it's a lovely day for a road trip, even in a beat-up '86 Oldsmobile like the one Aaron Pryor drives.
This is an article from the Feb. 13, 1995 issue
Something about the engine isn't right. It stalls every few minutes, just up and stops. And that isn't the only problem. Somebody threw a brick through the back window, and now the cold air comes in, making a racket. Also, the car is littered with trash. A half-eaten chicken potpie lies on the floor in front, and a forest of cigarette butts crowds the ashtray.
"Phenomical," Pryor seems to be saying, but you really have to concentrate to hear him, since there's so much noise from the wind. "I've had a phenomical...just a phenomical life."
Pryor means phenomenal, of course, but phenomical should be a word, if only to describe what he's been through. A little more than 10 years ago he was a world champion boxer, king of his junior welterweight (140-pound) division. But since then he has lost everything. He lost millions of dollars. He lost a mansion and a few other homes. He lost friends and family, including a couple of wives. He lost who can count how many cars. He lost his trophies and his title belt. He lost what might be called a reputation. Worse yet, he almost lost his life. And there is the wonder, the most phenomical thing of all: that Aaron Pryor is still alive today.
"My memory...," he is saying, having to raise his voice to be heard, "it's shy sometimes. It doesn't like to look back."
Pryor is driving south from Cincinnati, his hometown, to the city of Erlanger in northern Kentucky, where he and one of the young professional fighters he trains are scheduled to attend a press conference. Pryor's companion today is a super middleweight named Ravea Springs, and in a few days Springs will be fighting at a place called Peel's Palace, which most people in the area know as a rent-a-hall for wedding receptions and high school proms. Springs is wearing sweats, but Pryor is all done up in a double-breasted suit, a fancy necktie and nice shiny shoes. The way he looks, he should be in a limo or a big European sedan, anything but an ancient clunker like this one.
Pryor got dressed up this morning because, as a former champ, he has a certain image to maintain, and also because he hopes to impress the reporters who might be curious to learn about his phenomical return from the dead.
Only two years ago, in 1992, Pryor was a homeless crack-cocaine addict living on the streets of Cincinnati. He was so depressed and filled with self-loathing that he considered killing himself. He held a gun to his head. He raised a knife over his belly, praying for the courage to thrust it in. Pryor would go days without food or sleep. If you'd taken a city bus through certain areas of Cincinnati, you might have seen him there, standing on a street corner with his hand out. And if you'd visited certain crack houses, you might have spotted him lying on the floor with his face in the grime. His skin was a deathly color. And it wasn't out of the ordinary to find him staring at the sky, carrying on his own private conversation with God. Pryor weighed about 100 pounds then, but this is only an estimate, since he didn't care enough about himself ever to step on a scale.
Today he's back to his old self, or at least to a close approximation of the original. He's living proof, as he will tell you, that the Lord answers prayers, works miracles and does what no 12-step recovery program comes close to doing.
In fact, Pryor has been feeling so good about himself that he's considering a return to the ring. Although he is now 39 years old, about half blind in his left eye and nearly 40 pounds heavier than he was in his heyday, Pryor says he has been getting feelers from Roberto Duràn's camp about a fight. It would be a slow dance by a pair of washed-up old men, but the notion excites Pryor. Duràn's people have talked to Pryor's people—well, they've talked to Pryor since he really doesn't have any people but himself these days.
"I need the money," Pryor says. "I could probably make about half a million. With half a million I could take care of some things. I could fix the car. I could get a new starter or whatever it is. I could put a new back window in."
"Not to be asking about your personal business," Springs says, slumping down low in the seat, "but is it true you made five million when you were fighting?"
"Nah, it wasn't that much," Pryor says.
"It was millions, though, right?"
Pryor doesn't answer except with a nod. For his two title fights with Alexis Argüello in the early 1980s, Pryor earned more than $3 million, money he was bound by contract to split with his manager, Buddy LaRosa. "After Buddy took his half," Pryor says, "the government took half. Then after that my wife at the time had to have her half. After everybody got their half, I didn't have half of nothin'."
