A trawl through the life of Aaron Pryor confirms that even the greatest of ring gods can be incredibly vulnerable human beings. Born in October 1955, the native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was, aged eight, sexually abused by his local priest. Six years later, he escaped his chaotic family home by heading for the local amateur boxing gym.
The quest of “The Hawk” to find salvation in the ring took him to 204 victories in 220 unpaid starts — with national, Pan American and world amateur titles — prior to reigning on the WBA light-welter throne from August 1980 until September 1983.
An irrepressible 5ft 61/2ins punching windmill, Pryor repelled all eight challengers to his crown inside the distance and cemented his place in the sport’s pantheon with two epic stoppage wins over fellow legend Alexis Arguello. In his prime years, he was quite literally unbeatable.
But Hawk Time was considerably shorter than it should have been. The pressures of fame, coupled with a private life that redefined the word turbulent, finally took its toll. Bad company brought bad habits and, by the mid 80s, Pryor had become a slave to cocaine, gradually withering away in the drug dens of Miami’s notorious Liberty City suburb.
Prison and rehab followed and, today, though his ring fortune has long evaporated, the once-confused and tortured soul has found serenity through the Lord.
With a record of 39-1 (35 KOs), it came as no shock that he was inducted into the International Boxing Fall of Fame as soon as he was eligible (1996).
On his first visit to Britain, Boxing Monthly met with the now greying, bespectacled but clearly contented Pryor at the Cardiff home of tour organiser Dai Furnish to listen to a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting story.
BM: What are your memories of growing up in Cincinnati?
AP: Well, my father was married to another woman and I was born outside of marriage. Mum had seven kids: five boys, two girls. Both parents have passed on, as has my eldest sister, who had 12 kids and was an alcoholic. Another brother was gay and used to solicit men [as a transvestite]. Myself? I was really wild [with] my personality and my style. I fought in the street a lot. So it wasn’t good. Today I’m praying for everybody in my family.
I left home aged 14 and started living at the boxing gym. That gym became my life.
BM: Given that you entered the 1976 US Olympic Trials as the reigning amateur world champion and unbeaten in 100 consecutive contests, your brace of paper-thin defeats by New York’s Howard Davis, a man from an altogether different background, must have been difficult to stomach.
AP: I was national champion of my country, I’d been to the Pan American Games, so going to the Olympics was my biggest dream.
In the final year, Howard Davis, the national champion in the division below me [featherweight] moved up [lightweight]. [Sugar] Ray Leonard was national champion the weight above. Wherever we went on the national team, the three of us had to spar every day. We knew each other real well.
The biggest mistake they made was to bring the Olympic Trials to Cincinnati. When you’re fighting at home, you try too hard to impress your people. It was real close but they gave Howard the decision [and he repeated the victory at Vermont shortly after].
BM: They proved costly losses. Davis bagged gold at the Montreal Games and copped a network-TV deal that earned him $185,000 from his first pro fight. In contrast, your top purse during your first three years as a pro was $2,100. I believe the cheque bounced.
AP: Once we all went pro, Howard and Ray decided they didn’t want to fight me. They used me as a sparring partner. I was getting $300 a fight — they was on six figures from the start. But it made me a better fighter — hungrier. It made me respect the game.
My profile was very low. Cincinnati is not a real boxing town. It’s a very conservative place. Boxing-wise, I was the biggest thing to emerge from the city since Ezzard Charles.
BM: You finally got a title shot at light-welter in August 1980 against the 34-year-old WBA boss Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes at the Riverfront Coliseum, where you’d sold hot dogs as a kid. I read that, when promoter Harold Smith showed you a photo of the Colombian legend, you posted it to Cervantes inside a mini casket!
AP: Yep. That’s very true. I wanted to kill him.
Before Cervantes, I was lightweight all the way. I’d never even fought at 140. Muhammad Ali [then frontman for the MAPS promotional group] sent Harold Smith to Cincinnati to get me, with $50,000 for me to have for myself. But manager Buddy LaRosa took 50% of my money.
I wanted to be lightweight champion of the world so bad. At the time, I was ranked No. 3 in the world but Muhammad Ali said: “I know you can beat this guy” and I couldn’t turn Ali down, could I?
Cervantes is also in the Hall of Fame. He had very impressive statistics [the South American had won 19 of 21 WBA championship fights, 15 early]. He gave me a good fight but there was no way he was going to leave Cincinnati with that title. No way, no way, no way.
Today I hear Cervantes has a very serious drug problem and went to Cuba for rehab. He’s been in my prayers.
BM: You were a notoriously slow starter. In the Cervantes fight, and subsequent defences against Ahio Kameda and Dujuan Johnson, you were dumped in the opening frame…
AP: (interrupts) Dujuan Johnson… I wish I hadn’t had that fight. He was from the Kronk gym. In the amateurs, I beat all the Kronk fighters: Tommy Hearns, Hilmer Kenty… Now they got this Dujuan Johnson, who was but a 20-year-old boy and they hyped him up. I wasn’t just fighting Dujuan; I’m fighting Emanuel Steward, Kenty, Hearns. Anyway, Dujuan was walkin’ up to me crazy in the middle of the ring. I’m hyper myself so I didn’t like that.
