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Alexis Arguello Explains

I am honored many people are calling me a legendary boxing champion who had a huge heart and danger in each hand, and even more I appreciate they consider me a kind and gracious gentleman. Still, I hear what some are asking, and feel what everyone’s thinking: why couldn’t Alexis, who persevered during many wars in the ring and a shooting war in the bush, keep going in everyday life? Though it is a private matter, I will tell you.

The pain was always there, even as a child. It was a pain in my mind and in my soul, and for many years I thought I suffered only because I was among the poorest people in Managua, Nicaragua and had to quit school at age nine and decided to run away from home to work on a farm. A year later I returned but still encountered only deprivation and vowed no more and at thirteen fled to a farm in Canada for a year, working to save money for my family. I returned with a thousand dollars, long hair, a tattoo on my arm, and the conviction I had to box to live.

After two years in the gym, I debuted in 1968 as a sixteen-year old with about a hundred twenty pounds stretched lean on my long, five-ten frame. A guy you’ll never know stopped me in the first round. I was down but responded ambitiously, fighting as many as eleven times a year, sometimes every two or three weeks, always training and getting stronger and sharper, knocking out seven straight opponents and soon six more, not pausing after I was stopped again but rebounding with six KOs before winning a decision and then finishing another six.

In February 1974 I was ready for the featherweight title. It embodied the world I’d been living for – respect, money, homes, cars, and women – and Ernesto Marcel blocked my entrance. I pressured him fifteen rounds but that night the skillful champion punched faster and more accurately. Afterward, he promptly retired: few in boxing history have walked away with their titles, and none at age twenty-five.

I defeated four more opponents, three by knockout, before going to Los Angeles to challenge Ruben Olivares, the new featherweight titlist and Mexican king of America’s most Mexican city. My team and I worried about the judges but needn’t have: I pummeled Olivares, decked him twice in the thirteenth round, and became champion of the world. Several times I defended my crown and won many nontitle bouts, knocking out eleven of twelve opponents during one stretch and receiving more money and acclaim. I bought a beautiful home in Managua and then another and got a divorce and new wife and won my second world title in a bloody confrontation with super featherweight champion Alfredo Escalera.

Always I’d entered the ring in gentlemanly fashion, greeting my opponents, and afterward offered congratulations while checking to make sure they were all right. Nicaragua loved me and so did Latin America as well as boxing fans in the United States. The affection was gratifying but rarely relieved my pain. I knew a man should not be sad, and a world boxing champion must not express emotional pain. He must continue to beat up other men, and I did, knocking out past and future champions Bazooka Limon, Bobby Chacon, and Cornelius Boza Edwards. During this period I tried not to disintegrate when Sandinistas seized my homes, businesses, and bank accounts. What thugs they were. My brother had fought for them against dictator Anastasio Somoza’s henchmen, who surrounded Eduardo on a Managua street before shooting him and torching his corpse on a pile of tires.

In the ring, I kept winning. My taut and slender frame amassed more muscle, and I moved up to one hundred thirty-five pounds, flew to London in 1981, and overpowered Jim Watt to earn a unanimous decision and the lightweight crown. Now I was one of few to have won three world championships. I also had my third wife, and children, and a home in Miami and a yacht nearby, but this was not enough. I needed an unprecedented fourth crown and the gorgeous women who helped me forget for a little while how I felt.

In Miami I would be facing Aaron Pryor, the junior welterweight champion, a muscular long-armed punching machine who’d defeated all thirty-three opponents, knocking out everyone but two, a ninety-four percent rate unmatched at the championship level. I wasn’t afraid. I was going to destroy him. But he frequently landed first and I knew early I’d never been hit like that. I punished him, too, firing some of the hardest overhand rights of my career, haymakers that had felled many slightly smaller champions, but Pryor’s jaw seemed reinforced by concrete. After the thirteenth round I felt I trailed but could win by capturing the final two rounds. Instead, Pryor erupted from his corner and bombarded me with two dozen power punches that crumpled me onto the canvas where for several minutes I lay, conscious but eyes closed, in a dreadful physical and emotional state.

At home I didn’t want to leave the bedroom. My wife brought me food. My children, as ordered, stayed out. I was watching the video. For days I couldn’t stop. I wanted to. And I should have. It made me sick. A younger, stronger, faster man was hitting me in the head and I did nothing but take it and now was so ashamed I didn’t blame the referee for not stopping the fight a little sooner because I deserved punishment for failing so disgracefully. I plugged the tape back in, grimacing from each blow as I planned how to change things in the rematch. Sometimes I believed I could. A fighter must believe he can win. After two victories in ten months I was back in the ring with Aaron Pryor. In round ten he returned me to the canvas where I sat, knowing this man was better and I didn’t want to box anymore.

