The first fighter my father educated me on other than Muhammad Ali was the Nicaraguan great Alexis Argüello. My father loved his fighting style; a very tall and lanky fighter who threw multiple combinations and never wasted any punches. Argüello ruled the 126-pound featherweight division in the mid-1970s before deciding to move up to 130 pounds in 1977. Since this list covers the years 1977-2021, his dominance at 130 pounds is where we will begin in breaking down why he’s the 14th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
My father described Argüello as a godlike figure. The first time I got to see him fight was on the afternoon of January 28,1978. He was challenging the Puerto Rican WBC super featherweight champion Alfredo Escalera in our native Puerto Rico. My father thought Escalera had a chance because he was as tall as Argüello (5’10”) and he had speed and power. He also told me not to get my hopes up because Argüello was one of the greatest fighters he ever saw. It would take a Herculean effort by Escalera to defeat the powerful Nicaraguan. It was a Herculean battle.
Round one saw Escalera box beautifully and out-land Argüello. Argüello was a notoriously slow starter. It usually took him three or four rounds to warm up. By round two, Argüello seemed already warmed up as he knocked down the Puerto Rican champion early in the round with a quick left hook. He then landed several bombs the rest of the round. Round three and four saw the tempo of the fight rise to a very high level. Argüello landed the more damaging blows and he opened up huge gashes over both of Escalera’s eyes.
Escalera began round five by moving more like he did in the opening stanza. Over the next six rounds, Argüello responded by exhibiting incredible ring generalship. He used his battering ram of a jab to negate Escalera’s movement. He totally frustrated the hometown favorite by landing that jab at will followed by the occasional left hook and right cross. By the end of round 10, Escalera’s eyes and lips were badly swollen. My father was highly impressed at the boxing ability Argüello was displaying. Even though I was upset that Escalera was being taken to school by a better fighter, I realized that Arguello was something special.
Escalera changed his strategy and began pressuring Argüello in round 11. Argüello stayed calm and outboxed Escalera. The 12th round saw Escalera seriously hurt Arguello for the first time in the fight with a wicked right cross. As soon as Arguello’s knees buckled, my father and I jumped up in excitement as we knew Escalera needed a knockout to win. Escalera opened up a cut below Arguello’s right eye and now both men were bleeding. Escalera was unable to finish off Argüello before the round ended. Midway through the 13th round, Argüello was back in control and landed a left hook that practically ripped Escalera’s upper lip off. Referee Arthur Mercante called timeout and brought the doctor in to check on Escalera. Mercante and the doctor rightfully called a halt to the fight and Argüello was the new champion. Amazingly, the Puerto Rican fans didn’t riot. Instead, they gave both fighters a standing ovation.
Argüello was a beautiful man both inside and outside the ring. He was a consummate gentleman and fans all over the world, even after he defeated their hometown hero, would treat him with the upmost respect and admiration. Like many legendary fighters, he would go into your backyard and wrest the title from you. Argüello would give Escalera a rematch on February 4, 1979.
After their bloody battle of Bayamón a year earlier, I didn’t think Escalera had a shot at regaining his title from Arguello. Escalera had suffered such an immense amount of punishment in the first fight and had lost his last fight before the rematch. Argüello too had lost a fight before the rematch, as he moved up to 135 pounds and lost to the crafty boxer Vilomar Fernandez. Argüello always had difficult with fighters who constantly moved. Escalera was going to stay right in front of him. My father echoed those same sentiments. As we sat in our living room to watch the rematch, we were rooting for Escalera. We also knew his loss was inevitable.