Still, that was infinitely more than he earns today. Before taxes, Pryor makes' $350 a week giving boxing lessons to kids and training a handful of pros in the early stages of their careers, including Springs, who is 11-1 (with 11 knockouts) as he heads for Kentucky. You know what you can't buy on $350 a week? You can't even buy the work a car like Pryor's needs to keep from falling apart.
"Don't miss the turn," Springs tells him.
Pryor makes the turn just in time and rolls without power to the end of the exit ramp. The engine has stalled again, but luckily their destination is within reach. Pryor cranks the ignition seven, eight. nine times before the engine turns over with a roar. "Oh, thank you, Jesus," he mutters, then takes off as the wind drowns out whatever else he has to say.
Earlier this fall, Pryor had a dream that scared him more than any dream he'd ever had. Two years had passed since he last used drugs, but in the dream he could clearly see a crack pipe in his hand, and his lips parting to take it. The picture was so vivid that he almost let out a scream. He sat upright in bed, his heart beating in his throat, his breath a painful burden.
Alone with only the late-night sounds of the city to soothe him, Pryor grew cold with fear and regret. He told himself that he was not among the dead, as he was in the dream. He told himself that life was new again, that he was new again. He waited for sleep, and when it did not come, he began to pray. "God," he said, "why did I just dream that?"
Time passed. Then God, without actually saying anything, gave Pryor an answer: "It was just a dream."
"Please, God," Pryor said. "Take that dream away."
"But, Aaron," God told him, "it was just a dream."
Dream or not, it felt too close for comfort, and Pryor would recall the experience weeks later and wonder at its significance. "Why did I dream that?" he would ask a man he had met only days before. And when the man could not provide an acceptable answer, Pryor would remember and say out loud, "Well, anyway, it was just a dream, right?"
Pryor lives in a small apartment not far from some of the neighborhoods where he used to score drugs. He shares the place with his girlfriend, Frankie Wagner, herself a former cocaine addict. The rooms are small and cozy and crowded with memorabilia from Pryor's days as a fighter: posters, pictures, fight cards. It was Frankie who put the collection together since Aaron, always on the go, always too busy, bothered to save nothing from his past.
"When I first met Aaron," Frankie says, "all he really had was himself. Sometimes it breaks my heart, because there aren't any markers to help Aaron remember when he was a little boy. Nothing like pictures of holidays and summer vacation. Nothing from school. Nothing his family kept. The earliest picture I could find came from when he was around 13 or 14 years old. And he was already fighting by then."
Aaron met Frankie during drug rehab, shortly before he went to prison in 1991. It was his third experiment with a hospital recovery program, and it did him about as much good as his first two visits. Except for a drug problem, about the only thing Aaron and Frankie had in common was their small stature. Frankie was white and from the suburbs. Aaron was black and inner city, a product of Cincinnati's tough Over the Rhine neighborhood.
"My name is Aaron Pryor," he told her by way of introduction. "Maybe you heard of me."
"I used to be a boxer."
"Yeah, right," she said with a wild snort of laughter. The only boxers she knew about were Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and they were both big guys, thick with muscle, strong. She stood eye-to-eye with Pryor, and she was little.
He wrote her letters from the pen, where he'd been sentenced to six months on a drug conviction. She called it "jail mail" because each message was colored by everything Pryor was experiencing behind bars, including regret and loneliness. He was making big promises, too, telling her he was through with crack, while all along, he later admitted, a voice in his head was saying, Well, maybe one more try, champ. Just one more try.
For someone who had once seemed so hard, Pryor could be sensitive and romantic, a regular puddin'. While in the pen, he gave a fellow inmate boxes of candy and cake so that he would draw pictures on the outside of Aaron's letters to Frankie. One picture showed a heart torn to pieces and hanging by chains.
There was a lot to learn about Aaron Pryor, though his story was so marred by calamity and lawlessness that it was often hard to believe. "It's always big tragedies with Aaron, never little ones," Frankie says. "You'll know him for years, and then out of the blue another one will drop out of the sky."
