CINCINNATI -- When I think about the great Aaron Pryor, I always think about that scene in the movie "Blazing Saddles". The townspeople wanted nothing to do with the black sheriff but when the monster Mongo terrorized the town, they came begging for his help.
As soon as Sheriff Bart found out who and what Mongo was, he reached for his gun belt. "No don't do that...don't do that" warned the Waco Kid. "If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad."
That's how Aaron Pryor was as a fighter. He got hit early and he got hit hard, I remember Lenox Blackmore did it once. I think Dujuan Johnson landed a solid punch early, others as well.
Aaron would go down on the mat and then rise back up like the Terminator. The crowd would gasp, one because they were surprised these guys knocked him down, and two because they knew what would follow. Those punches didn't bother Aaron. They just made him mad. And when he got mad, the other guy didn't stand a chance.
I'm not sure where the term "whirling dervish" came from, but it accurately described Aaron Pryor's style of boxing. He came at you from all angles with seemingly no regard for his personal protection. Rat-a-tat-tat. It made no difference if you were in the middle or the ring, or pinned in a corner, he'd unleash a flurry of punches,too many to defend. And when he smelled the kill, look out! Check out YoutTube video of the two fights against Alexis Arguello. Pryor was a shut-em-down, turn-out-the-lights closer.
WATCH late-round highlights of Pryor-Arguello II:
Aaron was also a street kid, no doubt about it. You could tell how he walked, how he talked, how he acted in public. He told Sports Illustrated that he wasn't wanted at home as a kid. He often slept in a doorway somewhere in Over-the-Rhine. He said he was lost.
Then he found boxing, and Phil Smith put him to work. It kept him out of trouble and gave him a life. He had 236 amateur fights. He was considered a sure thing for the 1976 Olympic team. But Howard Davis moved up in weight and beat Pryor to earn the spot. Articles have since suggested that Aaron's behavior kept him off the team, not his skills.
David, Sugar Ray Leonard, Leo Randolph and the Spinks brothers all won gold medals at Montreal and became famous. Pryor was left out in the cold again.
That fueled his determination as a pro. He became so good, he couldn't be ignored. Once he got his foot in the door, they couldn't keep him out. The lower weight classes were getting more attention. There was Leonard, Tommy Hearns, "Boom Boom" Mancini and Wilfredo Gomez. But Pryor was the most fun to watch. And the most volatile. We all knew that.
He didn't handle success well. "Hawk Time" was his chant anytime he walked into the room. Usually it was an hour late. He didn't care. A bunch of guys preceded him and followed him and probably lived off him. Aaron too often listened to the wrong people. He didn't trust anyone. He didn't appreciate the good that others tried to do. He always felt they were out to shaft him, like they had shafted him for the Olympic boxing team.
He was driven to make it to the top. Even his workouts were a show. I remember seeing Tommy "Hitman" Hearns at one of Aaron's final training sessions for the second Arguello match. He couldn't believe how hard Aaron was working just a a couple of days before the fight.
His signature bouts were against another great fighter, Arguello, one in Miami Beach and the other in Las Vegas. I got to sit at ringside for the second bout. I still think it was the single most exhilarating sports event I ever witnessed. It was a great spectacle outdoors at Caesar's Palace.
It took Aaron years to get to the top. It took a much shorter period to fall flat on his face. An eye injury became a problem. Cocaine became an even bigger problem. He tried a couple of comebacks, but they were laughable. He still talked the talk, but his tank was empty. The "Hawk" was no more.
I always figured that I would wake up some morning and hear on the news that Aaron was found shot dead or overdosed on the streets. Thankfully, that never happened.
Somewhere along the line, his life changed for the better. He lost most of his money and his health wasn't good, but seemed to be at peace.
We'd run into each other every few years at some function. He would always have a smile, a warm greeting and show me the fists that once made him great. We'd reminisce about something or someone from the past.
I remember doing an interview with him years ago at the old "Glass Menagerie" in Covington. He talked about letting people down, about being a disappointment, and wanting to leave a better memory for his kids. He knew he screwed up. But he's not the first fighter to do that, and he won't be the last. It seems to go with the territory.
The last time I saw him, he had just become an associate minister at New Friendship Baptist Church after many years as a deacon. He talked softly, thanking me for covering him years earlier. He said he was sorry for the way he acted sometimes. I told him I enjoyed the way he fought. He looked up, smiled and said, "I was pretty good huh?" He was real good. The best I ever had a chance to see in person.
Aaron Pryor died early Sunday morning of heart failure. That surprised me. His heart was the best thing about him.