The first three rounds were a similar pattern to their prior encounter. Argüello boxed Escalera from the outside and completely dominated him with his jab and combinations. Escalera realized from what occurred in the first fight that he had to press the legendary Nicaraguan, but he just couldn’t get past his opponent’s punches. The same pattern continued in round four. Argüello was now beginning to hook off the jab and dropped Escalera with a left hook off the jab. The same thing happened early in round five, resulting in Escalera going down hard. Escalera got up and was in bad shape. Argüello attacked and trapped him on the ropes. After Escalera was stunned with yet another left hook, a horrendous cut opened above his right cheekbone. Referee Angelo Poletti stepped in and administered a standing eight count. Escalera was now severely damaged and hurt. He went all out and engaged Argüello in a firefight the rest of the round. He survived the round and even briefly stunned Argüello right before the round with a hard combination.
Argüello went back to boxing from the outside and opened up a nasty cut above Escalera’s left eye. Rounds seven through 10 saw Escalera force Argüello into a firefight. Escalera began landing double left hooks and hurt Argüello several times and opened a nasty cut over the Nicaraguan champion’s right eye. Just like their first fight, which was aptly named the “Bloody Battle of Bayamón,” the rematch had both combatants bleeding profusely. My father and I couldn’t believe that Escalera actually had a chance to win. But we both knew that knocking out Argüello was an improbability.
Argüello regained the upper hand in round 11. He jumped on Escalera early in the round and landed several hard shots to Escalera’s battered face. Then he went back to boxing and landed at will, with several head snapping combinations. Escalera was now vividly tired. He had extended so much energy in slugging it out with Argüello that the effects were taking its toll. Round 12 saw Argüello once again stay outside and control the pace of the fight with his superior jab. Escalera was unable to lure Argüello into another firefight. Finally, in the 13th round, Argüello landed a phenomenal left hook off his jab that knocked Escalera out. Arguello consoled Escalera like the gentleman he was. This fight was the beginning of my idolizing Arguello. He would become one of my five favorite fighters of all-time.
The next 18 months saw Argüello successfully defend his title against a who’s who of future and former 130-pound titleholders; Bazooka Limon, Bobby Chacon, Rolando Navarette and Cornelius Boza Edwards. Argüello battered and stopped each of these world class fighters in his methodical way, by standing tall, boxing brilliantly and landing with one of the greatest right crosses in boxing history. Outside of his two fights with Escalera, Argüello was never in danger of losing his crown. Late in 1980, at the prime age of 28, Argüello abdicated his crown and moved up to 135 pounds.
Argüello struggled in his first fight at lightweight, winning a disputed 10-round decision over 135-pound contender and future champion Jose Luis Ramirez. This earned Argüello a shot at the reigning WBC and Ring Magazine lightweight champion Jim Watt. The Scottish native Watt was a cagey southpaw who my father was worried about because of his movement. The best method my father felt for Argüello to perform at his best was to fight tall from the outside and his utilize his potent jab. That’s exactly what Argüello did.
The afternoon of June 20, 1981, Pop and I watched Argüello on CBS Sports Spectacular as he put on one of the finest performances of his career. Argüello used his three inch height advantage to his full advantage as he controlled the Scottish champion with his lethal left jab. Argüello dropped Watt in the seventh round with his patented right cross and continued to outbox Watt the rest of the way to win a lopsided 15-round decision to become a three-division world champion. Watt immediately retired and Argüello began to set his sights on becoming the first four division champion in boxing history. After knocking out the very popular Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini later that year, he decided to move up to face, in my opinion, the greatest 140-pound fighter of all-time, Aaron Pryor.
The 27-year-old Pryor was one of the most dynamic forces ever to step inside the squared circle. Pryor fought with endless energy and willpower. He would swarm over his opponents like a windmill and had devastating power in both hands. He was also one of the most avoided fighters in the history of boxing. The WBA 140-pound champion was unable to acquire a major payday until Argüello stepped up and challenged Pryor for his title.