One of his brothers is in prison for armed robbery. And one of his sisters stabbed a boyfriend to death about 20 years ago in what was ruled a justifiable homicide. Aaron's mother, Sara, acting in self-defense, shot his stepfather five times with a handgun, partly paralyzing him. Aaron too has taken bullets. Once during an argument his second wife, Theresa, shot him in the arm with a small-caliber pistol. He was wounded a second time in a struggle with friends while he was living in Miami and high on drugs. That time the bullet struck him in the hand, leaving a rubbery keloid spread across the heel.
Ask Pryor about his childhood, and he usually mutters, "I was deprived." He might just as easily remark, "I was doomed, too," since Pryor grew up believing that the future was something reserved solely for other people. In high school he was a slow learner who graduated despite his mother's many declarations that he would end up like his jailbird brother. He also was a delinquent who occasionally rolled drunks for fun.
Sara had a 9 p.m. curfew for her six children, and whenever one of them came home late, she either whipped him or ordered him outside for the night. "I think that's why I never had problems sleeping in hallways when I got older," Pryor says. "I had to do it so many times as a kid."
Pryor didn't learn his father's identity until he was almost 17. It turned out to be a man Aaron had known all his life: Isiah Graves. Aaron was devastated to learn the truth that late in the game, and he let Sara know it. But by then he had moved out of her house and was living with the family of a friend—though a gym on the upper floor of Cincinnati's Emanuel Community Center was his real home. You climbed a few flights of stairs, and there you were: paradise. In the years to come Pryor would say that he'd been too small for football, too short for basketball and too slow for track, but that for boxing he was just right. He developed so quickly that it wasn't long before everyone was saying he had the promise to become the city's best fighter since heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles decades before.
"Aaron was a natural," says Daryl Jones, a professional fighter and lifelong friend of Pryor's. "He could stay up all night with a girl and come in the next day and work out like nothing happened. The only problem anybody ever had with him back then was getting him out of the gym."
As an amateur Pryor won 204 of 220 fights and took home scores of state and regional titles and two national Golden Gloves championships, one of them won against a skinny but dazzling young slugger from Detroit named Tommy Hearns. In 1976 Pryor lost to Howard Davis in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials, a defeat that left him so downcast that for a while he considered giving up fighting and doing something else with his life. Davis went on to win a gold medal at Montreal and become a hero. His professional debut earned him $250,000 and a national TV audience. Pryor, on the other hand, couldn't attract a fight in a lousy biker bar. Determined to get back into the gym and launch a pro career, he put in a call to Cincinnati businessman Buddy LaRosa, who was active in the Golden Gloves but was better known for his chain of pizzerias. LaRosa agreed to take Pryor on, more to enjoy a big adventure than to make a lot of money. Good thing, too. Pryor's first pro fight, in November 1976, was against a former kickboxer. Pryor earned all of $300.
"He wasn't a kid anymore," LaRosa says. "He was 21 years old by then, but you could see he was special, he had something. I think you could hit Aaron with a baseball bat, and he might blink an eye. I remember taking him to a dentist one time—he had all his teeth then, and we had to extract one. The dentist took an X-ray and said to me afterward, 'Look at the jaw structure, just look at this.' And it was unbelievable—built like a Mack truck, he was."
In the ring Pryor gained fame for his frenetic starts. The moment the bell sounded, he charged his opponent and began a relentless assault that put the other fighter either on the defensive or on his back. There was no pawing, no gamesmanship and no fear—not from Pryor, anyway. He resembled a windmill being blown at high speed, and he was hard to hit because he bobbed and weaved so much. He also fought with a fury that suggested a battle with demons other than the one in silk trunks before him.
"The badder the guy was, the more Aaron wanted to stop him," says Jackie Shropshire, a former trainer of Pryor's and now the boxing coach at the Emanuel Center gym. "You've got some guys who wilt under pressure, but Aaron got stronger under pressure. And he would get to the point where he actually drooled—he actually drooled at the mouth! That much animal instinct would come out of him. You could see the stuff, dripping from his mouthpiece."
