and Duilio Loi. As far as the more recent vintage of greats who briefly held the junior welterweight title — Kostya Tszyu, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao — the same applies to them. Most of the fighters mentioned were elite “boxers,”and you better believe nothing frustrates a good boxer as does an unconventional one with speed, power and stamina the likes of Pryor.
As for Tszyu, he’d have no choice but to push the fight against Pryor, but he’d look like he was pushed into a meat grinder if he lasted through to the decision. De La Hoya would try to box and use his reach, but he’d be countered and peppered in much the way Pacquiao did against him, only worse, and like Tszyu, he would most likely be stopped. Pacquiao might try to bring it to Pryor, but would find out that he was getting the worst of it, and then would try to box him. However, once Aaron sensed Manny was looking to avoid exchanging, he’d raise the rent and go after him. Pryor’s awkwardness and power would be something Manny never had to deal with before, and that would be the difference. Pryor beats Pacquiao by a comfortable decision or by a late round stoppage.
Aaron Pryor never reached his true greatness as a fighter due to outside influences in his personal life. But he still achieved greatness in the ring. He was a rare blend of speed, power, stamina and durability with an unconventional style. Sometimes he was different almost from round to round — never scattered, but with a purpose. His versatility and adaptability to all styles made him a real pain in the ass to fight…..that and he could knock your head off your shoulders. And to think he was all that fighting above his true weight for a majority of his career because no fighters would go near him at 135!
Yes, Aaron Pryor is/was the greatest junior welterweight of all time!
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com / Best Junior Welterweight