Alexis Arguello — three-time professional boxing champion, mayor of Managua, Nicaragua, and friend of the Voice — died this past Wednesday, apparently by his own hand. Not Martin Scorsese with a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga could have made sense out of Arguello’s bizarre and checkered life.
When we knew him in the early 1980s, he was a dapper and polite presence at high-profile fights at the Garden and a frank and incisive commentator on the boxing scene. For instance, before Roberto Duran fought Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight crown in 1983, Arguello told us: “To be honest, I don’t see how Roberto can win this fight. But I’ll tell you this — no matter how strong Marvin is, he will need a baseball bat to knock Roberto out. I see it going the distance.” He was right on both counts.
The precise nature of Alexis’s politics was difficult to understand…
Clearly he was anti-Sandanista, an unpopular stance among American lefties (and British punk bands) in the early eighties, who confiscated
his property in Nicaragua and put out press releases condemning him for an alleged association with Somoza as well as doing beer commercials in the U.S. Though he supported the Contras, he always insisted, however, that he was not a right-winger: “In this country [America], you see things going on down there in two ways. Either it’s the Sandanistas or the far right. Both are equally brutal. There are other possibilities.”
He tried to make those possibilities happen when he moved back to Managua in the 1990s, getting involved in numerous political and social issues. Last November, in a twist of fate that would have seemed impossible a quarter of a century ago, he ran for mayor of Managua and was supported by President Daniel Ortega, who had once accused him of being a traitor.
Trying to make sense of Arguello’s fortunes over the last two decades has been all but impossible. There were reports in the late eighties that he was suicidal and again in 2001, when, according to the Daily News Bill Gallo, “There was a time not long ago that I was in such a low state I had a loaded gun in my hand and gave it thought to pull the trigger and end my life.” There were also whispers that in recent years he had
developed a cocaine habit.
Many of his old conservative supporters felt betrayed by what they regarded as a conversion to the left, but Alexis argued it was simply an affirmation of where he stood all along — i.e., a firm belief in the noncommunist left. His opponents claimed irregularities in his election as mayor, but the Left wrote it off as partisan political bickering. Despite domestic troubles (including three failed marriages, which would have Jake LaMotta blush) he remained enormously popular in Nicaragua and with U.S. boxing press and Latin boxing fans everywhere. (He carried the Nicaraguan flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.)
In the ring, Arguello was, pound-for-pound, one of the four or five best we ever saw. He was 82-8 and would have been ranked even higher by boxing historians if not for his two losses to Aaron Pryor in super-lightweight championship bouts. Their first meeting in 1982, won
by Pryor in the 14th round, is one of boxing’s great classics and still regarded by most as “The Fight of the Decade.” We will never believe
there wasn’t some chicanery involved. Late in the fight, when Pryor seemed about to fall, his trainer, Panama Lewis, was overhear saying
“Hand me the bottle” — not a water bottle but “the bottle I mixed.” If boxing had had any kind of genuine governing authority, that bottle
would have been seized seconds after the fight was over.
Though the losses devastated Arguello, he and Pryor became friends. Listen to Pryor’s emotional tribute to his friend and foe.
Out of the ring, Arguello was best described by former Olympic gold medalist and WBA Welterweight champion Mark Breland, who said, “He was one of those champions who acted like one outside the ring. You don’t hardly see those kind of fighters around today.”