Pryor drooled buckets the night in 1980 that he relieved Antonio Cervantes of his junior welterweight title with a fourth-round TKO. And he drooled even more two years later when, at the age of 27, he took his perfect 31-0 record and his title to Alexis Argüello in a bout that boxing historians often put on their lists of all-time great fights. Argüello, a proud Nicaraguan with finely honed boxing skills and a devastating knockout punch, was vying to become the first fighter ever to hold titles in four different weight classes.
They fought before some 24,000 in Miami's Orange Bowl. It was wild and savage from the start, and it lasted until the 14th round, when Pryor launched a busy attack that crumpled Argüello to the canvas and left him unconscious for a full four minutes. The defeated Argüello collapsed yet again on the way to his dressing room. He'd suffered a concussion and a cut under his eye that would require eight stitches. Pryor, with his prehistoric jaw and uncommunicative demeanor, seemed hardly fazed, even though he'd absorbed punches that "would have decapitated most people," as Argüello's agent said later.
The rematch was in Las Vegas, and this time Pryor needed just 10 rounds to put Argüello away. As the referee counted him out, Argüello sat on the canvas hugging his knees to his chest, his face a mask of befuddlement. "I felt for him every time I hit him," Pryor said afterward.
In 10 short months he had made his fortune, and now some who know such things were saying that, pound-for-pound, Aaron Pryor was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. He couldn't climb any higher, for there simply wasn't any sky left.
A month later, in October 1983, Pryor instructed his lawyer to post a letter to the World Boxing Association. "We represent Aaron Pryor," the letter said, "and hereby give you formal notice that he has retired as the undefeated world's junior welterweight champion."
Pryor parks the Olds and steps out, his feet light on the pavement. The chariot might not be much, but the driver sure looks great, a champion for the ages if ever there was one.
As he heads for the entrance to Peel's Palace, Pryor notices another problem with the car. Something is hanging from the bottom, touching the ground. It's not the muffler or tailpipe. It's more of a wire type of thing. It's kind of long and bent, kind of curvy. "What is that?" Pryor says under his breath. He and Springs crouch down and take a look. "The window, the starter, and now whatever that is. A man can't pay for everything making what I make. He can't do it."
Despite all, Pryor is able to keep his composure and enter the building with hips aswivel, his head held high. Seeing him so beautifully dressed, so fit and polished, you can almost imagine the impression he made 12 years ago when he was WBA champ. Pryor was known for keeping a large, unruly entourage, and it isn't hard to picture the group now: dozens of tough-looking men in sunglasses with nothing to do but protect him; beautiful women with long painted fingernails and tight leather dresses and attitude galore. You can almost hear the music that must've accompanied him wherever he went. Loud and proud and defiant. An anthem. It's too bad no one's around to see him today. It's too bad about everything.
"The press didn't show up," a man who helped organize the event tells Pryor by the doorway. "I've seen that before. They come, they don't come."
"Nobody?" Pryor says. He averts his eyes. He sounds disappointed.
"Look, hey," the man says. "We had some food delivered. Pizzas. Eat all you like."
People come up to say hello, and Pryor has a kind word for each of them. Most are club fighters who never got anywhere, who hold down menial jobs and know what they know about the fight game from late-night telecasts on ESPN. They congratulate Pryor on coming back from the dead. They've heard the story, the whole phenomical can of worms. They say they know what a battle it must've been, the biggest he ever faced, that's for sure.
"You don't want something to eat, champ?"
"Ah, no. No thanks."
After a while Pryor drifts over to the big room where the ring has been set up. He stands in a piece of darkness with his hands open and relaxed at his side. The lights over the ring shine in his eyes, tiny blossoms of fire, each a torment. But Pryor doesn't have to squint.
"You wore a suit," somebody yells after him. It's meant to be a friendly poke in the ribs, since everybody else here is dressed as if for a jog around the block. But Pryor doesn't answer. He seems to be thinking about something else.
