For nine minutes Sunday in Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Alexis Arguello looked like a legend who should have remained in the record books. To all observers, his coming out of a two-year retirement in October to seek a fourth world championship had been a mistake. But Arguello, who is 33, knew it was anger, not age, that was robbing him of his skills. "I must be cool," he told himself as he rested on a ring stool after three rounds of futility against Billy Costello in their junior welterweight bout.
It was a different Arguello who came out to meet the former WBC 140-pound champion for Round 4. The punches that had been slow and wild now flew swift and true. The legs that had seemed so tight a round earlier now carried Arguello gracefully forward. Under attack, Costello retreated against the ropes. Against Arguello, who has never been known for fleetness afoot, remaining against the ropes is the last thing an opponent should do.
Gliding in, Arguello planted himself firmly, fired a stinging jab and then chased it with a shattering right to Costello's chin. After crashing heavily, Costello regained his footing, if uncertainly, at the count of eight. Arguello rushed in, but referee Mills Lane pushed him back. Puzzled, Arguello peered at Lane. "He came in before I waved him in as the rules state I must do," Lane said later.
No matter. Finally getting the green light from Lane, Arguello, always a merciless finisher, pounced, both hands exploding on his dazed opponent. Costello attempted to fight back but his situation was hopeless. At 1:42 of the round, Lane wedged between the two fighters. "The referee did a great job," said Mike Jones, Costello's manager. "He stopped it at exactly the right time and saved Billy from really getting hurt."
The victory was dramatic, certainly, but leaves one to wonder if Arguello is headed for immortality—four world titles in different divisions, a feat no boxer has achieved—or if somewhere down the road, and soon, this veteran of 86 pro fights will rediscover his own mortality, as he did twice against Aaron Pryor, in 1982 and 1983. One minute and 42 seconds of brilliant fighting against Costello, who was knocked down five times when he lost the junior welterweight championship to light-hitting Lonnie Smith last Aug. 21, certainly doesn't answer all the questions.
Arguello will be 34 on April 19, and, by his own admission, he partied hard during his absence from the ring after Pryor knocked him out for the second time. As his manager and longtime agent Bill Miller says, "He's back for the money. Ring history is nice, but this is about money. Once you have it, I guess, you feel differently about it."
Where did the millions go? "I spent them," Arguello says.
A few days before the Costello fight, in his suite at the Eldorado Hotel in downtown Reno, Arguello laughed when asked where he would be at that moment if he were still a multimillionaire. "Are you kidding?" he said. "I'd be in Hollywood, man. Where do you think?"
But then he became serious, if a man dressed in his wife's black-and-white checked pajamas can be convincingly serious. "Look, the party is over. If it wasn't, I'd be downstairs gambling. I am back because I am a fighter. It is what I do, what I have been doing since I am 14. Money is not the only reason. If I can make money at 14 as a fighter, I can make money at 33 as a car dealer. There's no shame there. If I made it as a drug dealer, then it would be shame for my parents, for me. And fighting is no shame. I feel better about it than ever."
He paused, thinking about that fourth title. "Look, I've made commercials," he said. "I've been on television, on Miami Vice. But it is hard. I spent 10 years learning English so I could do that. If I win a fourth title, it will be so much easier. But I want to break a barrier. I want to give my sons something to shoot for, to reach for. I am reaching for the stars and if I get them, it will be good for sport, good for the kids."
Arguello has been reaching most of his life. In 1974 he won the WBA featherweight title. Four years later the WBC junior lightweight championship was his. And in 1981 came the lightweight crown. He is one of only seven men in boxing history to win three different titles.
Arguello began reaching once more on Oct. 25, when he stopped a journeyman named Pat Jefferson in five rounds. The Costello bout, for which he earned upwards of $150,000, brought him a step closer. Actually, Arguello almost called off the fight 20 minutes before the bell, after the Costello camp complained that his hands were too heavily wrapped. Costello's people insisted that they be rewrapped, and the Nevada State Athletic Commission agreed.
"I won't fight," Arguello, a man of immense pride, snarled when told of the commission's stance. "No fight."
It took Don Kahn, an assistant to trainer Eddie Futch, two minutes of muted but intense conversation to convince Arguello to go along with the order. But the boxer was still seething. For the first nine minutes he fought his own rage as much as Costello. He lost those rounds on all three officials' cards.
"I was so tight, I couldn't do anything," Arguello said later. "But then I told myself to cool down. When the anger went away, I was fine."
Arguello would like one more 10-round fight before challenging for the 140-pound title. "But," he said, "I will leave it up to my manager. Now I am going to take a long rest with my wife and children."
Miller has already decided: "If he is going to make history," Miller says, "let's write it now."