By Rick Folstad
The thing about Aaron Pryor was, he could pick your pocket, steal your girl and knock you silly all in the same round. The guy had more moves than a frat house mixer.
You didn’t go into back alleys with Pryor and if he spilled his drink on your new shirt, you were the one who apologized. He wasn’t mean or a hard ass, he was just dangerous the same way a hungry wolf is dangerous.
Nicknamed “The Hawk,” Pryor had the look and the heart of a predator. He was hard edges and sharp angles and you could hit him with a Louisville Slugger and he’d just blink and smile. He was short and quick and had moves most of us have never seen.
I fought Pryor in the 1974 National Golden Gloves tournament in Denver and it was the only time as both an amateur and a pro fighter that I admitted to myself I was beaten. I remember sitting in my corner between the second and third rounds, feeling like Butch Cassidy, asking myself, “Who is that guy?” I asked my trainers if they knew his name and they acted like they didn’t hear me.
I lost a three-round decision to him that day and I was pretty damn happy – and lucky – we didn’t have to go four rounds.
Pryor had his problems as a young fighter including a fondness for cocaine. But he also had unbelievable talent, power in both hands, uncanny instincts and a heart that never allowed him to quit. And that’s what’s so sad.
Pryor died of heart disease on Sunday at his home in Cincinnati, 11 days before his 61st birthday.
“Aaron was a fanatic when it came to training, never taking short cuts,” said boxing trainer and manager Steve Canton, who worked with Pryor early in his career in Cincinnati and kept in touch with the fighter up until his death on Sunday. “He would train hard until he was tired and then he’d start to really train. He listened very well and he was tremendous with distances (for punching). You could never hit him with a solid punch because he would roll with his opponent’s punches, taking away their power.”
Pryor finished his career with a record of 39-1 with 35 knockouts. His only loss was to Bobby Joe Young in 1987, Pryor’s age and addiction beating him up before he climbed into the ring.
He’s best remembered for his two fights with Alexis Arguello, Pryor stopping Arguello in the later rounds in both fights. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and is considered to be the greatest junior-welterweight of all time by guys who keep track of such things. What’s crazy is, Pryor was a natural 135-pounder, but no one would fight him at that weight, so he moved up to 140 to get fights.
As an amateur, he beat Tommy Hearns and he was an Olympic alternate to Howard Davis, who won a spot on the 1976 Olympic team and went on to win gold.
“At the time, Howard Davis had the better style for the amateurs,” Canton said. “Aaron was already fighting more like a pro, so they really pushed for Davis to be in the Olympics.”
How good was Pryor? According to Canton, Sugar Ray Leonard moved up to 139 pounds to avoid fighting Pryor as an amateur. The two were supposed to face each other as pros – Pryor’s dream fight – but Leonard suffered a detached retina before the fight and the fight never came off.
Pryor, who was a church deacon for several years after he stopped fighting, said he heard about Leonard’s eye while driving in his car. He pulled over to the side of the road and cried, realizing the fight with Leonard wasn’t going to happen.
“He always had a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t have a gold medal from the Olympics when he turned pro and he never got to face Leonard,” Canton said.
“He was a close friend and I’m going to miss him.”