How Politics Took Down Nicaragua's Boxing Champ

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Miguel Alvarez / AFP / Getty

Alexis Arguello campaigns for mayor of Managua in November 2008

Anyone who ever saw Alexis Arguello slug out a 13-round victory in the boxing ring knows he had the heart of a giant — too big, it seemed, to fit inside his skinny, 130-pound frame, which could pack a punch like a mule kick. Revered as the "Explosive Thin Man" and the "Gentleman of the Ring," Arguello — who committed suicide with a bullet to his heart on July 1 — was a champion like few others before him or after. Even on the rare occasion that he lost (he won 82 of his 90 career bouts), he gave an epic account of himself — two of his three world titles were won in marathon slugfests, and his 14-round battle against Aaron Pryor in 1982 is still remembered as one of the greatest fights in the history of boxing. It was Arguello's battles outside the ring that proved to be his downfall.

Much has been written and said about the legendary fighter's struggles with drugs, alcohol, depression and even suicidal tendencies. But less is known about how Arguello brought his fighter's spirit to his later career in Nicaraguan politics, which, unlike boxing, is not a gentleman's sport. "Politicians are a bunch of crooks," Arguello told me in a 2007 interview, after serving three years as the Sandinista vice mayor of Managua. He referred to the mayor's office as a "snake pit."

Nudged, he said, by God, Arguello sought redemption for a decade lost to drugs and recklessness by pulling himself together and entering a life of public service to help the poor. The skinny kid from Managua who had punched his way out of poverty was never accused of being an intellectual, but he was thoughtful in his own way. He likened his return to the capital after years on the road to Marco Polo sailing home to Venice after traveling the world.

Arguello tackled his first political job — as vice mayor of Managua — with a boxer's determination. "When I have to kill, I have to kill," Arguello said. "A man who makes a decision has to make it for the good of the country, and I love this country."

That love was first and foremost for Nicaragua's poor, out of whose ranks he'd risen. When a desperate father appealed for Arguello's help because he couldn't afford the expensive medical treatment to treat his 8-year-old daughter's leukemia, the fighter made the cause his own and tried to shame two Nicaraguan pharmaceutical companies into providing free treatment. When they hesitated, the champ came out swinging.

Arguello claims he told them, "You motherf___ers, do you know how much you sell every year? And you can't help out with a thousand dollars, you motherf___ers? You are a cheap motherf___er — you scumbag motherf___ers!"

The drug companies agreed to help.

"The girl is doing good and the dad loves me, man!" Arguello said, bursting into his manic Yogi Bear laugh.

Arguello tried to take a similar interest when other downtrodden folk sought his help. He told me he would sometimes lie awake in bed at night worrying about their problems and trying to think of ways he could help.

But a turning point for Arguello came when a not-so-poor supplicant came seeking his help. President Daniel Ortega was desperate for a mayoral candidate who would be both popular and subservient to the Sandinista leadership, and saw Arguello as the answer. Even though Ortega's first government had confiscated property and bank holdings from Arguello during the '80s, by 2007 the ex-champ felt indebted to the Sandinista Front for helping him out of drugs and giving him a shot a redemption. Plus, Arguello actually believed in the Sandinistas' message of defending the poor, and he embraced his new role with the fervor of a convert. He referred to the President as his "leader," and said Nicaragua would be "a heaven" if everyone agreed with Ortega.

But once the Sandinistas had Arguello in their clutches, the game changed for him. First Lady Rosario Murillo, who appointed herself head of his mayoral campaign, assigned minders to keep the fighter on a tight leash to minimize his wonderfully outrageous and innocent gaffes. (Arguello, in discussing his 14 years spent living in the U.S., remembered Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the day when the British declared a one-day truce during their invasion of New Orleans to sit down for a turkey dinner.)

The election itself was a fiasco. The Sandinistas were accused of vote-rigging, and days of violence followed the closing of the polls in Managua. Instead of finding atonement in politics, Arguello found controversy and ridicule. He was accused of winning by fraud and lampooned as a bumbling fool. The media dubbed him the "mayor appointed by the Supreme Electoral Council," and insinuated that his office was incompetent and corrupt — charges that would have felt like a low blow to a man who had prided himself on his transparency and ability to get things done.

Arguello's relationship with the Sandinistas also became strained, as Murillo appointed several yes-men to run the mayor's office. On several occasions, city council meetings were run by Arguello's handlers in his absence. His main function as mayor seemed to be to sit behind Ortega at Sandinista rallies and stand and wave to the crowd when announced by name.

Last week, following the tragic news of Arguello's death, an alleged suicide note circulated on the Internet saying Arguello didn't blame anyone for his decision, but that he was tired of being used and treated like an embarrassing drug addict. The alleged note ended with the advice, "Take care of democracy and don't be fooled by those who have fooled me."

While the note may very well turn out to be a hoax in a country with no shortage of pranksters, its sentiments reflect a commonly shared notion that Arguello, while a brilliantly graceful fighter and undisputed national icon, got in over his head in the world of Sandinista politics. In the end, it wasn't boxing or drugs, but rather politics, that made the champ cry "No más."