It was a fight that was deemed one of the greatest of the decade of the 1980s. Two legendary fighters squared off in a 14 Round epic battle at an iconic outdoor setting. And, nearly 40 years later, we are still reminded of and talking about Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello’s first fight.
The night was November 12th, 1982 at the legendary now deconstructed, Orange Bowl in Miami. The home of the Dolphins and the Hurricanes football hosted the Nicaraguan born Arguello, who was an incredible 72 – 5 at only 30 years of age. Arguello was seeking to make history and become the first fighter to ever win a world title in four different weight divisions.
The Cincinnati native Pryor was the unbeaten WBA 140 lb. champion, who had scored 29 Knockouts in his 31 Pro fights. And even more intriguingly, “The Hawk” had a deal to fight legend Sugar Ray Leonard in the fall of 1982 at Welterweight. However, Leonard suffered a detached retina canceling their bout.
That’s when promoter Bob Arum swooped in with the match of the famed big punching Arguello moving up from lightweight to face the challenge of the young but not yet nationally exposed Pryor. It helped that each fighter was guaranteed over $1.5 million, which was one of the largest purses ever at that time for non-Heavyweight fighters.
Everything about this fight lived up to the billing, including not only the dramatic conclusion, but controversy after it was over.
Arguello was a devastating puncher, especially with his legendary straight right hand that had knocked out dozens of opponents with throughout his career. And right away, he landed one of those big bombs in the first round rocking Pryor and sending over 60,000 fans in the legendary South Florida venue into jubilation.
Pryor responded with a big combination of his own that backed up Arguello to the ropes. And it was obvious that both men were ready for a hard battle.
The fighters settled in from there with Pryor the faster of the two and using his jab and movement to score combinations, while Arguello picked his spots and landed occasional big punches throughout the middle rounds. With Pryor apparently in control the fight, Arguello came on strong including the 11th round when he landed several big punches punctuated by two more of his right hands, but could not knock Pryor down.
That’s when controversy arose for the first time.
Although it wasn’t really picked up on or discussed on the live broadcast by the HBO television commentators Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Ray Leonard himself, Pryor’s notorious cornerman “Panama” Lewis was clearly up to something.
Tompkins would tell us this past summer on the Big Fight Weekend Podcast, that even 40 years later, the Pryor-Arguello first fight was the most thrilling and controversial that he had ever called:
As for Lewis, he could be heard on the HBO corner microphone demanding to be given a different water bottle- one that was covered with tape. And, Lewis urged Pryor to drink from it.
Pryor drank from the bottle and then moments later came out for the 12-round seemingly refreshed and scoring punches and dancing away from Arguello power.
However in the 13th round, Arguello hit Pryor, again, with a booming straight right flush on the chin and staggered him, badly. Arguello pressed him, landing several punches, could not put Pryor down or finish him off. Still, it looked like history was within his grasp and he was in great position to win the fight.
The bell sounded and again, controversially, Lewis adamantly yelled at a corner man to give him the mysterious water bottle with tape all over it. HBO picked up the exchange, again, with their microphones with Lewis saying “No, not that one. The one that I mixed.”
Pryor drank from a water bottle, again and just like in the 12-round, was amazingly quickly refreshed at the beginning of the 14th.
Early on Pryor caught Arguello with a hard one-two combination backing him to the ropes and then, landed a barrage of over 15 punches that nearly sent Arguello through the ropes. As the weary legend took punch after punch without going down, it quickly became obvious what had to be done.
And referee Stanley Christodoulo stopped the bout giving Pryor the TKO and the biggest win of his career.
Re-live the drama, the controversy and the stoppage here:
The day after the fight more questions arose about Lewis, the mysterious water bottle and what had been heard on the HBO broadcast. There was no doubt that Pryor was seemingly enhanced based on Pryor’s immediate recovery late in the fight after having been hurt.
However, neither fighter had been drug tested before or after the fight. As this was 1982 and not as much was known about chemical enhancements and cheating.
More than 20 years after the fight another Lewis fighter, Luis Resto, confirmed that Lewis would use antihistamine tablets broken apart and put them into water to help fighters, including him, with lung capacity to recover quicker late in fights.
The controversy led to a rematch being ordered 10 months later and in September of 1983, Pryor dominated Arguello much more convincingly this time with a 10th round TKO. Sadly the fight looked more like the end of Arguello career.
He would fight twice more in 1985 and 1986 and then take another eight years off before fighting in August of 1994 and in January of ’95. Arguello retired with a 77 – 8 record having never recovered from the two losses to Pryor.
Prior would successfully defend his light welterweight championship twice more after the second Arguello fight but suffered from drug problems and was away from the sport for more than two years. He was stripped of his titles and then lost a comeback fight to Bobby Joe Young in August of 1987. It was his first defeat in 37 bouts. Pryor would fight three more times in 1988 – 90 but none of them for championships and he retired at the age of 35.
Both fighters are now in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Tragically, Arguello took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2009. Pryor eventually overcame his drug problems but suffered from declining health in the 2010s and passed away in 2016.
Still, their first bout was deemed the “Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine and is widely regarded, as the second best fight of the entire decade worldwide behind Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s 3rd round knockout of Thomas Hearns.
It was that big of a deal and that dramatic of a finish, when Pryor stopped Arguello in Miami in 1982.