When Alexis Arguello was five or six, living in the poorest barrio in Managua, Nicaragua, his father stared down the black shaft of an abandoned well. It was as good a place as any to die.
Guillermo the shoemaker ached from the contradiction of his life. When he worked all day and evening to sell enough shoes for his wife and eight children to survive, he had no time for his friends and felt alone. When he stopped working to share homemade whiskey with his friends, his family went hungry and he lost all control of his life. No decision was clean—all choices carried complications that made him feel dirty. Where could a man find resolution?
The shoemaker mounted the edge of the well and said a silent farewell. This, at least, would be a definitive answer. And he dived.
A moment later, a groan came from the well. There was water inside—Alexis Arguello's father was alive.
October 20, 1985
Oh my God, cried the shoemaker's wife. Call the fire department before he dies!
The firemen rumbled down the un-paved street, tied a rope to a chair and lowered it into the well. Sit on the chair, they shouted down. We'll pull you up.
Guillermo hesitated. Should he go back to that world of ambiguity? He undid the rope, looped it around his neck and retied it. Here, he thought—here at last was something clean and final. I am ready, he hollered up. Pull!
When the body came to the surface, Guillermo's face was blue and his tongue hung a terrifying distance from his mouth. Then his chest heaved and he opened his eyes and groaned. Was nothing clean? Was there no such thing as resolution in this life?
Down a long concrete path between two tall shelves of aluminum bars walked a dark-skinned, hooded figure, a seeker of resolution named Alexis Arguello. The second-shift workers at Aavid Engineering looked up from their drill presses and forklifts to stare at the oddity of a Nicaraguan walking toward a boxing ring in a New Hampshire factory.
Arguello nodded to them curtly, for the change in him occurred when he approached the ring, as it always did. He slipped off his robe and began punching the air. Faint tracks of scar tissue pocked the hoods of his eyes, but the rest of his handsome face and body looked taut and young, revealing nothing of the recent beating he had been through.
He had come here seeking shelter from life. In the two years since he had retired he had gone from being a millionaire to virtual bankruptcy. He had lost his family, battled drugs and ducked Sandinista bullets in Nicaragua. He had broken with his manager and spiritual father in Miami. Nowhere away from boxing could he find the thing his father had ached for—a refuge from contradiction.
He's returning for the money—he's broke—sneered the media. No, he's returning for immortality, to become the first man ever to win titles in four weight classes, insisted the people close to him. They, too, were uncomfortable with the reality that all human motive is a mosaic of desires and needs.
The most confused of all was Arguello.
"Material things are not important," he told a visitor. "You are important! We are important! That little girl over there. That man on the bike. Why can't people see that? I don't need money. I can pump gas. I can make plenty of money doing appearances for Miller Lite."
His hands flailed the air. He grabbed his visitor's wrist, spittle spraying from his lips. "It's history, man. I want to win four! It's an adventure. That's why I'm coming back."
A few moments later: "Boxing is the only thing I know how to do. I like nice things, nice cars. How can I generate the money? I kick some ass, right?"
And then: "I don't know why, but I feel fulfilled when I'm boxing. I think I am a reincarnated gladiator.
" . . . Oh, God, what else can I do? I don't want to be a doper. I don't want to poison the world."
Outside the boxing ring, Arguello's life was full of such fluctuation. Feelings ruled him, they jerked him first down one path, and then down its opposite.
One night years ago, when he was 27, Arguello was hunting in Nicaragua with a friend and a flashlight. He loved animals. He loved to shoot them for sport in the forest, and he loved to hold them in his arms at home. Never did he see the contradiction.
The flashlight beam fell on the eyes of a deer, and it froze. Arguello stood with his finger on the trigger, staring into those eyes. He could not bring himself to shoot.
He caught the deer with his bare hands. He cradled it to his chest. He brought it home and made it a pet, and never hunted again. Unlike most men, once he saw a contradiction, he could not anesthetize himself to it.
Like his father, the shoemaker's son suffered great pain from the ambiguity of his existence. He, too, longed for resolution, for something that would knife through the paradox of humanness, of a creature born half spirit and half animal.
