Aaron Pryor: Remembering The Hawk
Time forgets many things, great champions are quickly forgotten, the new generation of talent relegate the old warriors to history far quicker than they deserve. But some great fighters can be forgotten even in their own era. As good as they are, others are deemed on another level, talent and achievements are masked by superstars that could have competed and shined in every decade in the long history of the noble art.
In many ways, Aaron Pryor was in his prime at the wrong time. The 80s was perhaps the greatest decade in boxing history, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns are the fighters who made most of the headlines. There were others, but many get lost in an unmatched sea of talent.
The likes of Wilfred Benitez, Michael Spinks and a multitude of other unforgettable fighters shined brightly but were overshadowed by the accomplishments of the fabulous four.
Pryor could have been thought of in the same light as Leonard and Hagler, but despite his own incredible talents, he couldn’t quite get the really big fight his skills merited. There were personal demons, one fight he could never win, at least until it was too late to save his boxing prime.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1955, life was tough from the second he came into the world. Born out of wedlock, a father unknown his mother an alcoholic, a dysfunctional and dangerous upbringing. His mother would later shoot her husband, siblings added to the family crime sheet, his sister stabbed her lover to death, there were more internal woes, far too many to mention. Pryor could never escape trouble, it was all around him.
But boxing gave Pryor something he lacked elsewhere, and a way out of poverty. Lacking guidance and hope, a walk into a boxing gym when he was 13 gave him what he was looking for. The attention he felt he lacked at home, he got in that sweaty unforgiving world.
Pryor was some amateur, 220 fights only 16 defeats. The Olympics loomed in 1976, Pryor had a win over Thomas Hearns and numerous titles but a slim points defeat to Howard Davis Jr in the Olympic trials ended his Olympic dreams.
Without the Olympics on his resume, Pryor couldn’t attract the big money TV offers to turn professional. Setting out on the professional journey, Pryor earned $400 for his first fight, some reports say it was only half that amount, maybe even less than that. A one-sided deal signed, boxing takes from those that give, Pryor another fighter exploited for the benefit of others.
Leonard who won Gold at those Montreal games earned $40,000 on his debut. Pryor even accepted a job as a sparring partner for Davis, his old amateur opponent was now his employer, the strike of a judges pen decides plenty. Pryor became the hired hand, Leonard would also give him work and even he admitted fortunes were shared in those sessions which are now sadly lost in time.
With similarities to the career of Hagler, Pryor struggled to find a footing, meagre purses with little recognition in places reminiscent of the opening scenes of Rocky, Pryor had many ‘Spider Rico’s’ to overcome. The gap in the chase to catch up with the 1976 Olympic team widened. While the likes of Leonard and Davis fought on major TV platforms with the money to match, Pryor toiled away hoping and begging for more.
Pryor kept plugging away, unbeaten in 24 fights, he got himself ranked and eventually he got his moment. In 1980 Antonio Cervantes was tempted with a briefcase full of cash by the infamous Harold Smith, $50,000 deemed enough to defend his WBA light-welterweight against Pryor. The champion was 34, a near 8-year reign looked like being extended when he had his challenger on the floor in the opening round. But Pryor wouldn’t be denied, he had waited too long, the relentless patented perpetual motion style paid dividends and after 4 rounds Cervantes couldn’t take any more.
It should have been the start, all his problems over, but it was anything but. In an age of cocaine and more, Pryor got hooked, each hit shortened his prime, the addiction threatened his life many times, his greatest ever opponent. A potential unification fight with Saoul Mamby was scuppered in 1981 when Pryor was shot by his future wife, no shotgun wedding, just his normality.
Potential fights with Leonard and Duran came to nothing, avoided or bad advice stopped Pryor ascending to new heights. But in 1982 the great Nicaraguan legend Alexis Arguello was looking to make history, no fighter had ever won titles in four weight divisions, Arguello and Pryor needed each other. Arguello wanted his 4th title, Pryor wanted more.
Pryor had defended his title 5 times, but this was his breakthrough fight, his title and much more was on the line. Arguello was favoured, but Pryor was inspired on his defining night. Pryor prevailed in a forgotten classic over 14 rounds in Miami. Finally, Pryor had arrived on the big stage, but as ever, there was controversy. Panama Lewis in his corner had a mysterious bottle, Pryor was told to drink the specially mixed contents an apparent illegal cocktail of renewed energy, a dark shadow on his greatest night.
Pryor removed all doubt in the rematch the following year, but he was slipping further out of control. The temptations proving too much. There would be only 6 more fights after the rematch with Arguello, the peak ended swiftly.
The drugs, multiple arrests, his body failing him, Pryor the elite boxer was going into an abyss, never to return. Pryor lived on the edge and fought the exact same way.
Fights were rare, inactivity and his way of life took away what was left. In 1987 with his eyesight failing him, Bobby Joe Young took away his unbeaten record with a 7th round stoppage. A sad night, that should have been the end, it should have been sooner. Pryor still had some value, others had no shame. Virtually blind in one eye, 3 more fights on the road to nowhere, somehow he got a license to fight, dirty money to be made, Pryor a victim of a sport that often fails.
Without boxing, Pryor returned to the streets where he spent much of his childhood. Different street corners looked the same, Pryor once a world champion now the crackhead, his new ‘friends’ probably unaware of his past, Pryor probably unaware of himself, he was now just one of them. There were beatings and much worse, an unforgiven world of survival that leaves dignity and self-worth at the front door. The sound of gunshots filled the air, imminent demise one stray bullet away. The glory days were no more, an unimaginable oblivion, just waiting for the moment the suffering would end, hoping even, a dangerous world with no rules, would surely soon have another victim.
But Pryor had one last fight to win, his most famous victory, his greatest triumph. With death imminent, he found God, and love, with both he got clean. Pryor became a Baptist minister and campaigned against illegal drug use. Pryor battled dementia in later years, the signs were there when he was only 36, but he found the inner peace that had been missing for much of his life. In 1996 Pryor was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His career of 40 fights, with just one defeat when he had no business being anywhere near the sport, had the look of a what-if, it could have been so different, so much better. Pryor craved what others had, sometimes being a world champion isn’t quite enough.
Pryor was only 60 when he died in 2016 with complications from heart disease. There were mistakes and plenty of them, but Pryor found what he was looking for in the end, he found redemption and deserves to be remembered. The four could easily have been five.