Alexis Arguello-Alfredo Escalera II: a superb second act
As a rule, sequels seldom live up to their originals much less exceed them. This is especially prevalent in the film industry because for every one that soars above the imprint created by the first film (“The Godfather II,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Aliens”) there are dozens that, in retrospect, should never have been attempted ("Caddyshack II," "Grease II").
The same phenomenon applies to sports, especially boxing. It is rare that second acts rise above the bar established by the first but when it happens it's magical. The two-fight series between Bobby Chacon and Cornelius Boza-Edwards is a prime example; while their first fight was largely controlled by Boza-Edwards (who won by 14th round TKO when Chacon couldn't answer the bell), their epic second meeting won by Chacon was deemed THE RING's 1983 Fight of the Year.
Thirty five years ago today, Alexis Arguello and Alfredo Escalera managed to exceed the lofty standards established by their first meeting on Jan. 28, 1978, a fight so ferocious that it was dubbed “The Bloody Battle of Bayamon.” There, Arguello's elegant fists literally cut Escalera's face to ribbons and by the time the fight was stopped in round 13 the now ex-champion's upper lip was nearly torn off. Through it all Escalera fought with a mixture of passion and desperation that won plenty of hearts but wasn't enough to counteract Arguello's clinical savagery.
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Arguello's impressive performance vaulted him into the pound-for-pound conversation with Roberto Duran, Carlos Zarate, Wilfredo Gomez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Antonio Cervantes, Miguel Canto and Pipino Cuevas among others. Arguello appeared on his way to a dream match with “Manos de Piedra” with knockout victories over Mario Mendez, Rey Tam and Diego Acala but a shocking majority decision loss to Vilomar Fernandez combined with Duran's need to move up in weight effectively killed that match. With Duran jumping to welterweight to pursue further glories, Arguello notched his third defense of the 130-pound belt with a methodical 15-round decision over Arturo Leon to set up the rematch with Escalera.
Five months after losing the belt to Arguello, Escalera returned to the ring with a 10-round decision over Rogelio Castanena in San Juan and 53 days later – as the co-feature to Fernandez-Arguello – he scorched Larry Stanton in three rounds. But three months later the MSG upset bug bit Escalera as Julio “Diablito” Valdez scored a surprising 10-round decision. Despite the defeat, Arguello-Escalera II was set for Feb. 4, 1979 at the Pellazo dello Sport in Rimini, Italy. Why Italy? Here's why: An available venue on relatively short notice, a favorable tax situation and the presence of heavyweight contender Alfio Righetti and Italian lightweight champion Giancarlo Usai on the undercard.
Arguello (60-4, 49 knockouts) strained to get his 5-foot-10 inch frame down to 129 while the 5-foot-8 Escalera (42-9-2, 27 KOs), who stuffed 10 title defenses in his two-and-a-half year reign before losing his crown to Arguello, scaled a more comfortable 129¾. Escalera, nicknamed “Salsero” for his love of salsa and “The Snake Man” for bringing his six-foot pet python Ali to weigh-ins and ring walks, went snake-less this night due to customs concerns. The claustrophobic 16-foot ring virtually guaranteed an action fight but little did anyone know how much action they were about to see.
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Once the opening bell sounded it was clear Escalera had made several adjustments. First, he held his hands higher than in the first fight, surely remembering the effects of Arguello's thunderous and razor-sharp fists. Second, he appeared to have kicked his habit of throwing back-handed punches, a violation for which he was cautioned several times in fight one. Third, he was less willing to brawl with Arguello, something he considered a major mistake in their earlier encounter. Finally, he did a better job of blocking and ducking under Arguello's dangerous hooks. Conversely, Arguello was Arguello: Straight up stance, high guard, efficient punches, economical movement, sledgehammer power, Job's patience and artistic craftsmanship.
By the midway point of a probing round one Arguello scored with a pinpoint four-punch combination while the advancing Escalera connected with a short hook to the jaw. In the final minute Arguello's rapier jabs and heavier power shots penetrated Escalera's guard more often than the challenger's earnest but inaccurate efforts.
Escalera carried the first two minutes of round two by bulling Arguello to the ropes and pounding him with hooks, compact rights, sticky body shots and occasional uppercuts to the head and stomach. A heavy lead right spun Arguello's head but the champ, as always, kept his cool. Arguello rebounded well in the round's final 35 seconds with a hefty right to the chin, a potent hook to the face and a solid right-left that forced Escalera to give ground.
The bristling two-way action continued in the third with Arguello jabbing well to the body and throwing forceful hooks and overhand rights. Arguello drew first blood late in the round when a prickly jab cut the area under Escalera's right eye. This was no surprise, for the Mexican-made eight-ounce Casanova gloves featured a seam down each side that was thought to increase the probability of cuts.