Boxing was the knife. For 16 years Arguello climbed into a 20-foot square and stared into the eyes of a man who weighed the same as he. The choice seemed clean. Hit or be hit. Consciousness or darkness. Glory or shame. Black or white. Sometimes, even life or death. Where else did life offer this? Oh, if only he did not have to stare into those eyes. . . .
And Alexis Arguello made boxing into something more than two men trying to destroy one another, so he could have resolution without the guilt of brutality. He made it a crusade to help the poor, to offer hope to the young, to give his war-torn Nicaragua a hero. He freely wrote checks to charity and spent hours with children. He refused to deride his opponent to hype a fight. "I'm not a fighter," he said. "I'm an artist. Boxing should be beautiful. . . . It should be like ballet dancing."
In the ring he studied his opponent for as long as he needed to analyze him, suffered punishment for it, then threw that short, sharp knife of a right hand. The opponent crumpled. Resolution. In that eye blink, he experienced a purity, a finality his father and most mortals never know. Then he looked down at the man on the floor—this was art?—and the feeling began to dissipate, the vagueness and contradiction returned, and he had to start all over again. Usually he hugged the man he had beaten and whispered kind words in his ear.
He became one of eight men in history to win world championships in three weight divisions—featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight—and the only one of those eight never to lose any of his titles in the ring. How dignified and controlled he was in boxing gloves, a Marine sergeant over each of his muscle movements, a Samaritan over each of the men he felled. Everyone respected Alexis Arguello.
Then, in November 1982, he tried to become the only man ever to win a fourth division title, and he met his contradiction: 140 pounds of uncontrollable desperation named Aaron Pryor. The first fight, one of the sport's greatest battles, ended in the 14th round with Arguello lying in darkness for four minutes, a doctor anxiously fingering his eyelids. The second ended in the 10th round, when Pryor flattened him for the third time. The other side of resolution was a terrifying thing.
He was 31 years old, owner of a 78-6 career record, five houses in the U.S., including one in Miami worth $300,000, a $280,000 yacht, a Mercedes, a BMW, a wife who loved him and four children. The world offered him a chair on a rope. Come out, it called to him. Come, be one of us; nothing is clean or final, but the risks are much smaller.
For two years he tried it. His life lurched from business to acting to a crusade to clean up boxing. From cocaine to women to wild spending. From Nicaragua to Miami. Nowhere in the confusion could he find the moment of clarity, of resolution, that boxing had given him.
He took the rope off the chair and looped it around his neck. At 33, he undid his retirement and announced he was returning.
How could a man lose millions of dollars, his pride, his loved ones, his desire to live—simply by leaving his job? In America, which is a country crowded with people who built their identities upon the loose gravel of their work, this was not unusual. Boxers simply built more furiously and more dangerously than the others.
Every few months, it appeared, another retired fighter felt compelled to come back. But no, not Alexis Arguello. He seemed to have a grip on his life.
"When I quit," he had said, "I'm not going to come back one year later like some other guys. I promised everybody: my wife, my manager, the press. And I've never been a liar. I saved and invested every penny I made, thanks to good management. I know who I am. I'm only a fighter getting older. I want to go to college and get a degree."
No, not Arguello. He was in control of himself.
Most boxers refrain from sex for a few weeks before a match. Arguello refrained for two months. In trainer Eddie Futch's 54 years in the sport, Arguello was the only boxer he ever knew who refused during workouts to allow his sweat to be wiped off. Sweat was eye-stinging proof that he was working honestly, that he was in control of himself.
Arguello did not even allow his trainers to wrap his hands with gauze before workouts or fights. He would spend up to 25 minutes doing it himself: around the hand, inside the thumb, around the hand, outside the thumb, entering a trance as he wove it, visualizing his body mechanics in the ring, starting all over if there was the smallest wrinkle. When he finished, life seemed to be wrapped into a tight, flawless ball at the end of his wrist. His dark brown eyes hardened and focused; inside, he says, he felt like a wolf padding through the forest on the trail of satisfaction. He felt clean now, natural. Certain. One day in Tucson, an instructor of yoga meditation said he was as centered, as at one with himself, in a public gymnasium as many Hindus who meditate in the serenity of an ashram.