Pryor didn't stay retired for long. Not even a year, as a matter of fact. He came back for the obvious reasons. For one, he missed the ring. He missed the way it used to feel, how everything in the whole world was reduced to that single moment in time when he and another man came together and went at each other terribly. For another—and this is where his story takes a different spin from those of most fighters who can't stay away—Pryor was hooked on crack. A few days after Argüello II, he took his first hit down in Miami, where he owned a house. People called it freebasing then, but whatever it was called, he tried it and liked it and soon wanted to do nothing else. Just like that, the world champion boxer developed a world-class drug habit, and for this he would pay. Not only did it cost to keep a supply handy, but money seemed to disappear when Pryor was using. He handed out $100 bills to strangers he met on the tough streets of Miami's Liberty City. He gave thousands more to members of his entourage. He rewarded drug dealers for their many acts of kindness and generosity. He sent chunks of money home to his dear mother. He even donated lavishly to a church back in Cincinnati, buying pews and paying for children's choir robes.
Despite all the drugs, Pryor won a couple of fights and managed to claim the International Boxing Federation junior welterweight championship in 1984. But when he became inactive after defending his title in March 1985, he was stripped of the championship, and he retired again. He was still living in Miami, still using, still dying a little more every day. When he ran low on funds, he traded cars, clothes and furniture for drugs. Friends from Cincinnati flew down and tried to take him back home, but he refused to leave. They hired detectives to keep an eye on him, and every report came back the same: Pryor, the poor fool, wasn't going to make it.
It was February 1987 before he finally landed in jail. He spent two weeks there on charges that included sexual battery, kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated assault with a firearm. Charges would eventually be dismissed for lack of evidence, but that was many months away. In the meantime, Buddy LaRosa sent Pryor money to make bail. Pryor got out and went right back to the same poison well.
"You think I cared whether I died?" he says. "A crack addict doesn't care if somebody kills him. A crack addict wants to die."
As much as Pryor had lost by then, his perfect record and his name on a boxing card were still worth something, and in August 1987 he was back in the ring again, this time with Bobby Joe Young, a former contender with a 29-5-2 record and a nasty right hand. Pryor had put on a few pounds to step up to welterweight, and during training he looked bloated and slow, not to mention hugely uninterested.
The bout was scheduled for 10 rounds. In the seventh Pryor took a blow to the car and dropped to the canvas. He rose to his feet but for some reason kept his back turned to the referee, who seemed slightly baffled by the fighter's behavior but kept counting nonetheless. Pryor then genuflected and made the sign of the cross, gestures that seemed odd because he had always regarded Catholicism as little more than a sophisticated form of voodoo. The count reached 10, and the great Aaron Pryor was undefeated no more.
He went back to Cincinnati with the dim hope of starting his life over. Boxing had left him with a detached retina in his left eye that would require surgery, but crack had done most of the damage. He got married again, and this union, his third, soon went the way of the first two. He fought again, but no one showed much interest, and his purses were small. In recovery programs he could abide by nothing they taught him. They could thump on his brain, squeeze the poison from his blood, send him back out into the world with a happy, smiling face and a bellyful of conviction, but there was still only one place Aaron Pryor wanted to go: wherever the crack was.
"I would pray to God," he says. "I would say, Take this taste from my mouth, please, please take it away.' But it never went away. Never never never...."
In March 1991 police arrested Pryor in the hallway of a Cincinnati building with five pieces of crack cocaine in his possession. They charged him with aggravated drug trafficking; Pryor later agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of drug abuse. In August he was shipped off to a state pen called the Pickaway Correctional Institute, and there, while serving exactly three months and 12 days, he wrote letters back home to Frankie about the new man he hoped to become. He also held down his first job in years. He worked in the prison gym, earning 25 cents a day.
When Pryor's time was up, one of his old friends, Kenneth Hawk, picked him up at a bus station near the prison. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Hawk couldn't help but think back to the time when he and his family had gone to the Cincinnati airport to meet Pryor after he'd lost in the Olympic trials. Fifteen years had passed, but when Hawk closed his eyes he could see the 50-foot-long banner they'd made that read, AARON PRYOR, YOU'RE STILL OUR WORLD CHAMPION. Hawk and his family had been the only people at the airport that night to greet the fighter, and now here Hawk was again, all alone with Pryor.
