|Friday, June 30
Updated: July 12, 4:44 PM ET
Arguello: "I wanted to die"
By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com
Arguello, however, wasn't grouchy about getting up early for an interview. He was profusely polite, constantly smiling and impeccably dressed. He was eager to oblige.
Arguello, after all, was happy he had merely survived the night.
He didn't get drunk.
He didn't snort cocaine.
He didn't smoke crack.
He didn't take a strange woman back to his hotel room.
He didn't try to kill himself.
Mere months earlier, one or all of the above was possible for Arguello on any given night. The three-time world champion was reckless and disconsolate. He knew he was killing himself with drugs, and he didn't care.
But it's hard for a man to be fazed by a lethal addiction when he constantly considers plunging a knife into his heart or purposely smashes his car into a tree.
Arguello had a death wish.
"For two months I was afraid to answer the phone because I never knew what that call was going to be," Alexis Arguello Jr. said.
That call almost came -- several times.
Arguello, his mind and spirit ravaged by booze and drugs, was inconsolable for several months, dating back to last summer and continuing until early this year.
Arguello's plight was devastating in so may respects even by boxing's filthy standards. If any fighter was supposed to have left the ring with dignity, Arguello was the one. He was a well-spoken, handsome warrior. He exuded charisma and class. He seemingly could have done anything he wanted.
"I slept two or three times with a knife," Arguello flatly said that June morning, sitting down with two slices of raisin bread and a glass of orange juice. The 48-year-old boxing legend was dressed for that morning's International Boxing Hall of Fame induction parade in a spiffy mustard-colored shirt and black slacks. A gold crucifix dangled from his neck.
"I went to bed with the guilt, trying to deal with this crap. That was my desire (to die) because society is inhumane, so vulgar, so stupid, so empty."
There were many reasons in addition to his addictions that he felt that way.
The fiercely proud Nicaraguan, who in 1983 left his Miami mansion and risked his life and millions of dollars to grab an M-16 rifle and fight on the front lines with the rebellious Contras against the leftist Sandinista regime, was disillusioned with the current government. He claimed wayward officials had funnelled into their own personal accounts American funds meant for Nicaragua.
"That hurt the hell out of me," Arguello said. "I said if these people are so bad, I want to die. I wanted to retaliate, and the only way I could retaliate was with myself.
"I'm sensitive. I'm so sensitive that the behavior of these creeps, when they touched the American money, hurt me. America is a great country and tried to help my country. But those people who stole are crooks."
Arguello also had recurring bouts of depression over his inability to no longer fight. Arguello claimed he still has plenty of money left over from his stellar career and does well with his printing company in Managua, where he lives.
What he still yearns for, however, is the spotlight and the adoration from people around the world who fawned over his once devastating skills. As a result, he struggled with retirement multiple times. He had only a third-grade education and turned pro when he was 16. He didn't know anything else.
Arguello first retired in 1983 after suffering a second knockout to Aaron Pryor. The first Pryor fight was a 14-round brawl that ended with Arguello frightfully laid out on his back for 15 minutes.
Arguello returned two years later to try to become the first four-division champ in boxing history and managed two victories without a title shot before retiring again. He came back yet again in 1994, scoring a victory in his first fight. But the next year, at 41 years old, he looked broken down in a decision loss to clubfighter Scott Walker.
Although Arguello tried to convince himself he still had it after that unsettling loss, he retired for good with a record of 80-8 with 64 knockouts. He was 19-3 in title bouts and fought 14 world champions.
Drug use only augmented boxing's void.
"I felt empty because my sport had fulfilled me so much," Arguello said. Arguello felt shame over his addictions. The Nicaraguan icon, whose heroic presence was so significant the Sandinistas banned the use of his name in print or over the airwaves for fear of rallying the populace, felt he had become an embarrassment to his countrymen.
"The guilt makes you do different things," Arguello said. "I didn't want people to see me because I have the responsibility to try to be a bigger man for my country, an example. (Drugs) get you sensitive because of the guilt, and that guilt allows you to hide yourself from reality."
Even though Arguello couldn't bring himself to slam the blade into his heart, he still wanted to die -- even if it meant asking someone else to kill him.