Don't athletes' lives mirror their performances? Don't we expect a Pryor's life to ricochet and an Arguello's life to hum?
When Arguello was nine years old, his family was so poor it could no longer afford his schooling. He dropped out for good and ran away to work on a farm, coming home nearly a year later when his father found him and begged him, for his mother's sake, to return. Food was so scarce that his mother stabbed a fork into his hand for stealing off his brother's plate. At 13, he went to Canada to find work, grew long hair and had a tattoo needled into his upper arm. A year later he came back to Managua and handed his parents the thousand dollars he had saved working two jobs. His life was torn between the need to escape his reality and the desire to stay and fight it. At 14 he found boxing, and the fragments of his life fused. He didn't have to run away to escape.
Sometimes, as the years passed, he would sense how fragile this truce was. He went through two divorces, his second wife once screaming at him in a hotel lobby, just before a fight, to give her more money. But always he had boxing to make him whole.
It was in the autumn of '82, when he was on the ledge of immortality, one victory from a fourth title, that things began to happen that his background did not equip him to understand. Media requests became frantic, beautiful women and wealthy men congregated around him. He could defeat Pryor and be wealthy and beautiful like them without ever working hard again. All the years of crusade and struggle were almost over.
The ambiguity occurred to him. Wouldn't that mean waking up the morning after the fight with no cause, no chance ever to feel that moment of purity in the 20-foot square again? Were they offering the chair to him, gold-coating it to fool him?
His public relations firm and a close friend began dropping hints that he should get another divorce, he says. Arguello had had a different wife for each of his first three titles—what a wonderful book and movie it would make if he were to have a fourth wife for the fourth. He was so eager to please people, so hungry for affection, that they could make suggestions like this and know that he would listen.
His current wife, Loretto, was a woman unfazed by the glamour, who prayed for him in arena lavatories rather than watch him get hit. But, my God, the beauty of these women rubbing against him—how could a man not give in?
He began to shake inside. At the same time, could winning mean weakness and strength, fulfillment and emptiness? The job that had once been his escape from contradiction, his one chance to feel clean, had become as complicated as the rest of his life.
"I know it sounds crazy," he says. "But I was afraid they'd make me leave my wife. I love her, but I am an Indian from Nicaragua. I had no education. When you are born with nothing, and suddenly everything is possible. . . . I can't explain it, but part of me was afraid to win that fight."
Wildly torn, he wildly pursued opposites. He took a girl to his training camp in Palm Springs, Calif., drinking champagne and frolicking with her in the hotel pool until dawn. He took megadoses of vitamins and pounded the heavy bag harder than ever. He refused to rise for his 6 a.m. roadwork call, then ran under a blazing midday sun.
A few hours before the fight, assistant trainer Don Kahn looked into Arguello's eyes. He did not see the fire. Arguello jangled his legs. They felt dead. "I fought only on guts," he says. In the 14th round, guts kept him vertical for one of the longest unanswered fusillades in boxing history. Pryor shelled him with 23 consecutive punches before Arguello collapsed.
For four minutes he kept his eyes closed, still conscious but shutting out the world, blocking out the shame. "I felt like I had crapped on myself," he says. "I had not worked honestly." In the locker room, he lay down and curled into the fetal position.
In lieu of the womb, he settled for his bedroom, where his wife served him three meals a day, and his eldest son, A.J., then 11, was forbidden to enter. Over 50 times, he pushed a videotape button and watched it happen to him again.
He signed to fight Pryor once more, but ambiguity had nested in his mind. He overtrained to drive it away, but that was futile. He was knocked out in the 10th round and retired.
