A tribute to “The Hawk” Aaron Pryor
Aaron Pryor, whose emotionally charged whirlwind attack propelled him to world title honors and eventually the International Boxing Hall of Fame, died Sunday morning at his Cincinnati residence according to his family. Pryor, who suffered from heart disease in recent years as well as longstanding vision problems, was 60.
“Aaron was known around the world as ‘The Hawk’ and delighted millions of fans with his aggressive and crowd-pleasing style,” said wife Frankie Pryor, who married Aaron underneath the newly dedicated pavilion on the IBHOF grounds in June 2003. “To our family, he was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. We appreciate the outpouring of condolences and sympathy and ask that our family be allowed time to grieve and mourn his loss.”
Along with Frankie, Pryor is survived by sons Aaron Jr., Antwan Harris, daughter Elizabeth Wagner and three grandsons, Adam, Austin and Aaron III.
Like countless others, Pryor used boxing to escape the difficult life he experienced while growing up in Cincinnati. His mercurial hand and foot speed allowed him to outmaneuver his opponents and enabled him to build a highly successful 204-16 amateur career that included National AAU championships in 1973 and 1975, a silver medal in the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City and a victory over Thomas Hearns in the lightweight finals of the 1976 National Golden Gloves tournament.
Pryor appeared on track to earn a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team but his dreams were derailed after losing twice on points to Howard Davis, Jr. Pryor served as an alternate to the team that went on to win five gold medals but to add insult to injury from Pryor’s standpoint, Davis went on to win the Val Barker Trophy as the games’ outstanding boxer and earn a then-record $185,000 in his pro debut. Meanwhile, Pryor earned substantially less when he turned pro by stopping Larry Smith in two rounds on Nov. 12, 1976.
Pryor began his career with five straight knockouts but the purses were three and four figures instead of the six Davis earned. To make ends meet he worked at a supermarket in Cincinnati’s run-down Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. Buddy LaRosa, the owner of the city’s largest chain of pizza parlors, purchased Pryor’s contract, paid him a couple of hundred dollars a week and allowed the fighter to focus solely on his boxing.
Over time, Pryor began to raise eyebrows with his take-no-prisoners style. While his nickname “The Hawk” aptly described his predatory mindset inside the ring, it actually was a tribute to Ken Hawk, a longtime friend who stuck with Pryor in good times, bad times and the worst times. After out-pointing cagey Canadian Johnny Summerhays over eight rounds in just his eighth pro fight, Pryor began a knockout streak that eventually generated some of the notoriety he felt should have been his all along. His victims included “Stormin’” Norman Goins, Al Ford, former 140-pound titlist Alfonso “Peppermint” Frazer and former 130-pound title challenger Julio “Diablito” Valdez but his pulse-pounding NBC-televised 10th-round knockout over Leonidas Asprilla, then the WBC’s fifth-rated lightweight, vaulted Pryor into the title picture.
However, the lightweight champions wanted nothing to do with Pryor. Hilmer Kenty, who won the WBA belt just 42 days earlier from Ernesto Espana, had suffered eight losses to Pryor in the amateurs while WBC titleholder Jim Watt was set to face Pryor’s nemesis, Davis Jr., in less than two months’ time. So, after blowing out Carl Crowley in 135 seconds on the same day 1976 U.S. Olympian Sugar Ray Leonard lost to Roberto Duran, Pryor jumped up five pounds and signed to meet legendary WBA junior welterweight champion Antonio Cervantes, a 100-fight veteran who was making the seventh defense of his second reign and had nearly as many championship fights (20) as Pryor had fights as a pro (25).
Even at 34, the long and lean Colombian possessed an enviable blend of exquisite long-range skills and explosive punching power. The over-aggressive Pryor learned that first-hand when he tasted a beautifully timed counter right and hit the floor with 30 seconds remaining in round one. As was his habit, Pryor instantly jumped to his feet and wind-milled his right hand as he took Larry Rosadilla’s count, showing everyone that the fall was of the flash variety.
The bobbing-and-weaving Pryor wisely curbed his enthusiasm in Round 2 as he circled the champion and peppered him with power combinations that kept Cervantes overly focused on defense. A solid left opened a gash over Cervantes’ right eye in round three and a titanic right to the jaw put the future Hall of Famer down for the count in round four, the second and final KO loss of Cervantes’ career.
As Rozadilla tolled 10, Pryor got to experience the very moment he had dreamed about his entire life: A newly crowned champion being lifted into the air as his friends, family and fans cheered themselves hoarse. Pryor was the first boxing champion from Cincinnati since Wallace “Bud” Smith ruled the lightweights a quarter-century earlier and, at that moment at least, the jealousy and angst that was brought about by the two losses to Davis appeared to be light years away.
But those feelings didn’t stay away for long. When asked by THE RING’s Lonnie Wheeler what he would like to do with his purse from the Cervantes fight he said this:
“What I would like to do is to go to New York. I want to go to Howard Davis’ house. Just drop in on him.”
