Right on for the darkness: On Aaron Pryor

 

“I am inside someone who hates me.” – Amiri Baraka

 

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From the beginning, Aaron Pryor was at odds with the world. Or perhaps, the world was at odds with him. One of the most exciting fighters during an era – the 1980s – when action was a prerequisite for fame, Pryor matched his unbridled style in the ring with an apocalyptic personal life that kept him in boldface for over a decade. Pryor was an at-risk youth before the term came into vogue. Dysfunction was in his DNA. He was born – out of wedlock – in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1955, to an alcoholic mother, whose moodiness could lead to impromptu gun play. Sarah Pryor occasionally whipped out the nickel-plated hardware when her children became unruly. Years later, she wound up shooting her husband five times, in the kind of supercharged domestic dispute in which the Pryor clan excelled.

 

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Pryor had a family tree whose branches were gnarled by tragedy. Its roots were blood-soaked. One of his brothers Lorenzo was a career criminal who once escaped from Cincinnati County Jail. Another brother David became a transsexual hooker. His sister Catherine stabbed her lover to death after an argument. Pryor also had a half-brother who was shot and paralyzed by his father. As if to solidify the epigenetics involved in the Pryor family – and to concretize the symbolism of the phrase “vicious cycle” – Sarah Pryor had witnessed her own mother shot and murdered by a boyfriend when Sarah was a child.

 

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With his mother preoccupied by pint bottles and pandemonium, Pryor found himself on the streets of Mount Auburn and Avalon – where race riots in 1967 and 1968 left ruins in their wake – unsupervised most of the time. In fact, he was virtually homeless, couch-surfing when he could, sleeping in doorways or under awnings, whenever his mother locked him out of the house. As an eight-year-old already at sea in chaotic surroundings, Pryor was molested by a minister. Shame was never far beneath the surface of a man who would eventually earn millions of dollars and worldwide fame.

 

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After losing a decision to Howard Davis Jr. in an Olympic trials box-off, Pryor returned to Cincinnati, at loose ends. In 1976 he made his debut as a professional and earned $400 against an ex-kickboxer, Larry Smith. By contrast, Davis had a contract from CBS in hand worth nearly $300,000 before he had ever stepped into a pro ring. The American TV gold rush had begun and Pryor was unable to stake a claim. To make ends meet, Pryor became the hired help for the stars who had left him far behind: Davis and Sugar Ray Leonard both used him as a sparring partner.

 

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Not long after signing Pryor to an exclusive deal, Madison Square Garden – in those days one of the top promotional firms on the East Coast – called a press conference to announce that “The Hawk,” then a lightweight, could not get a meaningful fight. In 1980, Pryor turned to the Robin Hood of prizefighting, Harold Smith, for help. Smith, with money embezzled from Wells Fargo National Bank, managed to lure WBA junior welterwweight titleholder Antonio Cervantes to Cincinnati, where Pryor rebounded from an early knockdown to overwhelm and eventually stop the defending champion, who entered the ring with as many successful title defenses under his belt as Pryor had fights.

 

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Like Leon Spinks, the ditzy man-child sent careening through short-lived fame, Pryor often received press coverage that bordered on mockery. Spinks became the target of talk show hosts and a Richard Pryor skit but Aaron Pryor was no less susceptible to lampooning than “Neon” Leon. His pre-hip-hop Kangols, Cazals and DayGlo track suits were ready-made for ridicule. Malapropisms popped out of his mouth like Mentos. The bad press he received, he said, was due to “misrepresentation of my personality.” Later, he removed the gold cap from one of his front teeth, began wearing suits in public and even toted a briefcase from one press junket to another. That did not stop him from making outlandish headlines when his future wife Theresa Adams shot him with a .22 and sent him racing to an emergency room on foot.

 

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What made Pryor appealing was a fierce ring style, seemingly at one with a personal outlook that bordered on madness. Pryor scored five consecutive stoppages in defense of his junior welterweight title and, in the process, astonished viewers with his frenzied performances. For Pryor, being knocked down often meant popping right back up to charge at his opponent before the referee could issue the mandatory eight-count. Gaetan Hart, Lennox Blackmoore, DuJuan Johnson, Miguel Montilla, Akio Kameda – all worn down by Pryor and his cyclone attack. Still, Pryor believed respect and riches were eluding him.

 

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Three world championships into his career, Alexis Arguello finally broke into the mainstream after stopping heartland teen idol Ray Mancini in a 1981 lightweight title defense. After scoring a brutal 14th round TKO, Arguello captured the imagination of a national television audience by consoling Mancini with a tenderness antithetical to the general mores of a blood sport. You could not ask for a saintlier contrast to Aaron Pryor.