"Aaron," Hawk said on the lonely drive home, "you have nothing left to prove in the ring. But out here in the world, Aaron...out here there is still so much."
On Thanksgiving Day they had a big turkey dinner and lay around counting their blessings and planning new beginnings. Pryor thanked Hawk for everything—the new clothes Hawk had bought him, the car Hawk had given him to get around in—and gave his friend a hug as he filed out the door. Only a few months later Pryor was back on the streets, getting high.
At his lowest Pryor stood on street corners and shadowboxed for tips from people who pointed at him, laughed deep belly laughs and said, "Hey, man. You ain't the champ no more." Other times he sparred in alleyways with tough guys from the street who wanted to see how they stacked up against the best fighter the city had ever known. For prostituting what he had once held sacred, Pryor was paid as much as $100, although, when desperate for a hit, he would lower his price to as little as 50 cents.
One day Pryor found himself lying in the hallway of a crack house. His stomach seemed to be on fire—either that or something was in there eating him alive. "Call 911," he told a passerby. "Call them, please."
As he lay there waiting for the wail of sirens to reach him, Pryor saw his own story, from birth to the present, playing in his mind, one scene crowding the next, a storm of brilliant color. He knew, then, that this was the end.
Pryor saw everybody he had ever loved even halfway. He saw a parade given in his honor and the big, pretty house he'd owned in Florida. He saw Cervantes, and he saw Argüello as he'd appeared that day in 1982 in the ring on the field at the Orange Bowl, and he heard the crowd yelling. Not lost in the mix of images were the ugly moments that Pryor preferred to forget. He saw the crack houses of Liberty City. He saw the faces of the people who'd used and betrayed him and whom he had betrayed. He saw the streets, and he saw the jails. The story seemed so long for a life that was so short. It was terrible.
And as his story approached the moment he was now living, Aaron Pryor talked to God. "I don't know why you just don't let me die," he said. "Don't know why you just don't...." He was still talking when help arrived.
"You know what I was just remembering, Aaron?" says one of the fighters who has come for the press conference. "I was just remembering that time you fought this guy from Canada who'd killed a man in the ring. Something Hart, his name was. And he told you some —— before the fight. Didn't he tell you you'd better go to the doctor and get a checkup?"
"Yeah," Pryor says.
"What did you tell him back?"
"Not to worry. I had to die anyway."
The fighter seems impressed. He stands very close to Pryor, and together they stare at the ring as if something or someone were in it. The ring is empty, of course, but if you let yourself, if you try, you see forms begin to take shape. And it's as if history of the rarest sort were being repeated there. "You used this guy, Aaron," the man continues. "You used him like a heavy bag, and he was supposed to be such a bad sumbitch."
"I remember," Pryor says.
"And Antonio Cervantes. That fight, I was there at the Coliseum. Had me a ticket at ringside. And you must've hit him 35, 40 times, and you never missed, throwing those bombs, and then the guy just collapsed, and they went and stopped it."
"Yes," Pryor says. "Yes."
"People in Cincinnati," the man says, really excited now, his voice growing louder, "they never gave Aaron Pryor his just due, that's what I say. Instead of picking him up, every time you looked in the paper they were putting him down. They never realized that he was a kid from the ghetto and never had 50 cents in his pocket, and then all of a sudden he's fighting for millions against a man as great as Alexis Argüello. People, Aaron. They never realized that, did they?"
But Pryor has turned his back to the ring and isn't looking, isn't hearing, isn't remembering anymore.
He was still talking to God when they picked him up, rushed him to the hospital and wheeled him into the emergency room. Was it the coke making his insides bleed? Was it cancer? Maybe it was the remnant of some hard blow he'd taken years before. No, it turned out, it was bleeding ulcers. It took 40 stitches to sew him back up after surgery. The scar would be almost two inches wide, thick and raised.
