Publish date:

The Champion Of Confusion

WBA junior welterweight titleholder Aaron Pryor has everything in order in the ring, but outside of it, his life is a mess

When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of the timing.
The Art of War (500 B.C.)

What every boy should be taught before he first laces on a pair of boxing gloves is that a championship isn't an automatic pass to love and respect. They'll gird you with a championship belt, but if a boxer is to gain a greater esteem, he must earn it outside the ring. That has been a lesson harshly learned by Aaron Pryor, the WBA junior welterweight champion.

That he is the most exciting fighter in the world is without question. He hammers away at opponents in frenetic three-minute bursts until nothing upright remains to be hammered. As an amateur, the Hawk, as the 27-year-old Pryor is called, won all but 16 of 220 fights. Fifty of those never got past the first round. As a pro he is 31-0, with 29 knockouts, the last 23 in succession.

Pryor's life-style outside the ring is, unfortunately, as confusing and destructive as his tactics within it. Pryor hungers for love and respect, but he trusts no one, so he goes unnourished. And in his zigzagging wake is the debris of people he easily embraced, and just as easily abandoned. His first wife divorced him, his second shot him. He recently lost a paternity suit and gained a son. He changes lawyers and promoters the way Liberace changes clothes. In his entourage seniority can be gained in a few weeks, and lost in a wink. He recently tried to fire his manager, Buddy LaRosa, for the fourth—or maybe it was the 40th—time.

A few weeks ago at the Great Gorge Americana Hotel in McAfee, N.J., where Pryor was training for his Nov. 12 defense against WBC lightweight champion Alexis Arguello, Pryor wondered why anyone would care about his personal life. "They write that I had a pack of lawyers," he said. "It was like three or four. Anyway, whose business is it but mine? And people say I had a pack of promoters. I only had two: Madison Square Garden and Don King."

And a group formed by Cincinnati businessman Bob Elkus, and LaRosa, and Don Elbaum, and Harold Smith, and now Bob Arum.

"And I've always fulfilled my obligations," Pryor went on. "I do what I'm supposed to do. But I'm not obligated to one man for the rest of my life."

Pryor was born out of wedlock in Cincinnati on Oct. 20, 1955. Subsequently, his mother, Sarah Adams, married a man named Pryor, and Aaron took his stepfather's name. "Look," says Harold Weston, the Madison Square Garden matchmaker, "I've known Aaron a long time and he's a very warm, nice guy. But his whole world has always been right out there on the street corner. People look at Ray Leonard and say, 'Gee, he's got class.' But they look at Aaron Pryor and say, 'Christ, why does he act like that?' It's not his fault. It's the way he was brought up. He's reaching out for love and attention and so he does crazy things to get them."

Pryor would have you believe that his life began at age 13, the day he first walked into a gym. But at Great Gorge he cracked open the door to his earlier years. "I had four brothers and two sisters," he said, "but I had a different father from the others. I was the kid nobody paid any attention to. I was neglected and completely lost. Some nights I just said to hell with it and slept in a doorway somewhere. Wasn't anything at home for me anyway."

He was roaming the streets in 1968 when he wandered into a gym at the corner of 14th and Republic. Phil Smith, who trained amateur fighters, remembers, "He was just a scrawny little thing, but he said he wanted to be a boxer. I told Aaron to get in with a kid named John Howard. I wanted to see what Aaron had. Well, Howard knocked him out of the ring. But Aaron climbed back and took off after Howard. I knew I had something special.

"I never wanted him to knock anybody out. He was a beautiful boxer, beautiful moves, but he just couldn't help it, he kept knocking guys out. I told him, 'Aaron, if you keep knocking all these guys out you'll only get fights in the tournaments when they can't avoid you.' He was a great little kid, he really was. His only problems are girls and telling time."

Later Smith moved his boxers to Lincoln Center in downtown Cincinnati. "Our first night there some kid who had fought in the Golden Gloves the year before challenged Aaron," says Smith. "I told them, 'No, that's honky-tonk stuff. We don't need that in the gym.' So they went outside. Five minutes later Aaron came in. The supervisor came over and said, 'Hey, what's going on? One of your kids just beat up a guy outside.' So I told Aaron, 'Hey, cut that stuff out. You can go to jail for that.' Right then he quit street fighting altogether."

