Touching The Void: The Hawk And The Schoolboy In Late ‘82
By Mike Casey - I’m tired of living and scared of dying. So go the famous old words of Ol’ Man River. It’s funny how people see life and death in different ways. We all have our fears and our phobias.
Article posted on 21.09.2008
During my long career in journalism, I have had the good fortune to meet many men of courage from various walks of life, be they boxers, soldiers, firefighters, policemen or humble nine-to-fivers who never imagined they could be Superman for a day.
Few have been tired of living, yet they have been strangely scared of it. They can only live joyously when life is spiced with danger and the price of failure is savage.
Understand that such men do not harbour a death wish. What they need is the challenge and the adrenaline charge of venturing into the valley of death and daring it to swallow them up..
We should not be too harsh on our heroes who fall apart and lose themselves when there are no more titanic battles to wage. What else does a man do, where else does he go, once he has touched the void and taken a peek at that mystical halfway house between the present and hereafter that mortal men only get to see at the moment of dying?
He can perform the impossible when he is lost in that magical world. He can beat anyone or anything. Then the bubble bursts, his theatre of dreams is dismantled and suddenly he is being eaten away and driven mad by the ticking of a clock in a lonely house.
Bobby Chacon knew all about the monotonous ticking of clocks. I suspect that Aaron Pryor did too. Both were fast and dangerous fighting men, forever barrelling towards the next target in life at breakneck speed. There is no greater curse for such warriors than a pregnant pause or an empty space.
In the early hours of December 11, 1982, the day when he would go out and win the greatest fight of his career, Bobby Chacon couldn’t sleep. His wristwatch kept beeping out the time as the hours passed with agonising slowness. Chacon knew only one way to struggle through the darkness. Focusing on his opponent, the formidable Rafael ‘Bazooka’ Limon, Bobby kept saying to himself, “I can’t lose, I can’t lose.”
By this time, Aaron Pryor’s work was done. A month before, on November 12 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the whirlwind of a man they called The Hawk had swooped through the valley of death and somehow emerged victorious against a living legend in the great Alexis Arguello.
None of us could quite believe what we had seen in that fight. It had soared and dipped and charged along like a violent, rocking rollercoaster, fuelled by courage, heart, passion and an almost disquieting brand of commitment.
Aaron took the cheers of the screaming crowd. It was Hawk Time, just as he always liked to tell us. Did he sleep that night? Had he slept the night before? And what would such a volcanic and hyperactive man do when there were no more wars to be fought? Nights can be killers, but days are even longer.
Perpetual motion is a thrilling and dangerous condition in human beings. Thrilling because we love to see it and wish we had it. Dangerous because it is finite. A neighbour of mine in our Kentish haven here recently passed comment on a tireless woman in our community who charges around the place organising outings, garden parties, theatre trips, you name it. She is greatly admired and rightly so. But my neighbour’s take on her kept coming back to me: “It’s almost as if she’s afraid to stop in case she discovers she has nothing else to do.”
Well, those of us who know our boxing are all too aware of the personal demons that came to claim Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello after the final bell had sounded. Reams have been written on how the two titans of the ring were yanked from the heights to the depths. We call them ‘human interest’ stories in journalism and your writer tends to steer clear of them. However well intentioned, they still end up smacking of glorification and sensationalism.
So forgive me for being sentimental and singin’ in the rain like Gene Kelly. This little forum has been roped in to include only the glory days of late 1982, when Aaron Pryor and Bobby Chacon were kings of the hill and monarchs of all they surveyed.
With typical melodrama, they left it late and then left us with one heck of a bone to chew on. Around November time, as every boxing fan will know, we start picking our fight of the year. We figure that it’s pretty safe to do so, that everyone has done what they are likely to do.
In 1982, having pretty much finalised our neat little lists, we got beaned by two of the most vicious curveballs ever thrown. Pryor overwhelmed Alexis Arguello in the fourteenth round of an almost impossibly fast-paced and brutal battle. That clinched it, surely. The fight of the year beyond question. Then Chacon outlasted Rafael Limon at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento in a primitive and surreal war of attrition that didn’t seem to take place in the real world. Those who personally witnessed that spectacle reeled uncertainly into the streets and the parking lots when it was all over, bearing the stunned expressions of alien captives who had been whisked off to another star system for a few quick experiments and then tossed straight back.
The fight of the year? Definitely. Well, definitely maybe.
Pryor and Chacon just kept punching, just as Ad Wolgast and Battling Nelson had done decades before, just as Stanley Ketchel and Joe Thomas had done in their thunderous classic at Colma. Where do such men go at such times? They seem to stop that ticking clock that they fear and slip into a private heaven where everything is constant and makes perfect sense.