Soon it was Pryor who was on top in the rivalry as Davis was soundly outpointed by Watt while “The Hawk” continued to prey on his overwhelmed opponents. Three weeks after dusting Danny Myers in a non-title fight in Dayton, Pryor stopped Gaetan Hart in six, Lennox Blackmoore in two, DuJuan Johnson in seven, Miguel Montilla in 12 and Akio Kameda in six to run his knockout streak to 23. But while he was flooring his opponents for eight, nine and 10, Pryor suffered early knockdowns against Johnson and Kameda. By now Davis was far in his rear view mirror; Pryor was a pound-for-pound presence who was on a collision course with a triple-crown champion that dearly wanted to add an unprecedented fourth.
At age 30, Alexis Arguello was already a living legend in Nicaragua as he had captured world championships at featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight and, after losing his first title shot against Ernesto Marcel, had won his next 19 in succession. At 5-foot-10 he towered over his opponents and while his 72-inch reach kept foes at bay it was his two-fisted power that made him a superstar. But as fierce as he was inside the ropes, that’s how classy he was outside them. The previous year he was cast in the rare role of villain as he took on the wildly popular Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, whose story of winning the lightweight title denied his father by World War II made him the overwhelming sentimental favorite. Moments after stopping Mancini in the 14th Arguello not only regained his popularity but also became a beloved figure in America by showing genuine concern for Mancini during their joint post-fight interview.
Even the raging Pryor wasn’t immune to Arguello’s charm. Moments after stopping Kameda, Arguello took part in the post-fight interview with NBC’s Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. Spotting Arguello to his right, Pryor did his best to rev himself up.
“I felt like it was time to go into business then because I knew that Arguello was looking at me and I want him bad,” Pryor declared with an intimidating sneer on his face. “Bob Arum had already signed for the fight and I signed already. You think you saw something today, God don’t know and he don’t know I want him. Arguello, you’re mine sucker. I’ll pay you back for Boom Boom Mancini.”
As he shook the smiling Arguello’s hand, Pryor’s mood suddenly shifted from anger to admiration.
“Boy, I’m so glad you signed it ain’t funny,” he said. “You will fight a man this time. I’m a man, you fought that young 19 year old boy…”
“Congratulations,” Arguello said. “God bless you, and I know that you are a man and you are a good boxer.”
“Thank you,” Pryor said. “You are, too. You’re a great fighter. I’m just like Duran: I was born with no shoes on. I was raised up with no shoes on, so this fight’s going to pay for them.”
“The same thing happened to me,” Arguello accurately replied. “Don’t worry about it.”
When the night of Nov. 12, 1982 arrived, Pryor and Arguello proved that ambition without animus can produce not only a great fight, but a fight for the ages. Pryor ran out of the corner and swarmed Arguello with a hyperactive assault that was intense even for him. Arguello, forced to fight far faster than he would like, tried his best to keep up with the champion and from time to time he landed his trademark right-hand bombs but largely ignored his vaunted body attack.
Pryor not only took the rights without going down, he did so almost unflinchingly. He also had another surprise for Arguello: After establishing his ferocity in the early rounds, Pryor brilliantly mixed his power shots with stunningly effective jabbing and long-range boxing that kept Arguello guessing. His sharp punching opened a one-and-a-quarter inch cut on the corner of Arguello’s left eyelid and while his tactics won him many rounds, Arguello – the 12-to-5 favorite – landed just often enough to keep within sight on the scorecards. A brutally flush right cross midway through the 13th caused Pryor’s head to snap back violently, but once again the American champion remained upright.
Entering the 14th round of a pulsating punch-out, Pryor led by three points on two scorecards but trailed on the third by two points. Between rounds, Pryor’s chief second, Panama Lewis, repeated a process that had occurred several times in the fight. He ordered an assistant to give him a black bottle – “the one I mixed” – and Pryor swallowed the contents instead of spitting them out. Ammonia capsules were also broken and waved under Pryor’s nose.
Pryor bolted from the corner at the start of the 14th and proceeded to deliver snappy combinations that defied the punishment he had absorbed in the previous 39 minutes of action. A volley capped by a violent right caused Arguello’s legs to buckle and force him back to the ropes. With his prey in a highly compromised state, “The Hawk” swooped in and commenced a final assault highlighted by three flush rights that grotesquely whip-lashed Arguello’s neck. The 23-punch outburst caused the Nicaraguan great to slump semi-conscious against the ropes and slide onto the floor, where he would stay for several frightening minutes.
“He’s a great champion,” Pryor said after the fight. “I felt his power. He let me know he was in there. He taught me things. Do I feel like I stopped history? I can’t say that, because the man has already made history. He’s a three-time champion. I know of at least one surprise: My stomach was upset. One time we were in close and I burped. He stepped back and had this strange look on his face. I almost burst out laughing. But I think I surprised a lot of people. I proved I can box. And I proved I can go 14 rounds.”