Frankie Sims was once Pryor's best friend, roommate and assistant trainer. "Aaron loves a challenge," Sims says. "I remember the time a girl where we lived was locked out of her apartment on the fourth floor, but she had left one of her windows open. To get up there you had to climb between two pillars and then swing over to reach a window. I went up but said there was no way I was going to let go of that pillar to swing to the window. So Aaron went up. I kept yelling for him to get down because if he fell he'd sure as hell break something. He yelled down, 'I'll be O.K. if you just let me alone.' Sure enough, he got in the window. It was just something he wanted to do because it was a challenge."

As Pryor's amateur career flourished, he was offered the challenge of international competition. His first trip was to Moscow. He had to lie about his age, change it from 16 to 17 to qualify. As an opponent he drew Valery Solomin, then rated No. 1 in the world at 132 pounds. The 29-year-old Solomin was considerably taller than the 5'6" Pryor and had had more than 300 fights with a 90% knockout ratio. During one round Solomin forced Pryor into a corner and fired a volley of 20 punches, all of which missed their bobbing and weaving target. The crowd stood and gave Pryor an ovation. He won the fight.

This is the contradiction in Pryor's life: erratic, antisocial behavior outside the ring and professionalism inside it. Rollie Schwartz, who supervised many of the U.S. teams' trips abroad, has followed Pryor's career almost from its start. "I've heard all the stories about him," says Schwartz. "But I have a great feeling for him because he represented the United States 21 times in international competition, always with honor and dignity. And he won all but one fight, and in that one he got shafted."

When Pryor was 16, Schwartz introduced him to Elkus, the owner of Dino's, a men's clothing store in Cincinnati. Along with his father, Max, Elkus had managed heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles. Elkus gave Pryor a job in the stockroom of his store and later made him a salesman.

"I had nothing but good dealings with Aaron," says Elkus. "Unfortunately, he's his own worst enemy. He isn't a bad kid, and he's a kid even though he's 27. I don't think Cincinnatians look at him as a professional athlete. I think they look at him as a kid from the ghetto who had the gall to say, 'I'm going to turn down a $500,000 offer to fight Ray Leonard.' Now they like to hear that Aaron had a paternity suit, that his attorney sued him, that he fired his business manager, that he doesn't want Buddy LaRosa in his corner anymore. But all that doesn't mean anything. The guy can fight. Aaron has his minuses, but he has a lot of pluses you never hear about."

In 1976 it was a given that Pryor would make the U.S. Olympic team in the 132-pound class. The Trials were held in his hometown. Then Howard Davis decided to move up from the 125-pound division, and he defeated Pryor 3-2 in the finals. He beat Pryor again by the same score in a boxoff at the Olympic training camp in Burlington, Vt. There are those who'll say that because of unbridled off-hours behavior, Pryor was penciled out of the decision. "We had one Leon Spinks to deal with," admits a U.S. boxing official, "and we sure didn't need another."

"There's no doubt," Schwartz says, "that if Aaron had been an Olympian, he would have won the gold medal."

Instead, Pryor, without the Olympic fanfare, turned pro on Nov. 12, 1976, making $400 for knocking out former kick boxer Larry Smith in the second round. Davis became a professional two months later. He earned $250,000 for decisioning an inept José Resto. The difference, Pryor noted, was $249,600.

A few days later Pryor joined up with LaRosa, the owner of a chain of pizza parlors and a Cincinnati sports entrepreneur, by signing a three-year personal-services contract with a one-year option. Pryor's winnings would be split 50-50, and LaRosa would pay all the expenses. Then LaRosa hired Pryor as a sports consultant for his business. He paid him $125 a week to start.

"I was warned he would be trouble," says LaRosa. "But I thought I could straighten him out using a combination of love and discipline, reward and punishment. I knew the kid could fight."

LaRosa brought in Elbaum, a veteran promoter, as an adviser, and Pryor worked his way through a string of kids with soft chins and old-timers looking for a payday. It wasn't until Pryor's 22nd fight, in which he earned $10,000 for stopping Julio Valdez on CBS, that LaRosa finally made a claim for his 50% of the purse. "That's when the first tiny signs of trouble between Aaron and me showed up," LaRosa says.

