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Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Arguello was written by Christian Giudice and published in 2012. Arguello was one of the greatest boxers of the seventies and eighties and won world titles in three different weight divisions. Nicaragua had never had a world champion before Arguello and when he beat Rubén Olivares to win the featherweight championship in 1974 he became an instant hero and icon for his country. It would be difficult to explain just what Arguello meant to Nicaraguans except to say that he was a cherished symbol of national pride, even serving as their flag bearer at the 2008 Olympics. But Arguello was much more than just a boxer and proof that the old saying about nice people always finishing last was plain wrong. He became known as El Caballero del Ring (The Gentleman of the Ring) and was amongst the most loved and respected of boxers, especially by anyone who came into contact with him. No one ever had a bad word to say about Arguello and he famously always became great friends with all of his notable former opponents. A class act both inside the ring and - most importantly - out of it. As former lightweight champion, the popular American boxer Ray ("Boom Boom") Mancini, who lost to Arguello in his first attempt to win the crown, says in the introduction: "I will forever be appreciative of being so closely associated with such a gentleman and champion. I always say that when you look up the word 'champion' in the dictionary and read of its qualities - class, grace, and humility - you will see a picture of Alexis Arguello." Arguello's life outside of the ring was (like many Latin American boxers) complicated by politics and far from easy. It was like a film script you couldn't make up at times. It was impossible for famous Nicaraguans not to get dragged into the complex and murky political vortex of their country and such was the case for Arguello. Supporters of the dictator Anastasio Somoza exploited Arguello's image for their own ends in the seventies and when the Sandinistas took control of the country one of the first things they did was seize the millionaire boxer's financial assets and properties. They declared that he was not welcome anymore and a shocked Arguello promptly took up arms in the jungle and aligned himself to the Contras.
Not to mention the fact that around this time he also challenged the brilliant American Aaron Pryor for the junior-welterweight championship in an audacious bid to become the first boxer to win world championships in four different weight divisions. The furious fourteen rounds they shared is widely regarded to constitute the greatest fight of the decade. Arguello had drug and alcohol problems when he retired from boxing but managed to conquer his demons in a rehabilitation centre. To the surprise of many, he eventually met with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and agreed to work with him for the "greater good" of Nicaragua. A political career began but in 2009 Arguello was found dead at the age of 57 from a gunshot wound to the chest in his home. An apparent suicide. But he seemed happy and healthy to all who had encountered him in his last weeks. There were whispers that Arguello was increasingly dismayed by his association with Ortega and was about to go public. Was he murdered? I have always been deeply interested in Arguello after reading so much about him in the vintage Ring Magazines I have that stretch back to 1981. He was part of that great pantheon of Latin American boxers of the eighties alongside such hallowed names as Wilfredo Gomez and Salvador Sanchez. Arguello was a darkly handsome somewhat distinguished looking tall spindly man who always seemed to be smiling in photographs taken of him outside the ring. Although politically naive he was intelligent and articulate and one of the hardest punching pound for pound boxers of all time - a trait that led to him being tagged El Flaco Explosivo. The Explosive Thin Man. As Guidice explains, Arguello was not your stereotypical Latin boxer. He had a stand-up European style and was famous for his great patience. Arguello would rarely waste a punch and could be outboxed (for he was never the most fleet of foot) as he calmly stalked his opponents. But when he landed his patented right-cross it usually resulted in a spectacular knock out and there was no dog in Arguello whatsoever. If you beat him you would have to do it the hard way and engage in the battle of your life.
