The spirit that helped make Aaron Pryor a great boxer seems burned out now. His eyes, half shut against Miami's summer sun, are dying embers in a face left gaunt by too many nights without sleep, too many parties, too many fears. He is surrounded by people with their hands in his pockets, but he drifts alone in a dark world of self-created demons, ever-changing suspicions that taunt and torment him.
He is the reigning and undefeated IBF junior welterweight champion, this gifted and exciting fighter, and each day he pledges that tomorrow he will go back into training. But for Pryor, a fatherless child of almost 30, such a tomorrow dances continually beyond his grasp. His life, always turbulent, has veered almost totally out of control.
He is suing to collect $300,000 that he claims promoter Richard Mangone refused to pay him for a June 22, 1984 decision over Nick Furlano in Toronto. On March 1, 1985, the day before his last fight, a split decision over Gary Hinton in Atlantic City that left his professional record at 36-0, Pryor's second wife, Theresa, divorced him. A Cincinnati court awarded her more than $200,000 and Pryor's 1983 Cadillac. By June, rumors intensified that Pryor was wedded to another wife: cocaine. His mother, Sarah, signed papers in an attempt to have him committed to a Miami drug rehabiliation center. He refused to go. On June 30, Pryor told Miami police he had been abducted. The police, after investigating, discounted his story. He says that two of his cars—a 1985 Ford van and an '85 Saab turbo, distinguishable by bullet scars on their bodies, were stolen. He also claims someone made off with his M16 rifle.
Life has lain heavy on Pryor's psyche. He was born out of wedlock and left his home in Cincinnati at 14. "I was a kid nobody paid any attention to," he says. "Some nights I just said to hell with it and slept in a doorway. Wasn't anything at home for me anyway."
From such a beginning, it's not hard to understand why Pryor has always hungered for love and respect; why he has never quite been able to trust anyone. As a fighter, his strength and skills made him unbeatable. On the street, his suspicious nature and hidden rage left him vulnerable and winless. Still, despite his almost feral life-style, Pryor seemed in command of his actions.
Before the first of his two wins over Alexis Arguello, in November 1982, Pryor saw fit to change his image. He replaced his gold front tooth with a white porcelain cap. He abandoned his gaudy wardrobe for conservative suits, white shirts and striped ties. He even carried a briefcase. He was a time bomb in Brooks Brothers wrapping.
On this late summer day, Pryor is seated on a gray sofa in the screened-in pool area behind his well-kept home in southwest Miami. He has lived in the area since 1983. His upper body, once thick with muscle, is frail now, covered loosely by a Michael Jackson T shirt. He is holding Norra, whom he introduces, as his 10-week-old daughter. "I can trust you," he tells the baby softly. He sighs and looks up. "And my dog, Clyde. I trust him. But nobody else."
Norra (her name is a variation of "Aaron" spelled backward) makes a small sound, and Pryor, who had been on the verge of tears, now laughs, a tick of joy which passes swiftly. His moods alter from moment to moment, switching bewilderingly from dark storm clouds to bright sunlight. Carefully, he sets the baby beside him on the sofa.
"Right now I am confused," Pryor says to a visitor. His voice, barely audible, is sad and wistful. "After my last fight, I felt nobody was concerned about injuries to myself. Nobody was really interested in me, only in what they can find to promote me or find out about me to hurt me. I was made to look the bad guy. Now as I look at you, as I talk to you, I find out even more of my problem. I swear. One of my eyes. I had an eye examination prior to my [last fight]." He switches thoughts without pause or reason. "Made me come across one way, yet at the same time meaning to come across another way to express myself."
Anger strengthens his voice. "Like my left eye here. They don't want me to tell nobody. I've got to tell somebody." Pausing, Pryor covers his right eye with his right hand. "You see that eye here?" he asks, meaning the uncovered left one. He looks down at a small table in front of him. "I can't see nothing on the table. But yet I can open it up," he says, uncovering the right eye, "and see things."
The baby begins to cry, and for a moment the sound washes away Pryor's anguish. "O.K., kid. O.K., kid. Shut up," he says laughing. Through an open glass door he calls to his housekeeper, "Hey, Maggie, bring a bottle for the baby."
"Are you blind in the left eye?" the visitor asks Pryor.
"I believe I am," he says. "I don't have enough vision to see. But, yet, nobody wants to talk about the bad part of me, the things that are happening in my life. All they want to talk about is that Pryor has left boxing, he's out doing something else. I'm just doing something about trying to get my eyesight."
"When did you notice the eye?"
Pryor rubs his eyes. "Just after the last fight," he says.
"Was it bothering you before?"
He nods angrily. "It's been about three years now. But nobody was interested in me. Examined in Atlantic City. They told me not to come back there anymore until I can see. That was after my last fight. And, really, you know, my last fight I had a lot of problems."
