SI Vault
Gary Smith
October 21, 1985
Alexis Arguello once considered suicide as an escape from the contradictions and ambiguities that filled a rich life with betrayal and despair
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October 21, 1985

Adrift In A Sea Of Choices

Alexis Arguello once considered suicide as an escape from the contradictions and ambiguities that filled a rich life with betrayal and despair

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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.

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