One of the extraordinary things about Arguello was that he lost his professional debut yet still became one of the greatest lighter weight boxers of the modern era. By the the time he challenged Pyror in 1983 for his fourth world title his record was something like 80 wins and four defeats. Astonishing. You get world champions today who have only had 20 fights. I think this is a better book than the one Guidice wrote about Roberto Duran called Hands of Stone. Hands of Stone was fine but this feels more comprehensive - as if Guidice has got better in the intervening years. The author says he first met Arguello in 2008 and that the boxer was hard not to love because he was so kind and sincere. Arguello would always greet you with a smile, ask about your family, remember exactly what your last conversation with him was about. He was just great with people. The author spent some time in Nicaragua too to get a feel for the country, its history, geography and atmosphere, and his passages about Arguello's early years are very well done. Arguello grew up in Managua's Barrio Monseñor Lezcano, a place so poor they would sometimes have to hunt Igaunas with slingshots so they had something for dinner. Boxing was Arguello's salvation from this life and he was always grateful for that. The fight accounts in boxing books often seem perfunctory, understandably perhaps as there are usually so many to write about with great boxers. Guidice feels like he does them justice here though and I think Arguello's career is one that is fresher to go through for even sad boxing obsessives. You read a Thomas Hearns or Ali biography and there is not going to be much that is new but many of the Arguello fights are ones that I've only vaguely read about. Guidice takes you right back in time and gives you a real sense of what the mood was, the build-up, the atmosphere on fight night, and has a decent stab at a round by round account.
The boxing passages are nicely done and engrossing. Arguello and Rubén Olivares fighting each other to a standstill and both landing left hooks at the same time in the fateful thirteenth round. Arguello's was the one that did the damage. I loved reading about these opponents, names I know from old boxing magazines and bygone ratings. Rafael "Bazooka" Limón, Rolando Navarrete, Alfredo Escalera. Even our own Jim Watt (now a SKY boxing pundit). Watt was a late bloomer and a decent boxer. He became the lightweight champion in his thirties and confounded the odds when he successfully defended the title against super talented US Olympic hero Howard Davis and the hyped white American Sean O'Grady. Arguello went to London and beat Watt over fifteen rounds at Wembley Arena. It was his third title and needless to say Watt became his friend afterwards and always spoke warmly of Arguello. The most fascinating boxing section arrives of course when Arguello moves up to 140 pounds and challenges Pryor in a bid to become the first man to win world championships in four different weight divisions. Arguello was obsessed with making history but met his match in the unstable, erratic and wild Pyror, a human tornado who fought every round as if it was his last. Arguello hit Pryor with punches that would have levelled buildings but the American kept coming and stopped the Nicaraguan icon in the fourteenth round. It became a controversial defeat though when television cameras and microphones picked up an incident late in the fight where Pryor's trainer Panama Lewis (a very dodgy character later banned for removing the padding from one of his fighter's gloves) rejected a water bottle from one of his assistants and asked for "the one I mixed" to give to Pryor instead. What was in the mysterious "black bottle"? We'll never know. Lewis claims it was soda water to settle Pryor's upset stomach but there are many theories about it being something more illegal. One popular theory mentioned here is that Lewis had broken antihistamine pills into the water to give Pryor greater lung capacity. Most interesting to read about is the shattered Arguello's reaction to defeat. After so much success it was a bitter blow to swallow and he was deeply depressed. Arguello felt like he was drowning.
A rematch with Pryor and a couple of comebacks followed and the Arguello story remains engrossing beyond the ring, not least because of the mystery surrounding his death. Arguello had become mayor of Managua but rumours were rife that the Sandinistas were going to discredit him. A gunshot wound to the chest is hardly consistent with suicide but it can't be ruled out. "No matter what happened the evening of Arguello's death, something or someone who knew his weaknesses pushed him to the brink, through threats or other intimidation tactics." The most suspicious thing was that the investigation into his death was closed in 24 hours. Whatever the truth, Arguello joined the long list of boxers who died in mysterious circumstances. Beloved Warrior is not Norman Mailer and I wish it had been a bit longer but it is a good read and serves as a tender tribute to Arguello and fitting celebration of his glories inside the ring and his kindness outside of it. At the time of writing this is only available in hardback and will cost you about £10.