Aaron Pryor was more than a star; he was a man whose career was eerily reminiscent of a supernova, that great cosmic event where for a few moments in time an explosion in a galaxy outshines everything around it until fading away.
You see, Pryor’s name is one not normally known outside of the hardcore boxing fans vocabulary. Certainly there are those fans whose memories date back to the halcyon days of the early and mid eighties, when the Big Four of boxing entertained with great aplomb against each other and other more mortal men.
But what made those days so great was not simply Duran, Leonard, Hearns and Hagler. There was the outside cast of characters, ranging from Ray Mancini to Wilfred Benitez. The one man who looked destined to break into that rarefied strata was Aaron Pryor. For a brief moment it looked as though it had happened.
Born on October 22nd, 1955 in a hard luck neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, Pryor’s story is one of sorrow from day one. Born not knowing his father, Pryor was given his stepfathers name shortly after birth.
His siblings all shared the same, different father from Pryor. It was the beginning of his life as an outcast, the start of a distrust and dislike for seemingly everyone around him. What was sown in childhood was reaped later in life to disastrous result.
Pryor has often been quoted in regards to just how unwelcome he felt at home. He’s spoken of times when he would simply run away, without anyone noticing. Sleeping in doorways over night before he was even a teenager just to get away, there was no easy days for him.
The boxing gym has saved many lives throughout the years. A disproportionate number of young men have entered gyms, tempted by a life of crime and nearly consumed by a white hot anger at everything around them, to walk out the other side well adjusted young men.
These sweat soaked tinderboxes of young male rage and hostility have a knack for breaking a man down. Lessons are learned the hard way, much as on the street. But what may end up a bullet in your back on Eastern Avenue in Cincinnati is instead an uppercut that knocks you spark out in a gym on the corner of 14th and Republic.
Like hundreds of other young men Aaron Pryor found himself a second home, and his first real one, in a boxing gym at the age of 13. The tale goes the first time he sparred he was knocked out of the ring. Before anyone could check if he was alright Pryor had already gotten up on his feet, raring to go. It was something emulated years later against Antonio Cervantes on his way to winning his first World Title.
It was also the moment when Phil Smith realized there was something special inside Pryor. Pryor went on to win an astonishing 204 amateur fights, losing only 16. One of his most astonishing victories came against number one ranked Valery Solomin in Moscow. Pryor had to lie about his age to even gain access to the tournament, ending up in the final against a 29 year old Solomin who boasted a 90% knockout rate.
Well he went on to be victorious. No surprise for Pryor, a man who made a habit out of defying the odds in his career. Whether good or bad. After defeating someone many hadn’t given him a chance to beat in Solomin, Pryor went into the 1976 Olympic Trials a seemingly automatic selection for the team.
It wasn’t to be, the sorrow that he had come to know all to well once again rearing it’s ugly head. Two consecutive losses to Howard Davis, a name which has went on to fade into even deeper obscurity, one in the Trials and another in a box off in the Olympic training camp meant Pryor was only an alternate.
Davis went on to win a gold medal, the inspiring story of achieving such a great feat a week after his mother had passed making for the kind of PR a budding star could only dream of. Davis signed pro shortly after, cashing a healthy $250, 000 paycheck on the way to an easy victory over Jose Resto. Pryor knocked out Larry Smith, a former kickboxer, for $400 in his first pro fight.
While becoming a huge star has a lot to do with intangibles such as marketability and a good back story, in the sport of boxing the cream always rises to the top. The talent is something that cannot be hidden, cannot be taken away like everything else for someone like Pryor. When the talent is as exceptional as Aaron Pryor’s it becomes only a matter of time.
The sort of ferocity and unbridled savagery displayed by Pryor in the ring made him fast fan favorite. He was like a whirling dervish of violence in the ring, sustaining a pace most men are completely incapable of. Not that a lot of his fights lasted long enough to truly test his stamina. Pryor was quickly moving up the rankings whilst a turbulent soap opera played on in the background.
