More than eight weeks have passed since boxing legend Alexis Arguello allegedly shot himself in the chest with a 9mm pistol. It was a suicide, declared Nicaraguan government officials, and they closed the case almost as quickly as they shut his casket.
But in an exclusive interview with FanHouse, Alexis Arguello, Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame great, says he plans to fight the government's findings and prove that his father was the victim of foul play.
"This was not a suicide. My dad had been through so much in his life, but he did not kill himself," the younger Arguello (pictured above in the black shirt) says. "My dad had been through three failed marriages, alcoholism, crack, the worst things someone could go through. But he would not do this."
Arguello, 57, was found dead July 1 in his home just outside of Managua, where he was the mayor. His life had been filled with adventures and paradox: he was a triple crown champion and one of the world's most acclaimed boxers in the 1970s and 1980s; he was a soldier, a freedom fighter for the Contras who dodged bullets from the Sandinista National Liberation Front, before later running for public office on the Sandinista ticket; he was a loving father and grandfather, a womanizer, a millionaire born into abject poverty who blew his fortune and nearly went bankrupt, a drug addict who was forever writing checks to charity and using his celebrity platform to crusade against injustices in his homeland and in Miami, his adopted city. He was El Caballero del Ring -- "The Gentleman of the Ring" -- incapable of belittling an opponent. Outside the ropes, Nicaragua's most acclaimed athlete never quit battling demons.
But take his own life by shoving the barrel of a gun against his heart -- the same gun he told his family was always jamming, and as far as they know, he never bothered to fix? Arguello Jr., a 37-year-old producer for CBS College Sports Network and the oldest of the boxing champ's seven children, was at his home in New York when he received a call from Carla, his father's latest wife.
"She said, 'Your dad shot himself in the chest.' She said she found him. I told her, 'Don't touch my dad. Don't do any autopsies,' " he says. "When I got to Nicaragua a couple days later, my dad's body had already been processed. He was already in his tuxedo, he was already in a coffin, he was already placed at a wake at the National Palace of Culture. He was already being viewed by the people.
"In reality, what I should have done is ask for privacy and brought him into a room and taken his shirt off to see if there were more bullet holes or marks. But during that time I wasn't thinking."
"I put some rosary beads in the coffin and that was the last time I saw him. I guess they expected my questions would go with my dad into the ground."
Dora, his sister, is still in Nicaragua, and the family fears for her safety, so Arguello Jr. must tiptoe around some of the uncertainties regarding their father's death, and the circumstances that preceded it. Dora was an employee in the mayoral office, but hasn't returned to work since her father died.
Media reports from Nicaragua are vague, noting only that Dr. Zacarias Duarte, Director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, declared Arguello committed suicide by shooting himself. When did investigators have access to the Arguello house? Who cleaned up after Carla supposedly discovered her husband hunched forward? What did the lieutenant to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega tell Arguello when he visited the mayor's house a few hours before Arguello was found dead? Barely six months after winning an election tainted by allegations of fraud, had Arguello's power stretched beyond the designs of the Sandinista government? Was he being manipulated by nefarious, feuding political forces, some who feared Arguello's celebrity status, others who hoped he'd one day run for president?
"If the pieces fall into place like we think they will, we might never be able to return to Nicaragua," says the son, born in Managua and raised in Miami. "I'll do whatever I need to do to prove my dad didn't commit suicide. Like dad used to always say, 'Tough times don't last but tough guys do.' " He reaches for a napkin and dabs at his eyes. Once they know that Dora is safe, the family plans to hire lawyers who can help them exhume Arguello's body and, hopefully, solve the mysteries surrounding his death. A spokesman for Dr. Duarte would not comment.
The weekend before Arguello died, he attended ceremonies in Puerto Rico. There was the naming of a boxing academy in Arguello's honor, and a tribute honoring Roberto Clemente, Puerto Rico's Hall of Fame baseball player who perished in an airplane crash while trying to deliver relief aid to victims of a horrendous earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972. Arguello Jr. spoke to his father three days before he died, after he returned from the festivities.
While he was in Puerto Rico, Managua's city council, dominated by the Sandinistas, voted to "restructure" the mayoral office, thus diluting Arguello's powers. If he was worried or dismayed about these developments, Arguello did not say so during that last telephone conversation with his son.
"He was in great spirits, like always," Arguello Jr. says. "There wasn't the slightest hint of worry in his voice. If he were upset about something, he would tell me. He was always working to help the poor people of Nicaragua, that was his main objective. He was so proud to be honored with Clemente.