He told a reporter from the Managua newspaper La Noticia last August he wanted someone to administer a lethal injection. "I believe that the greatest favor that you could do for me at this moment is to inject me with something lethal that would put me into a tranquil sleep forever," Arguello said in Spanish.
It was during that month Arguello's suicidal tendencies came to light in the U.S. He went on Pedro Fernandez' nationally syndicated radio show "Ring Talk" and, through sometimes incoherent speech, announced he was on crack and that, "Yes, I want to die."
Fernandez said he arranged around $40,000 in funding from concerned boxing interests and flew to Managua the next week, hoping to convince Arguello to check into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
"That got heavy," Fernandez, a former San Francisco police officer, said of the intervention. "I was there, his wife was there, the priest was there, his friends were there. But Alexis wasn't there, if you know what I mean.
"It was Jekyll and Hyde. It was one of the most intense situations I've seen in my life. You never saw him get this mad when he fought Aaron Pryor. He looked like he was going to kill."
Arguello refused rehabilitation then. He claimed Fernandez and those putting up the money had ulterior motives, saying, "Nobody gives you that kind of money and doesn't expect anything in return."
"It was spinning out of control," said Arguello Jr., who at 28 is the oldest of Alexis' seven children. "It was pretty bad. It got to the point where it was pretty much all he wanted to do was get his hands on a certain drug, and he almost got the point where he was selling all his possessions."
One incident last January finally gave Arguello a dose of reality.
After a night of drinking scotch and wine, smoking pot and snorting lines of cocaine at a party in Managua's ritzy Intercontinental Hotel, Arguello wanted to keep going. His girlfriend Alicia, with whom he has two small children, wanted to go home.
"I almost killed my lady," Arguello said. "I choked her. We were dancing and having some drinks at a company party I had been invited to. We left, but I wanted to keep drinking, and she didn't want me to. So I pushed her. And she came back at me mad, and I grabbed her by the throat.
"When that happened, I said that was it. I spent two weeks with sorrow in my heart for that. That scared the crap out of me. She went to the press, but I appreciated that because I realized that was not the thing to do."
Arguello checked into the Hodera rehabilitation center and spent two months there. He claimed he hasn't taken a drink or used drugs since. Marlboros are his only vice now, a habit he picked up from his chain-smoking third wife.
"I think another month of him (drinking and doing drugs) he would be gone," Arguello Jr. said. "Thank God he woke up and got that hope he needed.
"We're just very happy he was able to make the decision on his own that he needed help. That's the most important thing for someone with that sickness is to want the help, to want to take hold of his life."
While in rehab, Arguello said he came to grips with another problem he thinks may also be an addiction: women.
When asked to estimate the number of women he has slept with, Arguello answered with a helpless expression: "I lost count," he said. "I tried to get laid any time I could. I won't be a liar. I cheated on all three of my wives. I cheated big time.
"But one of the things I've learned is I can't fornicate anymore outside my relationship.
"I'm just trying to be a man," he continued. "I need to be sober. I need to be straight. You only need a little conviction. There were times before when people would come up to me two, three times and ask me if I wanted a drink and I would say, 'No,' but then the fourth time I would say, 'Sure.' It was weak conviction."
The night before he spoke those words, Arguello was in that exact setting. He was dancing the night away at Graziano's Restaurant, the traditional party zone on Hall of Fame induction eve.
Several of boxing's all-time greats were there, as were throngs of fans. So many people wanted to celebrate with Arguello like in previous years.
Since Arguello was inducted in 1992, he had commemorated the occasion each year by going on a ripper in Canastota. It usually started with Chivas Regal -- lots of it -- and from there the night progressed into oblivion.
"People would bring up old times from past years and say, 'Yeah, we went back to my house and we partied and had a great time,' and my dad would say, 'What are you talking about?' He was under a fog," said Arguello Jr., who attended this year's festivities with brother Roberto as chaperones.
The weekend was a major test for Arguello's sobriety. He passed.
"He said (this year), 'It was nice to wake up in the morning and remember what went on,"' Arguello Jr. said. "For him to realize that is great."
ESPN.com boxing writer Tim Graham covers the Sweet Science for The Buffalo News and The Ring Magazine, and formerly wrote for the Las Vegas Sun.