I didn't know Alexis Argüello very well, but I cried when he died. Alexis was a Nicaraguan sports icon — a three-time world boxing champ who never lost a title in the ring. He's still considered one of the greatest fighters of all time, more than 30 years after his prime and five years after his death. I don't remember his boxing career, the glitter of his championship belts, or his legendary 14-round fight against Aaron Pryor in 1982. I was too young to notice.
Alexis Arguello (R) connects with a right jab against Aaron Pryor during a fight at Caesars Palace on September 9, 1983 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)
I don't remember the political controversy when Alexis' trainer cloaked him in a red-and-black Sandinista flag following a televised championship fight that I didn't see. I don't remember when Alexis was forced to live in exile in Miami, or when he joined the southern front contras after getting all his bank accounts and properties confiscated by the Sandinista government in the 1980s. And I don't remember his failed acting career in the 1990s. I don't think anyone does. I don't remember Alexis' drug years in South Beach, although he told me about them later. I think he called those years a "snake pit" or "the lowest snake pit in hell," or something like that. He used the term "snake pit" a lot — it's how he described his later career in politics, too.
I do remember his laugh. It was loud and crazy and manic. Like Yogi Bear's. I remember how much people loved him. I remember the first time I interviewed Alexis in 2007, sitting at the bar in TGI Friday's in Managua, people came up to him and asked to take a photo. He agreed to everyone's request with that giant, silly smile of his. I remember Alexis smoking cigarettes at the bar during our interview. I remember thinking he was drunk. He told me he only drank ginger ale at parties so that people would think he was drinking whisky. Everyone expected him to drink and be the life of the party, so staying sober was difficult, he said. I remember doubting that he only drank ginger ale— his personality and laugh seemed too big and loud to be sober.
Alexis Arguello posing with a waiter in Fridays restaurant in Managua in 2007.
When I first met Alexis, he had just resigned as vice-mayor of Managua to prepare for a run for the mayor's office. It was something he took very seriously.
Alexis told me some crazy stuff that day. When I asked him about his political influences, he mentioned George Washington, whom he praised for "writing the Declaration of Independence" ("I love that document, man"). The champ also told me some hilariously misinformed version of the first Thanksgiving — something about the English Army agreeing to lay down their arms for one day during their siege of New Orleans to join Americans in a turkey dinner. I love that story; to this day, my Thanksgiving dinner starts with a toast to British armistice followed by a few inspired words about the resilience of colonial New Orleanians (Hands off The Big Easy, Georgie Porgie!).
Just when I thought our conversation couldn't get any stranger, Alexis asked me to write his biography. He said he trusted me to tell his story, even though I had only known him for about 45 minutes. I assumed it was the ginger ale talking. My lasting memory of that day was that Alexis was a really good person. He had a giant heart and an endearingly goofy way about him. He was tough and sensitive. He was nearly in tears when he told me about how impoverished Nicaraguans came to visit him in his office to ask for help when he was vice mayor. Oftentimes, he said, he would dig into his own pockets to help the poor — it was part of some mission-from-God, path-to-redemption thing that he genuinely felt during the final years of his life.
And wasn't afraid to throw a punch when he had to. When he was vice mayor, a desperate father approached him to ask for help covering expensive medical care for his 8-year-old daughter's leukemia. Alexis picked up the phone and called Nicaraguan pharmaceutical manufacturers to demand help. When the drug companies balked, Alexis said he unleashed a volley of MF-bombs ("You cheap mother f***ers— you scumbag mother f***ers!") until they capitulated.
The champ was still learning his footing in the political ring, but was eager at a chance for a comeback. Alexis told me that President Daniel Ortega — the same guy who confiscated his properties and drove him into exile 30 years earlier — had given him a shot at redemption for his decade lost in the oblivion of drugs. Alexis bought the Sandinistas' line about "reconciliation and national unity." He was excited about the prospect of public service and helping the poor. It was the first clue that he had no idea what he was getting himself into as mayor.
Alexis Arguello during a campaign rally in Managua, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008.(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
The Sandinistas viewed Alexis as the perfect candidate — popular and unprepared for the job. He had enough charisma to win office, but lacked the political chops for the job. The ruling party just wanted him to win the elections; they'd take if from there.
Trouble started immediately. The elections were a fraud, and Alexis was appointed mayor by unscrupulous Sandinista electoral authorities. The champ, known in his boxing days as "The Gentleman of the Ring" for always fighting clean, wasn't comfortable with his dirty win. He disappeared for days after the election, and when he finally resurfaced it looked like he had fallen off the wagon. Hard.
Alexis was a lousy mayor. But that was by design. Political handlers appointed by the president's wife were making all the decisions and running the mayor's office behind his back. The champ became a chump. The Sandinistas had him against the ropes.
Five years ago on Tuesday, Alexis Argüello died of a bullet to the heart. Some call it suicide, and others insist he was murdered (his cause of death has been changed numerous times on Wikipedia). Nicaragua deserves a credible investigation, which won't happen under the current government. What the country got instead was a ghastly Sandinista statue of Alexis Argüello that looks like it was carved out petrified mashed potatoes by someone who has never attempted art. It was a final low-blow to the memory of a great man.
Alexis Arguello's daugther, Dora Arguello cries over the coffin of her father the, three-time world boxing champion, and Mayor of the city of Managua, in Managua, Wednesday July 1, 2009.(AP Photo/Miguel Alvarez)
I didn't get to know Alexis very well, but his death will always bother me. The so-called "Explosive Thin Man" represented everything that was good and pure about Nicaragua: he was tough, tender, innocent, vulnerable and foolish. He was a lovely man with a big heart. And his death still makes me sad.