"There’s nothing you can do. If you go back, they will take your life.”—Trainer and lifelong Argüello friend, Don Kahn
Sometimes ignorance and resentment can come from the most unlikeliest of sources. In the ring, Alexis Argüello always knew his opponent and how to approach and attack him. Outside the ring, it was not always that easy. Back in the summer of 1979, he was blindsided by a set of events that still seem unexplainable to this day.
Not long after displacing the dictatorship of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle on July 19, 1979, the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) confiscated all of Argüello’s holdings, which were valued near $500,000. True to Argüello’s character, the only thing he cared about was his family’s safety. He would make another fortune and another one on top of that one, but hearing that his mother and sister were forced into the streets of Managua sparked an anger that never left him.
For the first time in his life, Argüello could not go home.
Ingrained within the fighter—even before the confiscation—was the capacity to emotionally detach himself from controversy away from the ring. He possessed an innate ability that few could attest to. On several occasions during his career, Argüello faced hypocrisy and encountered power struggles that he sidestepped with class and dignity. In 1981, Argüello was training in Tucson, Arizona at the Estevan Gym for a bout with Roberto Elizondo when a police officer entered and immediately threw him out of the gym, citing a bogus technicality. Locals were enraged at the mistreatment of their guest, but Argüello moved on without incident. To him, the disrespect represented nothing more than a blip on the radar. Argüello always knew when to engage or when to pull back. It was crucial that he never lost his composure or the respect of his fans; that mentality guided him in the ring.
Two years earlier another battle was in its early stages.
Unbeknownst to many, it was a parade in the city of Estelí in 1975 that ignited the controversial split with the Sandinistas. Or at least that was the pretext the new government used to exile a national treasure. As a recently crowned champion, Argüello was approached by then Somoza’s chief, Rene Molina, to be given an honor during a parade in the mountainous Estelí region. He would be awarded an honorary lieutenant title with the National Guard.
As a newly crowned champ, Argüello didn’t consider the implications of the invitation; for that matter, no one could have predicted the repercussions. What many viewed as a political maneuver on the part of Somoza, Argüello saw as a kind gesture, a way of giving back to his people.
However, the appearance backfired miserably. The next day, a newspaper published a photo of Argüello riding a horse in the parade with a caption that mocked him. The mild-mannered Argüello was infuriated by the caustic media response.
His manager and adviser, Eduardo Roman, reminded the young champion the next day that as world champ he had to be wary of whom he appears to support.
“All the presidents tried to get close to him,” said Roman. “Somoza didn’t help Alexis in a real way. He invited him to a presentation with 100,000 people, and Alexis went without telling me.”
Roman continued: “I forbade him to attend political events like that. When I saw him the next day I went up to him and said, ‘You are not a champ of the Somocistas. You are a champ of all Nicaragua.’ Alexis wanted to be a friend of everyone and had no political opinions.”
According to a former member of the Nicaraguan Boxing Commission, Sergio Quintero, “The incident that happened with Somoza was very innocent. Alexis had no idea about backdoor dealings that were going on.”
The damage was done. Four years later the Sandinistas used the honorary lieutenant tag as fodder for cheap and unfounded accusations as they casually spread Argüello’s wealth. They had unfairly labeled Argüello a Somoza sympathizer, and justified the theft as another reason to fund frivolous revolutionary “needs.” To deepen the wound, it was reported that Soviet envoys were driving around Argüello’s BMW and living out of his house. Nowhere was it mentioned that on June 17 Alexis’ brother, Edward, died fighting for the Sandinistas.
In a matter of months, a country ushered in a new regime and ushered out a hero. As much as it hurt the Nicaraguan people, they were helpless to do anything about it.
A week prior to the split, politics and boxing were already intertwined when Argüello came into the ring against Bazooka Limon on July 8 draped in a red-and-black Sandinista robe. Critics viewed the act as an idea concocted by Roman to appease a new government that was in position to take over. Conversely, Argüello supporters downplayed the incident.
“Revolutionary leaders saw it as a piece of opportunism organized by Roman,” said Tijerino.
Roman later noted that his decision to bring the flag was taken out of context, and that he was supporting a Nicaragua that “didn’t want a dictatorship anymore.” Still, bringing in the flag accelerated a chain of events that tested Argüello’s will and character more than ever before.