My people and I had a more important war. Sandinistas still murdered and plundered, and I vowed to help defeat them. I wasn’t a symbolic celebrity. I was a warrior who looked forward to being killed. Fatigues became my boxing shorts and a machine gun my fists. I wasn’t going to wait long. Without orders three dozen Contras and I decided to annihilate a Sandinista village stronghold. As we silently approached an enemy spotted us and began firing and others responded too, hitting one of my friends, and I sprayed bullets before running to get him amid enemy fire ripping earth while my Contras screamed leave him he’s dead.

They wanted an immaculate war offering much leisure time in their elegant Costa Rican homes. And they wanted to ignore Indians suffering from starvation and dysentery. They’re going to die, I warned. Medicine and supplies are for the Contras, I was told. I don’t like you or your war, I said, and returned to Managua then Miami and a house my wife had abandoned because of my excesses. Please come back, I urged. I can’t lose you and the kids too.

They returned but couldn’t help. I snorted cocaine until my nose bled and my mind screamed then snorted more and drank alcohol to come down as well as prepare for the next blast. In 1984, on my yacht The Champ, I looked into eternal relief, the barrel of a loaded pistol. My eldest son pleaded don’t do it. I cried I had to. I’d thrown away all my money, my homes, perhaps my health and my family, and the IRS wanted more. I needed out, yet somehow didn’t pull the trigger. Boxing might keep me alive. In my 1985 comeback I fought the first time since the second Pryor fight and won by technical knockout against a quality opponent and duplicated that the following year. I was probably still better than anyone my size except Aaron Pryor.

I could’ve continued, though I frequently felt the eighteen-year accumulation of punches. Why did I need boxing? I was studying acting because many told me I had the swarthy, mustachioed look of a Latin lover. And I promoted young fighters and battled for medical insurance and pensions for boxers who needed help. I also provided live commentary during televised matches and planned businesses and sports camps but kept staying out late, often all night, and by 1994 had drifted too far and needed money so at age forty-two I reentered the ring against a pug with two wins and twelve losses, a guy I earlier would’ve promptly destroyed, and for ten rounds struggled to scrape out a decision. The following year I fought a man who could hit back and he beat me by unanimous decision. There was no point continuing, not as a fighter.

As a man battered by fists, finances, and another divorce, I went home to Nicaragua. Everywhere I stepped I was still a hero, the most popular and revered man in the country, and I dedicated myself to helping people. I became involved in political issues. I tackled social problems. The appreciation I received was overwhelming. And before long I picked up a pistol and considered shooting myself. People said I was using cocaine again. If so, it was to treat my depression.

There must’ve been better treatment. I sought it in 2004 when I ran for Vice Mayor of Managua. To help me campaign I brought in Aaron Pryor, my old conqueror but now good friend. People roared and I was elected and felt great being a champion again. Political enemies later accused me of misappropriating funds for pork barrel projects and building a personal home. These charges I denied. In the summer of 2008 I bore my nation’s flag during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Then in November I ran for Mayor of Managua. President Daniel Ortega, who long ago had been a far more dangerous nemesis than Pryor, now supported me as a fellow Sandinista. Crowds grew even larger, and in open vehicles I stood, celebrity and leader, and waved to cheering supporters lining the streets. They needed me but not nearly so much as I needed them. I was hospitalized that month with an undisclosed ailment many surmised they knew. Thankfully, I won a close election.

I was very proud despite some domestic and international charges Sandinistas had used fraud and intimidation to engineer victory. There was nothing unusual about this Nicaraguan election. I committed myself to the people and tried to ignore stress. On June twenty-sixth, 2009 I had the privilege of flying to Puerto Rico to honor Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirate hall of famer who in December 1972 died trying to fly supplies to Managua where an earthquake had killed five thousand people and leveled much of the city. I gave a moving speech and placed a wreath on the great man’s grave. A little more than four days later, early in the morning of July first, in my Managua home, I placed a high-caliber pistol against my heart and left my face intact for family and nation.

This entry was posted in Alexis Arguello, Boxing, Depression, Drugs, Mental Health, Nicaragua, Suicide.