MANAGUA – Alexis Argüello has shined at every sport he has tried.
As a professional boxer, he was the three-time world champ, winning title belts in three different weight classes and successfully defending his championship against more than a dozen challengers in the 1970s and ‘80s.
More recently, as a recreational golfer, Argüello, 56, has taken his athletic prowess to Managua’s Najapa golf course, where he has already won four tournaments since first learning how to swing a club last June.
Now the former boxing champ and rising golf star is going to try his hand at Nicaragua’s other national sport: politics.
After three years of serving as vicemayor of Managua, Argüello resigned from his post last month to announce his intentions to run for the city’s top seat on the Sandinista ticket. Although no official nomination has been made, Argüello is positive that he’ll get the nod and then breeze to electoral victory.
“It’s a done deal, forget about it,” Argüello told The Nica Times. He even says he feels more confident about his electoral chances than he did before going into a championship boxing match.
“You think I am going to lose? No way, José!” Argüello said in English. “You think I didn’t test the water? I know what I am getting into because the mayor’s office is a snake pit. I know what I am getting into.”
Born of humble roots in an impoverished Managua neighborhood, Argüello first turned to the boxing gym at age 14, after being thrown out of school for not being able to pay tuition. After three years of daily workouts, his trainer thought his skinny student was ready for a big match. So Argüello traveled to Costa Rica to take on the Tico national champion.
“I beat the crap out of him,” Argüello remembers with his wild and contagious laugh. “I knocked him out in six rounds!”
From Top to Bottom
Argüello won his first world boxing title at age 22, by defeating the WBC feather-weight champion in 13 rounds in the Los Angeles Forum. He defended that title four times before experiencing “a little weight problem.” He moved up to the Junior Lightweight division (130 pounds), where he had to start from scratch as an unranked fighter.
After eight consecutive victories in the new weight class, “the explosive thin man” again became the top-ranked contender and got another shot at the title on Feb. 28, 1978, against Puerto Rico’s Alfredo Escalera, whom Argüello beat in a brutal 13-round bout.
The champ went on to defend his second title nine times, before again putting on some extra pounds and moving up to the Lightweight division (135 pounds), where he again started from zero and had to fight his way back before winning a third championship in 1981.
After defending that title several times, Argüello was in his mid-30s and his boxing career was coming to an end. He attempted several comebacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but at that point his real fight was against drugs and alcohol.
Trapped in a fast-paced lifestyle of Miami’s club scene, Argüello says he would go on 20-day drug binges, and eventually became suicidal. That’s when he turned back to God.
“I was drugging myself and asking God what is my purpose on Earth,” the former champ remembers.“I heard a voice that said, ‘You asked for one title and I gave you three. Now what are you going to give me?’”
So Argüello decided to give back to his pueblo. He got cleaned up and returned to Nicaragua on a holy mission: to help the poor of his country by running for public office. He says he’s not ashamed of his past, because it’s what made him what he is today.
“Everybody has to go through their own hell in order to see if you are willing to come out of it,” he said.“That’s when you find yourself. Every human life has its ups and downs. You can go down, but you have to get up.”
Life in Politics
Argüello’s first challenge to getting into politics in Nicaragua was that he didn’t have a party.
For a brief period in the early 1980s, Argüello supported the Contras, but now he dismisses that period in his life to youthful ambition.
“I was a naïve guy, and I said, ‘… I hate communism, so f**k ‘em’,” Argüello said of the erstwhile Sandinista Front.
Still, despite the history, it was the Sandinistas that gave Argüello a chance in politics by putting him on the lower half of its 2004 mayoral ticket. After three years as vice-mayor, Argüello now talks like a dyed in- the-wool Sandinista and refers to President Daniel Ortega as “my leader.”
“The Sandinistas have the best project,” Argüello said. “If all the ministers thought the same way [Ortega] thinks, this country would be heaven.”
As vice-mayor, Argüello was in charge of sports, cultural and social events. But he also took a very personal interest in personally helping many of the poor people who would line up outside his office every day.
In one instance, Argüello persuaded a couple of local pharmaceutical companies to provide $4,000 worth of life-saving injections for an 8-year-old girl dying of leukemia. In another instance, Argüello used his contacts to help a young bus accident victim go to Italy for reconstructive surgery.
Argüello says that being a boxer has helped prepare him for office, because, “politics is action.When I have to kill, I have to kill.”
As Mayor of Managua, Argüello said he would have three priorities: to clean up LakeManagua and turn it into a tourist attraction, like Copacabana; to fix the city’s garbage problem and convert dumps into biomass energy plants; and to pave roads into poor neighborhoods, which he thinks would give people more pride in their neighborhoods.
Argüello also knows the importance that sports and physical education has on youth development.
“Sports create an outlet and escape for the poor, especially the youth,” he said. “If you give them tools – baseball, basketball, boxing, and soccer – you are creating something that will control the gangs.”
Avoiding The ‘Snake Pits’
As a former champ, people often want to have a drink with Argüello.And as a recovering alcoholic, it’s a situation he tries to avoid.
But in politics, and among the mucky mucks of Nicaraguan high society, avoiding booze is a tough thing to do, Argüello says.
“They push you, they push you, they push you, man,” he says.
The champ says that drinking would bring him back down into the “snake pit,” so he adjusted to the constant jabs with a trick – he started drinking ginger ale in a lowball glass.
“Everyone thinks I’m drinking whisky,” he says with a laugh. “To make it look more believable, I even take the straw out and make a face when I take a sip.”
Eyeing the Title
The field of potential mayoral candidates for Managua could shape up to be tough and brainy, potentially including former presidential candidates Eduardo Montealgre, of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance and Edmundo Jarquín, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement.
Argüello, not used to “fighting” at his current weigh-in of 180 pounds, will need to rely on his fans to get through the late rounds.
“I gave you three titles, I represented you with honesty and dignity, and now I need you,” the champ tells his fans and electorate.
“The Nicaraguan people, when you do the right thing, they don’t turn their back on you,” he added.
But like in boxing, Argüello knows that becoming a champ in politics isn’t just about winning the title fight.
“They are both a lot of f**king work,” he said of boxing and politics. “But winning a title is not the important thing, it’s like winning an election, it’s not the important thing. The important thing is how many times you defend it, anybody can win a title, but how long can you hold it? In politics it’s how good can you do your job, that is the question.”