Loretto, the fighter's wife, searches the house for the car keys. She is preparing to take her son, Roberto, to Pantry Pride, where she will buy a week's allotment of food and more juice for her husband, who has been sick for two weeks with bronchitis. The fighter lies on the couch in the den set off the kitchen, not moving, not saying a word.
He is watching a game show on television with the sound turned off, alone in the wash of sun that pours through the great picture window and breaks over everything like stones. When he coughs, it is as if he is trying to force his lungs out of his body and into his clenched fist. The night before, he lay awake in bed in the enormous dark, thinking about everything and nothing, wondering if he would ever feel like Alexis Arguello again.
When the phone rings and he does not rise to answer it, the housekeeper stops working the vacuum over the upstairs carpet, picks it up and says, "Allo." The phone rings all the time, and makes an inquisitive chirping sound, like that of a young bird. Arguello has nothing against people calling to find out how he feels, but the chirping irritates him. When he picks up the receiver, he says, "Yeah, fine. I am fine."
He is not fine. Alexis Arguello is sick this day last week and full of feelings there are no words for. In a few minutes, after his wife and son are gone, he will move to a couch in the living room, sit and cry and think of everything that was given him and then taken away. He will say he is a good man and responsible and sometimes it is a terrible thing being a good man and responsible. He will cry so hard his body will shake and he will get up and walk to the kitchen and spit into the sink. He will pour himself a glass of Kool-aid and take a mouthful and spit it out. No one knows what it's like, he will mumble under his breath. You will never know what it's like.
"I feel sometimes that I'm in the wrong place and it's the wrong time," he will say, crying. "I cannot understand it."
Why is Alexis Arguello fighting again? Why, after earning millions of dollars, would he return to the ring and confront again the awful ambiguities of a world that denied him spiritual transport, that confused him, that still make him weep uncontrollably and feel ashamed of himself?
Why now, after 34 years on this earth, almost 20 of which were spent fighting? And why him, of all people; why Alexis Arguello? He was supposed to be different -- a gentleman, handsome, funny, charming, honest as a picture, proud, smart enough to know when to quit. Some of his friends told him not to fight again. Don't go back, they said. He cried and said he had to. He said Look at me, I cannot not do it. He told them he had no choice.
It began again last October in Anchorage, when Arguello returned to the profession he says he "cannot stand" after a two-year layoff and defeated Pat Jefferson. Just last month, Arguello survived the tough challenge of Billy Costello in Reno, Nev., winning the TKO after connecting with a big right hand in the fourth round. Arguello was behind on points and might have lost the fight had he not come up with the one devastating blow that dropped Costello and gave him the quick victory.
Although Arguello may get a shot at the junior welterweight title later this year, perhaps after one more win over a game opponent, the Costello fight was not a proud moment. It was a frightening demonstration of his diminished skills and his lack of desire. But more than anything else, it showed him all that he was and was not and how impossible the future looked.
He learned again that he does not like or want to fight. Gore and Glory
Arguello once held three world titles -- featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight. He lost trying to become the first fighter in history to win a fourth. In less than a year, he twice challenged Aaron Pryor, the great junior welterweight champ, and twice was brutally defeated.
He and Pryor first met in Miami on Nov. 12, 1982, then again in Las Vegas on Sept. 9, 1983. Both times Arguello left the ring stunned, bloodied and embarrassed. The first fight came to an end early in the 14th round, after Pryor hit Arguello with 23 consecutive shots and the referee, Stanley Christodoulou, stepped in and stopped it. Afterward, Christodoulou said, "Arguello's neck muscles went slack. He was defenseless."
For an unutterably long time, Arguello sat spread-eagled on the canvas with his eyes closed, his back against the ropes. He did not respond to his corner or the ringside physician. When, after 15 minutes, he finally lurched to his feet, he almost fell down again. His manager, Eduardo Roman, said, "He never collapsed. We kept him down. He just didn't want to see anyone."
He sat on a stool in the corner of the ring, the victim of a severe concussion, a broken nose and a cut near his left eye. Later in the locker room, he lay on the floor balled up like a fetus, weeping and overwhelmed with shame. He lay there considering his own violent and irremediable undoing, angry with what had become of himself and how it happened and how nothing but another challenge of Pryor could change it.
Some say Arguello could have died in that first Pryor fight. Of the second, he himself said he might have risked his life had he not quit midway through the 10th round. It was to be his last fight as a professional, his 84th, the one that increased his earnings in just 11 months to more than $2.5 million. It was to be the fight that liberated him from the ring and distinguished him as one who had outdistanced the unexcellent fate of so many less fortunate men of the fight game.
