Only after 15 minutes sitting spread-legged on the canvas, his back against the ropes, did Alexis Arguello stand again. This classicist was knocked out for only the second time in his 14-year career. Tonight he ran into a hurricane named Aaron Pryor. Now that Ray Leonard has retired, this hurricane is the meanest breeze around.
The storm that leveled Arguello began with Pryor's long right to the lightweight champion's ribs. By then Pryor had so worn down Arguello that his left arm drooped dangerously. Already the storm had damaged Arguello's left eye, where a two-inch long cut bled most of the night. With Arguello's left no longer a factor, Pryor's whirling storm moved into the vacuum.
Before the referee decided Arguello was defenseless, Pryor threw 22 punches to Arguello's none. Pryor landed at least six straight rights as he put a convincing stamp on a victory that went against odds favoring Arguello, 12-to-5.
Whatever questions have been asked about Pryor now have been answered. He can punch, but can he box? He can overwhelm a weaker opponent, but can he go the distance against a man his equal? Tonight against Alexis Arguello, a champion three times trying to become the first man to win four different titles, Aaron Pryor left no doubt.
Against a boxer, Pryor boxed.
Against a champion, Pryor was the better man. Not by much -- the fight was so even that only in two of the completed 13 rounds did all three officials agree that Pryor won them -- but by enough to have left Arguello desperately beaten at the end.
So good was Pryor that Arguello only once convinced the three judges he won a round. Two judges had four rounds even, one had five. So good was Pryor that even when Arguello summoned his best work in the middle rounds, Pryor took on the chin the master's heaviest shots and, after a blink, kept on coming.
In the 13th round, Arguello had his best shot of all.
Against featherweights and lightweights, Arguello has been a destroyer. Of his 76 victories, 62 have been knockouts. But the distance from lightweight to junior welterweight is five pounds, from 135 to 140. For a fellow addicted to chocolate chip cookies five pounds is a trifle; for a fighter whose body fat is minimal, five pounds is an anvil.
So Arguello's best shot, a long right landing smack on Pryor's nose, did no lasting damage in the 13th round. It did tilt Pryor onto his heels. It did stop the swirling winds of his attack for a second. But it didn't knock Pryor down, and soon enough Pryor's jabs and right-hand leads had Arguello seeking the comfort of retreat.
It was then that Arguello's left began to droop. After Pryor's furious assault in the first two rounds, Arguello moved his left hand near his ear. A wonderfully controlled fighter, Arguello maintained this peek-a-boo look all night -- that is, all night until the cumulative force of Pryor's blows drained it of strength.
A man's ringside notes said, "Fourteen-A's left gone. A needs these 2 rds. P left -- rl. A on ropes, rrr. buckles. 6 strt rts. endit."
Pryor came to an interview session afterward with his wife Theresa. "He stormed the weather early," Pryor said, throwing his metaphor less skillfully than his jab, "and rode it out through the first six rounds. He's a great champion. He was picking me apart for a while in the middle rounds. Then I tried to storm him the last few rounds."
And here's what Pryor said he did to Arguello:
"I tornadoed him."
Pryor said he learned a lot tonight. "It was an educational fight for me," said the champion, who at 27 has 24 straight knockouts and is undefeated in 32 fights, winning 30 by knockout. "I had to prove I could box, besides just storming somebody."
The storm front gathered early. The black night above the rim of the Orange Bowl glittered with fireworks, all pinks and whites and reds exploding in starburst. To make sure everybody paid attention, the pugilistic poo-bahs set off aerials bombs, too. In the ring, old Henry Armstrong flinched at the racket. He's 69 and it was past his bedtime.
They called him "Perpetual Motion" and "Homicide Hank," because if he didn't put you to sleep with his first puch, he said nighty-night with his 3,000th punch. Late in 1938, Armstrong became the first (and still the only) fighter to hold three championships at once. In 1940, he tried for a fourth separate title. He failed that test, though suspicion always has been that he was saddled with a draw because the gangster Bugsy Siegel told the referee to cooperate or else his feet would sink to the bottom of the river.
On this night with a Pryor storm gathering early, Homicide Hank came to the Orange Bowl to see if Arguello could become the first to win four championships. Arguello stood stolid in his corner during the prefight business. He is the dispationate dispatcher, a technician more than an artist, and gazed upon Pryor's shenanigans with disinterest.
Pryor's entourage leaped into the ring carrying a four-foot square painting with a legend that read, "What time is it? Hawk time." His buddies call Pryor "Hawk," for reasons lost in the mystery of hype. His theme song blared into the night: "Ain't no stopping me now."
There wasn't either. "He stunned me a couple times," Pryor said. "I felt his punches, but he didn't sting me enough fatigue me . . . I proved to myself that I could box. I proved that if I faced a fighter I couldn't storm, I could go to something else."
This turned out to be, though, only a storm delayed.