By Thomas Gerbasi
It was the worst summer ever.
Boxing fans are used to disappointments. SuperFights that turn into SuperDuds. SuperFights that never materialize. Mismatches parading as SuperFights. You get the idea.
But these disappointments pass. There’s always another fight that lives up to expectations. Another pair of fighters who are willing to step up and face each other, and promoters who are as equally invested in giving fans value for their money as they are in collecting that money.
This was different. This was lasting. And it hurt.
In the space of 25 days in July 2009, we lost Alexis Arguello. Arturo Gatti. Vernon Forrest. All tragically before their time. Forrest, 38, was murdered after being robbed at a gas station in his home city of Atlanta. The official word on the deaths of Arguello, 57, and Gatti, 37, was suicide, though questions persist in regard to their final moments.
Regardless of the circumstances, the fact that three beloved members of the boxing community were taken from us so close together was almost unfathomable. And it hit us all in different, personal ways.
I think we all felt Gatti was part of our family, the younger cousin or older uncle who was the cool member of the clan. Yeah, he got himself into some trouble, but one look at his mischievous smile, and all was forgiven. And that was just outside the ring. Inside the ring, he was must-see television, the rare fighter who let us see inside his soul every time the bell rang. If he was hurt, we knew it. But we also knew that as long as he could throw his fists, he had a chance.
Forrest was more of a sweet scientist. He never got the acclaim that someone like Gatti got because that just wasn’t the fighter he was. He was going to pick you apart as opposed to get into a war with you, but like Gatti, he was all heart. That was evident when he decided to cut down on his media obligations before his rematch with Ricardo Mayorga and subsequently saw that same media shun him. It didn’t sit well with Forrest, who was always accessible before that training camp, and when he did finally start to talk again, only a few listened. I was one of them, and we had some heated debates before we finally settled into a friendship. Yes, objectivity was out the window for me when it came to “The Viper,” a man who saved me on deadline on more than one occasion over the years.
And then there was Arguello. If you’re a boxing fan, you know of the legend in the ring, and outside of it, he was one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. Those who were around in his heyday always described him as a class act, and that was no act. He was as real as it gets.
So when I was covering a Shane Mosley fight at Madison Square Garden’s Theater one Saturday night and happened to be seated next to Alexis Arguello Jr., I couldn’t help but ask him about the possibility of interviewing his father. Alexis Jr., as classy as his dad, said, “Sure, here’s his number.”
It was as easy as that.
A few days later, I made the call to Nicaragua, my wife close by in case there was a need for someone to speak Spanish in order to get to Alexis. Alexis got on the phone and we proceeded to chat like old friends. Suddenly, maybe a half-hour in, the phone lines went dead. Storms were tearing through Nicaragua and killed off my epic interview.
I was working maintenance at the time and writing for the CyberBoxingZone on the side, so I had to get to the day job in the morning. I asked my wife to keep trying his number that day to thank him for his time and let him know that I got more than enough to work with for my story.
She called me later the next day to tell me that Alexis asked me to call him back that night.
“Yes, have him call me. We were getting into some good stuff.”
Me. Getting into good stuff with Alexis Arguello.
Thanks to the internet, fans can get a chance to show up in this business with little barrier to entry. It’s not like a journalism grad who loves baseball getting pushed onto the boxing beat, almost like a punishment. For many of us, we started as fans and just happened to make the sport we loved a job. So there are still moments that can give you goosebumps.
This was just one of them. I called Arguello back and yes, we kept getting into some good stuff. When it was over, it turns out that two calls to Nicaragua cost me approximately $130. It was worth every penny.
That was 1998. Arguello was 46 years old and just three years removed from his last pro fight against Scott Walker. Considering that some of his contemporaries like George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran were still fighting, I asked him if he ever got the itch for another comeback.
“No,” he said. “I have so much respect for what I did and the way I did it that I don't want to put a shadow over something so beautiful, so wonderful. Because people saw me in the best of my prime. And to make myself look ridiculous? That would be bad. It's better to stay here taking care of my kids.”
We assumed that he would do that well into his old age. But in July 2009, he was gone. Call me sentimental, but around this time of year I always go back and listen to interviews I had done with Gatti and Forrest. This year, I went back into that CyberBoxingZone interview with Arguello, and yeah, “good stuff” may have been an understatement.
We’ve all heard the stories about Arguello’s classic meetings with Aaron Pryor and Ray Mancini, and those were obviously topics of discussion, but more fascinating to me were his recollections of his early days in the sport, especially the emotions before his debut.
“My first fight, I was so nervous,” he said. “I was trembling, I was so scared. I remember that I was walking from my dressing room, I was so nervous, and when I was climbing into the ring, a reporter said, ‘This guy, they're going to break his bones, he's too skinny,’ and I got worse. Oh man, I was sweating, and I told my trainer, ‘I feel so nervous,’ and he said, ‘That's okay Alexis, don't worry about it.’ And the first punch my opponent threw touched my chin, and I said, ‘uh-oh.’ And then I felt my adrenalin pumping, and as soon as my body got warm, I hit the guy and he went down. The referee started counting, and that was the time I said, ‘I like this. I'd like to keep doing it.’ But I was s**tting in my pants.”