He was handsome and smart and he could do a lot of things. He could act in television commercials, go back to school, become a movie star. Alexis Arguello would not be like all those former champions who returned to the ring believing they could reclaim what once was theirs, who ended up bumbling against lesser opponents and humiliating themselves.
People here and in his homeland, Nicaragua, cheered when Arguello said he wanted to turn his back and walk away and leave boxing before it slipped up on him like a noose and claimed him forever. He was so blessed, so special, nobody wanted to see him hurt or hurting or even hit. At only 31, he owned a yacht and five houses. His home in Miami was worth $300,000. He owned two expensive sports cars; he could drive away and never look back. He could buy a plane and hire a pilot to fly him and his family away. Or he could take lessons and learn to fly the plane himself and then take off. He could do it; he was Alexis Arguello and rich, and he could do whatever he wanted.
But first he had to walk away from the job, and the job was boxing; it was fighting. He had to leave the fighting behind if he wanted to start over again. The War at Home
Loretto says, "Amor, I am going now. I am going to the store."
The fighter gets off the couch and walks into the living room. He coughs and coughs and then begins talking to his guest about his country, and about why he returned to Central America three years ago and lived and trained with the contras in a Costa Rican camp. He begins talking about the war in Nicaragua and what he knows of it, and he says his brother died in that war.
His brother Eduardo died in the streets of Managua, fighting as a Sandinista, believing the Sandinistas were of the people and owing nothing to Marxist influence. Somoza's soldiers shot him and placed his body on a stack of tires and burned the tires and the body.
The fighter is saying, Maybe it's true, as you said, I should have been born a hundred years ago. I am one who believes I have been here before. When I last went to my country, I looked for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln leading the people. I looked for the great politicians, the great leaders, and I looked for the good people. I asked where have they gone? Where?
What I learned about war is that there is no good and bad. It is all bad. The contras weren't fighting for democracy. Some of them were driving Mercedes Benzes and living in the best houses. Those are supposed to be the leaders of the people. But the Indians of the country are the ones starving and fighting and dying. I am an Indian . . . And war is industry. It is an industry of death, with this country building the weapons, competing against another country that also builds weapons. I wonder how a man can be alive if he has no freedom. There is no George Washington in Nicaragua, and there is no Abraham Lincoln. The great men live only in history books.
He leaves the room and comes back a moment later with a napkin to wipe his eyes. He cannot stop crying. I hate it, he says. I hate remembering the hard that is behind me.
He says it was not always so bad. It was good when he was a boy. People liked him. He left home when he was only 8, went to a cattle ranch 250 kilometers from Managua and worked and was happy. He saved his money. He was quiet and wanted to help everybody. He says material things meant nothing. He lived only for the day, never past the day. He never thought of what might be; he didn't care.
Then when he was 12, his father, a shoemaker, bought him an airline ticket for Canada. He went to Ontario with four other boys who were friends. They were just kids looking for work. The first leg of the trip took him to Miami. He remembers how clean everything was, how the streets looked and the beach and the ocean. He says it was destiny that brought him back to live in Miami; it was God. He says he hates living in Miami but loves his wife; she has family there. He says there was no one to meet him in Canada. He was all alone, unable to speak English, lost. He was not afraid. He found work cleaning up at an old folks' home and saved his money, about a thousand dollars, and brought it home after a year to his father Guillermo, the shoemaker.
He was 14 when he started boxing. He says, I feel at this moment that I got into boxing for the situation.
I ask myself now, why am I doing this? Jesus, why? I did this . . . I did this to do something, to be something.
You thought boxing would help you be somebody?
It's hard to explain. It's hard. I say, Jesus Christ, why did I choose this? Why? I say, Jesus, why? Why, Jesus? Tell me why. I don't know, I just don't know. Please, Jesus, tell me why.
The fighter is crying, the tears running down his dark cheek, into the stubble on his chin. He wipes the tears away with the napkin.
Why do you have to fight?
He is shaking his head no; his lips tremble. His chest heaves, stutters.
But you can do a lot of things.
I had to, I had to, I had to . . . . Fortune, Misfortune
Alexis Arguello lost two fortunes, the first in Managua. In 1979, the Sandinistas confiscated his two houses, his business, his cars, his bank account and his gym. One of his two confiscated homes became the Soviet embassy. He was labeled a friend of Somoza and anti-Sandinista. He was blacklisted, and any news of his second fight with Pryor came in on the sly.
