The new BMW glides through the Sunday afternoon affluence of King's Bay in South Miami, past trailered vee-hulls on the driveways, the swimming pools glimpsed beyond well-watered lawns. The young woman at the wheel steers sedately; beside her, her husband is bottle-feeding their year-old son.
An unremarkable sight, except that, even in this day and age, it is a touch disconcerting to see a mustachioed Latin boxeador—the WBC lightweight champion, with two other world titles behind him and the prospect of an unprecedented fourth before him—behave in such a suburban, contented, un-macho way. Even the mustache belies the stereotype. It's full but carefully trimmed, soldierly, disciplined, without the animal anarchy of the Roberto Duran model. And when the family dines at the King's Bay Country Club, one notices the man's pleasant courtesy toward the staff and his guests, with no hint of the imperial style of other champions. But though he is more serious than most 30-year-olds, he's playful enough to slip baby Roberto a lemon slice, the sourness of which makes the child frown—and then be swiftly chastised by Loretta, his wife.
Make no mistake, however. This civilized young suburbanite, Alexis Arguello—late of Managua, Nicaragua, now of King's Bay and its country club—is the most destructive puncher, the most accomplished boxer, in the world. He's also the most undeservedly neglected. Despite his 74-4-0 record, no one has seen fit to package him for the media, as Sugar Ray Leonard has been. He lacks the carefully orchestrated menace of Marvin Hagler, or even the juvenile, but quotable, conceit of Wilfred Benitez. He doesn't even have a nickname in the U.S., though in Managua they used to call him Flaco—Skinny. Nonetheless, now, in the slow word-of-mouth way by which a fine restaurant or a good play becomes known, the message is getting through.
Smith & Wollensky's restaurant on East 49th Street, New York City, Dec. 3, 1981: A crowd of boxing writers, promoters and savants has assembled to honor The Ring magazine's choice of the eight best current titleholders, and one by one the fighters come up to receive their awards. There is warm applause for Hagler, for Leonard, for Wilfredo Gomez. But when Arguello comes forward, the sophisticated audience rises to give him a standing ovation.
Matchmaker Teddy Brenner, before Arguello's third defense of his WBC lightweight title, Feb. 13, against Bubba Busceme: "Arguello is the greatest boxer in the world. He's ahead of Thomas Hearns and Ray Leonard in ring generalship and power. He has two great punching hands, and he's as dangerous in the 15th round as in the first. He's thinking all the time. He could lose six of the first eight rounds, but he has planned the fight and his recovery and it almost always ends in a KO. He's the complete professional."
Such tributes sound exaggerated, but statistics bear them out. Arguello, who had his first pro fight at 16 years of age, has 60 KOs among his 74 victories. Thirty-six of them came in the first three rounds. That he has held three world titles places him in the select company of Bob Fitzsimmons, Henry Armstrong, Barney Ross, Tony Canzoneri and Benitez. Of his 18 world-title fights, he lost only one, his first, when, as a 21-year-old, he left Managua for a fight for the first time and lost on a decision. He has never been knocked out.
"With Alexis, you have a choice," says Jimmy Jacobs, the manager of Benitez, the WBC junior middleweight champion. "You can go in the middle rounds, as he chose with Busceme, or you can go a little slower, when he boxes you to death over the distance, as he did Jim Watt."
Consider also that all his title fights, almost all of his important defenses, have been won in the teeth of baying crowds, some as far away as London and Tokyo.
"Alexis never had an easy fight," declares Don Kahn, the sprightly Puerto Rican who is Arguello's semipermanent houseguest and his trainer-in-residence, though Eddie Futch takes over close to a fight. "Always in the wrong hometown."
Los Angeles, where Arguello won the featherweight (126-pound) title from Mexico's Ruben Olivares in 1974, isn't in Mexico. But that Saturday night it might as well have been. When he went up to 130 pounds and beat WBC junior lightweight champion Alfredo Escalera in January 1978, it was before a hostile crowd of 17,000 of the latter's countrymen in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Last summer he challenged Watt of Scotland for his lightweight crown in London's Wembley Arena, where only nine months earlier the crowd had rioted after Hagler's defeat of England's Alan Minter.