Two fights later, after stopping Leonidas Asprilla and knocking out Carl Crowley, Pryor signed with Harold Smith, the L.A. promoter who soon would be arrested for his role in a Wells Fargo Bank embezzlement scam. "Aaron had just three problems," says LaRosa. "Sugar. Ray. Leonard. He's obsessed with Leonard and said it was my fault because he wasn't like him. But I'll admit Harold Smith came through."

Smith lined up a $50,000 payday against Antonio Cervantes, the WBA junior welterweight champion, for Pryor on Aug. 2, 1980. It was a typical Pryor fight. Cervantes dropped him with a beautiful right in the first round, but hardly had Pryor touched the deck when he was up and trying to get around the referee, who was still counting, to get at Cervantes. Pryor knocked him out in the fourth round to win the title.

"That's when our problems got real bad," says LaRosa. "After Aaron won the title, he demanded the books. His second wife, Theresa, took them over. She's a very intelligent, capable lady, and I figured we were a team again. But Aaron wasn't satisfied. He never is. He has an insatiable lust for fame, for respect; he's got to be like Leonard. He'd throw a magazine at me, yelling, 'He's on the cover.' I'd say, 'Aaron, you have to wait. All you have is a junior title.' "

Once at a boxing dinner Pryor lambasted Leonard for not helping him on his rise to the title. Leonard took him aside and said in essence, "Hey, man, nobody helped me either."

Smith, meanwhile, was working on a $250,000 fight against Saoul Mamby, then the WBC junior welterweight champ, to unify the title. But Theresa got to Pryor first and shot him in the midst of a quarrel. The bullet, a .22, went through his right forearm, grazed his chest and wound up in his coat pocket. Later, Theresa said she had shot him because she loved him, and they later reconciled. Pryor told LaRosa that the incident was LaRosa's fault, because he tried to mediate their domestic problems.

By now Wells Fargo had caught up with Smith, and the Mamby fight was canceled. The next thing LaRosa heard, while watching the television news, was that Pryor had fired him. Pryor had also replaced his attorney of the moment.

"Aaron, what are you doing?" LaRosa asked. "I've got a contract for you to fight Roberto Duran for $750,000."

"No, I don't want to fight him. My new attorney told me not to sign anything until you and I work out a new contract." So much for the firing of LaRosa.

By the time they worked out a new agreement, the chance to fight Duran—and the $750,000 payday—was gone. The new contract covered six years; LaRosa's share was cut to one-third and he no longer had any ancillary rights. Expenses were to come off the top.

"The ink wasn't even dry on the damn contract," says LaRosa, "when I found out Aaron had signed a one-year promotional contract with Don King, who was going to give him a $100,000 bonus. Then King sent me the contract to sign. I told Aaron it was a mistake, but if that was what he wanted, then I'd sign.

"Aaron said, 'But King is going to get me a Duran fight, a Mamby fight, because he's got Duran and Mamby.'

" 'Aaron,' I said, 'we had a Duran fight, but you didn't want it.' "

Pryor's partnership with King lasted only three fights. In the first, in June of 1981, he stopped Lennox Blackmoore in two. The following November he beat Dujuan Johnson in seven.

It was just before the Johnson fight that LaRosa saved Pryor's life. In a rage, Pryor fired a friend from his entourage. "No problem," said the friend. But when the man showed up several days later at the Findlay Street Neighborhood House, a community center where Pryor was working out, Pryor ordered him from the building.

"Hey," said the former friend, "this is a public building, and I just came in to watch you work out."

At that point Pryor ordered two of his bodyguards, both black belts in karate, to evict the man. A few hours later, word was spread that the man was gunning for Pryor. The following morning LaRosa picked up Pryor and seven others to do roadwork. Just as they had finished their run and were returning to LaRosa's car the now irate former friend drove up. Hand in his coat pocket, the man began to curse Pryor. The sparring partners turned and ran. But LaRosa went up and put his hand on the man's arm.

"Get your hands off me, Buddy," the man said.

"Look," pleaded LaRosa, hanging on, "you've got a wife and family. Don't do anything you'll be sorry for later."

LaRosa kept talking, and finally the man shrugged, returned to his car and drove off. Later LaRosa said, "I think he was trying to taunt Aaron into swinging at him so he could shoot Aaron. God, I was never so scared in my life."

