“Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello wasn’t the biggest fight I ever did, but it was the greatest fight I ever did.”
That’s the take of Hall of Fame sports commentator Barry Tompkins, who called “Battle of the Champions” for HBO Sports at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, on Nov. 12, 1982. For the uninformed, Tompkins, who now works for Showtime, has been calling world championship action for six decades and provided commentary for Leonard-Hearns, Hagler-Hearns, Hagler-Duran, and Hagler-Leonard, among others.
When Tompkins labels Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello 1 “the greatest fight I ever did,” that is high praise.
Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs) entered the bout as the WBA junior-welterweight champion. The 27-year-old Cincinnati native was a fearless and powerful brawler with underrated boxing savvy and an insatiable thirst for combat. Having won the title from the legendary Antonio Cervantes in August 1980, Pryor won all five of his title defenses by knockout.
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Nicaragua’s Arguello was 30 years old and already a legend. “El Flaco Explosivo” (The Explosive Thin Man) had annexed world titles at featherweight, junior-lightweight, and lightweight. A professional for over 14 years, Arguello came into this bout with a remarkable 72-5 (59 KOs) record and was motivated by history. A win over Pryor would crown Arguello as boxing’s first-ever four-weight world champion at a time when winning a single title was a far bigger challenge than it is today.
“Arguello was just a different breed of cat altogether,” Tompkins told The Sporting News’ Tom Gray. “If you met him and didn’t know that he was a fighter, then that was the last occupation in the world you’d think he’d have. There were other fighters like that. Sugar Ray Leonard, who I worked with for many years, was like Bambi outside of the ring.
“Pryor, on the other hand, was a nice enough guy when you talked to him, but it was the people around him; you could tell he was a street guy. It wasn’t so much that he was a bad guy; it was the environment that he created around himself or that those other people created for him.”
Much like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the stark difference in fighting styles and personalities made the Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello matchup compelling. However, as was also the case with the epic first encounter between Ali and Frazier, the Pryor-Arguello showdown had a real conflict stitched into its narrative.
“You had the civil war in Nicaragua with Arguello going against the Sandinistas (a socialist party that was attempting a takeover of the Nicaraguan government),” recalled Tompkins. “There was such a large Hispanic population in Miami that, especially during that war, people were taking sides. There were a lot of people supportive of Arguello, and there were others who didn’t care one bit about Pryor going against Arguello for being against the Sandinistas.”
In the 1970s, Arguello was robbed of everything he had by the Sandinistas, and he subsequently fled his home country in financial ruin. Now settled in Miami with his family, he was viewed by thousands of his supporters as a staunch anti-communist with fists. But, as Tompkins alluded to, not everyone was on his side. That narrative lit the touchpaper on the Pryor-Arguello rivalry long before the opening bell rang.
“There was all this consternation about what to do before the fight,” said Tompkins. “Historically, they would play the anthems for both fighters’ countries, but they were unsure about doing that [in case it caused unrest]. They also planned a firework display before the fighters were introduced but opted not to do that because they were worried about fireworks shielding the sound of gunshots.
“Of course, we went on the air, and, sure enough, they had a firework display. Now, there’s only one light on in the whole place, and it’s on me [at ringside]. I’m thinking, if there are any gunshots, and they can’t find Arguello, they might take the next best thing and take out this Jewish s— from California (laughs). All of that made the event what it was – then you had the fight itself.”
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And this one lived up to its billing.
Pryor got off to an incredible start, backing up his prey with a relentless two-fisted assault that threatened to completely overwhelm the challenger. However, while frequently robbed of time and distance, Arguello managed to score some memorable combination work, and he had significant success in Round Three. Despite being the naturally bigger man, Pryor had felt Arguello’s power and suddenly adopted a boxer-mover posture. The champion’s raids were still dangerous, but Arguello now had time to sharp shoot, and he landed some crushing blows throughout the middle rounds.
The best punch of the fight landed in round 13. At mid-ring, Arguello measured the target with the left and landed his signature shot – a jolting straight right to the jaw. Pryor, often guilty of standing straight up, remarkably remained upright, but his head was snapped back violently as the 60,000-strong capacity crowd erupted.
At the end of the round, Pryor’s chief second, Panama Lewis, sat his fighter down on the stool before addressing another member of the corner team. “Give me the other bottle, the one I mixed.” What happened after Pryor took a mouthful of whatever is now part of boxing folklore. Before the first minute of round 14 was over, the champion hurt Arguello with a thunderous combination. A follow-up attack – one of the most brutal in boxing history – rendered the Nicaraguan helpless against the ropes. Referee Stanley Christodoulou stopped the fight at 1:06 as the stricken challenger melted to the canvas.
It was the fourteenth round of a fast-paced 15-rounder, and Pryor had inexplicably exploded on Arguello with what appeared to be a full tank of gas. The substance in the bottle was never analyzed.
Just eight months later, however, Panama Lewis would be banned from the sport forever after being found guilty of removing padding from the gloves of junior-middleweight Luis Resto. Opponent Billy Collins was damaged so badly in the ten-round fight that he never fought again. Due to this incident and several others involving Lewis, the Pryor-Arguello ending will always be questioned.
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“In retrospect, you could say that it marred the event,” Tompkins acknowledged, following a brief pause. “The interesting thing about it is that when it happened, I couldn’t hear everything that was going on in the corner. When they bring that sound in, it blasts everything else out, so I can’t hear my co-commentators or anything. I thought I heard him say something about, ‘the one I mixed,’ but what you hear on replay now and what actually happened live are two completely different things because they boosted the audio way up for replay. There was nothing significant about it on the night, so I only knew about it in retrospect when it became a big deal.
“With Panama Lewis, for me, nothing would surprise me. I suspect that it’s a case of where there’s smoke there’s fire; something in there, some sort of stimulant. I’m guessing that’s the case, but I have no proof on whether it did happen or not. But, knowing him, the only way to describe that guy is that he could hide behind a corkscrew. There are less problems with fighters than there is with the people around them. He was just a snake, and there’s a history a mile long about things he tried to do, though about doing or did. He was just a bad guy – it’s that simple – and I don’t think he cared about his fighters at all.”
For myriad reasons, Alexis Arguello vs. Aaron Pryor 1 will never be forgotten.