Arguello overcame the shame more quickly this time. Why torment yourself, he asked. All your life you have looked forward to this day when you could relax, try new things, taste life. When he was boxing, he could lie motionless in bed for 24 hours, using a form of yoga to allow his body to recover. Now, in retirement, he could not stay still for five minutes. He took acting lessons and a course in grammar. He formed a corporation to promote boxing matches and to start his own stable of fighters. He campaigned for a union to ensure medical benefits and a pension for boxers, and to cleanse the sport of corruption. He did boxing commentary for TV. He appeared on Miami Vice and he memorized lines from Hamlet. He laid plans to market Alexis Arguello wrist-watches and an Alexis Arguello athletic drink, to do a videotape demonstrating self-defense to children, then to buy an old ballroom and convert it into a restaurant and lounge. He did some Miller Lite commercials and appearances. He planned a camp for youths where they would learn to read and write as well as to box. He paid the mortgages on the homes he had bought for his mother-in-law and brother. He would write spur-of-the-moment checks to charities.
He liked to buy things, even though things meant little to him. If a salesperson at a jewelry store or a car dealership steered him toward the cheaper jewelry or a cheaper model, thinking this simple Latino surely could not afford the fat sapphire or the deluxe Mercedes, his eyes flared and he demanded to buy the most expensive thing they had, without asking the price. For a moment he felt strength, a small simulation of what he'd felt in boxing. Then he looked at the sapphire, and the need to buy it made him feel ridiculous and weak. Often he would give the thing away.
Surely, he told himself, there must be something more to this life he had denied himself during those 16 years of fighting. He began going to bars all night, sleeping all day, hoping to find in darkness what the light did not offer. He met new women there, lovely and willing. Men slapped him on the back, marveled at his old performances, assured him he looked good enough to finish off his beer and climb into the ring. For a little while, that made him feel good. Sometimes, when he felt sure he had won their affection, they would slip him a chance to invest in their businesses, and he found himself hooked.
A parking-lot attendant in Atlantic City gave him a lift for a few blocks to another hotel. A nice guy. Before he knew it, Arguello had offered to let him stay on his yacht in Miami. The man brought a friend with him but no money, graciously accepted a wad from Arguello, lived on the boat a month, stole a TV and radio and left the yacht a wreck. Someone else had to ask him to leave. Arguello didn't want to hurt his feelings.
In a pair of Everlast shorts, Arguello had felt like a wolf. "In a sport coat and tie," says The Miami News sports columnist Tom Archdeacon, "Alexis was like a lamb."
His wife grew tired of his stumbling home at dawn. She and their little boy moved out. He sat alone in his $300,000 house, wondering what he could do. He needed another crusade, something to make him feel clean again, to offer him black and white.
In his country, people were killing each other in a civil war. In 1979 the Sandinistas had ejected his mother and sister from his home in Managua in the middle of the night. They had confiscated his two houses, his boat, his gym, his chicken business, his motor home, his Mercedes, his BMW and his bank account. He could not risk returning to his homeland. He had to start his life and fortune over in Miami.
His largest home in Managua became a residence for Soviet envoys. His name was banned from Nicaraguan newspapers and airwaves, and he was branded a friend of the toppled Somoza regime. For proof, the Sandinistas pointed to the fact that Arguello once had trained in the compound of the hated National Guard and ridden on a horse in a parade for Somoza. Arguello was stunned. There had been no other gym for him to train in then, and he says he did not even know Somoza would appear at that parade. And what about his brother Eduardo? Just months before the confiscation of Alexis's Nicaragua property, Eduardo and Arguello's sister, a tough teenage girl named Isabel, had flipped a coin to see who would fight for the Sandinistas and who would stay home to support their mother, who had separated from Guillermo. Neither knew then that the Sandinistas would eventually come under Marxist influence. Eduardo won the flip and went to war. His unit was pinned on a Managua street by a patrol of Somoza's soldiers. When they were nearly out of ammunition, he told the others to sneak off while he provided cover with his machine gun. A moment later, he was shot, then laid on a pile of tires and burned. Guillermo wandered the streets for months, looking for his son.
And this was how the Sandinistas rewarded Arguello?
Here, at last, was something to give his life meaning again, something uncomplicated and clean. Contras against Sandinistas. Democracy against Communism. Freedom against tyranny. Shoot or be shot. Life or death.
He spent thousands of dollars buying medical supplies for the contras, shoes and clothing he would take back to his countrymen. He felt that all the guilt that came from the distance between him and his barefoot past would thus be erased, all the hollow materialism of his present life would be redeemed.
