By Thomas Gerbasi
When it comes to pure violence, there was probably no better representation of that idea in the prize ring than the 1982 bout between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello. For nearly 14 rounds, the two future Hall of Famers assaulted each other with a fury rarely seen in a supposedly civilized culture.
There have been executions that were stopped earlier than this fight, but years later, there was a stark reminder that at its core, it was still a sporting event, a competition. I had the honor of talking to Arguello in 1998, and as you would expect, the conversation eventually found its way to his fights with a man who did everything in his power to separate the Nicaraguan great’s head from his shoulders. I asked him what it’s like when he ran into “The Hawk” at various functions, like those at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
The answer wasn’t what you would necessarily believe it to be.
“Actually we never refer to our fights,” said Arguello, who tragically died in 2009. “The only thing we feel is that we have a bond with each other. A common bond that pressures us to respect each other because we are in a brotherhood. We have something in common. With Pryor, we have 24 rounds in common. The first one went 14, the second one 10…We had two battles, and such a bond between us.”
The feeling was mutual, with Pryor telling BoxingScene after Arguello’s death, “Alexis Arguello and I shared a bond that began with that historic fight on November 12, 1982 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida. That bond will never be broken. I had the honor to help my friend campaign when he was seeking political office and I always enjoyed our many visits and phone conversations throughout the years. I am deeply saddened by his passing. Boxing has lost one of the greatest champions to ever step in the ring.”
This Saturday night in Pontiac, Michigan, Devon Alexander and Timothy Bradley meet in the latest junior welterweight Super Fight, one that will have to live up to such classics as Pryor-Arguello, Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor, and Barney Ross-Tony Canzoneri. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of the 23-year old Alexander and the 27-year old Bradley, but considering that they’ve already accepted this fight, it’s clear that neither is averse to risk taking, a lost art in today’s fight game.
That alone should warrant your attention and praise, and when all is said and done, maybe Alexander and Bradley will join the same Hall where Arguello and Pryor reside, but for now, you can be certain that this weekend, a bond will be formed that as Pryor noted “can never be broken.”
Whether the bout is a tactical 12 round chess match, or an all-out war that leaves one or both men nursing their wounds for weeks, the lives of Alexander and Bradley will change due to what happens in their bout. For the winner, it makes the idea of another big money Super Fight even more realistic. The loser gets a trip to the back of the 140-pound pecking order.
That’s the business side of it.
On the more telling end, for 12 rounds or less, Alexander and Bradley will likely ask questions of each other that neither has been forced to answer as of yet. Yes, Alexander went through a gut check in his most recent bout against Andriy Kotelnik, and Bradley had to rise from the deck to beat Kendall Holt in 2009, but this is different. These are the two best 140-pound boxers in the world, and when you get a matchup like this, it’s unlike any other.
This is when you have to face adversity that you’ve never dealt with before, when you meet an opponent who is just as good as you are, if not better, in every aspect of the game. Can you take a punch as strong as yours? You’re fast, but how do you deal with someone faster than you are? Everything you’ve done before doesn’t matter anymore. You won’t hear any doubts coming from the mouths of these fighters, and as humans, they’ve got to be there, but as fighters they ignore them.
The afternoon after Pryor-Arguello I, two lightweights named Ray Mancini and Deuk Koo Kim ignored any doubts that entered their minds, any pain that ravaged their bodies, and the exhaustion that Vince Lombardi once said makes cowards out of men, but that lifted these warriors to admirable heights.
Pryor-Arguello I lasted 47 seconds more, but Mancini-Kim was no less brutal. In fact, it was more so, as Kim died four days later due to injuries suffered in the bout. But the bond between the fighters was just as telling, one that cut across the barriers of language, and even death.
“I knew him better than his mother, his wife, his cornermen,” Mancini told Mark Kriegel of the New York Daily News in 1999. “I knew him better than anybody in the world because I knew what he was inside. It’s almost like a spiritual thing. You learn a lot about a person in the ring, something crosses over. He learned what I was about. I learned what he was about.”
Unlike other sports, fighters leave a bit of themselves with each other every time they compete. And when the best meet the best, with so much at stake and so much skill and heart on display, you can amp that up tenfold because it’s not just another fight. It’s three months of hype, endless appearances and interviews, and a period of your life where all you’re thinking and talking about is the man who will be standing across the ring from you on fight night. And 20 years down the line, if everything in the ring lives up to the hype of the previous three months, the fight will be something you carry with you forever, or at least every time a reporter asks you about it. Arguello, a true gentleman, didn’t mind that you asked him about what had to be one of the most painful nights of his professional career, and with years of distance from the immediate emotions of that night, he was able to embrace what happened that night in Miami.
“I hit the guy (Pryor) with everything I had and he was laughing at me,” he said. “I can't believe it. Let me tell you one thing, the guy was a fast guy, he was so quick, and what scared me the most was that in the fourteenth round I was tired, so I thought that he would be tired too. But the guy came on like a storm (laughs). But I took the shots. I stood on my feet. I didn't want to go down. The referee, Christodoulou, was the one who put me down. (Laughs) I was 32 years old, and he was 24, 25 and it happens to all of us. It was a great battle. The first one in Miami? What a fight. Those fourteen rounds. Every time I see them I start to sweat. The guy was good. And he was there with heart and soul and with a purpose.”
But as is the custom in boxing, the ones who don’t get the win don’t come back in five days to pitch again or look to the rest of their teammates and say we’ll get them on the gridiron next week. They don’t need to glance at the scoreboard to know who won.
“That was a tough one,” said Arguello of the first loss to Pryor. “This is the way I put it: the same thing I did to (Ruben) Olivares (who Arguello defeated for his first world title in 1974), someone had to do it to me. In this sport, what we do when we're coming in, they do to us when we're going out. (Laughs). Unfortunately this is the only sport where those kinds of things happen.”
Mancini was even more blunt when I spoke to him during a press junket for the movie “Redbelt” in 2008.
“My father told me a long time ago, the same people calling you ‘champ’ on the way in are calling you ‘bum’ on the way out,” said Mancini. “He also said ‘it’s a small fall from the limo to the curb’, and all of these clichés I’ve heard all my life are true.”
It’s still a beautiful sport though, one that those who don’t love it don’t understand and probably never will. And part of the beauty stems from what happens between the fighters. Yeah, the business stinks, and the stench around the sport can get overwhelming at times, but when two boxers give and take in the ring and punch each other as hard as they can for four, eight, ten, or twelve rounds, they shake hands or hug, and they have something no one else can ever take away.
This weekend, Devon Alexander and Timothy Bradley will form that bond, and when it’s all over, you can rest assured that they will have earned it.