Even for a sport that seems to attract psychological basket cases, Alexis Arguello was a complicated champion. The son of a poor Nicaraguan shoemaker could be a reluctant fighter, a conflicted soul who once said that if he had been educated he might have chosen an entirely different path—yet who extended his 27-year career with numerous comebacks. He was both energized and repulsed by boxing's brutality; in the ring he strove for aesthetic heights that brutes like Mike Tyson likely never dreamed of. "I'm not a fighter, I'm an artist," he told SI in 1985. "Boxing should be beautiful.... It should be like ballet dancing."
Few fighters danced more beautifully than The Explosive Thin Man, who died last week at age 57 in his Managua home, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He won belts as a featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight; he was the seventh fighter to win titles in three weight classes. His pro career was sweeping, lasting from 1968, when he was 16, until '95, when he finally quit for good with a record of 82--8 and 65 knockouts. He had the soul of an artist, but a soldier's heart. Witness his landmark junior welterweight bout with Aaron Pryor in 1982, as Arguello sought to become the first to win belts in four classes: Pryor knocked him out in the 14th round of a classic that The Ring magazine named the Fight of the Decade.
Arguello actually was a soldier; during a boxing hiatus in the 1980s he fought briefly with Nicaragua's Contra rebels against the Sandinistas. But he was politically conflicted, too. By the late 1990s, having squandered and regained two fortunes and at least once considered suicide, he was an active member of the Sandinista party. Last year Arguello was elected mayor of his native Managua, where Nicaraguans lined up to view his casket last week. A spokesman for president Daniel Ortega called him "an example of forgiveness and reconciliation." To the end, it seems, Arguello's greatest struggle was reconciling the conflicts within himself.