"I used to be a boxer."
"Yeah, right," she said with a wild snort of laughter. The only boxers she knew about were Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and they were both big guys, thick with muscle, strong. She stood eye-to-eye with Pryor, and she was little.
He wrote her letters from the pen, where he'd been sentenced to six months on a drug conviction. She called it "jail mail" because each message was colored by everything Pryor was experiencing behind bars, including regret and loneliness. He was making big promises, too, telling her he was through with crack, while all along, he later admitted, a voice in his head was saying, Well, maybe one more try, champ. Just one more try.
For someone who had once seemed so hard, Pryor could be sensitive and romantic, a regular puddin'. While in the pen, he gave a fellow inmate boxes of candy and cake so that he would draw pictures on the outside of Aaron's letters to Frankie. One picture showed a heart torn to pieces and hanging by chains.
There was a lot to learn about Aaron Pryor, though his story was so marred by calamity and lawlessness that it was often hard to believe. "It's always big tragedies with Aaron, never little ones," Frankie says. "You'll know him for years, and then out of the blue another one will drop out of the sky."
One of his brothers is in prison for armed robbery. And one of his sisters stabbed a boyfriend to death about 20 years ago in what was ruled a justifiable homicide. Aaron's mother, Sara, acting in self-defense, shot his stepfather five times with a handgun, partly paralyzing him. Aaron too has taken bullets. Once during an argument his second wife, Theresa, shot him in the arm with a small-caliber pistol. He was wounded a second time in a struggle with friends while he was living in Miami and high on drugs. That time the bullet struck him in the hand, leaving a rubbery keloid spread across the heel.
Ask Pryor about his childhood, and he usually mutters, "I was deprived." He might just as easily remark, "I was doomed, too," since Pryor grew up believing that the future was something reserved solely for other people. In high school he was a slow learner who graduated despite his mother's many declarations that he would end up like his jailbird brother. He also was a delinquent who occasionally rolled drunks for fun.
Sara had a 9 p.m. curfew for her six children, and whenever one of them came home late, she either whipped him or ordered him outside for the night. "I think that's why I never had problems sleeping in hallways when I got older," Pryor says. "I had to do it so many times as a kid."
Pryor didn't learn his father's identity until he was almost 17. It turned out to be a man Aaron had known all his life: Isiah Graves. Aaron was devastated to learn the truth that late in the game, and he let Sara know it. But by then he had moved out of her house and was living with the family of a friend—though a gym on the upper floor of Cincinnati's Emanuel Community Center was his real home. You climbed a few flights of stairs, and there you were: paradise. In the years to come Pryor would say that he'd been too small for football, too short for basketball and too slow for track, but that for boxing he was just right. He developed so quickly that it wasn't long before everyone was saying he had the promise to become the city's best fighter since heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles decades before.