For all he had been blessed with in the ring, his rough upbringing had burdened him with much outside of it. Antisocial behavior, distrust of everyone around him and a love for partying were just part of his troubles. He always seemed to be changing managers and trainers, believing both were failing him in their own ways.
Fights with both “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran had fallen through on the winding path to a showdown with Alexis Arguello. There always seemed to be someone in his ear, telling him to hold out for more money or that his current manager was doing him wrong. Neither Duran or Leonard’s management had time to wait around for Pryor to get his story straight.
In the midst of losing the Duran fight because of ongoing negotiations between his management and himself for a new promotional contract, Pryor did a deal behind his managements back to sign with Don King. Pryor figured King had both Duran and Saol Mamby inked to deals so fights with the two were more likely to happen.
Pryor’s behavior led to the deal with King only lasting three fights. Although one of the rising stars of the sport King couldn’t handle the incessant demands coming out of the Pryor camp. Pryor moved onto Bob Arum and the chance to fight Arguello.
At that point in time Arguello was vying for the title of biggest star in the sport. While Pryor was the hard luck kid trying to change his image, Arguello was a media darling with a million dollar smile and the ability to prove himself in the ring. It was the sort of pairing a promoter dreams of. The fight that followed was something no one could have imagined.
Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor went to war on November 11, 1982. It was a humid night in Miami, the fight playing out in front of a packed crowd in the Orange Bowl. Whatever the ticket prices were, those who bought ’em got more than they could have bargained for.
Whilst Arguello had the ability to knockout an opponent better than most, he was also a skilled practitioner of the Sweet Science. His height gave him the ability to move around opponents at a far quicker pace than most, and his long arms made it easy to keep a dangerous opponent at a distance and wear him down. One has to believe that was the game plan for the Pryor fight.
Aaron Pryor on the other hand fought like a junkyard dog battling with the other dogs over a scraps. He could move around the ring fast, but he only used that speed to come out of the corner at you quicker. He wasn’t interested in dancing around you, he was interested in punishing you.
What many weren’t aware of, and were stunned to find out, was that Pryor also possessed a chin that seemed inhumane, otherworldly. Arguello said as much after the fight. Twice in the second round he was hit with shots that had put many a Arguello opponent to sleep. Neither seemed to faze Pryor.
The punch he took in the 13th round looked like the sort which would land many in a hospital. Instead Pryor came out in the 14th and closed the show. The supernova had exploded and Pryor was at the top of the world.
Much of what followed after was simply a sad story, his second showdown and victory over Arguello being one moment in which it flared up again before ultimately fading out for good. Pryor liked to party before the Arguello fight and the riches it brought. He didn’t slow down afterwards.
He went through three different trainers into the lead up of the second fight with Arguello. His long time trainer, Panama Lewis, had his license revoked after a fight of his was found with loaded gloves. Richie Giachetti was next up, lasting one fight, before Pryor settled on the legendary Emanuel Steward.
Steward was perhaps the last chance Pryor had at maintaining a career at the highest level. A notoriously tough trainer who refused to take any guff from his charges, Steward was like the father figure Pryor had needed throughout his life.
His game plan led to such a thorough domination of Arguello that after the bout had been stopped the Nicaraguan legend announced his retirement. Arguello and Pryor shed tears in the ring together. Pryor said Arguello was the only man he had defeated whom he respected afterwards.
Everything faded away from that point for Pryor. It was “Hawk Time” no longer. Pryor slipped into a deep paranoia courtesy of the cocaine habit his vast fortune was now being blown away on. Run ins with the law led to increasingly odd stories. At the age of 28 the best years had come and gone for Aaron Pryor.
The supernova which had shone so brightly, blinding the boxing universe with it’s absolutely brilliance, was left to fade away in obscurity. Only the occasional flare up being a reminder of what once had been, and what ultimately could have been under different circumstances.