By March 1980, not even Muhammad Ali could escape the wrath of “The Hawk.” Aaron Pryor, then an undefeated lightweight contender who inspired the sporting equivalent of Avoidant Personality Disorder across an entire division, was irked—morning, noon, and midnight.
An angry Pryor approached Ali in the Fifth Street Gym and admonished him with a bitterness that had become something of a personal trademark. “He was in Cincinnati about eight months ago to visit his brother . . . and he told me he’d try to help me get a big-money fight,” Pryor told a local newspaper. “But I went to see the guy who runs Ali’s boxing firm, and nothing happened. So I told him about it, told him he’d made some promises and disappointed me, after I admired him all my life.”
Already Pryor was a man whose headaches suggested something Dada. One afternoon Madison Square Garden, in the heart of the media capital of America, called a press conference on behalf of Pryor to announce: nothing. No fights, no contract extension, no endorsement deal, no charity exhibition. Nothing. It was just another freaky Pryor moment in a lifetime full of them.
His dreams were sickly from neglect. What would it take to revive them? Despite his record and his frenetic style, Pryor had never made a television appearance. His career earnings amounted to about $40,000. He was working in a clothing store to make ends meet. He dashed from city to city, promoter to promoter, manager to manager, hashing frantic schemes with Buddy LaRosa and Don Elbaum in Cincinnati, Gil Clancy at MSG, Chris Dundee down in Miami, all in hopes of catching the seemingly mystical break that had eluded him ever since he failed to earn a spot on the fabled 1976 American Olympic team.
It was a narrow decision loss to Howard Davis Jr. in the Olympic trials that sent Pryor hurtling into oblivion like one of the astronauts (Dr. Poole) betrayed by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Davis earned a gold medal in Montreal, he was rewarded with a television contract worth $180,000, perpetual broadcast airtime, and local celebrity in Glen Cove, New York. All Pryor got for his pro debut (against a kickboxer who would never win a professional fight) was $200 and an undercard slot at the Cincinnati Convention Center.
Even in Cincinnati, where he had been raised in Over-the-Rhine, Pryor had issues. While training at a neighborhood YMCA, someone filled his gas tank with sugar. Because his car was decorated with “AARON PRYOR” bumper stickers, the intended target was clear to all. “I couldn’t believe it . . . in my hometown. I want to make my home here, but then something like this happens. I don’t have the kind of money to just go out and buy another car.”
As 1980 went by, however, Pryor began to accelerate. An explosive kayo of Julio Valdez on the undercard of a televised Wilfred Benitez bout failed to air, but Pryor earned a headline slot less than two months later. Off to Kansas City he went, where NBC had a date available for its budget SportsWorld series, to pummel Leonidas Asprilla en route to a tenth-round stoppage.
Pryor was now 23-0, with his first television experience behind him, but he felt as restless as ever. Before his annihilation of Asprilla, Buddy LaRosa made a vow within earshot of a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter: “This is the last time we dress in a bathroom.” But Pryor remained impatient. He had a lifetime of deprivation behind him, the present seemed no more than a continuation of the past, and the future was not guaranteed. “I grew up in a poor section of Cincinnati and I’ve been on welfare,” Pryor said. “The money I’ve gotten for a lot of fights was like being on welfare. I was fighting for nothing. Now I’m getting $15,000 for a TV fight. I’m moving up in the world.”
For Pryor, forever on-the-go, the ascent was more than just slow: it was tortoise-like. To receive his first title shot, Pryor would have to overstep even the stranger-than-fiction fringes of boxing. He paid a visit to Harold Rossfields Smith. Until he was convicted of embezzling more than $20 million from a Wells Fargo bank, Smith was, for a season or two, a benevolent boxing huckster without rhyme or reason. As the figurehead of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports (Ali had simply leased his name to the company and had no involvement in its operations), Smith gatecrashed an industry far more comfortable with subtraction than addition. He was the rainmaker pugs had been dreaming about for decades, a man who paid outlandish sums of money for fights that had little hope of turning a profit. Later, after he drew a sentence of ten years in federal prison, his Quixotic days in boxing would remain inscrutable.