But the media’s attention was split between the glory of Pryor’s win and the contents of the black bottle in his corner. Lewis and Pryor denied anything was amiss and cut man Artie Curley said the bottle contained peppermint schnapps to quiet the champion’s upset stomach. In the 2008 documentary “Assault in the Ring,” Luis Resto, who was also trained by Lewis, said the trainer poured the contents of broken antihistamine pills into the water, which he said gave Pryor enhanced lung capacity.
The fight was named the eighth greatest title fight of all-time by THE RING in 1996 and the magazine deemed Pryor-Arguello I the Fight of the Decade. But the cloud created by the black bottle sent Pryor into a tailspin of depression and substance abuse that would affect him for years to come. It also would create further justification for a rematch with Arguello. Five months after stopping former 140-pound titlist Sang-Hyun Kim in three rounds, Pryor and Arguello met for the second time at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Arguello said before the fight that he would “put the last drop of my blood into this fight” and he did just that. He arose from knockdowns in the first and fourth rounds and on several occasions it appeared he had Pryor in trouble. But Arguello appeared to lose steam after being penalized a point for low blows in round eight and two rounds later a volley of punches dropped the Nicaraguan for the third time in the fight. As he sat on the floor Arguello was confronted not only with his fistic mortality but also the possibility that he could lose his life if he chose to get up.
“I was pushing real hard,” he said. “I was really hurt. I had nothing to do in the ring. I didn’t want to risk it.”
This time there was no black bottle to obscure the luminance of Pryor’s victory. But Pryor joined Arguello in announcing his retirement, saying he saw no worthy challenges on the immediate horizon.
But Pryor did fight on, though not with the same intensity and passion that characterized his peak. Stripped of his WBA belt, the newly formed IBF named Pryor their first champion. Nine months after the Arguello rematch, Pryor’s 26-fight knockout streak was ended by Canadian Nick Furlano and nine months after that he kept the belt by split decision against southpaw Gary Hinton. His body and spirit racked by addiction and his eyes clouded by retinal issues, Pryor fought just four more times. The first fight of that stretch was his only defeat, a bizarre seventh round KO loss to Bobby Joe Young. A right to the ear sent Pryor to the canvas and after vaulting to his feet and wobbling around for a few seconds, Pryor crossed himself, then took a knee, which was where he stayed until after referee Bernie Soto counted him out.
After scoring knockout wins over Herminio Morales, Darryl Jones and Roger Choate, Pryor retired with a record of 39-1 (35). But his battle with cocaine intensified to the point that he encountered trouble with the law and nearly lost his life.
But from the depths of addiction, Pryor rallied and finished life like a champion.
One major turning point was meeting Frankie Wagner in 1991, the woman he would marry 12 years later in Canastota. That same year he joined the New Friendship Baptist Church in Cincinnati and was named an associate minister in 1998. While splitting time between church and training young fighters (including son Aaron Jr.), Pryor was also honored for his own fistic deeds. He was enshrined in the IBHOF in 1996 and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001. The Associated Press also named Pryor the greatest junior welterweight of the century .
His activities outside the ring were also lauded. According to his web site, Pryor was named a Kentucky Colonel by then-Gov. Paul Patton in 2000 for his community service and was also honored by the city of Cincinnati for those efforts. In December 2006 he was given a game ball by then-coach Eric Mangini following the Jets 26-13 win over the Minnesota Vikings for his motivational pre-game speech.
One of his greatest joys was his annual trip to the IBHOF induction weekend.
“To see friends like Ray Leonard – that would have been a good fight – to see some of the older fighters who are still doing good in their lives, it’s exciting to go there,” he told SecondsOut.com writer Paul Upham in 2003. “It’s like a birthday, like being born all over again. We have a parade and it’s like I never lost my title belt in the ring. A lot of people give me the same feeling I had when I was champion. There are a lot of people in recovery that are excited to see me because they can relate. I see Alexis Arguello up there and we talk and we all have a good time. Every time I see Joe Frazier my eyes light up like a little kid. I get the flashbacks of listening to his first fight with Muhammad Ali on the radio.
“Everything in life now is a positive,” he continued. “While boxing has really helped me, I don’t want to walk around thinking about my last fight. I don’t want to walk around thinking about the trouble I used to be in. I want to have good things on my mind and good things on my agenda.”
As the boxing world sits back and reflects on the life of Aaron Pryor, the good memories will far outweigh the bad. They’ll remember the tornadic, all-action style.
They’ll remember the pair of knockouts over fellow Hall-of-Famer Arguello. They’ll revel in the arguments about fantasy matchups involving Pryor against contemporaries Mancini and Leonard and greats from other eras such as Chavez, Pacquiao, Mayweather, De La Hoya and Whitaker. Best of all, those lucky enough to have met him at the Hall of Fame will recall his friendly manner, his willingness to sign autographs until the last person is satisfied and his down-to-earth persona. This was a man who emerged a champion inside the ring, and, though he stumbled at times, he came away as a champion outside the ropes as well.
“The Hawk” is no longer on earth in a physical sense, but his spirit may very well be soaring toward its heavenly destination.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last six years and two first-place awards since 2011. 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. To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].