Friday, July 3, 2009

Alexis Argüello (1952-2009)

I've been a boxing fan for as long as I can remember. I guess it was unavoidable, given that my Dad was a boxing fan and, predictably enough, I took most of my behavioural cues from him. But my formative years need some credit here, too. The late 70's and the 80's were strife with boxing greatness. Heck, even the silver screen saw Rocky, a movie about a pug and his struggle for respect, win an Oscar. Unlike today, where the most charismatic champions are robotic Russians or dim-witted obnoxious loudmouths, the great champs of my childhood and adolescence were larger-than-life figures whose only concern was fighting the best, without worrying about sanctioning fees, purse splits, favourable match-ups, "getting my due," or whatever other pathetic excuses today's paper champions use to dodge good opponents. In those days, I liked a lot of fighters, but there were five guys whom I worshiped with an adulation that bordered on the maniacal: Salvador Sánchez, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Azumah Nelson, Julio César Chávez, and my all-time favourite, Alexis Argüello, by far the greatest boxing champion of my lifetime. Two days ago, Argüello passed away in his native Managua, Nicaragua, after suffering a gunshot wound to the chest. Argüello had been elected mayor of Managua, and although at this time his death has been decreed to be a suicide, the circumstances are decidedly suspicious.

I first saw "El Flaco Explosivo" in a televised bout against Arturo Leon, and during the pre-fight introductions, I remember being more impressed by Leon, a squat, muscular guy with a thick build, and thinking that Argüello was too thin, spindly, unassuming and unimposing to pose much of a threat against Leon or, for that matter, any other boxer. Of course, boxing matches are not won and lost based on appearance, something that became rather obvious when Argüello started following up his surprisingly quick and stiff jab with explosive right crosses. Leon managed to go the distance, mounting a few rallies here and there, but had absolutely no answer to Argüello's well-balanced, non-stop arsenal. As luck would have it, his next championship defense, a rematch against Alfredo Escalera, was also televised in Uruguay. Argüello delivered an even more impressive beatdown, knocking the rugged Escalera down three times en route to a late-round stoppage. Just like that, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was as relentless, ruthless, and unforgiving in the ring as he was decent, sportsmanlike, and gracious outside of it. This may seem hard to believe, considering today's "me me me it's all about me" chest-pounding, trash-talking athletes, but as soon as the refs finished counting out his opponents, Argüello's first move was to help the vanquished foes to their feet. This is not a romanticized exaggeration. No fighter was as universally loved outside the ring, and arguably no fighter was as universally feared inside it.

I was lucky enough to see quite a few of his subsequent fights, especially once we moved to the States, where Argüello was remarkably popular. The fact that he'd learned to speak very good English and even starred in a Lite Beer commercial with Billy Martin (Argüello's over-the-top "I got to meet thees guyyy!" punchline brings a smile to my face even to this day), as well as his crowd-pleasing, take-on-all-comers style, endeared him to an American audience that was, to be honest, just as xenophobic then as they pretend not to be today. For me, the summit of El Flaco's career took place in late 1981, when he took on media darling and tough-as-nails challenger Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and TKO'd him after methodically pounding him into submission over 14 brutal rounds. Immediately after the stoppage, he went to console the heartbroken Mancini, and promised him he'd be a champ someday. Mancini, a super-nice guy whose life saw plenty of tragedy and adversity, did indeed go on to win a championship, and to this day, credits Argüello with teaching him how to behave like a champ both inside and outside the ring.

Rest in peace, Flaco.

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