"I spoke to people who were with him in Puerto Rico to see if they sensed anything. They all said he was joking and in a good mood. No one believes he killed himself, no one. If he were going to do it, he would've called me and said, 'Look I'm thinking of doing this.' He never hid his emotions, he always spoke his mind. That's why the government didn't like him."
Sports Illustrated ran a fabulous profile of Arguello in 1985, when the boxer was on the verge of making a comeback. There is an anecdote that describes Arguello, fighting off the black dog of depression, sitting on a boat with his son A.J., then 12, and "staring down the black shaft of a loaded automatic pistol."
The story continues:
A.J. sat across from him, crying, begging him not to do it. Arguello cried too, saying that he must. There was no other sound except the ocean lapping at the boat, on which was painted THE CHAMP."That never happened," the son says now. "When that article came out, my mother and I looked at each other and were like, 'What? That never happened.' My dad is one of those people who maybe exaggerated a little to tell the story. He was a little lost during those years. But I know that never happened on the boat. "
Arguello ached from the contradiction of his life, the way it lurched between opposites. Could it be that the distance between opposites was-nothing? So much seemed incomprehensible. No cause was pure, no motive clean, no external thing could be trusted. Everything a man needed to believe in in order to feel secure, life could rub his face again and again until he understood its opposite might also be true.
No resolution is possible in this life, a voice suggested. No, he cried-as long as he held this gun to his head, one resolution was possible.
"Don't do it, Dad!" pleaded A.J.
Obituaries and media tributes cite the SI anecdote as an example of Arguello's troubled mind. Supposedly, he left a suicide note -- a single page, typed, unsigned letter brought forth by government officials to prove Arguello shot himself. The son scoffs at the note's tone and veracity.
"There were so many inconsistencies in it. It wasn't his voice," says Arguello Jr. "It says, I'm tired of politics, I've been cheated and lied to and used. It says he went back to drugs, that he did drugs the Monday or Tuesday before he supposedly killed himself. But in Nicaragua, once they did the autopsy, there was no drugs or alcohol found in the body.
"He passed on a Tuesday, I got to Nicaragua on Thursday. When I arrived I listened on the radio to the police giving a press conference about the ballistics, the autopsy report and their conclusions. In one day they had all that?"
Arguello Jr. and his siblings joined the thousands of mourners jamming the streets to honor the boxer during Friday's services. The man who was born and learned to fight in Managua's tough barrio was heralded by supporters as an athletic hero and political leader, the procession of his coffin to Sandinista-chosen burial grounds taking on a chaotic furor. He was an idol to the Nicaraguan people, a symbolic puppet to certain politicians.
At the journey's end, officials draped the red and black Sandinista flag over Arguello's coffin. Arguello Jr. pushed aside the flag, replacing it with the country's blue and white colors. Furious, he turned to the officials ringing his father's box and told them, "My dad is not going to be seen with this flag. He was a Nicaraguan first. He is going to be seen with the blue and white. This is not an event to stage political views. This has nothing to do with you guys and your views."
The government could not wait to usher Arguello's children out of the country. The son returned to his hotel, to discover his flight to the U.S. had been moved up from Monday to Saturday. Before he left, he wanted a memento that belonged to his father, preferably the belt Arguello had dedicated to his oldest son after beating lightweight champion Jim Watt in a fight that made Arguello only the sixth boxer to win world titles in three divisions. The son says Carla, his father's 31-year-old wife, made him wait for 90 minutes outside the gates of the mayor's house. Carla did not return phone calls from FanHouse.
"When she finally let us in, she opened up a closet and said, 'Take any suit or shirt or shoes you want.' Are you kidding me? You expect me to walk out with a pair of shoes?" Arguello Jr. says. "The last words I told her as I walked out of my father's house were, 'God sees everything and god knows everything. You will be punished someday.' "
He blots his eyes again, then purses his lips as if to halt more details from pouring forth. A.J. fought 15 amateur fights, winning 14 by knockouts. He says he was a decent body puncher with power in both hands, just like his dad. "But he sat me down and said, 'A.J., I support you, but I fought so you didn't have to.' That was the end of my boxing days," says the son, a smile chasing away the tears.
The memories of his father's transcendent career and wild escapades are as clear as the baubles on Arguello's championship belts. A sinewy 5 feet 10 inches, Arguello was known around the globe as El Flaco Explosivo, the Explosive Thin Man. With a brutal left jab and an elusive overhand right, Arguello knocked out Ray Mancini in 1981, a delicious prelude to his first fight with Aaron Pryor in front of more than 23,000 fans packed into Miami's Orange Bowl. Arguello stepped up in weight class, with the hopes he'd become the only man ever to win a fourth division title.