“After we carried the flag in for the Limon fight, everything happened negatively,” said longtime trainer and close friend, Don Kahn. “He couldn’t go back. He was so angry.”
When Argüello found out he couldn’t go home, it would take decades to forgive, but he never forgot. Evidence of this steadfastness occurred in 1981 when FSLN President Daniel Ortega sent popular journalist Edgard Tijerino and Sandinista representative Sammy Santos to locate Argüello, then a lightweight champ, in Venezuela to discuss a peaceful reconciliation. Although Tijerino and Argüello had been extremely close at the outset of the fighter’s career, Roman suspected ulterior motives, and urged Argüello to turn down the offer. Although Tijerino supported the revolution, he also recognized its flaws. Years later, Tijerino said, “What happened and what they did to Alexis was a failure of the revolution. Alexis was the victim.”
In the ring, Argüello polished off a Hall of Fame career where he went on to win three world titles in as many weight classes. After a couple years removed from the sport, Argüello finally got the call to go home again. He returned to a hero’s welcome in 1990 as new President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro made promises of change. However, the timing wasn’t ideal. Having forged a desperate attempt to fight for the Contras, as well as a failed marriage and comeback try, Argüello came back to Nicaragua looking for answers—and the fortune that was stolen from him.
Although part of Argüello’s fortune and properties were eventually returned to him, he became disenchanted with the waiting process, and moved back to the US where he initiated his second and final comeback attempt in 1994.
A final failed boxing comeback led to one of his darkest periods. But, similar to his ring persona, Argüello never stopped fighting. Having floated aimlessly for a few years without any real foundation, Argüello’s bid to turn his life around came about in 2000 due to support from close friends. Argüello also made the decision to reunite with Ortega, who regained his presidency by 2006. The move to mend the relationship left Argüello supporters dumbfounded; others perceived it as necessary for the fighter to start making a difference.
Few believed that Ortega was sincere about the re-establishing the friendship.
By November 2008, Argüello was elected mayor of Managua. He wanted nothing more than to help the poor—his people. Genuine and honest, both rare traits for a politician, Argüello was loved by his people. When Argüello had the opportunity, he made a positive impact. However, along the way he had drawn the ire of some high ranking Sandinistas, and was publicly relegated to figurehead status.
“I think he was genuine about wanting to work as a good mayor for Managuas and showed some honest efforts in relation to that. I wonder if it made much sense for the FSLN to put out a candidate like that when really all they wanted was someone to follow the plans of integrating the CPC’s (Councils of Citizen Power) with the City Council,” said Johannes Wilm, author of Nicaragua, Back from the Dead? “It would probably also have been a good idea for them to work with Alexis before the elections to make sure he understood what role they wanted him to play.”
By July 2009, Argüello was gone.
Theories still abound about what happened to Argüello the night he died. Nothing has been confirmed or even accepted by the people who cared about the man. A sense of unrest is still palpable when discussing the fateful evening.
Yet, when it came to politics, a strange pattern had emerged in Argüello’s complicated life. In July 1979, the Sandinistas confiscated everything. Thirty years later, they returned to rob Argüello again. This time it was a different type of theft—one that Argüello couldn’t defend himself against. First, Ortega and the Sandinista party used and benefited from Argüello’s popularity as mayor, then they publicly stripped him of any power several months later, and finally they bullied him into submission as they pushed him into a corner that he couldn’t escape from.
After Argüello’s death, they tried to honor him by building a statue of him that reeked of insincerity.
“The media reports simply stated that he had shot himself and that they were sending his body for an autopsy,” said Nicaraguan Liz Green, whose frustration is typical of many Nicaraguans. “… Sadly, everything revolved around rumors, different pictures, speculation and multiple reports of people which made it all more confusing.”
Four years later after his death, and there are still more questions than answers. Four years later and still no closure. Four years later and no closer to the truth. What happened to Alexis Argüello? We may never know. But as the years go by, the farther the people will get from knowing the truth. Now, amid the silence, all the people have to cling to is a fading memory of the hero they once knew.
Christian Giudice is the author of Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello. Read Nicaragua Dispatch review of book here.