Edén Pastora Gómez, leader of one faction of the contras and better known as Commander Zero, wanted Arguello to act as a figurehead for the cause, a money-raiser and public speaker. "That would not be honest," said Arguello. "If I believe, I must fight."
He addressed a group of people at a party in Atlantic City. "You may never see me again," he said. "I am even looking forward to being killed one day."
In 1983 he went to the contra camp in Costa Rica, put on fatigues and trained with a machine gun. The rebels greeted him like a hero, then said, man, what are you doing here? He felt himself living on the edge again, between hunger for battle and fear of its consequences; it was an aliveness he had not felt since retiring.
Days passed, with no command to attack. He grew restless again. One day, without orders, he and a group of 35 men began a week-long march to a Sandinista stronghold, the village of San Juan del Norte. Their plan was to launch a surprise attack and blow up a bridge to cut off the enemy's escape.
From tree to tree they darted, drawing near enough to shoot. Suddenly they were spotted; bullets were zinging the air near his ears, plumes of dirt jumping from the ground near his feet. Zelayita, a man who had become his friend, made a desperate attempt to rush closer. A spatter of red holes appeared across his chest.
Arguello's senses left him. He fired a clip wildly. He ran to his dead friend and began to haul him away. Contras were screaming at him to leave the body and flee, bullets were biting off tree bark all around him. Resolution was a terrible thing.
He returned to the camp and looked around him. Contra leaders were living in fancy houses in Costa Rica. They were driving brand-new Range Rovers. One day they promised him money to continue championing their cause, crushing his idealism even more. He pleaded with the officer in charge of supplies to issue him medicine and shoes and food to give to the nearby Indians, who were shriveling from dysentery and starvation before his eyes.
"They're dying," he said.
"Then they die," was the response. "These are for the army."
Arguello left the officer. He was reeling. What kind of war was this? What did it have to do with equality and freedom and food for his people? He cried from disappointment, and flew home. Why did black and white keep refusing to sit in opposite corners?
After a few months in Nicaragua he returned to his empty $300,000 home in Miami, his yacht docked not far away.
To cry out in pain and have nobody hear was a multiplication of pain that Arguello could not bear. His wife and child returned when he promised to stop prowling the night. Emptiness still ate at him, and he tried to fill it with cocaine.
One night Arguello reached for the drug when A.J. was staying at his house. He thought his son was asleep, but the boy came out of his room. "What's that, Dad?" A.J. asked, pointing to the white powder in his father's nose.
When he remembers the moment, all the muscles in Arguello's face quiver, and his hands uncontrollably cut the air. "I had no explanation," he cried. "I'm a bastard! My nose was falling apart. It was ruining my brain, making me lazy. All my life I'd built a good image, and now I was lying. I'm telling the kids on the street how important their lives are, and I'm killing myself."
He stopped taking cocaine. Life had to torture him to make him see each little lesson. He began to wonder if all the structure in his existence had been external, a framework supplied by boxing. Was there not a single joist or beam inside of him?
Now the phone would not stop ringing. Creditors. IRS agents. Lawyers and accountants. Something had been going wrong, very wrong, with the fortune—$3 million of it from the two Pryor fights alone—he had amassed since 1979 when the Sandinistas had wiped him out.
The trustee for his money was Eduardo Roman, a former vice-president of the national power and light company in Nicaragua, with a master's degree in economics from Indiana University, a man who had discovered Arguello as a teenager. Roman became his sponsor and father figure, gave him money and books and schooled him in how to live. Arguello became so dependent he would look for Roman's face for motivation during a fight. He told his children Eduardo was their grandfather. Roman became Arguello's manager, but did not take the 33% from his purses that most managers claimed.
What happened to Arguello's money is not an easy thing to pinpoint, for the story is buried beneath a cross fire of accusations. IRS claims and creditors' bills stacked up for months in a small mountain of unopened letters. Arguello claims to know nothing of them; he left all money matters to Roman. Roman says the mailbox key at their Alexicore Inc. corporate headquarters in Miami was lost, and Arguello did not produce a new one. People close to Arguello now claim that Roman arranged to take out a large loan using Arguello's assets as collateral, that questionable stock-market dealings occurred, that tax returns were improperly filed and that Roman took advantage of the fact that Arguello, the trusting son, would sign anything Roman placed before him. "If there were a nun, a priest, Eduardo Roman and a suitcase with a million dollars in a room, and Alexis came back to find the money gone," said a friend, "he would blame the nun and the priest." Meanwhile, Alexicore, of which Arguello was president and Roman director, had fallen into chaos; employees were using telephones for personal calls, a thousand schemes were being hatched, and little work was being done.