He knocked me down first round but the fight turns around and I did what I had to do [winning in the seventh].
Not long after that, the young man couldn’t accept the loss and got himself killed [Sept 1984, aged just 23].
BM: Your signatory single arm salute, the one you struck during your ring introduction, has been much imitated. What were its origins?
AP: The media were always trying to make me into something I weren’t supposed to be so I had to keep my character and personality all the time.
The salute (above) was a very bold statement, not just for my opponent but to myself and everybody else, that I weren’t scared. I’d done everything I was supposed to do: I was ready, I’d prepared.
BM: Above all, perhaps, you were most revered for an almost superhuman capacity to throw punches without interruption. Was that an innate natural gift or the product of hard work in the gym?
AP: To mix in with all the slick stuff that Panama Lewis introduced to me when I turned pro, I also retained my old amateur trainer Mr Willie Davis. With old Willie, I was only allowed to throw my hooks, uppercuts, overhand rights and so on when he took me on the pads. Never on the bags.
When I hit the big bag, all I could do was throw left-right, left-right, like an amateur, without stopping for six, eight, 10 rounds at a time. That’s where it came from. When I got in the ring, I just had so much energy. So I’d say it was down to hard work.
But, let me tell you, I trained just as hard not to get hit as to throw punches. I had ropes going across the gym which I’d slip [under and over]. Then it [the evasiveness] automatically happened in the fight.
One of my favourite moments of this trip came when [Eurosport commentator] Steve Holdsworth, a wonderful host, introduced me saying: “Pryor was one of those guys who boxed with his hands down, almost pleading to be hit, yet they just couldn’t catch him.” That recognition was important to me.
BM: It was your initial conquest of Arguello in November 1982 that cemented your status as a true legend of the ring. The brilliant Nicaraguan came into the fight on the back of 19 consecutive world-championship victories. Yet you confounded the experts by outboxing the master technician before wiping him out in the 14th.
AP: Going in there, I was scared. The odds against me were real big [Arguello was 12–5 on with the bookmakers] and the whole Latin community, and most of society, wanted Alexis to become the first man to win that fourth world title.
The arena was 80–90% Latin and they were all throwing stuff at me. It was real bad. But I’d been in situations like that in all my [amateur] experience. That night, I was going to beat Alexis whatever.
BM: Subsequently, that career-high triumph became tarnished. In the later rounds, TV monitors recorded chief second Panama Lewis instructing his aides to pass up “the bottle I mixed earlier”, leading to suggestions of impropriety. So what was going on?
AP: Every place I go, people say: “What was in the water?” I don’t know! I didn’t give myself the water. Panama told me it was peppermint schnapps to help settle my stomach ‘cos I’d been burpin’! Shortly after, Panama got in trouble with another fighter’s gloves [he was jailed for removing the stuffing from fighter Luis Resto’s mitts].
Because of that, people assumed he done something wrong with the black bottle in the Arguello fight. In the papers the next day, the media accused me of winning the fight illegally and, suddenly, all the credibility I earned for beating Alexis was up in the air. I’ve got a cloud over my head. I was cryin’. You can’t imagine how I was hurtin’.
That would never have come up if I’d had a urine test taken from me. I had to fight Alexis again just to clear my name.
BM: At this juncture, your personal life began to crumble, yet you still managed to stop Alexis in the 10th in the rematch, 10 months later.
AP: Whenever I had a fight booked, I always liked to get out of Cincinnati and set up camp in the Catskills or somewhere. That way, I realised I was doing the best I could.
Between the two Arguello fights, everything in my life fell apart. My second wife decided to leave me when I was actually away in training camp. I now had no trainer ‘cos Panama Lewis was gone outta the game and my manager Buddy LaRosa quit on me and didn’t come to the fight. For them people not to be in my corner at a time when I really needed them really hurt me. Bad times.
To make the return with Arguello, I had to have a trainer who everybody knew so I hired Emanuel Steward, who I was mad at ‘cos he’d tried to beat me with Kenty, Hearns and Dujuan Johnson.
I thank God for giving me the strength and courage that I needed to go on and beat Alexis again.
BM: Just 27, unbeaten in 35 starts (33 quick) and arguably the finest pound-for-pound practitioner in the sport at the time, you confounded the boxing world by declaring your retirement immediately after.
AP: Retiring then was the biggest mistake of my career but I didn’t have a good trainer and there was all the other controversial stuff going on in my life.
There was no fight out there for me. I asked Ray Leonard for the fight on national TV and he said no. When Panama Lewis got with me, he made me promise I’d never fight Roberto Duran, his countryman, because he had a baby with Roberto’s sister, and I gave him that promise. Alexis personally called up “Boom Boom” [Ray Mancini, the WBA lightweight champion] and pleaded with him as a friend not to get in the ring with me. Hector Camacho, the biggest mouth in boxing, got on network TV and started cryin: “I don’t want to fight Pryor right now.” So there was no other fight left for me.
