At London's Wembley Arena late last Saturday night, the tunes of glory from the bagpipes were stilled and the banners drooped. It was the last round of the WBC lightweight championship fight, and for the Scots there in the hall, the end of an old son, as they say up there. Jim Watt, the lefthanded titleholder, their idol, was irretrievably behind on points to Alexis Arguello of Nicaragua, but he was still standing, bleeding badly though he was, still throwing right jabs to try to counter the cruel left hooks that had done him in.
Mindful of the ugly bottle-throwing rioting that marked the end of the Alan Minter-Marvin Hagler middleweight title fight in Wembley last September, the law was on hand in heavy strength, ready for trouble at the final bell. And there were enough hard men in tartan scarves and bomber jackets on hand to make the police presence look entirely sensible.
But suddenly, unforgettably, it became clear that the bobbies might just as well go home. In the ring the fight was over, and the two boxers were locked in an embrace that came unmistakably from an unfeigned mutual respect. A sad, but not bitter, moment for Watt; a joyful, but not arrogant, moment for Arguello—a moment that easily could have been foreseen earlier were it not for the automatic cynicism that boxing attracts to itself by the way it's normally conducted.
Upon arriving in London, for instance, Arguello had unaccountably neglected to spit, snarl or grunt threats. Instead he had inquired after Watt's family. Watt had struck the same note. "Alexis and myself are both proud professionals," he declared, "and a world championship fight should be a dignified affair."
June 28, 1981
"Watt is a great champion," countered Arguello, "a decent man, always smiling, always polite outside the ring. I prefer to be like that also."
Courtesies aside, it was a sure thing that in Watt's four defenses of his championship since winning it from Alfredo Pitalua in 1979, he had met no one with the credentials of Arguello. Compact, strong, extraordinarily skilled and speedy, the handsome, mustachioed Arguello, 29, was a veteran of 15 world championship fights, only one of which he had lost—the first, on a decision to then WBA Featherweight Champion Ernesto Marcel. Later in that same year, 1974, Arguello won the WBA featherweight title when he knocked out Ruben Olivares. Ever since, except for two brief intervals while he was moving up in weight class, he has been a world champion.
He made the first of those shifts in 1978 when he became a super featherweight and knocked out Alfredo Escalera for his second title. After nine defenses of that crown Arguello quit, undefeated. Now he wanted Watt's title. That gained, he would find himself in a select group of fighters who have held three titles—Henry Armstrong, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and, currently, Wilfred Benitez.
Though the proliferation of divisions has made the task easier, it would still be a signal accomplishment. Yet were Arguello to achieve it, the final accolade would be denied him—a triumphant return home to his native Nicaragua.
"I waved the new flag at first," he said in London last week. "We needed a change." But the change, it seemed, didn't need him. Though his mother had a soda-pop stall in Managua and he himself had started his working life after fifth grade spray-painting autos, by the time the Sandinistas came to power he was one of Nicaragua's rich. And beyond that, the new government banned pro boxing as exploitative.
Two years ago, when the street fighting started in his native land, Arguello was in New York for a title defense against Rafael Limon. He abandoned his considerable property in Nicaragua and is now settled with his family in Coral Gables, Fla.
"I don't think they welcome me if I go back with a new title," he said sadly, and went on to talk instead about Latino fighters and how he believed that they had a quality of heart, a commitment, that came from poverty and that no European could match it.
Watt has never sprayed paint, but he had a tough enough upbringing as a working-class kid on Glasgow's streets. Patently he doesn't lack heart. "There's hungry people all over the world," he said, "but if you want to know what heart I have, think of my last fight against Sean O'Grady. I went back into my corner with a terrible gash over my eye at the end of the ninth, but when I came out in the 10th it wasn't to hide."
Nor did he run, though there are plenty of observers who think O'Grady was unlucky to lose that bout, principally because he foolishly dropped his guard at one point when claiming a butt. There are also those who pay heed to a sinister notice that Freddie Hill has tacked to the wall of his Lavender Hill gym in South London, FIGHTERS FADE it reads starkly. FIGHTERS GO WEAK. FIGHTERS NEVER COME BACK.
Watt will be 33 a month after the Arguello fight, and his dead-white skin—"So I'm like a bottle of milk with gloves"—might not inspire confidence. And, detractors were quick to point out, all his previous defenses had been made in his native city to the sound of the pipes and the continuous, soccer-crowd roar one can hear any winter Saturday at Hampden Park, where the Glasgow Rangers play.
