By John J. Raspanti
The timing was perfect.
My wife and I were in Las Vegas on vacation. She liked to gamble. I could take it or leave it. Mostly leave it.
There were two fighters training in Sin City that weekend. I liked one quite a bit. The other, in my opinion, was a showoff.
We did the “tourist” thing for a day and returned to our room at the Flamingo Hotel.
The Flamingo was fun. It was old and gaudy and loaded with reminders of its notorious history. Old-time gangster Ben “Don’t Call Me, Bugsy" Siegel, had opened the place the day after Christmas in 1946.
The Flamingo was just a stone’s throw away from Caesars Palace.
Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello were training there for a rematch.
Their first fight on November 12, 1982 had been like watching them ride a pugilistic rollercoaster.
The heavily favored (12-5) Arguello had pockets of success in the early rounds. He used his jab—and was able to clobber Pryor with his deadly right on a number of occasions. Pryor was rocked, but always came back with missiles of his own.
I watched the fight with my Dad. We were both pulling for Arguello. Pryor’s act had grown tired, at least to me. Arguello would show him who the better fighter was.
Arguello landed his money punch in the 13th round. The blow snapped Pryor’s head like a tree branch. I expected him to fall.
He did not.
My Dad said, “That’s it. Arguello is done. He hit Pryor with his best punch and nothing happened.”
Dad was right. A few minutes later Pryor hurt Arguello with a vicious combination. Staggering to the ropes,
Arguello waited for Pryor to commence with the coup de gras.
Multiple combinations—punctuated by three violent lead rights had Arguello twisting in the wind. He finally collapsed to the canvas as Pryor rejoiced in the opposite corner.
Controversy raged after the bout as questions were raised about where Pryor’s energy had come from after taking so much punishment. Before the fourteenth round, Pryor’s trainer, Panama Lewis, ordered his assistant to hand him a black bottle.
“The one I mixed,” he said.
A rematch was ordered. Arguello remarked that Pryor had won the first fight, “fair and square.”
Pryor was hurt by the criticism that followed. He’d prove in the rematch who the better man was.
And so there I was, at Caesars Place a week before the sequel, excited to watch them train. My wife headed for the casino. I went in search of some sort of training facility in the hotel. It wasn’t hard to find.
A ballroom had been converted into a makeshift boxing arena. I joined roughly 25 other boxing fans waiting for the fighters to appear.
The crowd had swelled to about 50 by the time Arguello, the former great champion from Nicaragua, went through his paces. I was a few feet away from him. He looked grim, like a man counting down to the days to his execution. His workout lacked fire. He was, in other words, going through the motions. I groaned inwardly.
No way he beats Pryor.
Arguello worked out for an hour. He left as quietly as he entered. The ballroom was now loaded to the rafters. We were all waiting for “The Hawk” to show.
As the noise grew for Pryor’s arrival, Donna Summer’s beat-driven "She Works Hard for the Money" started blasting from the room’s speakers, with Aaron Pryor and his entourage headed for the ring. Pryor danced into the ring and lead the crowd in a chorus. He was smiling and pointing.
It felt more like a revival than a training session.
The contract with Arguello was appalling. Pryor was the man who had sent 24 opponents to sleep, and everyone, including Arguello knew it. A week later he again defeated Arguello, this time by a stoppage in Round eight.
Pryor had captured the super lightweight title three years before by knocking out Antonio Cervantes. His reign had been explosive and controversial. But the guy could fight. Over the course of that year, I had grown to appreciate the talent, energy and grit that he brought into a boxing ring.
He was, in other words, a tremendous fighter, in a time when a number of great fighters existed. He defeated Tommy Hearns in the amateurs and almost fought Sugar Ray Leonard a few years later. A fight against Leonard, or Roberto Duran, would have been a donnybrook.
Pryor never took a backwards step.
He was awkward and hit fighters with punches they never saw coming. He could box when he needed to.
Pryor seemed to lose interest in boxing after the Arguello rematch. He briefly retired. When he came back, some of his fire was gone. Unknown to most fans was that Pryor was battling a drug problem.
How he had managed fight so well despite his dependency is amazing.
His final record shows 39 victories in 40 matches, with 35 big knockouts. Pryor was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001.
By that time, he had knocked out his most difficult opponent, drugs, and was helping others with similar problems. Pryor’s childhood had been a difficult one, but he had fought his way out of poverty and become a world champion.
Everyone who met him replied at what a kind, modest and considerate man he was.
"I have great love, respect and admiration for my long-time friend," Sugar Ray Leonard said. "He will be greatly missed by so many."
I can still see him serenading the crowd at Caesars.
It was amazing, as was his boxing career.
Rest in peace, Champ.