The site and the scene were different, but the result was unchanged. Alexis Arguello sat in his blue boxing trunks in the 10th round last Friday night and, with tears in his dark eyes, gave up any chance to win an unprecedented fourth world championship. Across the way, Aaron Pryor, his WBA junior welterweight championship safe, wept, too.
It was the third time Pryor had hammered Arguello to the floor in the outdoor stadium at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace, and as the 31-year-old Arguello sat with his arms folded across drawn-up knees, he remembered the punishment Pryor had meted out to him in Miami's Orange Bowl last November, a beating that had left him unconscious for four minutes after the fight was stopped. As Referee Richard Steele reached the count of seven Friday night, Arguello's head dipped; he had surrendered.
"He could've got up, but he chose not to," Steele said later. "As I counted him out he was just looking at me, and his eyes were telling me that he'd had enough. But it didn't matter. If he'd got up, I would've stopped it."
As he watched the final scene being played out on the other side of the ring, Pryor was filled with a curious blend of elation and grief. "I was glad he didn't get up because I didn't want to hit him anymore," Pryor said. "Usually after I've beaten a man, I no longer respect him. But Arguello is a man, a three-time world champion. I felt for him every time I hit him; I knew only his great heart was holding him up. I was happy that I would take my title home, but I was sad that he'd never win a fourth championship."
For Arguello, it was a bleak ending for a brilliant career that had begun in his hometown of Managua, Nicaragua on Nov. 18, 1968 with a first-round knockout of Israel Medina. By the time the then 21-year-old Pryor turned pro in November of 1976, Arguello was the WBA featherweight champion, having knocked out Ruben Olivares for the title in November 1974. In 1978 he won the WBC junior lightweight title from Alfredo Escalera. Then, in June 1981, he won a 15-round decision over Jim Watt for the WBC lightweight crown.
Just seven men have won titles in three weight divisions. Last November, against Pryor, Arguello made his first bid to become the only fighter to win four. In what was regarded as 1982's fight of the year, Arguello and Pryor went toe to toe until the 14th round when Pryor hammered Arguello with 23 straight punches and, at 1:06 of the round, left him crumpled and unconscious.
No one thought the slender Arguello would ever return to the ring after such a fierce beating. No one but Arguello himself. Lashing out in frustration, he fired his trainer, Eddie Futch, a move he would have cause to regret. "I made a big mistake when I blamed Mr. Futch for my loss," Arguello says. "I've apologized. But I'm human. I grabbed the closest piece of wood in the ocean. I'd just lost a fight, an important fight, and I had to blame someone. A big mistake."
To replace Futch, Arguello hired Lupe Sanchez, the trainer of former welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas. Then Arguello abandoned his lightweight championship on Feb. 15 of this year; 11 days later, as a junior welterweight, he won a 10-round decision over Vilomar Fernandez. On April 24 he stopped Claude Noel in three rounds and said he was ready for another crack at Pryor.
"That first fight will always be in my mind," Arguello said after signing for $1.75 million, $500,000 less than Pryor would receive. "I've looked at the tapes of the first fight 50 times. I've looked at the 14th round and always I think: My God, how could such a thing happen? But I wasn't in good mental condition. I thought I had the ability and didn't need the work. I was in shape physically but not mentally. Now I've put my mind to work. You can have the skill, you can have the ability, but if you don't have the mind condition you're dead."
Bill Miller, Arguello's agent, said, "He was overconfident. He never dreamed he wouldn't stop Pryor."
While Arguello seemed to have his act together. Pryor's life outside the ring became chaotic. On July 1 his trainer, Panama Lewis, was banned from boxing for allegedly tampering with the gloves of one of his fighters. Luis Resto. Pryor also became estranged from his wife, Theresa, who was already guaranteed a $500,000 slice of his purse. A court in Cincinnati awarded Buddy LaRosa, his erstwhile manager, another $750,000.
To replace Lewis, Pryor hired and fired Richie Giachetti, Larry Holmes's former trainer, who told Pryor what he thought and not what Pryor wanted to hear. Three times he tried to bolt from his promoter, Dan Duva, once after signing and then breaking a promotional contract with Sylvester Stallone. Pryor became angry when Stallone asked him to take a routine physical. Pryor thought the request was because of the widely circulated rumors of his use of cocaine. "I don't do the stuff that people have me doing," Pryor said. "I don't do drugs. I don't take dope. I don't stay up late. I don't let the talk perturb me. But my mother's tired of reading all this stuff about me. If I'm so bad, how come I've had 33 fights and won them all?"
In South Lake Tahoe, Nev. without a trainer, Pryor worked the way he fights, with whirlwind abandon. He would spar 14 rounds without headgear under a hot sun: then, battered and bruised, he would work harder the next day.
But even Pryor can take only so much punishment and pressure; on Aug. 19, complaining of a severe headache, he checked into a South Tahoe hospital, where Dr. John Harris, a neurosurgeon, took two CAT scans. "I don't find anything wrong." Dr. Harris told him. "Come and see me in a couple of weeks."
