Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Explosive Thin Man

The recent celebrity deaths have left people baffled and shocked. The most baffling death, and the one I am most saddened, was that of Alexis Argüello, the greatest boxer from Nicaragua and the best junior lightweight ever. More important, he was a good person who genuinely cared about his fellow man. Argüello was found dead in Managua on July 1 from a gunshot wound to his heart. Some sources are claiming it was a suicide. Why would a man who was mayor of his hometown kill himself? Why would a man who could fulfill his wish to help Managua’s poorest neighborhood, the one he grew up in, want to take his own life? I reread a 1985 profile in Sports Illustrated on Argüello written by Gary Smith. The title and heading alone were a bit eerie, “Adrift In a Sea of Choices: Alexis Argüello once considered suicide as an escape from the contradictions and ambiguities that filled a rich life with betrayal and despair.”

Smith went on to explain:

Outside the boxing ring, Argüello's life was full of such fluctuation. Feelings ruled him, they jerked him first down one path, and then down its opposite….

One night years ago, when he was 27, Argüello was hunting in Nicaragua with a friend and a flashlight. He loved animals. He loved to shoot them for sport in the forest, and he loved to hold them in his arms at home. Never did he see the contradiction.

The flashlight beam fell on the eyes of a deer, and it froze. Argüello stood with his finger on the trigger, staring into those eyes. He could not bring himself to shoot.

He caught the deer with his bare hands. He cradled it to his chest. He brought it home and made it a pet, and never hunted again. Unlike most men, once he saw a contradiction, he could not anesthetize himself to it.

Alexis Argüello, mayor of Managua, celebrates the city's 157th anniversary on February 5, 2009, which included a healthy breakfast for hundreds of local children, clowns, and other events.

Contradiction began for Argüello as a child. His brother Eduardo died fighting with the Sandinistas against the Somoza regime. However, in 1979 the Sandinistas kicked his mother and sister out of Alexis’s home in Managua, according to Smith, who wrote: “They had confiscated his two houses, his boat, his gym, his chicken business, his motor home, his Mercedes, his BMW, and his bank account.” He was banished from his own country for reasons that are too complicated and convoluted to explain. Four later, in Costa Rica, Argüello joined the Contras in a battle against the Sandinistas. This was during his first boxing retirement. He had already spent thousands on medical supplies for the Contra soldiers and clothing for his poor countrymen. During Argüello’s life, giving to charity was the norm for him, not the exception. He soon became disillusioned with the Contra leaders, who didn’t have the same perspective on helping others. Could the Sandinistas hold a grudge against Argüello to the point that they would shoot him decades later and make it look like a suicide?

About the only place where he could find justice was in a boxing ring. This is part of the reason why he soon returned to the ring. He had also lost all his money due to lavish spending and putting his faith in people who weren’t smart with his money. Before he returned to the ring and before he lost his material possessions, Argüello almost lost his life. On his boat one morning in 1984, Argüello pointed a pistol to his head. He laid the gun down when his 12-year-old son A.J. saw him and pleaded his dad not to do it. Did Argüello have this same feeling a few days ago without his son around to save him? Would he really shoot himself in the chest rather than in the head?

Argüello’s father, Guillermo, a poor shoemaker, had also suffered over life’s contradiction. As Smith wrote, “When he worked all day and evening to sell enough shoes for his wife and eight children to survive, he had no time for his friends and felt alone. When he stopped working to share homemade whiskey with his friends, his family went hungry and he lost all control of his life. No decision was clean—all choices carried complications that made him feel dirty. Where could a man find resolution?” Guillermo tried finding resolution by diving down a well. To his disappointment, there was water inside. His wife called the fire department for help. When they lowered a rope tied to a chair, Guillermo unfastened the rope and tied it around his neck. When they pulled him up, he had survived. There was no resolution.

Alexis wrestled with these same feelings outside the ring. Nothing fed his passion like boxing. He had grown up dirt poor so material objects had no meaning to him. If there was one thing he did seem passionate about, it was giving back. When it came to children, he not only spent a lot of money, but a lot of time with them. In Nicaragua he was a hero. He carried the Nicaraguan flag during the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics last summer. He then realized just how influential he was to his country. He ran for mayor of Managua last November and won. It was an improbable rise, an uneducated kid from the poorest neighborhood to mayor of the city. It was obvious Argüello was a rare politician who really did care about the people. Ironically, he won the election under the Sandinista party. With these types of contradictions it is tough to know for sure who killed Argüello. One thing is for sure, he will be missed.

Above is Alexis Argüello's last interview. He was found dead in Managua on July 1, 2009 from a gunshot wound to his heart. It is still unknown whether it was a homicide or suicide.


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