The final fight under King's aegis was last March, when Pryor beat Miguel Montilla. Then King, who had a renewal option, called LaRosa and Pryor's lawyer to New York. According to LaRosa, King was screaming. "I'd never seen him like that," LaRosa said. "He was yelling, 'You can have the son of a bitch. I've got too many fighters that don't cause me the grief and aggravation this kid causes me.' He signed the release." In King's view, Pryor's incessant demands for rooms, tickets, limousines, etc., were intolerable.

King has since tempered his opinion of Pryor. "He's an ingrate, but I like him," King says. "His problem is that he sees ghosts. He keeps looking into the past instead of the future. I know where he came from because I came from the same place. But I told him, 'You have to learn from your past.' He's without trust. I truly feel sorry for the young man and wish I could help him."

With King gone, Pryor signed for a mandatory defense against Akio Kameda of Japan last July. "We'll have to promote it ourselves," LaRosa told Pryor.

Pryor had other plans. Without telling LaRosa he signed a promotional contract with King's archrival, Arum, who agreed to handle the Kameda fight, a sure financial loser, in exchange for the right to promote the Arguello fight. Once more LaRosa went along.

Pryor stopped Kameda in the sixth round. Then LaRosa called Arum for a copy of the contract for the Arguello fight, so he could sign it. The parties had already agreed on a purse for Pryor of $1.6 million—Arguello is getting $1.5 million—and Arum was under orders from Pryor not to give LaRosa a copy of the contract. Arum told LaRosa's lawyer, Ken Seibel, the same thing. A few days later, LaRosa discovered that the contract called for a $1 million purse, in which he would share, plus $540,000 to be paid to Hawk Productions, a fight-promotion company, whose profits are not shared by LaRosa.

On Oct. 13, LaRosa filed suit in Hamilton (Ohio) County Common Pleas Court to stop the fight or tie up Pryor's purse.

"It's not fair," says Pryor.

"It's stupid," says LaRosa, who is technically still Pryor's manager. "If Aaron had just brought me the contract I probably would have signed it."

The Hawk said he'd leave it up to the judge. So did the pizza man.

In his room at Great Gorge, Pryor thought about that and managed a smile. "What chance do you think the villain has in court?" he said. "It's like my fight with Arguello. I know he's going for his fourth title, but, remember, I'm defending my title. Still, they're making me the villain. They don't have to do that. I've been the villain all of my life.

"Look around you, you can see what they're doing. It's nice here, but it's cold. They have Alexis training out in Palm Springs. They got me in a little room where you can hardly fit in a ring. I'm training for the biggest fight of my career, and I'm surrounded by Ping-Pong players."

On a table in front of Pryor lay a copy of the September issue of Cincinnati magazine, the cover of which proclaimed in large yellow letters, AARON PRYOR DON'T GET NO RESPECT. The picture was of a group of fight fans laughing at a black fighter who had been cut off above the waist. No one had to guess that the fighter was intended to be Pryor.

"My hometown," Pryor said, smiling again, his new smile. One of Pryor's trademarks was a gold tooth. Recently he had it replaced by a white porcelain cap. His flashy wardrobe has been replaced by conservative suits, white shirts and striped ties. He carries a briefcase.

"It happens to everybody; you grow up," he said. "I can't be 17 forever. I'm 27. But people still look at me like I was a teen-ager. Recently I went to a press conference in New York with Alexis. I had on a nice suit, a white shirt and a tie. I looked nice. Sure! But some guy says to me, 'Where's your big hat?' I said, 'You want me to buy one to make you feel better?' I guess he thought all blacks wore big hats. Or maybe that I was one of the Spinks brothers.

"Look, I've got three sons, one by my first wife, one my second wife had before we were married and the one I just got in the paternity suit. I don't want them to go through what I did. I want them to have the love and compassion of a father. That's the important thing I missed. When I go home and shut the door they don't see me as a world champion. They recognize me as their father.

"I just wish the rest of the world would recognize me as a human being, too."



Pryor, who will meet Arguello Nov. 12, has won all 31 bouts, the last 23 by knockouts.



Though wife Theresa shot Pryor, it's Leonard who seemingly has hurt him the most.



LaRosa, who made millions selling pizza, wanted to be the big mozzarella with Pryor.



The one-two punch in Pryor's corner: trainers Panama Lewis (left) and Willie Davis.



Arguello won't be this easy to hit when it counts.



Pryor is one fighter who floats more like a fish than a butterfly. But as his KO victims can attest, he stings like a bee.