Roman denies the charges. "I tried to put money in places where he wouldn't touch it," he says. "Alexis didn't lose all that money—he spent it. Nothing was done without his or his wife's signature. They are responsible. I never arranged any loan. He never asked my advice about buying all those houses—he just bought them. I thought of Alexis as my son. If he loved me like a father, how could he let his new lawyers accuse me of all this without the courtesy of calling me and letting me explain it all to him? How?"
By then, the IRS was threatening to impound everything Arguello owned. Each time his new advisers told him what they believed Roman had done to him, he struggled not to cry. "I do not blame him," he whispers. "I cannot. He made me someone." He did not believe Roman had wronged him, he did not want to sue. He refused to declare bankruptcy, insisting on paying off every creditor.
One day 42-year-old Landon K. Thorne III, a commanding officer of a U.S. Marines antitank reserve unit who had become Arguello's new financial adviser, called Alexis in and unloaded the latest bad news. "You owe the IRS $580,000," he told him. "Your houses—gone. Your office—gone. Your cars—gone. Your yacht—gone. You will have to sell everything to pay off the IRS. You have nothing, Alexis, nothing."
For the second time in his life, Arguello had been financially devastated. First it had been by his fatherland. This time, people were telling him, it was by the man he loved like a father. But now he was retired from boxing and could find no work that made him feel passion. He found that every insecurity inside him burst from its camouflage like a gunshot-startled flock of doves.
You could box again, a voice inside him said. And the flock of insecurities began flapping frantically, scratching and biting. He had entered the ring once as an impromptu fund-raising gesture for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Columbus, Ohio, pulling off his shirt and going in in his bare feet and tuxedo pants. Before he knew it, his eyes had hardened and focused in the old way, and he had become so serious that his opponent, the 1984 light welterweight Olympic gold medalist, Jerry Page, had left the ring.
"How did it feel, Alexis?" a radio man asked.
"Oh, it brings back memories."
"No, good memories."
A month later, he was doing cable TV color commentary for a junior middleweight bout in Detroit between David Braxton and Reggie Miller. Braxton, far more experienced, was tattooing Miller, but the kid had the crowd roaring with his ability to respond. Suddenly, the sight of one human beating another snapped something inside Arguello. He tore off his headset and ran up to the apron, screaming, "Stop the fight! Stop the fight!"
One day a few months ago, in Coral Gables, Arguello jumped from his seat in the office of friend and lawyer John Spittler (who replaced Roman as trustee of his finances before Thorne came aboard) and shouted, "I can do it! I can box again. Watch this!"—and threw a vicious right at the wall, leaving a crater with an outline of each knuckle.
Another day in Spittler's office he had dropped to his knees and clutched the lawyer's hand. "Don't make me fight again," he sobbed. "Please, don't make me fight."
In 1984, when Alexis Arguello was 32, he sat on his boat in the ocean one morning and stared down the black shaft of a loaded automatic pistol. It was as good a place as any to die.
A.J. sat across from him, crying, begging him not to do it. Arguello cried too, saying that he must. There was no other sound except the ocean lapping at the boat, on which was painted THE CHAMP.
Arguello ached from the contradiction of his life, the way it lurched between opposites. Could it be that the distance between opposites was—nothing? So much seemed incomprehensible. No cause was pure, no motive clean, no external thing could be trusted. Everything a man needed to believe in in order to feel secure, life could rub his face again and again until he understood its opposite might also be true.
No resolution is possible in this life, a voice suggested. No, he cried—as long as he held this gun to his head, one resolution was possible.
"Don't do it, Dad!" pleaded A.J.