A charged-up Arguello accelerated the pace in round four as he flurried to the body and fired powerful hooks and crosses every time Escalera tried to turn the tide. As Escalera's situation grew more desperate, his back-handing ways returned. Referee Angelo Poletti cautioned the challenger but refrained from issuing point penalties.
Escalera's crisis deepened midway through the fourth when a compact hook to the chin suddenly dropped Escalera on his behind near the ropes. Up at two, Escalera appeared OK as he wiped his gloves on his trunks and jumped up and down during the rest of Poletti's count. Arguello worked the left hand overtime as he tried to finish Escalera, but when that didn't work he fired a right-left-right that shook the ex-champ. Within a minute Escalera regained his equilibrium and even managed to land several blows at close range before round's end.
With blood cascading from Escalera's eye cut, the challenger tried to take the fight to Arguello in the fifth. That move proved disastrous because Arguello, even with his back to the ropes, still carried enormous power. Another crackling hook to the chin floored Escalera a second time and as he arose the furious challenger shook his arms in frustration. After taking the mandatory eight count Escalera threw himself into Arguello's cannons and the champion responded by landing a fusillade that drove the Puerto Rican across the ring. Every punch in the Arguello arsenal rained down on Escalera and a flush one-two to the jaw prompted Poletti to administer a standing eight count.
Even while standing on the cliff's edge in terms of losing the fight Escalera remained fearless. He hurled himself toward Arguello with both fists pumping and a long right to the jaw managed to temporarily stop Arguello in his tracks. Escalera more than held his own during a furious exchange at point-blank range and the Italian crowd, charmed by his bravery, adopted Escalera as their favorite. The last 20 seconds saw Escalera stage an improbable rally that grew stronger as the crowd grew louder. At the bell the two locked eyes for a long moment. Arguello cocked his head to the side and nodded his acknowledgement while Escalera returned the gesture with the tiniest bob of the head.
Escalera's stand ensured that if Arguello was to win, he'd have to work hard to earn it. But beside the two knockdowns, the challenger paid an additional price in the form of a severe cut over the left eye. No matter: Escalera long ago decided that victory would require his every resource — including the last drop of blood in his body.
Escalera continued to drive forward in the sixth, both to keep Arguello on the back foot and to prevent the champion from getting the necessary room to deliver his long-armed bombs. Although Arguello continued to score it was Escalera's seemingly quixotic quest that became the driving narrative.
Arguello's precision bombs widened Escalera's left eye cut to the point that it was gushing blood, prompting Poletti to call a medical time out. But before the ring physician could even react Escalera's chief second jumped onto the ring apron and wiped away the crimson with his towel. Poletti, apparently convinced all was well, allowed the fight to continue.
Escalera's go-for-broke tactics escalated in the seventh as several overhand rights nailed Arguello early in the session. Although behind on points and smarting from several facial injuries, Escalera had every reason to feel encouraged. He had absorbed Arguello's best punches and, despite two knockdowns and a standing eight-count, he wasn't only still standing but he also was fighting back hard. With the crowd solidly behind him, Escalera used that reservoir of positive energy to add to his foundation.
With a minute remaining in the seventh, Escalera's comeback effort reached a crescendo. Escalera maneuvered Arguello toward the ropes, then landed a pair of crunching hooks to the jaw that stunned the champion. Escalera's inspired follow-ups drove Arguello across the ring and suddenly the champion appeared to be in trouble. A long hook to the face opened a cut above Arguello's right eye and even after tasting a trademark Arguello cross Escalera, now spotting Arguello's cut, smirked and verbally taunted his tormentor. At the bell, Escalera wrapped his left arm around Arguello's neck and patted him on the face with his right glove.
"I've fought with cuts on my face almost every round I've faced you," Escalera's actions seemed to say. "Now, it's your turn."
Not only was Arguello cut over one eye, he also sported discolorations above and below the other. The momentum had clearly swung toward the challenger and it was up to Arguello to figure out a way to take it back.
Arguello started the eighth by going back to basics. He worked Escalera's eye with stiff jabs and fired power shots at every opportunity. But Escalera, still riding the wave of momentum, charged in and landed bombs with both hands. At one point he threw five consecutive hooks and when he bulled Arguello to the ropes he stayed on him by laying on the champion's chest and pumping away with clusters of hooks and uppercuts. A somewhat unruffled Arguello pawed at his cut with the right glove but quickly regained himself with a quick hook and a snappy jab to the face. Still, Escalera's high-energy pace carried the round.
