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“Up tempo right from the opening bell. Crowd already starting to cheer. A lot of action for the first round of a 15 Round fight! Well, so far the fight has been exactly as advertised.”
Barry Tompkins, seated ringside with Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard, was calling the fight live on HBO. Nearly 24,000 fans packed the Orange Bowl in Miami to witness what was being billed by Bob Arum as “The Battle of the Champions.”
The year was 1982.
The year saw USA Today print its first issue, the Weather Channel air on cable television for the first time, E.T. clean up at the box office, and an NFL lockout and player strike that lasted 57 days, from September 21 to November 16.
While the players strike was just days away from coming to an end, boxing fans were focused on a super fight that The Ring Magazine would later name the “Fight of the Decade.”
On Friday night, November 12, Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs) would make the sixth defense of his 140 pound WBA Light Welterweight title against Alexis Arguello (76-4, 62 KOs). The bout was scheduled for 15 Rounds.
The challenger Arguello, was installed as a 12-5 betting favorite. His notoriety hit a peak in 1981 when he defeated the popular Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. A tall, smooth, humble man, his style was in direct contrast of Pryor.
The Hawk, 27, was intimidating, aggressive, and feared. Pryor had beaten Thomas Hearns in the 1976 National Golden Gloves Championship. By 1982 he was in line to fight Leonard until a detached retina sent Sugar Ray into retirement.
Outfitted in a blue robe and blue trunks, Arguello, 30, entered the arena first. The electricity inside the Orange Bowl could be felt through the televisions of those watching at home. Tompkins relayed the feeling from inside the arena, “It is a madhouse here as Arguello comes into the ring with the Nicaraguan flag.”
Now in the ring, Arguello bounced and shadowboxed to stay warm and loose while waiting for Pryor.
After several minutes, fireworks began to light up the dark Miami sky. As the crowd roared, the champion began to make his way towards the ring. Draped in a black robe trimmed in red and yellow, the Pryor camp began its ritual, “What time is it!? Hawk time! What time is it!? Hawk time!”
Although the iconic Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns fight was still two and a half years away, Round 1 on this night set the precedent for all out wars in the first three minutes of a fight. Both men stood toe to toe and blasted away. Rights, lefts, hooks and uppercuts to the head and body dominated the first 180 seconds of action.
It was as thrilling as it was dramatic. The Orange Bowl crowd was on its collective feet as the bell sounded to end the first round. Although many of the 24,000 fans were firmly behind Arguello, Pryor seized command of the early rounds by charging at his challenger and raining down an avalanche of punches upon him.
Arguello’s plan was to take Pryor into the late rounds and drown him. The taller of the two with a highly competent left jab and ferocious body puncher, the early rounds left many wondering if he could get there.
Merchant opined, “The most crucial thing in the first two rounds is whether Arguello can use his great ability as a body puncher to slow up the charger Aaron Pryor.”
In Round 7, Arguello began to turn the tide by landing the cleaner, harder punches, digging to the body and slamming home sweeping overhand rights. Although he had regained tactical command, Pryor kept coming.
Tompkins again brilliantly summed up the action between the two warriors. “This fight had all the billings of course. Brawler, boxer. Good versus evil. What it all comes down to is two guys in an 18-foot square.”
The back-and-forth action continued at a furious pace. As Round 11 came down the stretch, Arguello launched a devastating missile in the form of a lethal overhand right. Pryor’s head snapped straight back. He refused to move backward, determined to stay on Arguello’s chest and punch back.
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The crowd again rose, roaring as Tompkins tried to keep pace, “Pryor did not take one step back! Tough kid. Combination by Arguello again! The uppercut and the overhand right! Pryor smiles at him at the bell!
Now in the championship rounds, Round 14 was new territory for Pryor as he ventured into unchartered waters. Arguello had taken Pryor deep into the bout as was his plan. The plan, however, was about to come crashing down.
As the two stood toe to toe in the center of the ring, Pryor blasted Arguello with a blistering flurry of punches. The challenger was hurt and reeled backward into the ropes and covered up.
Tompkins’ closing call remains indelible in the minds of boxing fans as Pryor looked to turn out the lights.
“And Arguello’s in trouble! Arguello in big trouble against the ropes! Pryor going for the kill trying to put him away! Arguello trying to cover up! A smashing right hand and Arguello’s helpless against the ropes! It’s over! Aaron Pryor has retained his Junior Welterweight championship! Arguello slumps to the canvas!”
Leonard was in awe, “Incredible Barry!”
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Pryor had stopped Arguello at 1:06 of the 14th round. At the time of the stoppage, the champion was leading on two of the three scorecards, 127-124, 127-124, and 125-127.
Arguello remained on the canvas for several minutes before being helped back to his feet.
The Ring named this war the “Fight of the Decade” in 1990 and listed it at No. 8 of the “Top Ten Greatest Fights” of all time. I personally rank this bout as one of the greatest that I have ever seen.
The bout’s aftermath wasn’t without controversy. HBO microphones picked up Pryor’s trainer, Panama Lewis, asking for a specific water bottle as early as after the second round referring to it as “the one that I mixed”.
At a time when media coverage looked nothing like it does today, national attention nonetheless was aimed at the mysterious bottle fed to Pryor in between rounds.
Demand for a rematch was fueled by the mysterious contents of the bottle and took place just 10 months later in September of 1983. In the much anticipated rematch, Pryor again stopped Arguello, this time quicker, in a 10th-round stoppage.
Both men, whom became close friends, were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Arguello in 1992 and Pryor in 1996.
Both left us far too soon. Arguello’s death in July of 2009, although ruled a suicide, still remains an unsolved mystery to many. He was just 57. This past Sunday, October 9, Pryor passed away of heart disease at the young age of 60.
Both men brought heart, pride, guts, determination and honor to the sport. As a lifelong boxing fan, both of these men represented the best the sport had to offer, leaving every ounce of themselves in the ring.
The sport suffers today from too many fighters avoiding competition with the same gusto that men like Arguello and Pryor sought it out.
They wanted to be the best and fight the best, providing the blueprint for the way it should be. They thrived on testing their courage and skills against an opponent who they knew would test theirs.
The boxing community remains grateful for what these warriors unselfishly gave us. I miss them, and so does the sport of boxing