‘Beloved Warrior’ offers tender postmortem

New biography of Alexis Argüello looks at the brilliant boxing career and tragic political career of Nicaragua’s most beloved athlete

Prior to 1974, Nicaragua had never had a world champion—in any sport. That all changed on Nov. 23, 1974, when, at the Inglewood Forum, Alexis Argüello knocked out Rubén Olivares in the thirteenth round to win the WBA featherweight crown. For Nicaraguans everywhere, it was a glorious moment that still, almost forty years later, stands near the pinnacle of national pride.

That fight also marked the beginning of Argüello’s long reign in the boxing world—12 years in which he also won the super-featherweight and the lightweight titles. Although only true boxing fans remember him today, Nicaraguans everywhere carry Alexis in their hearts.

Christian Giudice’s Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello, does a splendid job of chronicling the Nicaraguan’s boxing career. The task of providing an account of each of Alexis’s bouts—there were 63 of them—represents a formidable trial for any writer. Falling into the abyss of repetitiousness is an ever-present danger. But Giudice rises to the challenge, describing the circumstances surrounding each contest in prose so lucid that flurries of punches often jump off the page.

Those who followed Argüello’s career closely, however, know that he was more than just a boxer. As the author reveals, Alexis, the consummate professional both in and out of the ring, was a luminous icon.  His appeal was universal. In a sport where competitors frequently engage in boorish, macho behavior, Argüello stood out for always being courteous and compassionate. Because of these traits, he became a treasured role model, and this aspect is bound to hook readers who would normally shun books about a fighter.

Beloved Warrior explores Argüello’s humble beginnings in Managua’s Barrio Monseñor Lezcano, his boxing apprenticeship, his gradual rise up the ranks, his first title bout, and then the boxer’s long tenure at the top of his profession. More importantly, Giudice wisely recognizes that the story gains momentum after his subject retires from the ring. The reason? It is virtually impossible for a Nicaraguan to remain on the fringes of the country’s politics. Sooner or later, every citizen is drawn into the vortex—and Alexis Argüello, as the nation’s most idolized icon, was dragged deep into those dark, turbulent waters.

The instant he became a beloved sports hero, politicians began to exploit him. First, sympathizers of the dictator, Anastasio Somoza, appropriated Alexis’s winning image without his consent. In response, when the Sandinistas assumed control in 1979, one of their earliest decisions was to expropriate the boxer’s properties and financial assets. Eventually, the revolutionary government declared him a persona non grata, prohibiting him from returning home. In frustration, at the conclusion of his boxing career, Argüello joined the Contras—an event this organization also exploited for their own purposes.

When the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections, Argüello returned to his homeland with the hope of recovering his properties. At this point, the true story behind Beloved Warrior begins to provide enough pathos for a well-conceived film script. Alexis Argüello’s addiction to alcohol and drugs had taken control of his life and, over time, the former world champion hit rock bottom. He awakens to his dire reality, enters a rehabilitation center, and it is here that the tale takes another surprising turn. Through the intercession of the center’s founder, Argüello and the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega meet and agree to work together for the good of Nicaragua.

Argüello’s abrupt shift in political allegiances confounds many Nicaraguans to this day. Beloved Warrior, however, convincingly makes the case that the politically naïve Alexis did so because he truly believed that through this partnership he could help the impoverished among his fellow citizens.

With laudable objectivity, the author explores how, with Alexis as a drawing card, Ortega was able to work his way back to the presidency. Running on the Sandinista ticket in the 2004 municipal elections, Alexis becomes vice-mayor of Managua. In the 2008 municipal elections, he wins the mayoralty.  Charges of fraud, however, taint the results and Argüello, who had grown accustomed to winning cleanly and decisively in his boxing career, is genuinely hurt when many of his compatriots accuse him of collaborating with a corrupt government.

Then, tragically, on July 1, 2009, the boxing world in general, and Nicaraguans in particular, wake up to the devastating news that Alexis Argüello, the adored hero, had committed suicide. Giudice dispassionately examines every angle of this incident—an incident that remains shrouded in unanswered questions and fraught with the suspicion that the Sandinistas murdered Argüello because he intended to hold a press conference to denounce the party’s manipulation of the electoral process.

Three years later, Nicaraguans still mourn the loss of their greatest sports hero and of an extraordinary person. Christian Giudice writes on his website: “In Beloved Warrior, I hoped to remind people—in Nicaragua and the U.S.—why they loved Alexis Argüello so intensely. I hoped to remind them of each moment that Alexis treated them like family. To me, that kindness was his legacy. No matter who you were, he made you feel like you meant something. It was never pretense; with Alexis, it was always real. I hope, for you the reader, that Beloved Warrior will recapture Alexis’s moments of glory and, once again, remind you why you never stopped thinking about him.”

In this tender postmortem, the author achieves his stated goal, and admirably.

Beloved Warrior is available on Amazon, here.

 

Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin and Meet Me under the Ceiba, two novels set in Nicaragua.  He lives and writes in Panama.  For more information, visit his website at www.silviosirias.com