 

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Before the bell rings, Pryor shadowboxes, paces, flurries with intensity. Then, as he is being introduced by ring announcer Hector Salazar, he points his gloved fist at Arguello and holds his pose, glowering, for nearly a minute. “I intended to make Alexis believe that I was going to…kill him,” Pryor later recalled. Soon the men meet at ring center and nearly 24,000 spectators watch, spellbound, as Pryor and Arguello abandon themselves to bloodlust for nearly an hour.

 

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November 12, 1982, The Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida: Pryor TKO 14 Arguello

 

“After the fight was stopped, Arguello was stretched out on the floor with an oxygen mask held to his face. For the moment, he was not an athlete, not an admirable public figure, but the victim of an accident, as if he had been hit by a drunken driver, or a coal mine roof had fallen on him.” – George Vecsey, New York Times

 

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There will be no salvaging either man. For both Pryor and Arguello, the future is an illusion. “After I beat Arguello is when I started to lose myself,” Pryor once recalled. “I didn’t know quite who I was for a long time.”

 

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Finally, Pryor has earned the distinction he has craved his entire life. Or has he? Within hours, his greatest accomplishment is eclipsed by the actions of his trainer Carlos “Panama” Lewis. Twice during the bout, Lewis instructs Pryor to drink from what legend tells us was a mysterious black bottle, after the first round and after the 13th. “The Black Bottle” is not black at all, in fact, but a strange Robert Ryman off-white. Grainy video reveals that it seems to be wrapped in athletic tape as if to hide the contents within. Panama Lewis would go on to serve a prison sentence for removing the padding from the gloves of Luis Resto in a 1983 fight against Billy Collins Jr.

 

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Pryor essentially trained himself for the rematch with Arguello. Sparring numberless rounds sans headgear, Pryor was hospitalized with a migraine. Under-conditioned, surrounded by chaos and already battling a drug addiction that would leave him on the brink of death more than once, Pryor batters Arguello in Las Vegas on September 9, 1983, scoring a 10th round TKO and trading the limelight in for a life on the margins.

 

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In 1974, The New York Times called cocaine “the champagne of drugs.” It was the narcotic of choice for Hollywood, Wall Street and the international jet set. Necklaces with tiny spoons and razor blades adorning them become fads for movers, shakers and snorters. High Times, Rolling Stone and even Newsweek report on the cocaine scene with breathless enthusiasm. By 1980, however, the Bahamas are so oversaturated in powder that Caribbean drug dealers decide to sell it in a crystallized form that can be smoked. This new derivation, inexpensive and highly addictive, is first called “rock.” Later, when it would ravage inner cities and send the national murder rate skyrocketing, it will be called “crack.” Its first breeding ground in the United States is Miami, Florida.

 

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His wife introduces him to crack in 1982. For the next 10 years, Pryor loses himself in a perpetual haze. A Sports Illustrated profile in 1985 reveals Pryor, Death-in-Life, gray and skeletal, his surroundings as dreary as those of bag lady mired in a back alley or a drifter wandering the gutters from day to dire day. For Pryor, nothing mattered now except the rush. He placed his life and his career on a funeral pyre.

 

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“Miami is the drug capital of the U.S. There are drugs at every other door. Living in that environment, I reached out for some help. My wife had divorced me. I was so hurt by rumors of the black bottle that I had no energy. I reached out and certain people did not give me their right hand. They gave me drugs.” – Aaron Pryor

 

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A ramshackle Pryor returned to the ring in 1984. Against limited Nicky Furlano in Toronto, Pryor labored to a 15-round decision and revealed, in the process, a fighter – no, a man – who was beginning to fray. On March 3, 1985, in his last title fight, Pryor struggled to a narrow points win over Gary Hinton, in Atlantic City, for the IBF junior welterweight title. Then he vanished, undefeated, into a permanent midnight.

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“I ain’t the Hawk now. The Hawk is dead. I’m a ghost.” – Aaron Pryor, 1985

 

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The mid-1980s, neon and glitz for so many, are some of the bleakest years for Pryor. He is divorced for a second time. In October 1986, Pryor is arrested for assaulting his mother. A year later, he is shot and held hostage by a pair of drug addicts before managing to escape. His mother tries to have him committed. In 1988, he tests positive for cocaine. He is in and out of rehab centers. He has surgery to repair a cataract. In September 1989, he is arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. There are more lawsuits and canceled fights than can be remembered. Pryor went through trainers, managers and promoters the way a hanging judge went through outlaws in the West. Finally after the lost years passed him in a blur, Pryor is sentenced to six months in prison for drug possession. For more than one court appearance, Pryor, who appeared indefatigable in the ring, overslept and arrived late.

