For nearly nine minutes Alexis Arguello hadn't figured out Andy Ganigan. But Arguello, who had been knocked down in the first round and staggered late in the third, knew it was only a matter of time before he would solve the southpaw style of Ganigan, a fearless Hawaiian who fights with the subtlety of an exploding grenade. Arguello had smelled trouble. "What a weird style," the WBC lightweight champion had muttered after studying a tape of Ganigan a few nights earlier. "I'd rather fight five of the world's best with normal styles than one guy like this who just throws punches from all over. It's awful."
Ganigan, a 29-year-old former sugarcane cutter, goes at an opponent in a manner described by Hawaiians as ma-ke ma-ke, kill or be killed. Thirty of his 34 victories had come by knockout. And two of his three losses ended likewise. "He don't lay down for nobody," said Larry Ichinose, Ganigan's manager.
In his most recent fight, last October, Ganigan had knocked out Sean O'Grady with a paralyzing left hook to the liver, a cannon shot that made him the World Athletic Association's first lightweight champion—in fact, first champion of any weight division. In a footnote to that historical moment, on the same day WAA founding father—and Sean's dad—Pat O'Grady shipped Ganigan his championship belt, Pat also notified Ganigan that he'd been stripped of his title for failure to defend it.
But all wasn't lost. The dazzling victory over O'Grady had boosted Ganigan to No. 2 in the WBA rankings, and he was offered $130,000 to fight Arguello.
There are those who will tell you that such a sum is not nearly enough, not by twice and twice again, to step into the ring with Arguello. A world champion in three divisions since November of 1974, Arguello has defeated the best featherweights, junior lightweights and lightweights en route to an 18-0 mark in title fights. And only two of his opponents lasted 15 rounds.
Such excellence only made the challenge that much more appealing to Ganigan. "It just proves that he's great," the unawed contender said.
In hope of unraveling the riddle of Ganigan's ma-ke ma-ke assaults, Arguello and trainer Eddie Futch studied a tape of the challenger's 10-round loss to Gato Gonzalez last June.
"My God, what a style," said Arguello, who was paid $400,000 for the defense at Las Vegas' Aladdin Hotel last Saturday. "I've never seen one like that. He starts with a right hand; he starts with a left. But he doesn't jab much or too well. And like me he's a counterpuncher. I must counter a counterpuncher. It will be difficult."
Arguello wasn't worried, only upset that he couldn't design a strategy for Ganigan. To hell with it, he finally decided. I'll just jab him, keep my hands up and pick him off at my distance. And I'll figure him out in the ring.
Ganigan's strategists wanted their man to keep the pressure on Arguello. "Go in and get him," Ichinose ordered.
But, like Arguello, Ganigan elected first to see what he faced. He came out circling to his left, flicking his no-harm jab. Arguello, too, was content to jab as he awaited the first onslaught. Ganigan soon tired of this game. Using his light jab as a distraction, he moved in quickly, fired a straight right to the head and hooked to the body with the same hand. The next time he came in, Arguello tested him with three counters: a hook followed by two strong rights. Ganigan backed away with respect.
Ganigan continued to come in behind his puny jab, to Arguello's annoyance. Next time, Arguello thought, I'll turn it to my advantage. Indeed, on Ganigan's subsequent assault, Arguello attempted to catch the challenger's jab with his left glove. He wanted to pull Ganigan's arm down and then punch over it. But as Arguello reached for the wrist, Ganigan threw a short, straight left to the head, did a little hop and, with both feet in the air, threw the same punch, only with more distance. It cracked against Arguello's jaw, dropping him to the canvas.
Arguello had hardly hit the mat before he was getting to his feet. As he listened to referee Carlos Padilla finish the mandatory eight count, the champion glared at Ganigan. "But there was no anger," Arguello would say later. "You can't fight with anger. I just wanted to get back to the business of fighting."
As Ganigan advanced again, Arguello rocked him with three hooks to the body, and then a hard right. In the corner Futch thought, that will give Ganigan something to think about.
When Arguello returned to his corner at the end of Round 1, Futch met him with a steady stream of advice: "He caught you backing up. You can't back up on a hooker, you got to go inside. He's countering over your jab. You got to throw it harder, back him up. You can't let him get off because he throws in bunches. Keep the pressure on him."
In his corner, Ganigan's people were urging him to keep pressing. "You knocked him down once," said Ichinose. "There's no reason you can't knock him down again. Go out and fight him."
Ganigan ignored the advice. He remembered the power of Arguello's punches, and he didn't think he had hurt the champion when he knocked him down. Arguello is going to play possum, Ganigan thought. The challenger came out cautiously, and Arguello began to probe by hooking over the jab and then hard to the body.
As the third round began, Arguello started experimentally to slide to his left, firing a hook to the body as he went. That served to move Ganigan to his left and straight into the howitzer that is Arguello's right hand. Suddenly, a straight right to the head dropped Ganigan.
Rising quickly, Ganigan tried to collect himself. He was dazed but undaunted. He attempted to go to his right, but Arguello cut him off with the slide and the hook, turning him back into the devastating right hand.
"It's when he's hurt that he's most dangerous," Arguello had said of Ganigan. "It's like waking up a sleeping bear, and then he takes the big bite."
Now Ganigan chomped. As Arguello moved in, the challenger fired a hard hook over a jab, staggering the champion. But Arguello recovered quickly and hooked Ganigan to the body at the bell.
"You know what you got to do," Futch said to Arguello before Round 4. "A hard jab will stop him dead and leave him right there for the right hand."
Arguello smiled. He had found his key.
It was a different Arguello who came out for the fourth round. Ganigan no longer baffled him; he was no more of a threat than a heavy bag. By the end of the round, blood was pouring from Ganigan's nose and mouth and his body was battered.
"Don't wait," Futch said. "Keep throwing that right hand behind the hard jab. The jab and the right hand."
Arguello came out firing a string of stiff jabs, and he was snapping Ganigan's head back with the right. It was the classic destruction of a southpaw. Near the end of the round, Ganigan backed away from a string of three jabs, sagged after a right to the body and took three hooks to the head. A right hook dug into his body, and he fell into a left hook to the head.
There was no place to hide. As he tried to turn away, Arguello sank a short right deep into his stomach and a hook to the head started him down. Arguello helped him down with a straight right.
Ganigan fell on his back, his head on the apron, and he lay there, barely moving. "I wanted to fight some more," he said later. "But I couldn't get up; I couldn't move. That is why Arguello is champion. Oh, those body shots. They hurt."
After a left hook started Ganigan's downfall in the fifth, Arguello followed with a right.