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Aaron Pryor Left Us a Legendary Fight Before Leaving Us This Weekend

Where were you in ’82?

If you found yourself in the Orange Bowl on November 12 of that year, you witnessed one of the great title fights in boxing history. Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, and 30,000 or so of the Nicaraguan’s closest friends flowed into the football stadium for The Battle of the Champions, in the conversation for the best megafight of a decade bursting with them.

Pryor came out unleashing bombs from the bell, dipping down and rising to throw haymakers. He combined two favorites of fans, volume and power, to win rounds and much of the crowd. Arguello enjoyed limited success boxing at a distance, dodging blows, and countering when the fight moved into a phone booth in rounds two and three. In the third, he briefly knocked Pryor through the ropes, which brought a showman’s shimmy in response, and caught the Hawk off balance after the Cincinnatian fired a characteristically looping shot. But Pryor fought his fight effectively, and frenetically, in the bout’s first half.

Arguello, utilizing a jab and straight punches but stalking in an almost flat-footed manner, looked like a textbook boxer from the waist up; Pryor, utilizing footwork but relying on uppercuts and looping punches, boxed from the waist down as he brawled from the waist up. This played to Arguello’s advantage in the second half of the match. He rocked the slowed and occasionally out of position WBA super lightweight champion with an uppercut in the tenth and scored a series of sensational straight rights in the eleventh. By the thirteenth, when Arguello snapped the Ohioan’s head back, HBO’s Barry Thompkins noted: “I believe a little bit of the starch has gone out of Aaron Pryor’s legs.”

Then, in between rounds, that starch strangely returned. “Gimme the other bottle,” trainer Panama Lewis infamously interjected in the corner, “the one I mixed.” Pryor imbibed a fountain-of-youth elixir that preceded him teeing off on Arguello against the ropes, which coaxed the referee to halt the 140-pound fight in the fourteenth.

The technical knockout remains one of the most controversial in boxing history. Panama Lewis, banned from the sport about a year later for employing tactics that ran afoul of the Marquess of Queensberry’s perhaps naïve vision of a gentlemanly sport, calling for a mysteriously water bottle—not Arguello stopped while still standing—makes it so. What did it contain? Peppermint Schnapps? Cocaine? Antihistamine? We don’t know. We know only that Pryor came out for the fourteenth round as though the first.

Sugar Ray Leonard observed live on the HBO broadcast, “I don’t know where he got the energy from.” Many of Arguello’s partisans believed they knew precisely where it came from. The undefeated pugilist quelled the controversy somewhat with his knockout of Arguello in a return engagement the next year in Las Vegas. But the bottle, like the boxer, remains the stuff of legend.

E.T., “Eye of the Tiger,” Atari, and Aaron Pryor were really big in ’82. Unfortunately, cocaine was really big in ’82, too. No man could take the Hawk’s title’s from him. But coke eventually did.

Too bad for boxing. Bouts with Ray Mancini, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and other cash cows never materialized in part because the bout with addiction (and the usual bad boxing mathematics), one which Pryor eventually won, did. But the classic fight with an 83-5 Nicaraguan materialized. And for that, boxing fans offer gratitude.

Like Alexis Arguello and 15-round title fights, Aaron Pryor is gone. The Hawk left us for good this weekend after a battle with heart disease. But Pryor, like so much else big in ’82, lives on forever on YouTube.

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