As it was with his great rival, Alexis Arguello, who also died far too young, we find ourselves alarmed to be reading tributes for Aaron Pryor, who succumbed yesterday to heart disease at the age of 60. But as we all know, life is fleeting and it’s not the years in your life, they say, but the life in your years. And in that sense the too-soon passing of “The Hawk” reflects one of the key characteristics of his boxing career, because if Pryor’s life was relatively short, so also was his time at the top of the fight game. But that didn’t stop him from carving out a unique and lasting legacy as one of the most impetuous and ferocious champions boxing has ever seen, definitely one of the greatest ever at 140 pounds, no modest statement considering the competition includes Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross, Nicolino Loche and Julio Cesar Chavez.
But it all passed so quickly. “The Hawk” won a world title from an aging Antonio Cervantes in 1980, and by 1984 his troubles with drug addiction had begun in earnest, his peak forever gone along with those astonishing performances, a riveting blend of speed, power, and fluid recklessness. Not even four years, but that’s all the time Aaron Pryor needed to make an indelible mark on boxing, to put his name with all the great champions of the past.
Sadly, one wonders if Pryor himself ever appreciated what he accomplished until long after his career had ended, so driven was he by bitterness and spite. Even before he turned pro he had established a reputation for being difficult to handle so when he did join the punch-for-pay ranks, he found few managers or promoters anxious to work with him. He had just missed being on the U.S. Olympic team in 1976, instead going to Montreal as an alternate, a back-up, and no doubt he watched Howard Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Leonard win gold medals with a gnawing sense that it should have been him beating up the Cubans and the Russians, should have been him on that podium with millions watching.
A couple of years into his professional career and the conviction that he was a victim of injustice and neglect only intensified. The gold medalists had gone on to high rankings and championship wins and while Pryor had beaten elite talents like Thomas Hearns and Hilmer Kenty in the amateurs, now they were the ones performing on national television, getting big money and world title matches while Pryor struggled in obscurity. He was undefeated, 19-0 with 17 knockouts, but outside of his native Cincinnati, few cared about Aaron Pryor. That is, aside from the other contenders in the lightweight division. They knew who he was and they also knew they were not going to go out of their way to face him in the ring.
Suddenly Aaron Pryor couldn’t land a meaningful fight to save his life. It got so bad he had to take up work as a sparring partner just to make ends meet, giving rounds to Howard Davis Jr. before he knocked Davis on his butt and lost the job. Prominent trainer Gil Clancy took up Pryor’s cause, approaching the champions and lobbying on Aaron’s behalf, even publicly begging the top contenders and titlists at lightweight to give Aaron a shot, but there were no takers until someone convinced long-time champion Antonio Cervantes to journey to Cincinatti and put his title betl on the line. Pryor took full advantage, overwhelming the veteran and knocking him out in round four on national television.
No doubt Aaron anticipated that big money deals would be his now that he held a world title belt but such was not the case. Just as he had watched others get the glory and the medals at the Olympics, now he watched as Hearns, Kenty, and Ray Leonard got the opportunities for big fights and big money. In the meantime Pryor racked up five straight knockout title defenses and then along came Alexis Arguello, boxing’s triple crown champion and an emerging star in his own right. A Pryor vs Arguello showdown became a hot ticket in 1982, not to mention one of the greatest action fights of all time.
Pryor’s two wins over Arguello dwarf everything else on “The Hawk’s” record. So impressive are those two performances that they forever sealed his reputation as an extraordinary talent, despite the fact he was never really tested by anyone else. Arguello was favoured to win their first great battle but it was Pryor who dictated the terms, forcing Alexis to brawl at a savage pace as opposed to trying to methodically break Pryor down. Arguello came on strong in the late rounds, repeatedly landing his most powerful weapon, the straight right hand, stunning and staggering “The Hawk” more than once. But Pryor took the blows and kept battling back, finally conquering an exhausted Arguello in round fourteen.
As significant as it is, in the eyes of many fans that massive victory has always been suspect. Before the final round, disgraced trainer Panama Lewis was heard calling for a specific water bottle, the one he “mixed,” and it was after the champion drank from it that he roared out of his corner and pummelled Arguello into helplessness. The fact that Lewis was caught tampering with a fighter’s gloves seven months later and was subsequently banned from boxing bolstered claims that something other than fair competition had been the determining factor in the outcome. For some, that view still holds, despite the fact that Pryor’s win in the rematch ten months later was even more definitive. The second time around Arguello actually looked stronger and more effective, but it made no difference; Pryor scored three knockdowns before Alexis surrendered in round ten.
Take away the two wars with Arguello and the story of Aaron Pryor would be one of unfulfilled potential and little more. As it is, boxing fans still imagine what might have been had the victories over Arguello been followed by matches with Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran or Thomas Hearns. But it was Pryor himself who made such opportunities impossible. Unpredictable, if not unstable, Pryor made a habit of signing multiple contracts with different promoters, the result being that by 1984 his career was completely hamstrung by various legal challenges.
Bob Arum, who promoted the first Arguello fight, publicly stated in 1983 that only trouble lay ahead for “The Hawk.” “Pryor and his people are too much trouble,” he told writer Steve Medwid. “They live in too fast a lane. Pryor is going to self destruct.”
Somewhere in the time after the second Arguello fight Aaron Pryor met a seductive stranger named cocaine and that’s where things really went off the rails. Instead of training and fighting, “The Hawk” was partying and lost in a dark void of drugs and aimlessness. He was soon stripped of his WBA championship due to inactivity and then he couldn’t decide if he was retired or not. None of his subsequent performances exhibited the kind of dynamism and fire that had led him to championship glory and a 26 fight knockout streak.
Arum proved a prophet. Drugs and eye injuries left Pryor grasping for glories and opportunities no longer his, before he finally retired in 1990. In the seven years since his second win over Arguello he had fought only six times, mostly against opponents who would have barely lasted two rounds with “The Hawk” in his prime. Cocaine had robbed him of what remained of his peak and he did not overcome his addiction until several years after his career had ended.
It is testament to the sheer athleticism and energy of his performances between 1980 and 84 that Aaron Pryor is regarded as an all-time great talent. His huge wins over Arguello will never be forgotten and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996. Outside the ring he was active both in community service and in training younger boxers. The anguish and anger of the past was long gone by the time he became an ordained Baptist clergyman and could then watch his four children grow up, his wife Frankie by his side. All were present in his final hours. It’s too soon to be writing this, but “The Hawk” moved fast, both in and out of the ring, and if we’re not ready to say goodbye, it would appear he was. Rest easy, champ. — Robert Portis