At London's Wembley Arena late last Saturday night, the tunes of glory from the bagpipes were stilled and the banners drooped. It was the last round of the WBC lightweight championship fight, and for the Scots there in the hall, the end of an old son, as they say up there. Jim Watt, the lefthanded titleholder, their idol, was irretrievably behind on points to Alexis Arguello of Nicaragua, but he was still standing, bleeding badly though he was, still throwing right jabs to try to counter the cruel left hooks that had done him in.
Mindful of the ugly bottle-throwing rioting that marked the end of the Alan Minter-Marvin Hagler middleweight title fight in Wembley last September, the law was on hand in heavy strength, ready for trouble at the final bell. And there were enough hard men in tartan scarves and bomber jackets on hand to make the police presence look entirely sensible.
But suddenly, unforgettably, it became clear that the bobbies might just as well go home. In the ring the fight was over, and the two boxers were locked in an embrace that came unmistakably from an unfeigned mutual respect. A sad, but not bitter, moment for Watt; a joyful, but not arrogant, moment for Arguello—a moment that easily could have been foreseen earlier were it not for the automatic cynicism that boxing attracts to itself by the way it's normally conducted.
Upon arriving in London, for instance, Arguello had unaccountably neglected to spit, snarl or grunt threats. Instead he had inquired after Watt's family. Watt had struck the same note. "Alexis and myself are both proud professionals," he declared, "and a world championship fight should be a dignified affair."
"Watt is a great champion," countered Arguello, "a decent man, always smiling, always polite outside the ring. I prefer to be like that also."
Courtesies aside, it was a sure thing that in Watt's four defenses of his championship since winning it from Alfredo Pitalua in 1979, he had met no one with the credentials of Arguello. Compact, strong, extraordinarily skilled and speedy, the handsome, mustachioed Arguello, 29, was a veteran of 15 world championship fights, only one of which he had lost—the first, on a decision to then WBA Featherweight Champion Ernesto Marcel. Later in that same year, 1974, Arguello won the WBA featherweight title when he knocked out Ruben Olivares. Ever since, except for two brief intervals while he was moving up in weight class, he has been a world champion.
He made the first of those shifts in 1978 when he became a super featherweight and knocked out Alfredo Escalera for his second title. After nine defenses of that crown Arguello quit, undefeated. Now he wanted Watt's title. That gained, he would find himself in a select group of fighters who have held three titles—Henry Armstrong, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and, currently, Wilfred Benitez.
Though the proliferation of divisions has made the task easier, it would still be a signal accomplishment. Yet were Arguello to achieve it, the final accolade would be denied him—a triumphant return home to his native Nicaragua.
"I waved the new flag at first," he said in London last week. "We needed a change." But the change, it seemed, didn't need him. Though his mother had a soda-pop stall in Managua and he himself had started his working life after fifth grade spray-painting autos, by the time the Sandinistas came to power he was one of Nicaragua's rich. And beyond that, the new government banned pro boxing as exploitative.
Two years ago, when the street fighting started in his native land, Arguello was in New York for a title defense against Rafael Limon. He abandoned his considerable property in Nicaragua and is now settled with his family in Coral Gables, Fla.