After the fight, he spent thousands of dollars buying medical supplies for the contras. When he journeyed to Costa Rica in 1983, so full of the wild innocence that infects those given to heroic fantasy, believing if he died it would not be in vain, he saw only the hypocrisy of war. There was no clear line between right and wrong. Evil seemed no different than good, he said, good no different than evil. He saw his people, the Indians of Nicaragua, hungry, oppressed, dying in the streets. When he asked for food and medicine and clothes, there was no help from the contra leaders. They offered him money not to speak out about what he saw, he said, about the hypocrisy, the lies, the reality of the war in Nicaragua.
"My people are dying for no reason," he said. "That's all I learned. Maybe my politics were too simple. The only politics I knew was to try to save a soul, a life from death."
He returned to Miami confused, hurt and disappointed. There was something like a huge hole in his heart, and all of time was a hole, spinning out of control. He staggered without a cause. He experimented with cocaine. Out late at night, friends offered a little pick-me-up. He took it. It kept him going, but not for long. The cocaine was never a problem, never what rumors made it out to be.
The cocaine was not like the problem he had faced years before, when he was a champion and winning. He had been married twice and divorced twice. The whole world had seemed open to him; he met women, so many of them willing to give to him because he was Alexis Arguello. He wondered if he was obsessed with sex. He wondered if it was a sickness, like a cancer consuming what good was left in him. Sometimes alone, he wondered why everything was so difficult, why living so terrible.
The second fortune -- the one that came with the two Pryor fights -- was lost when he returned to Miami from Central America. He owed the Internal Revenue Service almost $600,000 and was advised to sell everything to pay it off. He insisted on paying off his creditors and refused to declare bankruptcy. He wondered why so much was given and then taken away. He reminded himself that he was a man and responsible, and he knew what that meant. Still, he wondered what to do. He had a third-grade education, and he sometimes struggled with his English. What does a fighter do with himself when he needs money, and a lot of it? He fights again, Alexis Arguello told himself. He gets back in the ring and fights again.
But the ring, he loved and hated the ring. It was both beautiful and ugly -- beautiful because it offered the grand possibility of deliverance and ugly because of what happened in it. Often at fights, he watched men hammered and clubbed against the ropes, bleeding from open wounds that glistened under the lights. He watched and stood shouting with the rest of the crowd. But there was Arguello, shouting to have the fight stopped. "Stop it, stop it!" he cried, running up to the apron. "Stop the fight, stop it!" How many times had boxing commissions warned him against such behavior? He could not say. How does a man who hates the crucible jump back in it? He could not answer that either.
Alexis Arguello was with his son A.J. the day in 1984 he almost killed himself. The boy was only 13. They were out in the yacht, out in the ocean, when Arguello put a gun to his head. How do you make it stop hurting? he had once asked himself. A.J. was crying, pleading with his father to put the gun away. "Don't do it, Daddy," he was saying.
Alexis Arguello was not born to be a slave or a coward or a fool. That was what something inside his head kept telling him. Alexis Arguello suffers double for what he is. He is full of feelings and sentiment. His guilt is deep and no good, but at least he is man enough to know guilt. The voice kept talking to him, telling him who he was. It was a voice not unlike his own.
"Stop it, Daddy, stop it," A.J. kept saying.
You hurt yourself, you hurt others, the voice said. Alexis Arguello put the gun away. The Essentials
Suicide is what people do so as not to feel things anymore, the fighter says. He stands and walks around the living room. He has manipulated the napkin into a distressed little ball and stopped crying. He has stopped coughing and now he feels better. The light breaks through the window like stones, and he moves over to stand in it.
He says nobody is like Alexis Arguello. He prods his fingers into his chest and says if a guy needs a hundred dollars he would give it to him. His wife gets mad at him about this, but that is how he is. He still sends his father $500 every month, to help in his retirement. People always gave to him, he says. He believes in charity. He says he remembers when he was a boy, he would hurry home in the afternoons and sweep the floors and wash the dishes. He had a big, double-fisted heart. He says he remembers how it was to be young and innocent and living only for now, thinking never of tomorrow. He says his father used to hold him in his arms, kick back on his heels and laugh.
The fighter is smiling now. I must provide for my family; that is why I am fighting again. I am in there because I have to be. But the thing is, if I don't want to do it, I'm in trouble. If I do it, I make money. I know that right now I am not reaching what I'm trying to reach. I am fighting because I want some money.
I always believed living was the most important thing. Staying alive was what mattered. You should know that and remember that I said it.
And you should know that it is hard to be a man.