Pryor's disjointed conversation settles randomly on moments in his career. After stopping Arguello for the second time on Sept. 9, 1983, he abdicated his WBA junior welterweight championship, saying that he was tired, that he didn't want to fight anymore. He was in his prime: just 28 years old and 34-0. Just before that fight, he had been served with divorce papers by Theresa, who once, before they were married, had shot him in the right forearm. But Pryor, who had retained his IBF title, came out of retirement and fought twice, the match against Furlano and the split decision over Hinton. He gave an uninspired imitation of the real Aaron Pryor in both fights.
"I didn't get paid the first fight, [with] Nicky Furlano," Pryor is saying. "I didn't get one dime. I quit boxing and gave up my title because [they] said I was...black bottle...and preached to me about it."
The black-bottle reference is to his first fight with Arguello, when it was suspected that Pryor had taken stimulants from a bottle wrapped with black tape. The late Artie Curley, who worked Pryor's corner that night, said the bottle contained peppermint schnapps.
"I said I'll fight Alexis again and there won't be no black bottle," Pryor says. "And then, after I beat him a second time, I thought I had cleared up the black-bottle thing, but I never got no credit for winning straight up. Then I didn't get one dime [for the Furlano fight]. I quit boxing and give up my title.... Then I laid off for a year and a half, and they don't pay me for my first comeback fight. Three hundred thousand. The promoter. Oh, man, why me?"
In fact, Pryor did receive some payment for the Furlano fight—$50,000 in front money and another $50,000 for training expenses. The dispute with Mangone is over whether any more money is due. In June, Pryor and his manager, Buddy LaRosa, were to fly from Miami to Boston to give depositions in their suit against Mangone. LaRosa says that after trying for four days to hook up with Pryor at the Miami airport, he returned home to Cincinnati. Pryor has earned some $4 million in his eight-year career, but friends say he is heading for financial ruin. LaRosa says that if Pryor doesn't get to Boston soon, the court may dismiss his claim against Mangone.
Now Pryor leans forward, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. "I don't want to elaborate too much because I do hope to fight again, and I don't want to [mess up] my career," he says. "I'm not supposed to mention it. But I'm tired of talking about everything else. Cataracts, cataracts. They told me not to come to Atlantic City or Vegas no more. Because I'm blind in one eye. I want to get my eye fixed and continue to fight."
If Pryor has been banned from fighting for medical reasons, officials in Nevada and New Jersey know nothing about it. "He's not under any suspension here," says Chuck Minker, a Nevada boxing inspector. Bob Lee, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission says Pryor is still in good standing in his state. An Atlantic City ophthalmologist, David Smith, did find a cataract in Pryor's left eye before the Hinton fight in March, and the commission warned Pryor to have the problem treated before it hampered his career. But, says Lee, "It wasn't bad enough to prevent him from fighting Hinton. And he's not barred here."
Pryor's eyelids become heavy. His head nods forward. He seems asleep. Then his eyes pop open, blinking, and he rubs them furiously. He calls for Maggie to bring coffee. "Cataracts, yeah," he says. "Then my mother. [I hadn't seen] her for at least a year. And she come up here. I didn't know she was coming, but one day she is here. She says what she's heard."
What she had heard were rumors of her son's drug problem. In July she told the Cincinnati Post that she had seen Aaron use cocaine.
"I got the baby and the van and just left home," Pryor says. "Hey, man! Are you giving me a charge or somethin'? You must be giving me a charge or something, in my eye."
"Something wrong?" the visitor asks.
"Need some coffee. Don't you ever get tired? Down in Florida, it's the air. Yeah, my problems. They started when my mother came here. She came to take over. She was handling my checkbook. I feel I'm back where I started because of my mother. She's got a nice house, a Cadillac, she's never worked. And she never introduced me to my father. About nine years ago I put my mother in an institution. I was only 21. She shot her husband. I was driving a school bus and I went home and they say my mama had shot my dad, my stepdad. I put her in a hospital because she had lost her nerves. I think...." He pauses, shakes his head and sighs. "I think she don't like me because she done those things to me."
Mrs. Pryor would make no comment to SI about her involvement in any shooting. She was ordered into silence by William Hardy, her brother-in-law and Pryor's uncle, who is known to family and friends as Uncle Chocolate. "I'm his uncle and his trainer," he says of Pryor, "and this boy is gonna fight better than ever. You are getting that straight from the horse's mouth."