One of the sport's most legendary slugfests ended in the 14th round, with Pryor knocking out Arguello with a flurry of blows to the head. Arguello was left unconscious for several minutes, a doctor poking his eyelids. "Fight of the Decade," declared Ring Magazine. As he did with most of his father's fights, Arguello Jr. sat near the ropes, viewing every blow up close.
"After the fight, my dad told me he was sorry. I was like, 'Why?' " recalls the son. "He felt horrible. He wanted so desperately to win the title for the people."
Later, it was revealed that Pryor's trainer, Panama Lewis, gave his boxer a water bottle after round 13, prompting speculation that the black container was filled with illegal, unsanctioned material. The Florida State Boxing Commission failed to administer a post-fight urine test; while Pryor told Arguello there wasn't anything "suspicious" in the bottle, it was eventually discovered that Lewis broke apart antihistamine pills and poured the medicine into the water, giving Pryor greater lung capacity in the later rounds of a fight.
"I spoke to my dad about that years later. I pressed him about why he didn't ever make a big deal about it or go to the commission and have them test things," Arguello Jr. says. "He told me he wanted to win the championship fair and square. He wanted to win it in the ring. That shows a lot about who he was. He was by the books, everything had to be done the right way."
One day in 1983, A.J. accompanied his father to an Army-Navy surplus store in Miami. Arguello had decided to leave his mansion and yacht and wife and four children in South Florida and join the war against the Sandinistas in the hills of Nicaragua, after the Sandinista government seized his property and bank account. "He went into the store and bought fatigues and all these things he needed to be a soldier," Arguello Jr. says. "I didn't really think he was going to be on the front lines but he actually was. He shot some guns and he got shot at and he saw some people die. It was real war.
"He was only gone three weeks. I don't think my mom was going to let him stay too long."
In '92, Arguello regained some of the property that had been taken from him, and he returned to Nicaragua to start another of his many lives. "He was picking up the pieces," says his son. "That's when he battled his addictions. He had some bad times and dark days. It was something he had to go through because he didn't really know what to do with his life. I think that's where he came into experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The fighter that he is, he was able to fight back and pretty much reinvent himself. It's part of the cycle he goes through."
The final year of his life was as tumultuous as those that came before it. In the midst of his mayoral campaign last November, Arguello was hospitalized for undisclosed reasons. Since his death, the Nicaraguan media has speculated Arguello was felled by another bout of depression, but his son insists the real cause is far less mysterious. "My dad had a minor stroke, chest pains," he says.
Arguello won the mayoralty of the country's largest city with 51.3 percent of the vote, amidst allegations of voter fraud and illegal methods of intimidation employed by Sandinista supporters attempting to manipulate the election. It has since been reported that Arguello, in his short time as mayor, was accused of misappropriating 180 million cordobas (approximately $9 million) from public works projects and misusing municipal funds for personal travel.
"There were never reports of that before he passed," Arguello Jr. says. "To be honest, I think that's something they made up to help further the idea he committed suicide. I once told my dad his political career would end in two ways: You'll be president or you'll end up dead."
As a Los Angeles Times reporter writing from Nicaragua noted, the blighted, corrupt city of Managua is, "Cursed because recent mayors have had a tendency to drop dead, or drop into jail or, at best, drop off the political map." The city's new mayor was appointed July 2, barely 24 hours after Arguello died and one day before his funeral.
Arguello won 65 of his 90 bouts by knockout, took another 17 decisions and lost eight. There is a proven link between brain damage and depression, but Arguello Jr. doesn't believe the connection applies to his father. "Luckily he was in great shape. He never showed any signs of deterioration in his brain due to punches he accumulated and absorbed over the years. Nothing. No slurred speech, nothing," he says.
"He was finally wearing glasses but he was 57 years old. It's unbelievable the shape he was in but besides the cuts you'd see on his eyebrows and maybe his flat nose you could never tell he was a boxer. I don't know if he was lucky or if it's his defensive skills but he never took that much punishment, besides the Pryor fights."
On the night of Dec. 23, 1972, Alexis Arguello had a premonition. A.J. was a baby, about to go to sleep in his room of the family's small house in Managua. "Just by chance, he decided I should sleep with him and my mom instead," says the son. Just after midnight, a massive earthquake decimated the city, killing approximately 5,000, injuring 20,000 and leaving more than 250,000 homeless.
"My crib was crushed. My parents' room was the only one left standing," he says. "There must be a reason I survived that night."
"No," Alexis Arguello Jr. says again, "My father did not kill himself. He was just starting to become the father we all wanted." The son's eyes shine with clarity and resolve, as he prepares for the fight ahead.