Aaron ‘The Hawk’ Pryor dies at 60
“What time is it? Hawk time! What time is it? Hawk time!”
That was the battle cry which led the way as Aaron Pryor rose from poverty in his native Cincinnati to the WBA and later the IBF junior welterweight titles. Now the man called by some the greatest 140-pound champion of all time no longer asks the time; he has died at age 60.
Pryor’s death was first reported by WCPO 9 in Cincinnati, with a long battle with heart disease listed as the cause. The news was confirmed to THE RING by his wife, Frankie Pryor, who added that a family statement would be made through Associated Press.
Pryor turned pro after missing the 1976 U.S. Olympic squad following a loss to Howard Davis Jr. and won his first 24 fights before facing Antonio “Kid Pambalay” Cervantes for the WBA junior welterweight title. Pryor, aggressive from the start, as was his trademark approach, wound his arm threateningly after he was knocked down briefly in Round 1. Pryor came back to knock Cervantes out in Round 4 to win the title.
Pryor went on to make 10 successful title defenses of the 140-pound crown, but none was more memorable than his 1982 showdown with Alexis Arguello. Arguello, a three-division champion and popular TV attraction, was favored to win a title in a fourth weight class before Pryor wore him down late and forced a referee stoppage with a devastating combination of right hands along the ropes.
“I just kept throwing punches, kept throwing punches,” Pryor remembered in the HBO special “Legendary Nights.” “I said, ‘They are not taking this fight from me.’”
Controversy surrounding a bottle, which trainer Panama Lewis ordered Pryor to drink from, saying, “Give me that drink … the one that I mixed,” cast a shadow over the first fight, but Pryor cemented his superiority 10 months later. In the rematch, he employed a more evasive boxing style with new trainer Emanuel Steward (Lewis had been banned from boxing for life just three months earlier for his role in doctoring the gloves of Luis Resto before his fight with Billy Collins Jr.), knocking Arguello out for the count in Round 10.
Pryor’s career never reached the heights it should have, due to drugs, and later to a detached retina and cataracts in his left eye. Proposed dream fights with Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini and Hector Camacho also fell through for a number of reasons. Pryor vacated the WBA title in favor of the IBF belt because of a rule that said he had to defend it every six months, and then was stripped of the IBF belt as well, due to inactivity.
Pryor returned to the ring as a shell of himself after more than two years, being knocked out in seven rounds by Bobby Joe Young. New York and Las Vegas refused to license him to fight due to his eye troubles and he fought just three more times after the Young fight before retiring for good in 1990, his final record 39-1 (35 knockouts).
He said in a 1988 UPI report that he had wasted approximately $500,000 on drugs, and a 1995 Sports Illustrated article by John Ed Bradley told the story of how just three years earlier the fighter was addicted to crack cocaine and living on the streets, contemplating suicide.
His troubles in life – and perhaps much of his success – had to do with his rough upbringing in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, where he describes his early years as “deprived” and “doomed.”
“I used to be frustrated that nobody in my family came to see me fight. My amateur fights, when I fought in Russia, Poland, Germany, Mexico, didn’t nobody even know I was gone,” Pryor said in the “Legendary Nights” special.
Pryor would later kick his drug habit for good with the help of his wife and attending services at the New Friendship Baptist Church in Cincinnati, where he later became a minister.
“I serve the Lord. I gave my life to Christ. I’m living now and I’ve been having a great time,” Pryor told this writer in 2012. “I’ve been married for 20 years to the same girl. Things are just going really great for me.”
Pryor won 204 of his 220 amateur fights, according to Sports Illustrated, and won two National Golden Gloves titles, whipping Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns for one of them.
Through all of his hardships, Pryor never hesitated to spend times with fans and admirers, making it out to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York (where he was enshrined in 1995), for the yearly induction weekends. Pryor was a constant on the boxing scene in the mid-2000s, supporting his son Aaron Jr.’s boxing aspirations.
When this writer emailed Pryor at age 16 asking for his advice on how to become a successful boxer, the boxer-turned-minister offered simple but meaningful words to a teenager he had never met.
“My biggest piece of advice to you is to go to the gym every single day and listen to your coach. Dedication and being able to learn from your coach will carry you much farther than just natural ability. Practice, practice, practice. That’s what I did!”
In addition to his wife, Frankie, and son Aaron Jr., Pryor is survived by his son Antwan Harris, daughter Elizabeth Wagner and grandsons Adam, Austin and Aaron Pryor III, according to WCPO. Aaron Jr. and Aaron Pryor’s former manager Buddy LaRosa are reportedly expected to speak on Monday at a memorial service at Over the Rhine Boxing Center in Cincinnati.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.