In the world of boxing, Kevin Rooney is famous for two things. He was Mike Tyson’s trainer during the brighter half of Tyson’s career, and, before that, in 1982, he was the victim of a spectacular one-punch knockout at the hands of Alexis Arguello. It was one of those perfect boxing moments, in which a crafty, technically brilliant, and heavy-punching champion sees an opening and exploits it. The punch itself was audible, if not visible. It was, in fact, too perfect. Rooney went down in a way that made the count, for everyone watching, a formality bordering on sarcasm. He was – spiritually, mentally – nowhere in the building. It was worrisome, actually, and Arguello was visibly worried. Instead of thrusting his hands up and prancing around the ring, he simply turned back to his corner for the length of the count and immediately came back to stand among Rooney’s cornermen as they worked to rouse their fighter.
I bring this up because Arguello’s legacy as a boxer – leaving aside his legacy as an anti-Sandinista rebel and elected mayor of Managua and, this past week, victim of an apparent suicide – tends to overemphasize his first big fight with junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor. I say overemphasize because even before he went up in weight class to box Pryor, he was a singular fighter. If he had decided to rule as a lightweight for the rest of his career (he had started as a featherweight), his status in the pantheon would have been assured. There were divisions among boxing fans – especially when it came to Hearns and Leonard – but there were no divisions when it came to Alexis Arguello. Everyone loved Arguello. He was handsome. He was a sportsman and gentleman, sincere, modest, reverent toward his sport. And, in the ring, he called to mind, more than any other boxer of the time, what Richard Pryor said about Sugar Ray Robinson: “Sugar Ray? Sugar Ray fight so good it make your dick hard.”
Arguello was just such a fine fighter that I, anyway, find it a little irksome that his legacy is dominated by the first Pryor showdown, from which he took on a different reputation, as a warrior, a brave brawler. Don’t get me wrong. He earned that reputation, too. But it is, in my mind, a less distinguished memory, partly because his persona as a deliberative technician with heavy hands is more attractive to the real fight fan, but also because, despite the epic fury of that first Pryor bout –in which Arguello finally succumbed in a 14th Round TKO – and despite the extreme punishment that Arguello was able to inflict upon Pryor, I always viewed the result as preordained. Arguello was working against several decisive disadvantages. He was moving up in weight, for the fourth time, to fight a champion who was not just dominating his own weight class, but dominating it physically, overpowering everyone. This alone made it a huge uphill battle for the naturally lighter man. Pryor was a swarming and relentless fighter, but he was, especially for someone who threw so many punches, a freakishly accurate puncher. The matchup favored Pryor simply as a matter of style – all else being equal, the accomplished brawler has the edge over the stand-up puncher/boxer: see Hearns-Hagler, another, shorter 1980’s classic. But Pryor also had a couple of other things that made him virtually indestructible to Arguello, freakish stamina and, perhaps more important, a freakish chin. As in the Hearns-Hagler fight a few years later – which opened with Hearns uncorking a devastating right on Hagler’s nose, a classic Hearns knockout punch that Hagler just shook off – when it became apparent that the stand-up puncher moving up in weight class was not going to render the gifted brawler totally unconscious with one of those perfect right hands, the game was up. (If Pryor hadn’t become another crack casualty of the 1980s, he and not Leonard or Hagler or Tyson would have been celebrated as the greatest boxer of that great boxing decade.)
And yet the physically overmatched, stylistically mismatched Arguello stood in and traded punches with Pryor for 14 Rounds. No one had ever hit Pryor like that. (That, too, testifies to Arguello’s singular chops as a boxer: He was able to pin a target on the spastic whirligig Pryor for round after round.) And no one had ever absorbed so many punches from him and remained standing. (Arguello did not go down. The fight was stopped with him against the ropes.)
So, yes, that epic slugfest is an irresistible story on its own, but especially so for our American sports pundits, who, given the option, will always go for something they can convert into the melodrama they specialize in. In this case, though, the taste for melodrama takes a sui generis matchup in which Arguello had not even a puncher’s chance and takes it as his defining battle.