In 1968, though, Roman was in the mainstream of Nicaraguan politics, no Somozan but a liberal who, as he puts it, "knew that many of the resources of my country were being wasted." He was intrigued when a friend told him there was a young fighter living in Managua who had a good punch and a great future. "I had never seen boxing before," Roman says. In Managua the facilities for boxing weren't good. The wooden arena was badly constructed; it had stands on only three sides—the ring was flush to the wall on the fourth side—and accommodated only 400 to 500 people.
"Even I could see that this boy had great potential, but I guessed that, like so many other things in my country, it would be wasted," Roman says. "I decided that it would be good for my country to have a champion, that it would be good for the people to know that it was not necessary to be born rich, that you could fight for things. We have had baseball in Nicaragua for many years, but we have never won any kind of championship. So I decided to try to make my people happy."
It was a genuinely altruistic act. First Roman got Arguello out of the dairy by guaranteeing him $200 a month—"Good money in my country," says Arguello. Then he hired a trainer for $650 a month. At this point, Roman, who wasn't planning to make any money on the young fighter, retired from the scene. But Arguello kept coming back to him for advice, and Roman recognized the inevitable. "I went to see Alexis' main promoter," he recalls, "a man named Roger Riguero, now dead. I asked him, 'Why don't you get some better fights for Alexis so he will then be able to fight ranked boxers and be ranked himself?' But he told me no, because he was making plenty of money on Alexis already—Alexis was a good attraction in Managua, a good puncher, but at the same time, cheap.
" 'All right,' I said to him, get better fighters. If you lose money, I'll make up the difference.' I did that, and I never took a cent from a purse. I also shipped trainer Pepe Morales down from Mexico to improve Alexis' skills. I got him a fight with José Legra, who was the twice-crowned WBC featherweight champion, and Alexis knocked him out in the first round. I was ready then; I went to Panama to see an old classmate of mine, Ruben Pareres, who was the chief of the army, and we made a fight with Ernesto Marcel for the WBA featherweight title."
It was Arguello's first and only championship defeat. Nine months later, in November 1974, Arguello caught Ruben Olivares, who had become featherweight champ after Marcel's retirement, with a left hook to the jaw in the 13th, and he was at the front, where he has stayed virtually ever since.
Virtually, because there's a curious gap in Arguello's ring record. He fought only three times in 1976, the last time in June in Los Angeles in defense of his featherweight title against Salvador Torres, whom he knocked out in the third round. Then eight months passed before he fought again, knocking out Godfrey Stevens in Managua in two.
Extraordinarily, this dedicated, disciplined fighter, obedient to his mentors, reared on self-help books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, provided by Roman, had a midcareer crisis that led him, in 1976, to announce his retirement from the ring.
Last month, in a Las Vegas hotel room, sniffling, wrapped in blankets, Arguello was pondering his just-canceled fight with Ganigan and waxing philosophical. "Did you know I was once a hippie?" he asked. His tone was so straight and confessional, you'd have thought he was declaring his membership in the Italian Red Brigade.
He explained that after his father told him he must leave school and after he had looked in vain for a job, he headed, improbably, to Canada, to a small town in Ontario where a relative lived. "I went to seek my fortune," he said unselfconsciously. But all he got was a brief and innocent flirtation with hippiedom and a tattoo on his upper left arm of a serpent making an unsuccessful attack on the Canadian flag, with an inscription in Chinese ideograms beneath. What does the inscription mean? "I couldn't say," Alex is said. "I was only 14 when I got it."
For a long time, that brief adventure represented Arguello's single mild rebellion. But a real one was in the offing, and to understand it one has to comprehend what it's like to be the only world-class athlete in a small country like Nicaragua. Leave home in the morning and there are paparazzi at the doorstep. Go to a disco and five columns of analysis appear in La Prensa the next morning. Even today, there are sportswriters in Managua who can give you a blow-by-blow of that rocky spell in Arguello's career.