When Frankie heard where Aaron was, she rushed to see him. She entered his room and found him lying on his back with tubes leading into his nose and arms. As she approached his bed she saw his eyes wash over with tears. He seemed so small. Aaron could barely move his lips to speak, but Frankie heard him say, "I' never going back to that life."
"Yeah yeah yeah," she said.
"Never," he answered. "Never...."
He was released on a Sunday about three weeks later. He was so sore and tired that he could barely walk. For days he lay in bed at home, drifting in and out of sleep, muttering to himself. The following Sunday morning, after a week's rest, he wobbled over to the closet to look for something to wear.
"What are you doing?" Frankie asked.
"Going to church."
"But you never go to church, Aaron."
"I'm going to church," he repeated, more forcefully now.
He put on a suit and walked out of the house, moving like a man three times his age. The New Friendship Church is in the Avondale area of Cincinnati, not far from where Pryor used to go to get high. A bank of steps rises to meet the big yellow building, and at times these steps have been difficult to climb even for the young and athletic. Aaron Pryor struggled to make it up to the great wooden doors, and when he entered the church some 800 worshipers turned and watched him shuffle to a seat. Some were heard to titter and whisper among themselves, and it was to these the Reverend H.L. Harvey, having stopped the service, raised his voice.
"Don't laugh," he said. "That man could be you. He could be any of us. That man—he could be your neighbor. He could be your son or grandson."
A quiet round of applause rippled through the congregation. "You're right, brother," somebody exclaimed.
"Aaron Pryor," Harvey told the fighter after the service, "you put the past behind you, brother. You got to fight the fight. And you got to win."
When Buddy LaRosa heard that Pryor was taking an honest shot at recovery and needed some help, he gave Pryor a job teaching boxing to children. The pay didn't cover the food bill, but it was a start. Kenneth Hawk also helped Pryor to get back on his feet. He and a few other investors formed a company to promote young fighters, and they named Pryor its head trainer. Their first show was at the Cincinnati Gardens in September, and although it lost nearly $30,000, Hawk considered it an unqualified success.
"I'm no Bob Arum or Don King," he says. "I'm a 53-year-old banker with gray hair who loves Aaron Pryor and wants to see him make a success of his life. I started this company for him. As soon as he proves himself and can start working with bigger people, I'll drop out, and boxing will never hear from me again."
To show how proud he was of Pryor, Hawk presented him with a copy of the title belt Pryor had won from Cervantes. The belt was red leather encrusted with gold and came in its own carrying case. Pryor had lost the original during his years of drug abuse, and he'd feared he would never see it again. One night Hawk got Pryor to pose with the belt for pictures, but after a few minutes Pryor got nervous and had to take it off. "Here," he said to Hawk. "It makes me think things."
"Just remember, Aaron," Hawk told him, "you've got nothing left to prove in the ring."
"It makes me wish things," Pryor said.
"It makes me...." Pryor let his head drop, and he closed his eyes. "I know. But, still, how can you expect a fighter to put this on and not wish.... How can you expect him not to want, not to...." And his voice trailed off, a slow, small whisper that no one, least of all himself, could hear.
After the press conference, Pryor and Springs pile into the Olds and start back home. The car stalls only once on the road, and Pryor is able to start it again without mentioning Roberto Duràn.
He and Springs are silent for much of the drive, but then the young boxer turns in his seat and says quietly, "How much money can I make? And be real."
"You're knocking everybody out, right, Ravea? Oh, I'd say...I'd say you could make 10 or 12 million."
Springs looks relieved. "I hope so. I could buy a nice starter house. A car."
"You'll get it," Pryor says, sounding confident. He gives his steering wheel a tap as if to say, See, look what I've got.
They are crossing the Ohio River, coming upon old Cincinnati with the sun on the buildings and the sky a pretty blue, when Springs turns back to Pryor and says, "Everybody's comparing me to you now, Aaron. Everybody."
"Yeah?" Pryor gives a smile. "Well, that's one thing you'll just have to get used to, Ravea. You know why?"
Springs shakes his head.
"Because they always compare winners together."