Pryor arranged a meeting with Smith and asked the sub rosa promoter if he could get him a shot at a title. Although Pryor was ranked as a lightweight by both the WBC and the WBA, Smith offered him a chance to fight grizzled Antonio Cervantes for a junior-welterweight championship. Smith punctuated his offer with a characteristic flourish: a briefcase stuffed with $50,000 in cash.
From that point on, there was only “Yes” for Pryor, who had only known “No” since he had been a street urchin sleeping under doorways when his mother locked him out of the house.
August 2, 1980
“Kid Pambele” was no longer a kid (he had made his professional debut in 1964, after all) but he was more than just a veteran: he was a fighter who could feel the beginning of the end drawing closer with each passing day. The $250,000 purse Smith had offered him was the equivalent of a jackpot for Cervantes. Fighting on the road against a young, undefeated powerhouse meant nothing compared to cashing the biggest paycheck of his career. Whatever the potential risks were, the rewards offset them. But Cervantes knew the hazard Pryor represented. “I have to be punching,” he said before the fight. “I have to be the aggressor; I don’t want Pryor in close.”
Wearing black Sasson trunks with color-coordinated tube socks, Pryor (who might as well have been sponsored by Excedrin or Anacin) bounced on his toes in his corner, all those years of pent-up rage and frustration set to erupt. Across the ring, Cervantes, decked out in no-frills attire, looked like he had already been kayoed. He sprawled, lolled, slumped on his stool, waiting, almost indolently, for the opening bell to ring. This odd posture suggested a few interpretive possibilities. Either Cervantes viewed his latest title defense as a lucrative walkover, or he was trying to convey a message of nonchalance to the inexperienced Pryor. A final possibility? Cervantes was already resigned to his ruinous fate.
The Riverfront Coliseum may not have been sold out (a crowd of roughly ten thousand attended) but it was as raucous as a Monster Truck show. And Pryor added to the chaotic atmosphere by racing out of his corner at the bell and bombarding Cervantes. A stand-up counterpuncher with a neat, economical style, Cervantes calmly tried to potshot Pryor as he barreled in. It was an MO that had allowed him to remain virtually undefeated since 1972. Only the seventeen-year-old wunderkind, Wilfred Benitez, had been able to stymie Cervantes, and that was via split-decision in Puerto Rico. At thirty-four, however, Cervantes would be hard-pressed to remain poised against a bell-to-bell onslaught from a fighter so much younger, so much hungrier, so much angrier. Still, Cervantes knew he would have his opportunities.
With less than thirty seconds remaining in the round, Cervantes, backed against a turnbuckle, lashed out with a straight right that dropped Pryor to his knees. Pryor popped up almost instantly and windmilled his right arm throughout the mandatory count from Referee Larry Rozadilla. Then he charged Cervantes again, carrying the final seconds with a fury that emphasized his ring style: what Pryor did in the ring, he did without stopping, ever.
In the third round, an overhand right cut Cervantes over his left eye and a stoppage seemed imminent. The counterpunches Cervantes had landed throughout the pitched battle had dropped Pryor, staggered him, and briefly checked his assault, but they had been unable to stop him. Halfway through the fourth, Pryor blitzed Cervantes against the ropes, and the champion began to wobble. Finally, a pinpoint right, flush to the jaw, sent Cervantes crashing. He made a defiant gesture while on the canvas but made no effort to beat the count. “Usually I go into my victory dance when the guy goes down,” Pryor told The Ring. “But I thought, no, this is the champ. Then, when I saw he couldn’t get up, I said, ‘I can’t believe this . . .’ Dreams really do come true.”
This particular dream—a championship and the distinction that came with it—would inspire bedlam. First, in the ring, where a mob stormed Pryor, in celebration, for what seemed like an eternity. (When Pryor finally broke free, he wept in his corner.) Then, later, when his world went haywire and chaos became his organizing principle.
“Winning the WBA junior welterweight championship was supposed to have solved all of my problems,” he wrote in his autobiography, Flight of the Hawk. “It brought on more problems than I had ever experienced. I became a monster. I was King Kong, Godzilla, and Loch Ness all rolled into one. Forget ‘Hawk Time.’ That was small peanuts. I was a mushroom-cloud-layin’, radiation leakin’, two-ton megaton atomic bomb ready for Ground Zero.”
In a few months, his soon-to-be wife would shoot him with a .22-caliber revolver, forcing the cancellation of a title defense against Saoul Mamby and marking the tumultuous future to come.