On the patio, Pryor's words continue to tumble forth. "My eye, shocks and everything," he says, casting suspicious glances in all directions. "I think somebody is looking in here and hearing every word we say. I'm a true person. I can feel it." He relaxes after Maggie shuts the patio door. "O.K., I feel better now. Anyway...here I am, 36 and oh with 32 knockouts. I went 15 rounds my last fight. I went four days before that fight without eating, I swear. I had to lay in the hallways to lose four extra pounds. I came home, and the only thing I worked on was not training, because when I train I build up a big appetite. I went on a diet, I lose weight, and people tell me I'm crazy." Pryor gives his weight this day as 138 pounds. He appears to weigh 120 at most.
He puts his face in his hands and gets around to talking about his "abduction." "Oh, it's kind of painful to talk," he says. "I don't have nobody to talk to; nobody comes here; nobody knows me. They all know me, and I don't know them. It hurts so bad. And then I picked a couple of guys up in Miami when I first got here, and we talk: 'Hey, what's going on. All right.' So Linda [Hill, his girlfriend] and the baby [Norra] was at her friend's house, so I go in the house with Linda, and when I come out they had stolen my van. I catch a cab and come home."
Throughout this part of the story there are long, painful pauses. He says that a friend took him to a house where he confronted the men who stole his van. "They said I owed them some money," he says. "Four hundred dollars. I say, 'I don't even know you, man. What do I owe you $400 for?' The guy who took me over, they let him go. So he called the police, and the police break in the place and they—these guys—run away, and now my van is gone."
The police released Pryor at 2 a.m. Another young man in the house was arrested for possession of cocaine. Detective Doreen Nash was one of the officers on the scene. "My part was to see if there was an abduction or not," says Nash. "The only means I had was speaking to the witnesses that were in the house with [Pryor]. They all said basically the same thing, that he went there on his own to try and get his van back. While in the house, witnesses say he did use cocaine and he wasn't abducted. I talked to Pryor but I couldn't get him to give me anything. He wasn't very coherent." Nash says that Pryor's friend, who gave a false name, told police that the fighter owed $1,000 to the people who took his Ford van.
In selecting friends, Pryor is always zero for whatever the number is at the moment. Not long ago a girl he knew named Candy accompanied Pryor's mother to a grocery store. When they returned, Candy helped carry in the bags, then got into Pryor's '85 Saab. Pryor hasn't seen the girl or the car since.
"Everybody robs me," he says. "I meet a girl and she robs me. I meet some guys and they rob me. People break into my house and steal things. They take my machine gun. I had an M16." The visitor asks about the gun. Pryor shrugs and says, very seriously, "I had planned one day to get on a boat and I don't have no license and I might go to Cuba. I wanted to shoot my way back home. I had plans, like if it is nighttime. They come on your boat and shoot you. I believe I'm getting tired. I'm getting hyper talking, and it's so hot. Oh, man, I feel just like getting into a car and running away."
"Why not go back into training?" he is asked.
Strength returns to his voice. "Oh, I'm ready to go tonight. I'm leaving tonight. I'm going back to Cincinnati. I'm going inside. Ain't you hot? I'm hot. The police come by and mess with me. I had a girl forge checks on me. This is my third checking account. People steal thousands of dollars out of my clothes. I don't know where the money goes. Ransom. They threaten my kids [he has two besides Norra] that they will kill me if I don't give them money." He pauses, sighing. "Somebody breaks into my house...setting little things around, like drugs around my house and in my clothes. I can't take no more. You know, a lot of people lost a lot of money on the Alexis fight. They're a little angry. That's the only thing I can think of."
The champion rises and enters the house, taking his demons with him. He admits to the visitor that he has experimented with drugs. This alone is not necessarily a revelation, since newspaper stories have quoted Pryor as having acknowledged using marijuana. But he is vague, or evasive, about whether he has used any other drugs. On Nov. 23, 1983 he was arrested in Inglewood, Calif. for cocaine possession, a charge that was subsequently dismissed on the grounds that the arresting officers had illegally searched the automobile Pryor was driving. He continues to insist that he doesn't have a drug problem.
"Drugs is a big thing in Florida," he says. "Yes, it is. And I figure just one thing: If you can go to training and you can sacrifice sex and alcohol and go to bed early at night, you can sacrifice drugs. If you want to. There never was any drugs involved in me as far as winning a fight. Why does my eye hurt? You have an electricity charge or something? See my eye cross? That's automatic. I'm tired. I've got to get some sleep."
He starts out of the room, then turns and says, "I can buy anything I want: cars, a house, jewelry. I can buy anything but a friend."
Aaron Pryor didn't go to Cincinnati that night. He hasn't yet. He is still talking about going back into training. And he is still looking for a friend.
During a single 10-minute photo session, Pryor's moods shifted mercurially from bitter rage to despair to a trancelike state.
Pryor (left) was at the top of his form when he beat Arguello for the second time in September 1983.
He won his last fight but lost Theresa the day before.
At one point, while he posed with Norra and his dog, Clyde, Pryor suddenly drifted off.