The site and the scene were different, but the result was unchanged. Alexis Arguello sat in his blue boxing trunks in the 10th round last Friday night and, with tears in his dark eyes, gave up any chance to win an unprecedented fourth world championship. Across the way, Aaron Pryor, his WBA junior welterweight championship safe, wept, too.
It was the third time Pryor had hammered Arguello to the floor in the outdoor stadium at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace, and as the 31-year-old Arguello sat with his arms folded across drawn-up knees, he remembered the punishment Pryor had meted out to him in Miami's Orange Bowl last November, a beating that had left him unconscious for four minutes after the fight was stopped. As Referee Richard Steele reached the count of seven Friday night, Arguello's head dipped; he had surrendered.
"He could've got up, but he chose not to," Steele said later. "As I counted him out he was just looking at me, and his eyes were telling me that he'd had enough. But it didn't matter. If he'd got up, I would've stopped it."
As he watched the final scene being played out on the other side of the ring, Pryor was filled with a curious blend of elation and grief. "I was glad he didn't get up because I didn't want to hit him anymore," Pryor said. "Usually after I've beaten a man, I no longer respect him. But Arguello is a man, a three-time world champion. I felt for him every time I hit him; I knew only his great heart was holding him up. I was happy that I would take my title home, but I was sad that he'd never win a fourth championship."
For Arguello, it was a bleak ending for a brilliant career that had begun in his hometown of Managua, Nicaragua on Nov. 18, 1968 with a first-round knockout of Israel Medina. By the time the then 21-year-old Pryor turned pro in November of 1976, Arguello was the WBA featherweight champion, having knocked out Ruben Olivares for the title in November 1974. In 1978 he won the WBC junior lightweight title from Alfredo Escalera. Then, in June 1981, he won a 15-round decision over Jim Watt for the WBC lightweight crown.
Just seven men have won titles in three weight divisions. Last November, against Pryor, Arguello made his first bid to become the only fighter to win four. In what was regarded as 1982's fight of the year, Arguello and Pryor went toe to toe until the 14th round when Pryor hammered Arguello with 23 straight punches and, at 1:06 of the round, left him crumpled and unconscious.
No one thought the slender Arguello would ever return to the ring after such a fierce beating. No one but Arguello himself. Lashing out in frustration, he fired his trainer, Eddie Futch, a move he would have cause to regret. "I made a big mistake when I blamed Mr. Futch for my loss," Arguello says. "I've apologized. But I'm human. I grabbed the closest piece of wood in the ocean. I'd just lost a fight, an important fight, and I had to blame someone. A big mistake."
To replace Futch, Arguello hired Lupe Sanchez, the trainer of former welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas. Then Arguello abandoned his lightweight championship on Feb. 15 of this year; 11 days later, as a junior welterweight, he won a 10-round decision over Vilomar Fernandez. On April 24 he stopped Claude Noel in three rounds and said he was ready for another crack at Pryor.
"That first fight will always be in my mind," Arguello said after signing for $1.75 million, $500,000 less than Pryor would receive. "I've looked at the tapes of the first fight 50 times. I've looked at the 14th round and always I think: My God, how could such a thing happen? But I wasn't in good mental condition. I thought I had the ability and didn't need the work. I was in shape physically but not mentally. Now I've put my mind to work. You can have the skill, you can have the ability, but if you don't have the mind condition you're dead."
Bill Miller, Arguello's agent, said, "He was overconfident. He never dreamed he wouldn't stop Pryor."