SI Vault
Clive Gammon
April 26, 1982
Champion, loving father and gentleman in and out of the ring, Alexis Arguello is a hero the world over, but a stranger in his own land
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April 26, 1982

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Champion, loving father and gentleman in and out of the ring, Alexis Arguello is a hero the world over, but a stranger in his own land

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Flying into Managua—a city of 398,514 in the small Central American nation of 2.74 million—one notices a stunning resemblance between the rubble still lying there from the 1972 earthquake and that caused when Somoza's planes attacked his own people's houses in 1979. Barrio Monseñor Lezcano, where Arguello was born, on April 12, 1952, and raised, has the stigmata of poverty—lean dogs, the crouching unemployed, the patched, ill-hung doors, the roof split open to the sun.

The street on which Guillermo Arguello lives has been renamed, not in honor of his fourth son, Alexis, but of los combatientes Sandinista: A simple brass plate has been erected in memory of Eduardo Arguello, 12 October 1959—17 June 1979, and Yazmina C. Bustamente, of the Managua FSLN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front. For no apparent reason there are no dates for Yazmina, who was Eduardo's 18-year-old girl friend from across the street. They died in the same fire fight with Somoza's National Guard.

Even though the 60-year-old Guillermo's neighbors tell him it's foolishness, he goes frequently to look for the body of Eduardo, his youngest, which, as everyone in the barrio knows, was burned like many others on a stack of old tires. But he still searches, just as he did on the day of the fire fight.

Guillermo, known in Managua as Cebollón, or the Big Onion, isn't close to the most famous of his six sons, though he watches Alexis' fights on TV. A coolness developed between them when Guillermo left Alexis' mother, Zoila, who lives in South Miami, Fla. in a house Alexis bought her a year ago. In the outer room of Guillermo's house are his bed and his cobbler's workbench. Inside are a table and a fewrum bottles, which entitle the place to be called Cantina Lija. It's the neighborhood bar.

All his six boys boxed, Guillermo will tell you, and Orlando, his fifth son, four years younger than Alexis, represented Nicaragua in the Central American games and won five medals of various sorts as an amateur. Alexis was a clever boy, Guillermo remembers, and was offered a scholarship to a private school in Managua.

"I remember when I was estudiante," Alexis says, "my father got into money trouble. I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor and my father was a good worker, but he started drinking so I had to leave school. He told me with tears in his eyes that I had better start doing something to help the family. I was about 14 years old. I looked for a job but it was impossible to find one."

By the time Alexis was 15, he had a job in a dairy that paid him $70 a month and let him train for the ring part time—so long as he wore the company's name, La Perfecta, on the back of his robe whenever he fought. About this time he met an old fighter, Miguel Angel Rivas, whom he still reveres. Rivas worked with him until the second Escalera fight.

Rivas is called Pambelé in Central America and Colombia, where he was well known as a welterweight. (Antonio Cervantes, the Colombian junior welterweight who had the WBA title for eight years, took the ring name Kid Pambelé to honor Rivas.) "He's a good old man, a friend of mine, a great fighter 30 or 40 years ago," Arguello says. "We made a good relationship. I owe much of my career to him."

Pambelé is now 67 and finds details, especially of recent events, hard to remember, though he recalls vividly his own greatest victory, over a huge opponent, 40 pounds heavier than he, known as King Kong the Sailor. Arguello's two Escalera fights are dim in Pambelé's mind, but, sitting in his Managua home, he suddenly recalls how the teen-age Alexis came to him for permission to try cigarette smoking. On Pambelé's advice, Alexis didn't take it up. That memory triggers other things—how disciplined Alexis was, how obedient, always on time at the gym though he often had no bus fare and would have gone hungry after training if Pambelé hadn't bought bananas for him.

Even Pambelé might have failed to see Alexis through to his world-championship triumphs had the kid not met another Nicaraguan, the aforementioned Dr. Roman, who became and remains the greatest influence in Arguello's life. Roman, a wealthy Nicaraguan who had trained in the law and economics—his doctorate is in the latter—was vice-president of the national power and light company in Managua when he first met Arguello in 1970. Today he is an elegant, small-boned man of 44, with upswept graying hair. Like Arguello, he lives in exile in Miami.

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