Alexis Arguello was such a thorough boxer—a deadly puncher but frugal of movement, highly skilled on defense, always in condition, never unprepared—that it stands to reason his biographer would exhibit some of the same qualities. Christian Giudice’s Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Arguellochronicles the legendary Nicaraguan’s life and career with a methodical precision not unlike the way Arguello won so many fights. It will set the standard for Arguello biographies—should there be any others, in this elegiac boxing age.
Born in 1952 in Managua, where he and his siblings hunted iguana and possum with slingshots to supplement the family larder, Arguello rose to become Nicaragua’s first world boxing champion and as great a fighter as any of his generation, a three-division champion who never lost his titles in the ring (he vacated them to move up in weight), failing to win a fourth title only because he tried to take it from Aaron Pryor. Along the way, he became his country’s most revered but also most controversial citizen. Politically naïve, he was used by the Somoza regime and eventually the Sandinistas, though not before a quarter-century feud with the Daniel Ortega-led Communist movement made him an exile from his home.
It’s a wonder that Arguello’s story hasn’t been made into a movie. Its themes are bottomless and timeless: poverty, revolution, Cold War politics, fame and downfall, exile and return, and all along, two constants: ring triumph and the deep affection of most who knew him, including the men he fought. He was known as the Gentleman of the Ring, and it wasn’t just a public image: Arguello really was a noble sportsman and sensitive warrior. He was also profoundly troubled by the burden he carried, both of his family and his nation, and by the great athlete’s most bedeviling dilemma: what on earth to do when the game is over.
Giudice, who also authored a well-regarded Roberto Duran biography, writes about Arguello’s classic battles against men ranging from Ruben Olivares and Alfredo Escalera to Ray Mancini and Aaron Pryor with remarkable attention to detail—including boxing detail. Authors of boxing biographies often lavish words on almost everything but the fights themselves—the social atmosphere, the back stories. Giudice has some of that, too, but he also seems to have watched every round of Arguello’s fights; he barely misses an uppercut, jab, or hook. He knows about the aftermaths, too: we learn that Pryor’s body was covered in welts after his 1982 victory over Arguello in Miami, and that Arguello had “this huge gash or hole under his left eye” through which one “could see through to the eyeball.”
Nor does Giudice overlook life outside the ring, which for Arguello was rarely dull—right up to his final day, the events of which remain shrouded in mystery.
Many don’t buy the official story that Arguello committed suicide in 2009 by shooting himself in the chest; they have good reason to be suspicious. Police closed the investigation within 24 hours. Arguello family members who viewed his body saw bruises that might suggest a struggle. Suicide by firearm is more commonly done by pointing the gun at the head. No one who saw Arguello in his last days thought he was in despair. But his political relationships had become tense: while Arguello had re-embraced the Sandinistas and become mayor of Managua in a disputed election, he soon understood that he was being manipulated. Pryor, with whom he grew close after their two bruising fights, visited him during the mayoral campaign; Pryor’s wife described being escorted by machine-gun-wielding Sandinista guards who “pushed Alexis around.” Some claim that the Sandinistas feared Arguello would go public with what he knew of Sandinista corruption.
Yet Arguello’s life and personality are such that suicide can’t be ruled out. On the day before his death, the Sandinistas announced that Arguello would be publicly stripped of his mayoral powers, making him a figurehead. Arguello’s housekeeper said that he often joked about killing himself. And his torturous post-boxing battle with drug addiction had demonstrated that along with the kindness and innocent faith in people, and beneath the steely determination and will, lay considerable inner chaos. “No matter what happened the evening of Arguello’s death,” Giudice writes, “something or someone who knew his weaknesses pushed him to the brink, through threats or other intimidation tactics.” That may be as close as we get to the truth.
Giudice notes how one of Arguello’s proudest moments came in 2008, when he carried the Nicaraguan flag into the Olympic Games—just ahead of the flag-bearer for the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao, another national hero whose journey resembles Arguello’s: both from impoverished countries, both attaining iconic status, both drawn to politics. We can only hope that Pacquiao’s story has a happier ending than the saga of El Flaco Explosivo (the Explosive Thin Man), who found in boxing the one arena of life that he could truly control.
“All his mistakes were made out of desperation,” Cuban author Enrique Encinosa tells Giudice. Except in the ring.