I remember vividly how Aaron Pryor charged to the fore with remarkable haste. What a wonderful breath of fresh air The Hawk was. His progress through the professional ranks was as fast and as furious as his fists. Suddenly the ferocious kid from Cincinnati just seemed to be there, knocking at the world championship door before most of us had managed to peruse his application form.
Twenty-four wins in just under three years, twenty-two knockouts, and he was ready for the mighty Colombian Antonio Cervantes. Pryor was a living embodiment of Jack Kerouac’s freefall prose, where full points and commas are regarded as unnecessary inconveniences. Don’t stop the flow! Keep charging on!
Aaron had roared out of the amateurs with a 204-1 record and he just kept roaring as he made the transition to professional in 1976. Only Jose Resto and Johnny Summerhays managed to take The Hawk the distance on his charge to the championship.
The great Antonio ‘Kid Pambele’ Cervantes was a fading but still formidable WBA junior-welterweight champion when he journeyed to the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati to defend his championship against Pryor. By the time Cervantes journeyed home again, his manager Ramiro Machado was saying, “We are finished. No more fights.”
In fact Cervantes would have five more fights and win four of them. But he would never touch championship heights again after being brutally swept asunder by Pryor. The 5’ 10” Cervantes had seen off eighteen challengers to his crown with his height and great punching power. As a junior-welterweight, only those classic boxing masters, Nicolino Locche and Wilfred Benitez, had inconvenienced the stately Colombian by way of silky skills and finesse. Overpowering Cervantes was another question entirely and not recommended to fighters of good sense.
Aaron Pryor, however, could never be truly profiled or bracketed. He was his own raging storm, blowing every which way and defying classification. He was quite simply glorious. He took the breath away as the special ones always do. And he took the fight out of Cervantes inside four rounds.
It all started well enough for Antonio, who wasn’t accustomed to being batted around and might have come to believe that it couldn’t happen. He looked his old lithe and dangerous self in the opening two rounds, hurting Aaron in the first and then sending him down on one knee in the second. Pryor claimed he slipped but the official ruling was a knockdown. Not that The Hawk dwelt upon the incident. He never did pay much attention to adversity in the ring, sweeping it aside like a troublesome bee.
Pryor’s endurance matched his fire and fury. His ability to absorb punches with apparent immunity would be seriously questioned two years later against Arguello. But it was Aaron’s cyclonic offence that ultimately crushed Cervantes. Like a rabid version of Henry Armstrong, Pryor would just keep firing.
In the third round, Aaron cracked home a left hook to open a one-inch gash over Antonio’s eye, and the old champion was suddenly looking uncertain and vulnerable. Always a demon at finishing a man in distress, Pryor wasted no time in going to work in the fourth round, chasing Cervantes into a corner and letting fly with a barrage of blows. A final right to the head sent Antonio to his knees and left him clutching the lower ropes. A magnificent champion had finally been toppled and unceremoniously ripped apart. “I was sad about the knockout,” Cervantes said. “If I don’t get cut, maybe it would have been mote interesting.”
Possibly but unlikely. Pryor was now approaching the raging prime of his life as a fighter and quickly established himself as a dominant champion in his own right. The challengers to his throne quickly came and quickly went: Gaetan Hart in six rounds, Lennox Blackmore in two, Dujuan Johnson in seven, Miguel Montilla in twelve and Akio Kameda in six.
Then it was the turn of the mighty Alexis Arguello in the electric atmosphere of Miami’s Orange Bowl. What a match-up! Most of us sensed that a meeting of Aaron and Alexis couldn’t fail to be a very special and thrilling spectacle.
What can one say about the great Arguello by that time in his career? There he stood, the lanky Nicaraguan known as El Flaco Explosivo (The Explosive Thin Man), with three titles in three weight divisions already on his ledger and an eye-popping record of 77 wins in 82 fights, including 62 knockouts. Yet Arguello was much more than merely a destructive puncher. He was wily, intelligent, a cool master boxer into the bargain.
He could outbox his rivals when the occasion demanded or knock them out with a strike of frightening suddenness. When he tore the WBA featherweight crown from the head of Ruben Olivares in 1974, the big bomb came late in the day and stunned the Inglewood Forum crowd into momentary silence. A single, cracking left hook to the jaw unhinged Olivares, just when it seemed that the Mexican ace had solved the Arguello puzzle and found the path to victory. The punch sent Ruben’s mouthpiece flying and dropped him like a man who had been hit by a car. Bravely he got to his feet, but he was quickly knocked out by Arguello’s concluding combination.
However, it was as a junior lightweight that Alexis found his true domain, winning the WBC title from Alfredo Escalera and seeing off eight challengers before making an equally smooth transition to the lightweight division and taking the WBC bauble on a commanding decision from the hardy Scottish southpaw, Jim Watt.
