Even in this age when title belts are handed out like chocolate bars on Halloween, it is the rare fighter who can win titles in multiple weight classes. It is rarer still the one who can do it in four weight classes. Two of the best fighters of the last 40 years broke themselves trying.
No less an icon than the wonderful Alexis Arguello was near unstoppable as a bone-skinny featherweight in the 1970s. With good technical skill but slow hands and feet, soft skin and a porous defense, "El Flaco Explosivo," (The Explosive Thin Man) relied on dynamite punching power and superior conditioning to carry him to the WBA featherweight title with a kayo win over one-time bantamweight great Ruben Olivares. After four defenses Arguello, who was born into desperate poverty in Managua, Nicaragua, moved up to junior lightweight and in 1978 won the WBC title with a grueling, bloody 13-round stoppage of the excellent Puerto Rican Alfredo Escalera.
Arguello made eight title defenses over the next several years, and the rise in weight did nothing to diminish his vaunted hitting power; seven of those defenses were knockout wins. So he jumped up to 135 and in June 1981 beat up and outpointed the durable Scotsman Jim Watt to win the WBC lightweight belt. The win made Arguello just the sixth boxer ever to win world titles in three divisions. Five more wins followed, all by knockout, so it stood to reason that yet another jump, this one to 140 against mercurial, undefeated champion Aaron Pryor, would make sense. He'd carried his power well so far. Though slower than he was as a young featherweight, his punches still carried enough steam to flatten other men his size. There was no reason to think five more pounds - it was only five pounds - would make much of a difference.
The weight wasn't on Pryor's mind beforehand. Survival was. "Even after Alexis loses, he'll still be champion," Pryor said. "It's over for me if I lose. For me it's $4.95 an hour or world champion."
But the weight did matter. In one of the great fights of the era, Arguello and Pryor took turns battering one another around the ring in front of 28,000 fans at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The difference? Even Arguello's best right hands couldn't discourage Pryor's manic aggression and frenetic punch rate. He outpunched Arguello, outfought him and eventually stopped him in the 14th round. In a rematch a year later, Arguello lasted until the 10th. He fought just twice more before retiring for 10 years, fighting twice and then retiring for good.
Years later Arguello told writer Peter Heller, "I was a great fighter. I won the featherweight, the junior lightweight, and the lightweight world titles, I had power all the time, but when I jumped into the 140-pound division I couldn't punch the same way. I hit Pryor with everything and I could not even break an egg with my punches. They guy laughed at me when I hit him. There was no punching power." Most believe that had Arguello stayed at lightweight, he'd have reigned for years.
Some contemporaries of Arguello's, a few that were as good as he and a few that weren't, won titles in four divisions or more. The great Roberto Duran did it. So did Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns. Pernell Whitaker did it. And later, Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather did it too. It's something only the elite fighters can do. If you want to know how hard it is, even today, with all the weight divisions there are and with all the belts that are floating around, consider another who couldn't do it: Julio Cesar Chavez, arguably the greatest Mexican prizefighter ever. If he couldn't do it - and it wasn't for lack of trying - then you know it's not easy.
Three years after the debacle against Whitaker De La Hoya relieved Chavez of his junior welterweight belt and then moved on to 147. Chavez quickly tried to regain his old title and drew with Miguel Angel Gonzalez then beat Ken Sigurani before taking one last stab at winning a title at welterweight. There was one problem: the welterweight he had to face was De La Hoya, who had only gotten bigger and better, while he, Chavez, had only gotten older and slower. Never even a real welterweight, he was facing a kid who after the weigh-in hydrated all the way up to junior middleweight.
It never was really a contest. Chavez fought hard and tried to get inside and did on occasion, and he had his moments. But he was a little too old, too small, and too slow for a bigger, younger, faster fighter. After getting bloodied and battered for most of the fight he gave it one last try in the seventh and then said to hell with it and stayed on his stool after the eighth, the blood all but pouring out of his mouth and from cuts over his eyes.
"It wasn't that he was strong, I just didn't have a smart game plan," De La Hoya said afterward. "That's why the fight seemed so tough." The outcome might have been the same regardless of the weight at which it was contested, and regardless Chavez' age. We'll never know. And maybe his quest for that elusive fourth-division title would have been successful if he'd gone after a belt belonging to a fighter less competent that De La Hoya. Surely there were enough of them out there. But he didn't. And he didn't get a title in a fourth weight class either. It's no easy feat, even for the great ones and even today.
"Even after Alexis loses, he'll still be champion," Pryor said. "It's over for me if I lose. For me it's $4.95 an hour or world champion."
Chavez wasn't the puncher Arguello was. He wasn't as explosive. But he was more skilled in his own way, more patient, and until the every end, his jaw was made of granite. Born in Culiacan, Mexico (hence the nickname "El León de Culiacán," or The Lion of Culiacan), Chavez spent the better part of the mid-1980s to the early -90s at or near the top of everyone's pound-for-pound list. It wasn't until Pernell Whitaker schooled him at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas in 1993 that most were ready to admit that maybe he wasn't be best fighter in the world after all.
And even if that were the case, even if he got a gift draw against Whitaker, he still was no worse than the second best fighter in the world, maybe the third. It wasn't until three fights later, when Frankie Randall beat him, handing him his first official professional defeat, that everyone knew he was on a downward trajectory. But by that time his record was an astonishing 89-0-1. And it had already been an amazing ride.
Chavez won his first title at junior lightweight when he stopped Mario Martinez in eight rounds in Los Angeles in September 1984 to win the WBC belt. Nine defenses followed over the next three years before he met the excellent Puerto Rican puncher Edwin Rosario for the WBA lightweight title in 1987 in Las Vegas. Rosario was the quintessential flawed puncher: not a great chin, kind of a front-runner, but if he caught you on the end of a right hand or left hook you went to sleep. He clearly was the most dangerous opponent Chavez had faced up to that point, and Chavez had already beaten top guys such as Rocky Lockridge, Roger Mayweather, Ruben Castillo and Juan LaPorte. Chavez walked through Rosario's best bombs and beat him silly on the way to an 11th-round stoppage win.
Two title defenses followed before Chavez stepped up to junior welterweight and again beat Mayweather, this time for the WBC 140-pound title. He added the IBF version in the Fight of the Decade when, with two seconds left in the fight, and behind on the scorecards, he stopped Meldrick Taylor in a sensational, historic battle. The draw against Whitaker came three years and eight title defenses later, and represented Chavez' first try at winning a title in a fourth division (the bout was contested for Whitaker's WBC welterweight title). The weight probably had little to do with the outcome; Chavez was the aggressor, as he always had been, but Whitaker was too fast for him and too slick, as he was for everybody. Nonetheless, Chavez' reputation, if not his record, had been dealt a severe blow as he pursued a title in a fourth weight class. And he wasn't done yet trying.
"It wasn't that he was strong, I just didn't have a smart game plan," De La Hoya said afterward. "That's why the fight seemed so tough."
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