Twenty years after hanging up his boxing gloves, three-time world champion Alexis Arguello is about to step back into the ring only this time, without his gloves, because Nicaraguan politics is a bare-knuckled affair in which hitting below the belt is considered fair game.
Arguello, known in the boxing world as "the explosive thin man" and "gentleman of the ring," has his sights on a new title: Mayor of Managua. The former champ is running for the nomination of his former adversaries, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and is confident that his impressive lifetime record of 82-8 will carry over into politics.
Despite only three years of political experience as deputy mayor a post he vacated earlier this month to prepare for next year's "title shot" Arguello has swaggered into the ring with the bravado fighters usually reserve for the weigh-in. "Losing is not an option; the party is already over, forget about it," Arguello says with his infectious Yogi Bear laugh.
Maybe his confidence derives from the fact that everyone addresses him as "champ." Wherever Arguello goes in Nicaragua, people come up to him and slap him on the back and ask to be photographed with him. He enjoys a level of reverence rare in a country with few sacred cows. Young boxers still idolize him, and older men become boys in his presence.
It's not hard to understand his fame. Arguello put Nicaragua on the world boxing map, in a classy and gutsy way that still makes Nicaraguans proud. Born into an impoverished family, he was forced to drop out of school at 14 because his father could no longer afford to send him to class. That's when Arguello discovered the gym, and his devastating left hook. When he was 17, Arguello traveled to neighboring Costa Rica to fight that country's top fighter, and in his own words "beat the crap out of him."
By the time he was 22, Arguello won his first WBC featherweight title in Los Angeles, and then defended his belt four times. Then he had "a little weight problem," and moved up to the Junior Lightweight division (130 pounds), where he had to start from scratch as an unranked fighter. After eight consecutive victories in the new weight class, Arguello again became the number-one-ranked contender and got another title shot in February 1978, beating Puerto Rico's Alfredo Escalera in a brutal 13-round bout. Arguello defended that title nine times, before again having "a weight problem." He moved up another division, to Lightweight (135 lbs), where he again fought his way back to the top for a third world title in 1981.
A decade later, Arguello's boxing career was over, and he found himself on the ropes in a losing fight against drugs and alcohol. He was, he says, trapped in a "jet-set" life in Miami that included 20-day drug binges, speedboats, guns and whimsical weekend trips to Paris and London. He was worlds removed from his humble and hardworking background in a tough Managua neighborhood, and his "success" had made him miserable. It was there in the "snake pit," as he calls it entertaining thoughts of suicide, that Arguello remembered his Catholic upbringing. "I was drugging myself and asking God what is my purpose on earth," the former champ remembers. "I heard a voice that said, 'You asked for one title and I gave you three. Now what are you going to give me?' "
So Arguello cleaned up his act and returned to Nicaragua on a mission from God: to help the poor people of his country by getting into politics, where he would once again have to start over as an unranked outsider.
Despite his brief history of supporting the contra insurgency in the 1980s, the Sandinista Front gave Arguello a second chance by putting him on its victorious 2004 ticket for Managua city hall. After three years as deputy mayor, Arguello now claims he is a contender. And, as in the past, Arguello says he'll need the support of his fans to help him get through the late rounds of the upcoming fight. "I gave you three titles; I represented you honestly and with dignity and now I need you," he tells voters.
Even with God and Daniel Ortega in his corner, Arguello still needs his fans to go the distance.