Alexis Arguello: Boxer who won world titles at three weights then turned to politics
Friday 17 July 2009
In his prime, Alexis Arguello was probably the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the world. After dominating three different weight classes, he became only the third fighter to attempt to win a fourth world title, but failed in one of the most memorable fights of the Eighties. Having been victimised by the revolution in his home country of Nicaragua, he endured a long and tragic decline after quitting the ring before returning to his homeland and emerging as a political success, eventually becoming mayor of Managua.
At 5ft 10in Arguello was unusually tall for someone who won his first title as a 9st featherweight. In the lower weight classes, the advantage of reach usually fails to make up for the relative slowness and lack of punching power in long limbs, but Arguello fought with almost perfect boxing form. The boxing writer George Kimball called him "a textbook example of how every trainer hopes his charges will box", and his powerful right earned him the nickname El Flaco Explosivo ["the explosive Thin Man"]. His size meant he could add weight naturally, as he moved up to take titles at super-feather and lightweight; at the time only five men had been champions at three different weight classes, though only one of them, Henry Armstrong, did so within the eight classic world titles.
Born in Mangua's barrio in April 1952, Arguello left school at 12, and aged 13 spent a year working in Canada to bring money home for his family. When he turned professional at 16 he had already won 58 of his 60 amateur bouts. After losing only one of his first 24 pro fights, all in Nicaragua, in February 1974 he challenged Ernesto Marcel for the World Boxing Council featherweight title in Panama City. He lost, but Marcel retired, and nine months later, in Los Angeles, Arguello stopped Ruben Olivares in the 13th round to win the title.
Four years later he moved up to super-featherweight, winning the World Boxing Association crown, again on a 13th-round stoppage, from the Puerto Rican Alfredo Escalera, a fight so brutal it was called "the bloody battle of Bayamon". After five title defenses, including a controversial technical knock-out over Bobby Chacon, where he was trailing when the fight was stopped due to cuts, he moved to lightweight with a win over Cornelius Boza-Edwards. He took a hard-fought split-decision from Jose Luis Ramirez before coming to Wembley in June 1981, and winning the WBC title from the Scots fighter Jim Watt by unanimous decision. By now, Arguello was being called "The Gentleman Boxer", something Watt acknowledged when he said, "I couldn't have lost to a classier fighter".
By now, Arguello was living in Miami, having had all his possessions confiscated by the Sandinista government. Although his brother Eduardo had fought with the rebels, and been burned alive by government forces, Arguello was condemned for having friendly relations with the Somoza government. Accused of having posed for a photo with the dictator, Arguello replied, "I wasn't posing with Somoza, he was posing with me." Arguello then supported the US-backed Contra movement against the Sandanista government, donating much of the remainder of his wealth to them.
Although he was already indulging in the drug-fuelled lifestyle of Miami Beach, Arguello defended his lightweight title four times, including a classic 14-round battle with Boom-Boom Mancini, before the memorable meeting with Aaron Pryor for the WBA light-welter title, at Miami's Orange Bowl in November 1982. Trailing on the scorecards, Arguello again got lucky in the 13th, stunning Pryor, who had never gone beyond 12 rounds and was tiring visibly. Between rounds, TV microphones caught Pryor's trainer, Panama Lewis, asking for "the bottle, the one I mixed". A revived Pryor stopped Arguello, at one point throwing 23 unanswered punches, to retain his crown.
Their rematch, in September 1983 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, ordered because the boxing authorities had neglected to test Pryor's urine, was less dramatic; Arguello was knocked out in the 10th.
After sliding further into drug abuse, Arguello confided to of reporters that he had contemplated suicide; his father had twice failed to kill himself when Arguello was young. Moving to New Hampshire, and training with Eddie Futch, he rebounded to beat the former light-welterweight champion Billy Costello, but after being diagnosed with a heart problem, perhaps compounded by cocaine use, he retired. But his life fell apart, and, broke, he made a sad comeback attempt in 1994, wining a mixed decision over Jorge Palomar, before losing badly five months later to Scott Walker, and quitting for good, with a career record of 82 wins and eight losses.
Returning to Nicaragua, he campaigned for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua's elections. He was elected vice-mayor of Managua in 2004, and in 2008 carried the Nicaraguan flag in the Olympic opening ceremony. Amid accusations of vote-rigging he then narrowly won the mayoral election. But in his short time in office he had already been accused of corruption. He was found dead at his home, from a gunshot wound to the chest. Traces of gunpowder on his hands suggested he may have taken his own life, as he had contemplated decades earlier.
Alexis Arguello born 19 April 1952 Managua; married several times (nine children); died Managua 1 July 2009.
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