There are a variety of boxing phrases that have entered the lexicon of the general public. Probably the most well known is “roll with the punches.” It describes a specific skill within our sport, but almost everyone understands what it means on an intellectual and emotional level.
The exact boxing technique is something I learned when fighting, but not well enough to explain, so I reached out to UC Davis boxing coach Joel Stern for a fuller explanation. The gist is that you block as much of the incoming punch as you can but don’t brace for it, and allow the momentum from it move you into a position to punch back even harder. How the blow hits you will dictate what you can return fire with, but you have to be willing to take the force and use it to your advantage. It’s a skill that most fighters never master and even fewer people truly understand. It requires you to absorb pain and convert it into energy.
When I think about this technique, I think about all time great junior welterweight, Aaron Pryor. The Hawk died Sunday from heart disease, eleven days before his 61st birthday. I was introduced to Aaron Pryor the way that many people my age (mid 30s) was, through the outstanding HBO series Legendary Nights. The show covered Pryor’s two fights with Nicaraguan icon Alexis Arguello in 1982 and 1983. Like every other installment, you get a healthy dose of backstory on the combatants and an insight into them as human beings.
If you’ve read anything about Pryor before, odds are excellent that the phrase “perpetual motion” or an equivalent will be used to describe him in the ring. Quite frankly, there’s no way of getting around it. Aaron Pryor was bottled rage in the ring. He was absurdly skilled, and incredibly fast, but his defining trait was his relentless aggression. He threw hard punches from every conceivable angle in a volume that few but prime Henry Armstrong could manage. If you knocked him down, he absorbed the blow and got up pissed off and doubly determined to detach you from your senses. Aaron Pryor owned whatever ring he was in. That was HIS space.
Pryor amassed a brilliant amateur record, including two national golden gloves championships, the second of which he won by defeating Thomas Hearns. He then came a breath away from making the Olympic team, only to lose a controversial decision to eventual gold medalist Howard Davis in the final of the trials. Instead of turning pro with promotional deals and salary in hand, Pryor fought for short money, supplemented by working as a sparring partner to Davis and Ray Leonard.
Not yet four years into his professional career, Pryor fought Antonio “Kid” Cervantes for the junior welterweight title. Cervantes was no match for The Hawk, who seemed to regard Cervantes temerity in knocking him down with a kind of sadistic glee. Pryor stopped Cervantes in the 4th round. He followed this by cleaning out the rest of the division.
The undisputed king at 140 pounds, Pryor was unable to entice Ray Leonard, or any of the other stars at welterweight into fighting him. Instead, the beloved Alexis Arguello, who was already considered an all time great, and had just moved up from lightweight, challenged Pryor. The fight, which took place at the Orange Bowl in Miami in November 1982, is a classic. Pryor owned the early rounds, before Arguello adjusted and began teeing off on him. Pryor rolled with every landed punch and adjusted, sliding inside and under Arguello’s shots, before unloading heavy shots of his own. Arguello succumbed in the 14th round. Pryor won the rematch in ten, doling out an even more savage beating.
Like many of the finest fighters, Pryor survived a hellish childhood that taught him to focus on something, anything, to ignore the hardship, abuse, neglect, and pain that comprised his daily existence. That type of childhood often leaves a void that even the ring can’t cure, but the ring can give you a space to forget it. It provides a focus for the rage that builds within you and is amplified with every moment of misery. In the ring, the rage is set lose, and rather than impotently attacking circumstance, you can conquer a space that is truly your own. If you’re good enough, that can earn you millions of dollars, the adulation of fans, and no shortage of hangers on who wish to use you to lift themselves from the failings of the world around them and their own failings as people.
At some point though, the rage dies, or at least is tempered by the realization that no matter how violently you quake, and no matter what you accomplish, the emptiness will remain. The emptiness takes over and you are left in its grasp unable to do anything but try to numb the feeling. It never feels like a solution, you just want to forget that the void exists for a few hours. In those moments, we finally learn that the loneliness and despair we thought we knew were but pale glimpses of the horror our own psyche can wreak on our lives.
Aaron Pryor lost what may have been his prime years in the ring, and hopefully would’ve been them in his life to drug addiction. He attempted a couple of comebacks after retiring in 1985. None of them took, and he wound up in prison, another cautionary tale about a promising fighter who couldn’t handle success. Was it only so simple.
That Pryor lived to 60 is a fucking miracle. That he stayed sober and raised three children with his fourth wife after getting clean for good in 1993 is more miraculous still. Pryor was a monster in the ring that was loved for his ferocity, lauded for his skill, and never fully appreciated for who he was. When you look back on his life and career, remember that he always reacted to the same way getting hit cleanly. He let the punch move him onto his opposite foot, pivoted, and fired back with shots of his own. Sometimes it just took a while for them to land.