No doubt this was an advantage. Scotland was as proud of Watt as he was of her. Just before the Arguello fight he had been presented with the freedom of the city of Glasgow, the youngest man and first sportsman ever so honored. The Lord Provost of Glasgow had traveled to London to make the presentation, the first time that had been done outside Glasgow. The city fathers hadn't wanted to interrupt their champion's training.
And as Watt's training came to an end in the gym over the Royal Oak Pub in London's East End—a bar so unsalubrious that even Andy Capp would think twice about entering it—someone recalled what a fellow Scot, Jackie Stewart, had observed after Watt's defense against Howard Davis a year ago. "Total concentration," said Stewart. "I didn't see him blink once. He'd have made a great Formula I driver."
All the same, one could have got 7 to 4, maybe 2 to 1, in London against Watt beating Arguello. In Vegas it was no better than 3 to 1. Such odds discounted the steely pride Watt had shown in his previous fights, and the extraordinary preparation he had made for this one. He had started roadwork in January, only three weeks after an appendicitis operation, to strengthen his stomach muscles. At the time, his fight with Arguello had been scheduled for Miami in the spring.
He had also thought about Arguello a lot. In tune with the you-fire-first politeness of the buildup to the bout, he'd said, "If Alexis was fighting somebody else on Saturday night, I'd be lining up for a ringside seat."
In the end, of course, the firing did begin, and to the credit of the fighters the proceedings started without the grotesque, eyeball-to-eyeball glowering that now seems mandatory. Instead, there was a salutatory nod from Watt and a smile from Arguello. Significantly, though the first round was even more tentative and probing than most opening rounds, Arguello, who was wearing an odd and faintly menacing black mouthpiece, landed three substantial lefts of the kind that were to be Watt's undoing.
Setting the pattern also was Watt's cautious, planned, retreating style. But counterpunching was going to prove inadequate against Arguello's aggression. Even though Watt's flicked right hands were scoring, he paid for every one of them, mainly in the currency of heavy straight lefts and right hooks to the body. By the fourth, Arguello was in high gear, catching Watt with combinations. All Watt seemed to be hoping for now was for Arguello to walk into a right hook.
Before the fifth started, Terry Lawless, Watt's manager-trainer, was yelling for more resin. The Wembley arena had a new ring, and its floor was treacherously slippery, as Arguello discovered in the first round when a glancing right hand from Watt put him off balance and he slid into the ropes. The Scottish banners rose high to a huge, skirling howl, but Arguello was quick to grin and right himself.
It might have been more appropriate for Lawless to yell for mercy. It was plain now that Watt was going to find it hard to win. In the seventh, Arguello caught him with a far-traveled left hook and put him down for a mandatory eight count. The end might have come then, except that Watt showed his elegant ability to slip an opponent on the ropes. The speed, though, which had beaten the so-promising Davis in Glasgow a year earlier, was no longer there.
In the eighth, surprisingly, there came a change of rhythm as Arguello appeared to decide briefly to stop chasing Watt, and in the ninth Watt caught him with a couple of right crosses that seemed to shake him. But by then Watt was bleeding from the nose, and in the next round he was cut under the left eye. "Step up! Step up! Fight him!" Lawless was yelling now. And for three more rounds, showing an ample fund of strength and courage, Watt took all the punishing lefts Arguello could throw and countered with hard-crossed lefts of his own. And so to the end and that emotional clinging together in the ring. There was no need to wait for the unanimous result, only for Watt's honest words. "I have no complaints," he said. "I hope I went out like a man. The title is in good hands."
Arguello was late, very late to his post-fight celebration—not only because no limo had arrived to collect him and he had to go out and find a cab, but also because he had needed a lot of work on his eyes in the dressing room.
And they still looked a patched and puffy mess—those right jabs of Watt's had meant something—when he finally made it to his hotel and to a decorous gathering. His respect for Watt was still in his voice and his words. "His counterpunching was the problem," Arguello said. "His resistance, his physical condition, was so great. You have to be born with something. Jim was born with guts."
And then, entirely sincere if a little sentimental, Arguello had the last right word. "I promised Jim," he said, "I defend the title for him with my blood and my heart."