As the ninth round opened ringside commentator Howard Cosell characterized the fight perfectly by labeling it "a tremendous fight. Vicious? Yes. Bloody? Yes. But two warriors, that's what they are. Each courageous, and Arguello appearing to be the more tired of the two. But it was Escalera who looked like he would be put away as early as the fourth or fifth round. He survived. He has come back."
The round's slower pace clearly benefited Arguello's thoughtful, cerebral approach. Granted the time to think and execute, Arguello's jabs worsened the cut around Escalera's left eye and stemmed the challenger's emotion-fueled surge. Arguello regained the crispness and rhythm of the early rounds and like Escalera before him he was comforted by the fact that he had taken the challenger's best and lived to tell about it. The question now: Who would produce the next big plot twist?
Following a give-and-take 10th edged by Arguello's sharper and heavier blows, the champion started the 11th with a vigorous assault that forced Escalera across the ring. Escalera quickly shook off the blows and delivered a jolting hook-cross combo.
As Escalera continued to come at Arguello his face was increasingly more unrecognizable. Not only was he cut around both eyes, the area over his left orb and the left side of his face was swollen and his mouth dripped blood. But still, he fought on. On the other hand Arguello's eye cut, thanks to chief second and cut man Arturo "Cuyo" Hernandez, was under control.
A huge one-two propelled Escalera back a half-step but the challenger instantly responded with a left uppercut to the jaw. Arguello nailed Escalera with a lead right to the face and a stabbing jab caused blood to pour out of the left eye cut. The brutality level rose with every passing second and with the end of the 11th there were 720 scheduled seconds of action remaining.
Though his body was badly compromised, Escalera's defiance continued to burn strongly as his overhand right landed flush on Arguello's jaw early in the 12th. The equally combative champion responded moments later with a rifle-shot lead right to the chin that paused Escalera's advance by mere moments. The pace remained kinetic and compelling despite the obvious physical toll.
It is unknown whether Arguello knew of, or cared about, the fears surrounding the number 13 but if ever a fighter had reason to debunk triskaidekaphobia it was he. Arguello captured his first world championship, the WBA featherweight title, by knocking out future Hall of Famer Ruben Olivares in the 13th. He won his second divisional championship by stopping Escalera in round 13. And he retained that championship by knocking out Escalera in round 13.
The end came with startling suddenness. As had been the case throughout the series it was a hook, not Arguello's vaunted right cross, that was Escalera's nemesis and this time the blow was short, exquisitely timed and definitive. Escalera fell backward to the canvas and tried valiantly to rise once again, but at Poletti's count of eight the challenger's legs gave out. Escalera spun to his left and fell face first into the white corner pad, his bloody face leaving a smear near the “M” in “Rimini.” Poletti had no choice but to count Escalera out. The time: 1:24.
The victorious Arguello congratulated his still-dazed rival seconds later as the crowd applauded both men's efforts. They – as well as everyone lucky enough to see it on TV – knew they had just witnessed a ring classic. Arguello couldn't have asked for a more fitting way to register the 50th knockout of his career while Escalera honored himself in defeat. It was a most worthy second act.
Though Escalera fought for four-and-a-half more years he never again challenged for a major title. A 10-round decision loss to Charlie “White Lightning” Brown in September 1983 brought down the curtain to a 13-year career that saw Escalera compile a 53-14-3 (31) record, including 11-4-1 (4) after the Arguello rematch.
Arguello, just 29 days younger than Escalera, experienced many further ring glories. He defended his 130-pound belt four more times against Rafael "Bazooka" Limon, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Castillo and Rolando Navarrete before giving it up due to weight issues. He seamlessly moved up to 135 by defeating Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Jose Luis Ramirez and Robert Vasquez and captured his third divisional title by outpointing respected WBC kingpin Jim Watt. The hits kept on coming as he disposed of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini (KO 14), Roberto Elizondo (KO 7), James “Bubba” Buscheme (KO 6) and Andy Ganigan (KO 5) before history came calling again. A highlight reel KO of Kevin Rooney set up a superfight with Aaron Pryor in November 1982.
Arguello twice tried to become the first fighter ever to win major titles in four weight classes but “The Hawk” proved too much as he stopped “The Explosive Thin Man” in 14 rounds, then, in a sequel that at times neared the original's greatness, in 10. Over the next 11-plus years Arguello launched a pair of two-fight comebacks. He went 2-0 with two knockouts in the first before medical issues forced him to stay away for the next eight-and-a-half years. Then, two years after being enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992, Arguello launched a second comeback that saw him win a majority decision over Jorge Palomares, then lose a unanimous decision to the colorful Scott “Pink Cat” Walker. The final record: 89-8 (70).
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.