Arguello was moving up through the divisions with all the smooth assurance of a finely tuned Ferrari and was no less confident of his ability to dethrone Aaron Pryor. There was an elegant and almost royal air about Alexis. He was a natural born killer of the ring, yet his class and sportsmanship never cast him in the role of the marauding villain. Arguello’s idea of the ultimate fight was an ever-shifting chess game, not a slam-bang affair of little depth or intelligence.
His shrewd old trainer Eddie Futch saw many comparisons between Arguello and a certain other former pupil: Joe Louis. Talking to reporters in the run-up to the Pryor fight, old Eddie said of Alexis: “He reminds me a lot of Joe Louis in and out of the ring. In the ring, he keeps the pressure on you with that hard, straight left hand. Out of the ring, he is the same quiet gentleman Joe Louis was.”
Then Alexis met Aaron in a chess game that combined skill, nerve and an oddly poetic form of brutality. Arguello was the grand master looking to put the young pretender in his place. Pryor was the charging cavalier looking to clear the board as soon as he could.
One wondered how they managed to extend their private war to the fourteenth round. Even people in the crowd of 23,800 were physically and emotionally drained at the finish. They had seen everything that constitutes a wonderful and competitive prize fight: skill, courage, passion, perseverance and incredible physical and mental strength. They had seen hard hitting, durability, defiance and glorious rallies in the face of adversity.
Pryor, the shorter man by three inches at 5’ 6 ½” started fast, rattling Arguello with rapid-fire combinations to the head and showing great hand speed. Alexis displayed tremendous coolness under fire and great resilience in weathering these storms and firing back with his own formidable artillery. Pryor exerted great pressure through the first five rounds, but thereafter began to mix his slugging with some intelligent boxing. Arguello, a marvellous counter puncher, always looked the more precise and damaging hitter, but could not match Aaron for volume.
Nevertheless, the balance of power constantly tipped back and forth as each kept the other in check. The eleventh round was a rocky session for Aaron, as he seemed to wobble and lose his way momentarily after taking a big right to the head and a debilitating left to the stomach. Yet this was one exceptional man that the lethal Arguello simply couldn’t put in the ground. Alexis must have wondered if a falling chunk of masonry would have had any greater effect on Pryor.
Aaron kept coming and kept rifling home punches. He stepped up the pace again in the twelfth round and maintained his forward march in the thirteenth, despite taking another cracking right from Arguello. In the ferocious and fateful fourteenth round, The Hawk finally broke the great man from Nicaragua. No longer could Alexis ward off the runaway train as he suddenly wilted from a heavy right to the jaw and a follow-up left. As he staggered back into the ropes, Aaron leapt on him and fired off a succession of fast and hard blows to the head. Some counted twenty-three in all. South African referee Stanley Christodoulou jumped between the fighters and called off one of the great modern wars of attrition.
Arguello fell slowly to the canvas and lay there with his nose broken and blood running from his left eye. It was some minutes before he was able to leave the ring to a thunderous ovation.
Well, as our fellow historians will know, the big fight was followed by the big controversy. Had Pryor been flying through that titanic battle on something more than pure adrenaline? Arguello’s agent, Bill Miller, certainly thought so, claiming that no post-fight urine samples were taken from Pryor. That didn’t sit at all right with Miller, who added that Aaron’s trainer, Panama Lewis, was heard on cable TV asking for a bottle with a special mixture. Pryor’s cornermen were also seen breaking capsules under their fighter’s nose during the contest.
Arguello, ever the gentleman, expressed surprise at is opponent’s ability to take the hardest punches with little visible effect, but didn’t want to press the matter. “I don’t know what happened,” Alexis said. “I don’t want this thing to go too far. I was beaten by a great champion. There is no doubt in my mind. I don’t want to question his ability or honesty.”
Panama Lewis, for his part, claimed the bottle with the ‘special mixture’ consisted of Perrier and tap water. There was a disturbing sequel to the story on June 16th of the following year, which may or may not tell us something. Nashville welterweight Billy Collins Jnr, whose father had been a top ten 147-pounder in the sixties, was savagely beaten by Lewis’ charge, Luis Resto. Young Billy’s eyes were pounded shut and his nose and mouth were horribly gashed and bashed.
It was subsequently discovered that Resto’s gloves had been cut and half the padding removed. Lewis and Resto were banned from boxing for life and Resto served a prison term for assault and other related charges.
Billy Collins Jnr never did recover from the incident. Plagued by bouts of depression and drinking, he died nine months later at the age of twenty-two.