He looked at the boy for a long time. Twelve years before, on a humid night when A.J. was an infant, Arguello had felt a sudden urge to sleep next to his firstborn. A few hours later an earthquake ravaged Managua. The roof and walls in the room where Arguello normally slept collapsed upon the empty bed. Arguello laid down the gun.
Arguello is back in boxing, with a bout in Anchorage this week, but he is no longer boxing for a cause. He is boxing for himself and his family. To say this chokes his soul, but a soul can be ambushed only so many times before it demands armor.
"Before, I thought we all were brothers," he says. "I thought the world was a beautiful place. It's a lie. Everyone is selfish. Now I care nothing for the world. It makes me feel selfish to say it, but people made me that way. I hate politics, I hate industry, I hate governments . . . I hate it . . . "
The subject seems to electrify the ground beneath his feet. His legs cannot stop jiggling, his hand keeps shooting out to ground him on the arm of his visitor. He laughs while speaking very painful words.
"Do you realize that no one—no one—ever gave me a gift in my life?" he says quietly. "If they did, I'd probably cry.
"Nobody understands me. If I had had a chance to study, I could be something different. But I didn't."
He will live in New Hampshire, near lakes and trees instead of people, a man cut off from his country and now even from his fellow expatriates. "I cannot live in Miami," he says. "Too many temptations. I don't trust myself. I have accepted I am a weak person. When I am boxing, I have no right to screw off."
He began working out in June, but for nearly two months he still agonized, he still threw himself on the ground some nights and cried. Boxing made him feel strong, but the need to depend on anything outside himself for strength made him feel weak. He had seen through the paradox, and now he had to make himself pretend he had not.
To return meant reentering the world, making money, risking more betrayal. To return to make history meant swimming against it. Joe Louis could not regain a title after coming back from retirement, nor Willie Pep, Jim Jeffries, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Benny Leonard or Sugar Ray Leonard. Only three men in recent boxing history, featherweights Vicente Saldivar in 1970 and Eder Jofre in 1973 and middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson in 1955, ever won championships after voluntary retirements of more than a year.
One loss, even one awkward win, will terminate his comeback. Arguello will be close to 34 by the time he is able to maneuver past four or five warmup bouts and earn a title shot—next spring, say. A half hour each evening, he performs mental training, visualizing peak performances of the past and ones to come, and before each fight he will work with a hypnotist. But no matter how careful the preparation, this comeback pains many people in boxing.
"I've never seen a boxer take shots like he took against Pryor and hold up against big-time fighters," warns Emanuel Steward, Tommy Hearns's trainer. "I thought he'd lost his legs two years ago [after the first Pryor fight]—that ability to regain his balance quickly after throwing a punch. I'd like to see him with the class and dignity I remember. I'm afraid he could get hurt."
"He's been exploited," says Roman. "I would never expose him to this danger."
"I don't see anyone in the junior welterweight division who can beat him," contends Bill Miller, the agent who has replaced Roman as Arguello's manager. "I think he burned out from so much boxing before, but since the layoff he looks to me like a better fighter."
"Archie Moore and Chalky Wright won titles with no legs," adds Futch, who is training Arguello again. "You can compensate with experience and tactics. I'll monitor it more closely—I'll stop a fight quick if I have to."
Arguello: "After I retired, deep down I think I wanted disaster. I didn't gain control of my life until I lost everything. I've learned my lesson.
"I won't let what happened to other boxers coming back happen to me. I know how to work hard. I've shown too much class." He tenses all 10 fingers and strikes his chest, the thump resounding as from a barrelful of wine. "I'm not like Ali," he says. "I'm different."
One blue-skied day, two months before his first comeback fight and a few hours after his morning run, feeling flooded Arguello. His eyes shone with a happiness he seemed almost afraid to share; his lips tried but could not bear to conceal it.
"Something is happening to me," he said.
What is it?
"No one can understand but me."
Try to explain.
"I cannot. It's . . . it's a feeling."
Say it in Spanish, said his wife. Maybe she could find a way to say it in English.
"No. Not even in Spanish can I say it."
His head swiveled wildly in an effort to loosen his neck muscles for his afternoon session in the ring; he dipped and did three deep knee bends. "I'm boxing again," he said.