 

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“I immediately became a night person. There’s no such thing as a crackhead being a ‘day person.’ The crackhead is up all night and sleeps all day.” – Aaron Pryor

 

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This was not the kind of habit that led to a few weeks in the Betty Ford Clinic or could be overcome by an intervention. It was “Do the Right Thing”/”J is For Junkie”/”Night of the Living Basehead” deterioration. For loose change, a shambolic Pryor shadowboxed on street corners. Occasionally, he even sparred against neighborhood toughs in alleys and backyards. He shuffled from one crackhouse to another, took beatings from conscienceless thugs, suffered sexual degradation, slept on curbsides under harsh lamppost light. Every urban wasteland was a mirror image of another during that era. Crack vials shattered beneath your feet. Abandoned buildings were repurposed for shooting galleries and smoking dens. Crosswalks were ruled by vicious sentinels wearing Timberlands and waving Glocks. All blue hours were splintered by the pop-pop-pop of gunshots, the non-stop wail of sirens and the falling, booming bass beat of Jeeps cruising the risky streets. Then the sun would rise again on chalk outlines, spent shells, sidewalks caked in flaking blood. But you would never think to find someone as accomplished as Aaron Pryor in that netherworld.

 

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“One time, a dope dealer thought I was so high that he could manipulate me into believing that I owed him $5,000. I argued with him and he pulled a gun on me and started firing at me point blank. I pulled out my own gun and started firing back. In a flash, there were two other guys by his side firing automatic weapons at me. It was a good old Wild West show. The bullets were whizzing by me and putting holes in my car. We must have been only 20 feet from each other. When I emptied my gun, I got in the car and drove off. That was the kind of madness I was living in.” – Aaron Pryor

 

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More than two years after the Hinton fight, Pryor faced journeyman Bobby Joe Young at the Sunrise Musical Theater, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was too much for a disintegrating Pryor. Years of squalor had left him with a gray pallor. It was now 1987 and his vision, suspect for years, may finally have deteriorated to the point where Pryor should not have been allowed in the ring. Before the fight even began, Pryor had his mouth bloodied in a scuffle with Young’s trainer Tommy Parks. Young scored a knockdown in the first round, staggered Pryor repeatedly and floored the ex-champion hard in the seventh with an overhand right. As referee Bernie Soto tolled the mandatory eight-count, a wobbly Pryor dropped to one knee and made the sign of the cross. Then Soto reached “10.”

 

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“Lord, I’m so low down, baby, I declare I’m looking up at down.” – Big Bill Broonzy

 

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His umpteenth comeback, in 1990, was a travesty. A sleazy fly-by-night promoter named Diana Lewis decided that Pryor would be enough of a sideshow attraction to make the harsh phrase “blood money” a remunerative reality. Nearly blind in one eye, Pryor was granted a license to fight in Wisconsin, whose Department of Licensing and Regulation ruled that denying the tattered Hawk the right to fight was tantamount to discrimination. Pryor stopped Darryl Jones, his pal of many years, in three farcical rounds and returned to the streets.

 

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“All of it had to do with drugs. With crack. He has been assaulted – mentally, physically, sexually. He’s been beaten, not just with fists but with guns, sticks, bats. Some of these leeches have taunted him to shadowbox for them. They have mocked him, humiliated him, threatened him. All for what? A little rock of cocaine? For that trash, they’ve made him beg. Made him do unimaginable…” – Cincinnati trainer Mike Brown, 1993

 

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Lying in a crackhouse, seemingly on the verge of death, Pryor finally has an epiphany. He is rushed to a hospital with bleeding ulcers and undergoes surgery. When he is released after two weeks – now sporting a long scar across his stomach, the last of several life marks – he heads straight for a church and to a new beginning, one that lasts for more than 20 years. Aside from a few national television appearances alongside his son Aaron Pryor, Jr., a journeyman super middleweight, the Hawk no longer has the spotlight on him. This new anonymity is a sign of serenity – something Pryor finally earned with blood and sweat, his last victorious fight. Aaron Pryor died of heart disease on October 9, 2016, at the age of 60.

 

 

 

Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.  He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.  His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.

 

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