The warning flags were out last Saturday afternoon, and no one in Atlantic City got the message more clearly than Aaron Pryor, the WBA junior welterweight champion. Pryor was at Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel because he has signed to defend his 140-pound title against WBC lightweight champion Alexis Arguello in late October or early November and wanted to study Arguello against Kevin Rooney.
Pryor got an eyeful as Arguello knocked out Rooney with a straight right hand so powerful that Rooney's head didn't clear until he got back to his hotel room almost an hour later. "What round?" Rooney asked his wife in the dressing room. "The second," she said.
"Better watch out for that right hand!" Roger Leonard, Sugar Ray's brother, called to Pryor after the fight.
"He better watch out for my right hand," Pryor said.
Teddy Brenner, who made this fight for Top Rank, said mischievously, "Aaron, you might have to train for this fight." Replied Pryor, "If I get hit with one of those right hands, I can forget it. But it'll be a challenge for him to make my bell ring."
Rooney was no challenge for the 135-pound champion, and for him the bell tolled loud and dolorously. The fight was to serve as a test for Arguello at 140 pounds, a weight at which he had never fought. The 30-year-old Nicaraguan expatriate began his career as a bantamweight—when he was 16, almost 14 years ago—and has gradually moved up in weight class, along the way winning world titles as a featherweight, a junior lightweight and a lightweight. He is one of only six fighters in history to gain championships in three divisions. Should he pry Aaron from his title, he will become the only man ever to win four.
"This is a thermometer for me," Arguello said before the fight. "To see if I can resist a punch, to see if my punch can damage. To feel my strength. I've been training to feel those kinds of punches. But it is different to be in training and be in a fight. Right now I feel faster, and stronger. When I fight at 135, I have to lose five pounds. My doctor told me that my body [5'9½"] is built to support 160 pounds. Right now I make 140 normally. I think I can do it at 140."
The 26-year-old Rooney, who had been fighting as a welterweight, (147 pounds) and had slimmed down to 140 for Arguello, had a 19-1 record as a pro (he was 60-10 in the amateurs). He was chosen to test Arguello because, Brenner said after the fight, of his "iron chin—never been knocked down in 20 pro fights." That's almost true. Rooney says one Clyde Graves had him on the canvas "for a second" two years ago. In his only loss, Rooney had a fight of it for almost seven rounds against future WBA junior middleweight champ Davey Moore, losing when the bout was stopped because of cuts.
For Rooney this chance was what he had been working toward for the last seven years, ever since veteran trainer Cus D'Amato had rescued the high school dropout from a rough and tumble neighborhood of Staten Island, put him up in his three-story, 14-room house in the Catskills overlooking the Hudson River, and installed him in his boxing school. "It turned my life upside down," Rooney says. "It gave me a chance to do something. I figured, 'Hey, this is a chance to make something of myself.' I figured I'd chase a dream."
D'Amato also insisted that Rooney attend college, and three years ago he graduated with a degree in human services from Columbia-Greene Community College. With that behind him, Rooney turned pro, and when Brenner called D'Amato with the offer to fight Arguello, Cus jumped at it, surprising many people. "I've never made a match unless I thought my fighter could win," D'Amato said before the fight. "If he does what he's capable of doing, he'll win. We'll see if he has the emotional maturity to withstand pressure of this type."
Outside of Arguello himself, of course, Pryor had the most to lose if Rooney won. Pryor is anticipating a $1.6 million payday, Arguello at least $1.5 million, by far the biggest purse for both. "When I saw him [Rooney] get in the ring, I felt better," Pryor said. "He didn't have 'win' on his face. He had 'fight' on his face, but definitely not 'win.' "
Arguello simply applied more skill and pressure than Rooney could bear from the opening bell to the fight's sudden, violent conclusion. The man who stays in front of Arguello—who fails to make angles to the left and right—plays dangerously into Arguello's strengths, like a matador trying to play a bull head on. Yet there Rooney was in front of him.
"Alexis' jab took Rooney off balance," said Arguello's trainer, Eddie Futch. "He couldn't use lateral mobility." Futch also had figured that Arguello could shoot the right over Rooney's jab. "You can beat that jab with a right hand all the way," Futch said. "He's so vulnerable to that."
Rooney fought bravely—he tried to keep the pressure on Arguello, taking shots and never backing up—but it was clear in the first round that he was outclassed. In the first minute Arguello came over the top with a snappy left and hard right that staggered Rooney. Rooney backed Arguello up with an overhand right, but Arguello came off the ropes and continued his assault—down with a hook, then up with it. One jarring hook bloodied Rooney's nose.
Rooney is a bobber and weaver who usually isn't easy to hit, but Arguello measured him in the first round with punishing rights and lefts to the midriff. When the round ended, the only question was when the fight would.
Arguello quickened his attack in the second round, unloading more hooks to the body to bring Rooney's hands down, then coming in with rights. He rocked Rooney with a right early in the round, and moments later hurt him with a left-right combination. Rooney is no puncher, and what he landed was to little effect. The end was surely coming, as loud as a train. "He dropped his left hand—that's when it happened," Arguello said afterward. "I was waiting for the moment." With less than 10 seconds to go, Arguello jabbed, saw an opening and unleashed a tremendous right that caught Rooney flush on the cheek.
"The perfect punch," Brenner said. Rooney crumpled, falling on his back, his head hitting the bottom strand of rope, his left arm draped over it, his eyes open but vacant. One of the first to rush to his side was Arguello. "How is he?" Arguello asked the attending physician, who said, "He's all right."
For a long time after the fight, Rooney could recall the moment and its aftermath only as disconnected fragments. He could remember throwing a jab, and then: "I do kind of remember getting really nailed, but I can't picture it in my mind." Then a blank. Then someone consoling him at ringside and the hazy walk to the dressing room. "I started coming around in my hotel room," he said. "I'm terribly disappointed in my showing. I made a mistake and the man caught me clean. I'm capable of giving him a better fight."
The fight ended too soon for Arguello to get a line on himself as a 140-pounder. "I think I did good but I'm not really 100 percent sure if I can handle 140," he said.
Whatever, the fight was long enough to give Pryor pause. "Aaron, don't stand still during the fight!" he told himself. Pryor need not remind himself of that. In the ring he keeps moving like a racehorse caught in a burning barn, throwing punches from all points of the compass, off balance and on. While Arguello is as precise and harmonious as a Mozart concerto, Pryor creates mayhem out of assonance, then smashes his guitar like Pete Townshend of the Who. Undefeated in 31 pro fights, with 29 knockouts, he doesn't intend to change now.
"That's my style," he says. "Why change it? You've seen me fight, I'm crazy. I'll fight him with everything I got. If he knocks me out, fine. He's a technician. My game is to fight. If he can withstand the pain, the pressure, he deserves it."
Futch sees possible difficulties for Arguello. "Aaron Pryor has a very different style," he says. "He's unorthodox. He's strong. He can present problems."
Arguello will be training for the fight of his life, for that fourth championship. He will soon go to the mountain, literally, train for two months in Colorado Springs. "The altitude there will help," Arguello says. "Pryor will be throwing punches right from the start. I will need big lungs. When I come down from the mountain, I will be in double-good condition.... I put my mind for two months to the mountain. Get away from the world there. Concentrate on what I want. I'm sure Aaron will do the same. It will be a heck of a fight. He wants to keep his title, and I want to do what nobody has ever done."
Rooney spent six minutes in the ring, but it took an hour for him to recall what hit him.