This was Alexis Arguello, “El Flaco Explosivo,” the man who went to battle with not just Pryor and Mancini, but also with the likes of Ernesto Marcel, Alfredo Escalera, Bazooka Limon, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Castillo, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Rolando Navarrete, Jim Watt, Jose Luis Ramirez and Andy Ganigan, just to name a few of the killers he faced. There was also a guy named Ruben Olivares, and if you’re wondering why I left him off the list above, it’s because Arguello had a great story about his meeting with a man he once worked for as a sparring partner.
“I sparred with Ruben Olivares when he came to fight Yambito Blanco,” said Arguello. “And I said that if I want to learn, I have to spar with this world champion. I didn't even tell my trainer that I was doing it, but I had to go. And he beat the living crap out of me. He put a black eye on me. That was in 1971. And then I went to fight him in 1974, and I asked him, ‘Ruben, do you remember when you put a black eye on me?’ And he said, ‘Hey kid, I don't remember you, but I'm gonna send you home early. I don't want to punish you. That's okay kid, I'll take care of you really early. That way you don't suffer.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I came here to do something for my country, buddy. Don't take it too lightly. I'm here to battle it out. Whatever's going to happen, I respect you. I'm just trying to remind you about what you did when I was a kid. But the best will win tonight, buddy.’ (Laughs) I remember I said that.”
Arguello beat the great Olivares that night at The Forum in Inglewood, knocking him out in the 13th round to win the WBA featherweight title. For a little look back at how different things were back then, Arguello started off 1974 with a win over Raul Martinez Mora in January before he lost his first title shot against Ernesto Marcel a month later. Four wins would follow, then he got his crack at Olivares in November. That’s a 6-1 year at the top of the game.
Yeah, it was a different time.
The win over Olivares kicked Arguello’s career into high gear, and weather at 126, 130, 135 or 140 pounds, the Nicaraguan was fighting all comers and beating them, going 37-1 from the Olivares fight to his first loss to Aaron Pryor in 1982. That’s a long time to be that good, and if he wasn’t scoring spectacular knockouts, he was engaging in memorable wars like his two classics with Puerto Rico’s Escalera, the second of which remained imprinted in Arguello’s memory.
“Oh man, the second fight was the fight of the decade,” said Arguello. “That was a war. The man was talking to me during the rounds when we would get into a clinch. He was telling me, ‘You skinny mother f----r, kill me you son of a bitch.’ That was the toughest guy I fought. I was so young. After the fight, when we were taking the test for drugs, the guy came to me and said, ‘Hey Alexis, why don't we sign the third one? We're gonna make a lot of money.’ I said, ‘Get out of here. Find someone to fight. I don't want to go through another one.’ He was a tough son of a bitch. And then my doctor performed an operation - because I had an eighteen stitch cut on my right eye - right on the train. My flight was leaving at eight in the morning and the fight ended about 11:30, so we went back to the hotel, packed everything, and got on the train from Rimini to Milan. We took a six-hour ride on the train. And I got plastic surgery right there on the train, with no painkillers.”
Men like Arguello were certainly cut from a different cloth, though I’m sure – or at least I hope – that 20 years from now we’ll be treated to similar stories from this generation’s stars. But maybe we won’t. Maybe that willingness to fight all comers and leave it all in the ring was left with those who competed during the sport’s last true Golden Age in the 70s and 80s. And back then, about the only one Arguello didn’t fight was a fellow warrior named Roberto Duran. I asked him why that fight never happened.
“That would have been a war,” he said. “That would have been a train collision. I remember one day I was checking in at Caesar's Palace and Duran came in, "Alexis, you son of a bitch, you mother f....r. Why don't you sign the f.....g contract? I'm gonna kick your ass." Then he started pushing me. And I said, ‘Duran, don't do this bulls**t to me. Don't push me around.’ Then I turned around and left. Then he followed me and said, ‘Alexis, this is only publicity, man. I like you.’ I said, ‘Hey Duran, look, I'm a serious man, I'm a businessman. But if it comes that we're going to fight, then we're going to do our jobs. But don't fool around with me.’ Because I never liked people talking. I never liked that. I was a quiet guy. Let's get up there and do our jobs. But the guy came out and said, ‘Alexis, I'm sorry. I'm just trying to hype it up.’ And you could do that with the mouth, but then the guy started pushing me, and then I got upset. But we became good friends. The fight never happened because he went from 135 to 147, and that was the reason I stayed in the lightweights. Actually I was a junior lightweight when this was going on.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this was an unforgettable chat with a true legend of the sport and something that I consider myself lucky to have had. And every time the sport shoots itself in the foot or makes us question why we even loved it in the first place, I always refer to moments like this one with Arguello. Why? Maybe it has something to do with my last question: What would you say to someone who thinks boxing should be banned?
“No, that would be the biggest mistake on earth,” Arguello said. “There have been so many boxers that have hurt the sport. Harmed the sport because of their behavior, like (Mike) Tyson with what he did to Evander Holyfield, things like that. But in the long run, there are a lot of kids out there that need this. It would be a crime if out of a hundred guys, one would make a mistake. We can't stop something that you enjoy, I enjoy, and that most of us enjoy. Why? Because we were all born with a fighting instinct. And that's why we enjoy it.”
Rest in peace, Alexis, Vernon and Arturo. You’re not forgotten.