After I’d made a million and a half [dollars] for the second Arguello fight, they wanted to give me just $100,000 to fight the left-hander Johnny Bumphus, the most awkward fighter going. And I didn’t have a trainer. No thank you!
BM: How and when did your addiction to cocaine start?
AP: I swear I didn’t try drugs until after the second Arguello fight in Vegas. Athletes don’t pick up drugs. Boxing is the cleanest sport you can have. You can’t smoke, you can’t drink and you can’t have sex — the three things men most like to do.
All my life, I fought every couple of months until I won my title. Then I defended the title every two or three months.
After Arguello II, I came back to Miami and caught my wife “doing it” with another woman! I was really upset by that. She should’ve told me that before we got married.
That was a time in my life when I was doin’ a lot of celebratin’. A family member suggested: “Try this”. Then you try one or two times and automatically you’re hooked. That’s what happened to me. Freebasin’ cocaine.
BM: The fortune you amassed between the ropes appeared to evaporate alarmingly quickly.
AP: Throughout my career, I probably grossed about $5 million and I lost it all. But, remember, my manager was taking 50%. [To clarify, local pizza-chain millionaire Buddy LaRosa paid Pryor a weekly salary, then took half of his ring purses.]
When I challenged [the agreement] in Cincinnati, the first court ruled: “You signed a contract — live up to it.” So I took it to the Supreme Court, which asked Buddy to take just a third. However, by that time, I spent all my money getting the case to the Supreme Court and was too tired to fight no more!
BM: Having lost 19 months of your absolute prime, you returned in 1984, albeit as a shadow of “The Hawk”. After a brace of lacklustre points wins over Nicky Furlano and Gary Hinton for the IBF belt, you again went missing for 29 months.
Then, in August ’87, aged 31, you finally lost your unbeaten record (ex-amateur star Bobby Joe Young beating him in seven).
AP: I was still usin’ when I beat Furlano and Hinton but I thought I could handle it. I don’t count Bobby Joe Young as a loss. I just look at it as a person [Young] who took advantage out of a person who needed some help. No one in my corner that night had ever worked in my corner before. When I was “The Hawk”, Bobby Joe Young wouldn’t even have gotten past the first round with me.
BM: Legally blind in your left eye (cataracts and a detached retina), both your legacy and health were placed in jeopardy when you briefly continued to fight. In hindsight, you must resent those, including the boxing commissions, who failed to protect you from yourself?
AP: I can’t say that because, if I’m honest, it was what I wanted to do. I felt I was still in my prime and I was just tryin’ to finish out my career.
I had a detached retina. Today I got 30/40% [vision] in my left eye but the doctors gave me permission [to fight]. Why not listen to my doctors? I’m not sure where the injury came from. I really don’t think it was from the Arguello fights because I didn’t get hit that much.
What I will say is that I learned something about being disabled from that situation. Ray Leonard had a detached retina before me yet they let him fight. Aaron Pryor was always the bad guy getting picked on. Why, even now, you not talkin’ about Ray’s retina? That pissed me off then and it upsets me now too. We had the same thing. Ray was always the “Golden Boy”. Even now, he’s on TV with The Contender.
Anyway, I’m not sure those final few bouts have detracted from my legacy. At least I won ‘em and gave the opponents some incentive to improve their lives and careers.
BM: The absolute low spot must surely have been when you were incarcerated in July 1991?
AP: Yes and no. I did six months for drug abuse. When I came out, I got back dirty again and had to go into rehab. But that’s where I met my wife, Frankie, and we been together 14 years now. Time go by. That’s the longest I’ve been with anybody I’ve ever known. [The pair finally got hitched at Canastota, in Hall of Fame week, June 2003.]
BM: Ironically, your impressive rehabilitation was largely orchestrated by Buddy LaRosa, former manager and ex-legal sparmate.
AP: Yeah, over the last 10 years, I’ve developed a new relationship with Buddy. When he heard I was trying to get my life back together, he got me a job with the Cincinnati Golden Gloves. And, in order to work with those kids, I had to submit to random urine tests whenever he wanted to give me one.
In those 10 years, I had three kids from Cincinnati go to the Olympics. I also trained Tim Austin, the [IBF] bantamweight champion from here in Cincinnati, and I trained Larry Donald. I took him to Germany to fight [Vitali] Klitschko. Though Larry got stopped in the 10th round, he done a good job.
BM: To what extent do you follow the sport today?
AP: Oh, I still follow. There’s a few good fighters out there that I like, particularly Barrera and Morales. But not that many. The biggest problem nowadays is that people don’t know the guys who are fighting. Therefore, there’s not that much interest. We need more names.
BM: Today you get your strength from religion and, by the time this feature is on the shelves, you’ll have been ordained into the Friends Baptist Church.
AP: Yes, sir. I was always religious when I was fighting. For the past 10 years, I’ve been a deacon, a motivational and “recovery” speaker in schools, colleges and prisons.
I’ve done good sharing my experiences from the streets, losing all my money and how I got into drugs. A lot of people think they can’t get it together but, if Aaron Pryor can get it back together — and I have — there’s hope for everyone.
Now I’m going to be a minister. And when I deliver my first sermon as a reverend, boy, have I got a story for you!