The Kid From The San Fernando Valley
It was somehow typically perverse of Bobby Chacon that he should come along as a grizzled and gnarled veteran of thirty-one and show Mr Pryor and Mr Arguello what a REAL fight was.
Even at that age, even after a tumultuous, helter-skelter life of joy and despair, we were still calling Chacon The Schoolboy. We were still thinking of him as the pugnacious young kid from the San Fernando Valley.
I do not intend to recount Bobby life story here, since I, along with many others, have already done so. Well documented are Chacon’s many trials and tribulations and his need to fuel his fire by constantly dancing with the Devil.
Worth remembering, however, is just how highly regarded Chacon was in the twinkle-eyed days of his youth, long before he walked through fire and came back to bring his career to a roaring climax at a time in his life when many of us had thought he might already be dead and gone.
After just two professional fights, Chacon was already being noticed by reporters and hailed as Southern California’s best prospect since Mando Ramos. Frankie Goodman, boxing columnist of the Van Nuys News, said: “Bobby Chacon is the Valley’s most sensational fighter in a long time.”
Bobby was living in Sylmar at that time and training at the Main Street gym and at the downtown Elk’s Club Gym, where he was crossing swords with some illustrious ‘sparring partners’. Among those who showed the kid some tricks of the trade were Ruben Navarro, Danny Lopez, Arturo (Turi) Pineda, Fernando Cabanela, Romy Guelas, Romeo Anaya, Octavio (Famoso) Gomez, Julio Guerrero and Antonio Gomez.
Ruben Navarro said of Chacon: “Bobby is one of the best fighters around. He’s strong and he fights strict. I like to spar with him because he gives me a good workout.”
Sure enough, Bobby Chacon was sensational. He was still two months shy of his twenty-third birthday when he won the vacant WBC featherweight title from Alfredo Marciano in 1974. But it was Chacon the old hand, the blistered veteran bruised and battered by the lumps of a turbulent life, who would thrill us with a succession of never-say-die epic performances.
The undisputed apex of that cycle was his fourth and final set-to with old foe Rafael Limon. Their first battle had ended in a decision for Limon, their second in a technical draw, their third match in a split decision victory for Chacon. Feelings ran high between the two warriors, and they were not feelings of immense affection.
Some mischievous soul, I swear, must have visited Bobby and Rafael before their Sacramento finale, run them the film of Pryor-Arguello and said: “Beat these guys for thrills and spills and you will never be forgotten.”
Somehow, some way, Chacon and Limon stepped up to the plate and just kept hitting home runs. My good friend and fellow scribe, Ted (The Bull) Sares, who doesn’t wax lyrical when the waxing isn’t justified, has never forgotten where he was and how he reacted as Chacon and Limon hacked and chopped their way through their staggering 15-rounds marathon.
Recalls Ted: “First one would get rocked, then the other. Both would be floored. Bobby was cut, bleeding profusely, pummelled and ready to go – only to come back and score his own knockdown. Chacon got up bleeding after knockdowns suffered in rounds three and ten to drop Limon in the closing seconds of round fifteen to take a close but undisputed decision.
“Surely, had Limon not gone down, Bobby would not have won. I lived in Boston at the time and recall leaping up from my chair, spilling beer and food all over the place and on my friends, and screaming unabashedly at the top of my voice, ‘Get him, Bobby, get him, knock him out!’ And get him he did. The scoring was: Judge Angel L Guzman, 142-141, judge Carlos Padilla, 143-141, and judge Tamotsu Tomihara, 141-140.
“This was the fight that turned me from dedicated boxing fan to full fledged addict. This fight, the essence of which was toe-to-toe, ebb and flow, back and forth action, was breathtaking and I mean that quite literally. It was as close as two fearless men can get to death, to the edge if you will, and still survive.
“Limon actually had a strange smile on his face as he was knocked down for the last time and was getting up. I swear on a stack of bibles that he smiled at the crowd. It was almost mystical, surreal, whatever label you could put on it. All I know is, I will never forget the fifteenth round of that fight.
“I remember Bobby saying, ‘I broke down after the Limon fight. I didn’t like that guy to begin with, and with everything that happened…. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat….’”
Chacon, in typical storybook fashion, couldn’t have timed his final charge more finely or dramatically. He staggered Limon with a right to the head in those dying seconds and then knocked him down with two more short rights in mid-ring. At the bell, Limon was on his feet, taking an eight count and hovering with strange and numb pleasantness in his own private twilight zone as blood ran from his mouth.
“I wanted to win any way I could,” said Bobby Chacon.
The fight of the year for 1982? Possibly. Plenty of others will cast their vote for the storming battle between Mr Pryor and Mr Arguello at the Orange Bowl.
C’est la vie!
• Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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