My father took me to see this fight on the night of November 12, 1982 at the same Puerto Rico Theater that showed all the big closed circuit fights of that era. Going into the fight, he reminded me of the fact that Argüello always had difficulty with boxers who moved and stayed outside. Pryor was a very aggressive fighter who threw punches in bunches. My father felt that Pryor was going to walk into one of Argüello’s huge counters and be knocked out. The first four rounds saw Pryor rush at the 30-year-old Argüello like my father predicted. Early in the opening stanza, Argüello hit Pryor right on the button with a right cross that momentarily stunned him. Pryor shook it off and proceeded to out-slug Argüello and stun him twice with his own right hand in a frantic and fast-paced first round. Rounds two to four saw the same pattern repeat itself. Pryor would attack Argüello and the two all-time greats would hit each other with one bomb after another. Pryor had the advantage in these exchanges because of his superior hand speed. There was no way these two fighters could keep this frenzied pace going for an entire 15 rounds.
Pryor did what great fighters do in the fifth round and adjusted his style. He went from taking the fight to Argüello to moving side-to-side and boxing from the outside. From rounds five to ten, Pryor used his superior foot and hand speed to befuddle Argüello. He landed his underrated jab at will and Argüello couldn’t deal with it. Argüello would land an occasional big right hand, but every time he did, Pryor would come back with a sizzling combination and then move out of harms way. My father couldn’t believe the boxing IQ that Pryor was displaying. He had figured that Pryor’s machismo would do him in. Pryor was making his transformation into boxing immortality.
The next three rounds saw Pryor not move as much due to fatigue. The two boxing giants once again exchanged bombs while inside. Argüello landed several wicked right hands that caught Pryor but didn’t move him. Argüello landed one of the best right crosses I’ve ever seen in the 13th round that snapped Pryor’s head back like a bobble head doll. My father and I couldn’t believe that Pryor wasn’t knocked out from that. Not only did that shot not hurt Pryor, it didn’t slow him down, as Pryor continued to land one big shot after another. After the 13th round ended, my father expressed to me that Argüello was done. Nothing was getting in the way of Pryor winning this fight.
Between rounds 13 and 14, Pryor’s trainer Panama Lewis gave Pryor a black bottle that contained an unknown beverage. While many boxing pundits cried foul play, I always felt that it didn’t matter what Pryor drank that night. He wasn’t going to be denied a victory in the biggest fight of his career. Pryor came out roaring in the 14th and landed a lethal right cross, left hook combination that staggered Argüello. Pryor then launched a fusillade of unanswered punched to the head and body, 25 to be exact, until referee Stanley Christodoulou stepped in to stop the fight. Argüello fell down in a heap against the ropes. Aaron Pryor proved he was the greatest 140-pound fighter of all-time that night in Miami.
10 months later, Argüello took a terrible beating at the hands of Pryor before taking a 10 count as referee Richard Steele counted him out while Argüello, fully conscious on his knees, knew better to rise as he was beaten by a greater fighter. Argüello made two comebacks over the next 12 years that were both insignificant and did nothing to either add or subtract from his iconic career. After finally retiring for good in 1995, Argüello decided to become involved in Nicaraguan politics.
It is eerie how my father once compared Alexis Argüello to his beloved Roberto Clemente. There were striking similarities. Both men were gentlemen who gave back to their native lands. Both men were very political. It is ironic that Clemente died attempting to bring a plane full of food and medical supplies to Argüello’s homeland of Nicaragua right after a devastating earthquake had crippled the Central American country. Argüello became Mayor of Managua, Nicaragua and was found dead just eight months after taking office from an alleged suicide on July 1, 2009 at the age of 57. A gunshot to Argüello’s heart was ruled a suicide. Two iconic Latin athletes lives taken way too soon. My father had passed away eight years before Argüello’s untimely death. Had he been alive, he would’ve cried as intensely for Alexis as he did when Roberto died. He would’ve also believed what I believe, that Argüello’s death was no suicide. In my opinion, it was a state sanctioned assassination. Alexis Argüello is my 14th greatest fighter of the last 45 years. As far as great men who were fighters as well, he’s my undisputed number one.