Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello shared something great one night 18 years ago in Miami - a ferocious junior welterweight battle that took its place among the great fights of our time. Years later, they shared something very sad - a drug problem that had each on the verge of suicide.
Pryor, one of the legends of boxing at last night's Fight Night charity event at the Washington Hilton and Towers, went through hell for 10 years before turning his life around a few years ago. So when he heard the stories last year about Arguello battling a crack cocaine problem in Nicaragua, he felt a pain in his heart, as if a brother of his was about to fall.
So when he saw Arguello, who was in the early stage of recovery, at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in July, he pulled his former adversary aside and had a long talk with him.
"I told him that I knew what he was going through," Pryor said. "I told him he had the strength to beat this, and that it would be worth it if he did. I told him I had been praying for him."
There is a special kinship that some fighters feel for each other after they have nearly beaten each other senseless in epic battles. Middleweights Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio fought two brutal fights in the late 1950s, with Fullmer stopping Basilio both times. Yet the two have remained close friends and several times have appeared together at Fight Night events.
"When you go through something like that, you have shared something that no one else knows about but you and him," Pryor said. "No one knows what Alexis and I went through that night in Miami except me and him."
It was one of those fights that presents the best and worst of the sport. Arguello had held the featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight titles over his career, which began in 1968, and, with a 75-5 record, had been considered one of the greatest lightweight fighters of any era. Pryor had turned pro in 1976 and quickly made a name for himself as a hard-punching junior welterweight (140 pounds), and was the undefeated champion.
Arguello, 31, moved up to fight the 27-year-old Pryor in a highly anticipated showdown, and it was one of those times when the fight was even better than the hype. Pryor came out throwing combinations and set a remarkable pace that Arguello would match for most of the fight.
Arguello suffered a cut in the sixth round that blurred his vision but was still going toe-to-toe with Pryor and had him wobbly in the 13th round. But Pryor came out in the 14th with a savage attack that drove Arguello to the ropes, and Pryor landed about 20 unanswered shots before the fight was stopped. There was talk about some foreign substance in a bottle that Pryor was given in his corner between rounds, but nothing was ever proved, and the controversy was overshadowed by the performance.
"That was so intense," Pryor said, recalling the fight last night. "We both left everything we had in the ring that night."
They would fight a rematch within a year, and this time Pryor stopped Arguello in 10 rounds. Both would fight little after that - Arguello (80-8, 64 knockouts) because of his age, and Pryor (39-1, 35 knockouts) because of the drug use that nearly killed him.
"I was at the bottom, but I didn't want to die, and I called on the Lord to help me, and he has been helping me ever since," said Pryor, now an ordained minister in the New Friendship Baptist Church in Cincinnati.
Pryor is 45, with a stocky build and a fading memory. He is suffering from pugilistic dementia, the same disorder that felled Jerry Quarry at 53 several years ago. He takes medication to slow its progress but knows it will only get worse. "That's the chance you take when you are a boxer," he said.
Pryor is not afraid of the future, though. He figures he has beaten death once and still believes he has something to offer. He has worked with the Cincinnati Golden Gloves organization, and helped train two members of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team in Sydney, Ricardo Williams and Dante Craig, both from Cincinnati. And he talks to young audiences about the dangers of getting hooked on drugs.
He also prays for Arguello, the man who may have contributed the most to his dementia on that 1982 night in Miami. "It's a love thing, a special bond," Pryor said.