Tom Archdeacon: ‘Guerilla Fighter’ refused to live a lie

It was a week before Christmas and I was worried about my friend, Alexis Arguello.

He was one of the best and most beloved boxers who ever lived. In fact, the Associated Press would later name him the greatest junior lightweight of the 20th Century. But on this December night in 1983, he was three months removed from his second straight devastating loss to unbeaten junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor.

That pair of defeats were the only times he was stopped in the 96 bouts of his pro career.

The first time — on an electric night in the Orange Bowl that was an intoxicating stew of tropical heat, salsa music and the unending roars of nearly 24,000 people — Arguello crumpled under 20 straight punches in the 14th round and lay on the canvas, unmoving for four minutes, eyes rolled back, an arm’s length from my seat flush against the ring apron.

When Arguello regained consciousness, he returned to a different reality. He still had his matinee idol looks. He still was recognized for winning three world titles at different weight classes. But his spirit was crushed.

He felt he had let his family, himself and his entire Nicaraguan homeland down. And when he failed in the rematch 10 months later in Las Vegas, he was filled with an emptiness.

And I was worried about how he was filling it. A couple of months after that second loss, I had walked into the office of his Alexicore company on LeJeune Road in Miami — I was a columnist down there then — and wandered back through the complex unannounced.

I opened a wrong door and discovered a room filled with weapons and ammunition that I’d later find out was being shipped to the rebel fighters in Nicaragua who were fighting the Sandinista-run government.

Then just before Christmas I heard Arguello’s wife and two small sons — awash in tears and disillusionment — had moved out of their plush Miami home.

That eventually prompted me to show up at his place that night before Christmas. While other homes in the neighborhood were decorated with wreaths and colored lights, Arguello’s place was dark.

I knocked. No answer. And then I knocked again.

Slowly the door opened and there stood Arguello and the legendary Eden Pastora, the bearded, fatigues-clad leader of the Nicaraguan rebels who was known as Commander Zero.

He said nothing to me as he stepped out into the night and disappeared. I followed Arguello inside. He wore a dog tag around his neck. He looked drawn and acted manic.

He admitted he had made a couple of trips to Pastora’s camp over the past few months. He said he had had a friend die in his arms after being shot in a firefight with Sandinista troops. Now he said he was going to Nicaragua to fight.

He would leave Christmas Day.

“An honest man must accept responsibility,” he said. “If I stayed here, I would be living a lie. It would not be honest living the good life here while my brothers die in Nicaragua.”

Soon after that night, Arguello embarked on a long, complex and often convoluted journey. It would go on for two and a half decades. At times it was surreal. In the end it was terribly sad.

But through it all Arguello held onto that one principle:

He could not live a lie.

That’s likely what killed him.

It makes for an incredible story, one told both powerfully and compassionately in a new ESPN 30 for 30 short film — entitled “The Guerilla Fighter” — by Miami-based, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Gaspar Gonzalez.

The film is scheduled to be introduced today on ESPN's SportsCenter at 6 p.m and can already be found here.

Gonzalez’s previous work includes a wide variety of topics from the national PBS release “Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami” to the Grantland short doc “Gay Talese’s Address Book.”

“I’m a story teller and I want to tell stories people don’t know,” he said.

And while many people are aware of Arguello’s Hall of Fame boxing career and those two high-stakes showdowns with Pryor, few know of him as “The Guerrilla Fighter” and how — after becoming mayor on Managua — that led to his controversial death in 2009.

To find that story Gonzalez interviewed eight people, six of whom knew Arguello well, including me.

He came to Dayton with a film crew and talked to me at Drake’s Downtown Gym.

I first got to know Arguello in 1980 when he fought Jose Luis Ramirez at the Miami Jai Alai Fronton. The last time I saw him was 2008 when he was the flag bearer for the Nicaraguan contingent at the Beijing Olympics.

In between I covered some of his fights around the country, spent time at his Miami home, saw him when he came to Ohio to visit Pryor and his wife, Frankie, and later celebrated with him at the Boxing Hall of Fame in New York.

Each person Gonzalez interviewed helped piece together his film. Several had stirring memories.

Tomas Regalado, now the mayor of Miami but once a radio journalist there, went with Arguello on a trip to Pastora’s base in Honduras just across the border from Nicaragua.

He saw how Arguello became disillusioned by what Pastora was really doing for the people, a discovery that eventually triggered Arguello’s split with the rebels.

Years later, in an attempt to help the needy in his homeland, Arguello would realign himself with the once-hated Sandinistas, who years before had stolen all his money and property in Nicaragua and even banned the mention of his name over the airwaves or in print.

Eventually with the Sandinistas’ backing, he was elected vice mayor of Managua and then mayor.

Miami boxing historian Ramiro Ortiz recounted a spirited conversation with Arguello in which he questioned how the boxer ever could switch sides and join the Sandinistas.

When Arguello admitted their controlling power would be the only way he could help people, Ortiz pressed him about what would happen when the Sandinistas would renege on their promises.

Arguello answered by holding up a fist and saying they would have to deal with him.

Right then Ortiz remembers thinking: “Wow, he’s in way over his head.”

When it turned out the Sandinistas — unbeknownst to him — had rigged the mayoral election and planned to use him as a puppet, Arguello was again crushed.

His goal was to help his people and when he found he could not do that, he balked.

First the Sandinistas stripped him of most of his mayoral power.

And then, suddenly, on July 1, 2009, Arguello was dead at age 57.

The governmental word was that he committed suicide. Many other people — including those in “The Guerilla Fighter” who knew him — dispute that.

“They used him up and didn’t need him anymore,” said Miami boxing trainer Dwaine Simpson, who then grew quiet and melted into tears. “I’m thinking about him now. God love it … I think they killed him … the sons-a-bitches!”

And that brings me back to that night just before Christmas and the last thing Arguello told me:

“This is the last fight of my life and I figure I have two chances — either I come back or I won’t. If I die, it will be for a good cause.”

It was not.

Unless you consider that he did fight to the end on one principal:

He refused to live a lie.

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