Positive Thinking—and a Crushing Right Hand—Has Made Alexis Arguello Three Times a Champion
Never stop, indeed. Alexis Arguello, whom many believe to be the master boxer of our day, has reached the top of his profession no less than three times, but still has one more mountain to scale. He has been a champion of the featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight divisions. Now, come Friday evening in Miami's Orange Bowl, the 30-year-old Nicaraguan folk hero living in comfortable exile in King's Bay, Fla. will try to attach a fourth title to his name, a feat that has eluded every fighter before him. "I will try to do what is never done before," says Arguello without fanfare. "And he will try to keep what is properly his."
The "he" in Arguello's future is the World Boxing Association's junior welterweight champion, Aaron Pryor, 27, nobody's idea of a patsy. According to the redoubtable Bert Sugar, editor of The Ring magazine, "Alexis Arguello is the kind of fighter who, faced with a runaway truck on Interstate 1, could pick off the left tire with his right elbow, poke out the right headlight, pick off the right tire with his left elbow, poke out the left headlight, and still have time to pull the driver from his cab and make a citizen's arrest before the truck touches him." But Pryor, by his own gleeful admission, is "crazy," a swooping hawk of a fighter with a gold tooth in the center of his loony grin and a knockout string 23 carcasses long.
No matter. Worry is not Arguello's vice. A day or two before the fight, his weight (140 lbs.) under control and his battle plan worked out with trainers Eddie Futch and Don Kahn, Alexis will settle down to meditate. "When I have big problems," he says, "I just put my mind in my body and concentrate on positive things." He will stretch supine on the floor of his bedroom, lying motionless up to 24 hours. "He's like an icebox," says his third wife, Loretto, "and I'm wearing out the rug with my butterflies." Explains Alexis: "I am a boxer. I am a professional."
He is, in fact, the fighter incarnate, complete with an archetypal past that even his friend Sylvester Stallone could not improve upon. Alexis was reared in Managua, Nicaragua, the fourth of eight children born to a shoemaker and his wife. The houses in his neighborhood were largely shanties, the diet rice and beans, the clothing hand-me-down. Alexis was good at school and had dreams of becoming an engineer. "But [my father] started drinking," he has said. "He told me with tears in his eyes that I better start doing something to help the family." Thus, at 14, Alexis learned to paint cars; by 16 he was toiling at a dairy which let him train as a boxer part-time, provided he carried the company's name on his back in the ring.
Turning professional after only one bout as an amateur, Alexis fought every two weeks for $9 a go. At 17 he married his first wife, Sylvia Urvina ("I'd never been with a girl before"), and was a long-haired main-eventer of local renown. At this point, fate intervened in the person of Dr. Eduardo Roman, a fight fan with a Ph.D. in economics. Says Arguello, "It was like God gave me the right to know him. Without him, I think I never be where I am now. I might be a drunkard or a smuggler, something bad." No mere manager, Dr. Roman became Alexis' patrón. He took the young savage and overhauled him—encouraged him to read Dale Carnegie, showed him how to act in polite society and spent thousands of dollars guaranteeing promotions that brought world-rated fighters to Managua to fight him.
In 1974 Arguello lifted the WBA featherweight title from his idol, Ruben Olivares of Mexico. But he was facing stiffer opposition outside the ring. In 1976 he went through a messy divorce from Sylvia, whom he had left for Patricia Barreto, a glittering society girl he met one evening while painting the town. Troubled by the divorce, he could no longer make the 126-pound featherweight limit and briefly retired from boxing. He subsequently returned to action, unloaded Patricia (when Dr. Roman refused to manage him otherwise) and won the World Boxing Council junior lightweight crown in 1978 in a bloody battle with Alfredo Escalera of Puerto Rico. Soon afterward he married the vivacious Loretto Martinez, a secretary, and in 1979 he was exiled by the new revolutionary government, which branded him a puppet of the Somoza regime. "What the Sandinistas want to do is keep me away from my country," Arguello claims. "They know any moment, if they do wrong, I can bring 100,000 people into the streets. My people love me."
These are the vintage years for Arguello, the years to make one last push in a profession that honors experience, but not age. Three of his four children, along with a brother and a nephew, now live with him in King's Bay, a marina community just south of Miami. Since his defeat of Scotland's Jim Watt for the WBC lightweight title last year, he has been enjoying the biggest paydays of his career and will earn $1.5 million for his showdown with Pryor. Arguello owns a travel agency and a construction company, and has recently been taken in hand by a California public relations firm that considers him "Hollywood handsome" and is talking Arguello posters, Arguello formal wear, Arguello on The Love Boat, etc. Alexis himself wants to go to college to study business administration, but he will not discuss any future beyond Friday night. "In my country, we have a saying," he explains. "You do not sell the meat before you kill the deer." He pauses thoughtfully. "The hard part with Pryor is to find a way to fight him. I must depend upon my experience. That's okay. I'll do it. I know who I am, what I want to do, where I want to go. I am a boxer, a professional."