After leaving the hospital, Pryor decided he needed a steady hand at the helm. Less than two weeks before the fight, he called in Emanuel Steward, the trainer of champions Thomas Hearns (WBC junior middleweight) and Milton McCrory (WBC welterweight). After studying Pryor's battered face. Steward's first order was two days of rest.
Steward had picked Arguello to win both the first fight and the rematch. "That was based on what I was reading about the turmoil in Pryor's camp and the impression that he wasn't training," Steward said. "I didn't believe everything I heard about Pryor was a lie. I told Aaron I didn't want to be the man in the corner when he lost his title. My reputation was on the line. All I can say is that he has been beautiful. He's done everything I've asked. He's my kind of fighter."
During training sessions he made a few suggestions, and Pryor quickly adapted to them. "Emanuel thought I was going to lose this fight," Pryor said three days before the bout. "What better way to win the fight than to let him train me and show me how to change his mind. I'm going to win to prove to him that he was wrong. That gives me another kind of high."
Under the handling of Sanchez, Arguello was working with smaller but faster featherweights. "Why work with bigger fighters?" Sanchez said. "We know he can punch and take a punch. Speed and keeping his head are the keys. We have told him that if he loses his head this time, all is lost."
In the first fight, Arguello had done what everyone had warned him not to: He had fought Pryor in the trenches. His considerable boxing skills all but forgotten, he had turned into a slugger. His combinations are what made him a legend, but against Pryor he seldom was able to get off his combos.
The rematch battle plan called for Arguello to back up Pryor with hard right hands in the first round and then to pile up points with swift, stinging combinations. Among Arguello's 78 victories in 83 fights were 63 knockouts, but he had tested Pryor's chin in their first, meeting to no avail.
Pryor describes his style as an explosion. "He seems to gain strength from adverse situations," Steward says. "It seems he's against everybody in the world and everybody is against him. But from all his troubles and frustrations comes this incredible energy."
On Friday night it didn't take long for the incredible energy to explode in the first round. Pryor dashed from his corner and was throwing punches before he reached Arguello, who bravely tried to stem the assault with right-hand counterpunches. Twice Pryor was stopped briefly, and twice he drove at Arguello again. After two stiff jabs, a sharp right cross caught Arguello flush and dropped him. Frowning, Arguello regained his feet. "You all right?" Steele asked. Arguello nodded. "Hold your hands up and let me see."
Pryor rushed in, but before the round was over Arguello had nailed him with two right hands and a hook, giving Pryor pause.
Working grimly, Arguello established a thin edge with right-hand counters in the second and third rounds, and before the fourth Steward told Pryor, "You got to get close. Don't throw the right hand from so far back. He's just waiting for it."
Pryor struck quickly. He unleashed a six-punch flurry that ended with a short, sweeping hook that sent Arguello once more to the floor. After the challenger regained his feet, Pryor moved in behind a flood of punches. Halfway through the round another right staggered Arguello. Pryor then seemed to tire, and in the last 50 seconds Arguello made a strong comeback. Pryor fought the next four rounds almost in slow motion as he showed a growing respect for Arguello's right. In the eighth, Arguello was scoring well but then was penalized a point for low blows, which landed often enough to cause Pryor to complain.
After that, Pryor took over. He went after Arguello in the ninth with a vengeance and, when he returned to his corner. Steward, who had been urging him to pick up the pace, greeted him with an approving nod. "You're getting in the right hand," Steward said, "but then you're pulling back your head. Shoot the right and then come back with the short left."
In his own corner, Arguello was wondering how much punishment he could take. As in the first fight, he had hit Pryor with some stunning right hands, but each time Pryor shook them off. When the 10th-round bell rang, Arguello sighed and got to his feet. He would only have to work a minute and 48 seconds more.
Heeding Steward, Pryor began shooting in short lefts behind his right hand. As Arguello backed off, Pryor unloaded a string of jabs, caught his target flush with a right, fired each hand twice and then snapped Arguello's head back with a crunching left uppercut flush against the jaw. Arguello sagged against the ropes and went down on his right knee; he shook his head and then sat. As Steele reached 10, he got up wearily and went to his corner, where he was met by Oscar Seary, who has worked his corner for years. "The carnival is over," Arguello said. Then, turning to Miller, he added, "The mother is just too strong."
Later, his eyes wet with tears and puffed and reddened by Pryor's fists, Arguello faced his public with pride. "I did my best. I feel good about it," he said. "He was just too strong. When I went down the second time, I thought, 'My God, what's happening?' Then the next round I hit him with a couple of good shots and nothing happened, and I thought, 'Jesus, he's not human.' It takes something out of you. In the last round I was pushing myself real hard. Sure I was hurt, but I could have got up. But I didn't want to risk my life. I decided to protect myself. I thought to myself: That's it."
"Why are you crying?" someone asked.
A slight smile lifted the corners of Arguello's mouth and he said, "Because it's a normal reaction. I did my best. I'll never fight again. I'm sorry."
So are we.