The First Chapter: Countdown to Pryor vs. Arguello I

by Christian Giudice

Wild, impulsive, and erratic in his personal life, Aaron Pryor thrived on that toxic mixture.

At that time with Miami Vice and the drug cartels, Miami had a bad reputation. They wanted to put a good, healthy image out there. To bring the best…

On July 31, 1982, Arguello, the WBC’s 135-pound champ, was finishing off an overmatched Kevin Rooney at Bally’s Park Place Casino Hotel with a straight right that catapulted the 26-year-old lightweight across the ring. Without question, the punch would be lauded as one of Arguello’s finest. He always said it was the “position of the punch” that led to the knockout, and it could not have been landed more perfectly. Nearby, the current WBA light welterweight Aaron Pryor was watching attentively at the ease at which Rooney was splayed out in front of him. Although Rooney had to come down from 147, he had still won 19 of his 20 welterweight bouts. In the dressing room, Rooney struggled to recall the details of the bout. If Pryor learned anything from Arguello’s initial foray into the 140-pound weight class, it was the confirmation that he needed to move and befuddle Arguello with angles or risk suffering a similar fate. With the convincing victory, Arguello set his sights on the man who would make him famous.

A month earlier on July 4, Pryor himself was tuning up for the inevitable showdown. He recovered from a first round knockdown to stop the WBA-mandated Akio Kameda in six rounds to retain his WBA title. Occasionally allowing lesser fighters to knock him down early, in typical fashion Pryor quickly got off the canvas after the flash knockdown. “I just looked over at Arguello and got up,” said Pryor. “I am always a little frisky in the first round.” Five knockdowns later and all eyes turned to Arguello.

Negotiations for the historic title fight billed “Battle of the Champions” were already underway that June, and Top Rank’s Bob Arum had mentioned both October or early-November as possible dates for the championship bout. Despite the tense negotiations with Pryor’s camp, the contracts were confirmed and Pryor and Arguello would earn $1.6 and $1.5 million respectively. Still, a site had yet to be announced, and while Arguello pushed for the Orange Bowl as the prime destination, both parties contemplated Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Arum was particularly concerned about losing out on the casino revenue.

To facilitate a quick solution to the venue issue, Arum tried all avenues. Then promoter and president of Boxing in the Americas Inc. Walter Alvarez attempted to hatch a scheme where the Orange Bowl, the popular stadium used by the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Hurricanes, would fulfill all of their needs. Despite lengthy interviews with Cuban boxing promoter and banker Ramiro Ortiz, Chairman of the Miami Boxing Commission, Jimmy Resnick, and Alvarez, one thing became clear: They all voiced their opinion regarding who masterminded the deal to make the Orange Bowl a viable option. However, it was Alvarez who got the consortium together and Resnick who created a piecemeal commission in a matter of weeks. The absence of casino revenue loomed large, but the group also had to secure a date and construct a working commission by November. Nothing would be easy, but for Arguello and his legion of fans, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Alexis called me and said, ‘I want to fight in Miami,’” Alvarez recalled. “So I called Top Rank, who I was doing work for, and I spoke to Bob Arum. I asked him, ‘Why not do the fight in Miami? Alexis has a great following. There are a lot of Nicaraguans, and a strong Hispanic constituency. Alexis owns a travel agency there, too.’ Bob loved the idea, but was worried that we were going to miss out on the casino revenue. I told him, ‘I think we can overcome that.’ So I began to assemble a syndicate of prominent people to chip in for the site fee. We were able to work out of a deal; each guy would put up $100,000, and eventually would be paid back.”

Alvarez continued: “Miami embraced the fight, and everyone was helpful. Before we did this, we approached the Orange Bowl committee and talked to the city manager and some other key people. They were gung ho about bringing the fight to Miami. At that time with Miami Vice and the drug cartels, Miami had a bad reputation. They wanted to put a good, healthy image out there. To bring the best.”

To the avid fan, Arguello represented the epitome of class and dignity. Both introspective and charming, the dapper champ carefully considered each statement, never embarrassed himself in public, and, to that point, kept a Spartan training existence. On the contrary, Pryor represented the antithesis of the classy technician. Wild, impulsive, and erratic in his personal life, Pryor thrived on that toxic mixture as he flirted with danger outside the ring. But now, if the deal went through, Pryor would have to survive in Arguello’s backyard. To Miami natives, which included a huge Cuban following, Arguello was not just a boxer, but a symbol of resistance against the brand of socialism perpetuated by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Ever since the Sandinistas exiled Arguello, he was embraced by the Latin community in Miami as one of its own.

Small roadblocks hindered the process of bringing the fight to Miami. The focal point became the non-existent Miami Boxing Commission.

“In 1979, I became chairman and also worked as Vice President of the WBA. When Arum called me about the fight, I said it would be a natural for Miami…At the time the Mayor of Miami said we can’t have fight without a Miami Commission, so I had to put one together,” said Resnick. “They realized I had the connection and know-how, so they called me into the mayor’s office with Howard Gary. They said I had to get an ethics letter that said it wasn’t a conflict of interest since I worked with the WBA. And it wasn’t because they weren’t competing interests. So I had to put together a commission with 9-10 guys who didn’t know anything (about boxing) and 1-2 guys who did.”

By August 11, the fight was confirmed in the press, and the fighters met in the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria. The promoters billed it as “one of the most memorable fights of our time.” Both fighters exchanged niceties. Over a week later, Arum claimed to be 99 percent sure that the fight would be held in Miami. Arguello had gotten his wish as he headed to his training camp in Palm Springs, CA. All along he must have been thinking, “Was I finally going to get the respect I deserve?” Ironically, Pryor was thinking the same thing.

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