The warning flags were out last Saturday afternoon, and no one in Atlantic City got the message more clearly than Aaron Pryor, the WBA junior welterweight champion. Pryor was at Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel because he has signed to defend his 140-pound title against WBC lightweight champion Alexis Arguello in late October or early November and wanted to study Arguello against Kevin Rooney.
Pryor got an eyeful as Arguello knocked out Rooney with a straight right hand so powerful that Rooney's head didn't clear until he got back to his hotel room almost an hour later. "What round?" Rooney asked his wife in the dressing room. "The second," she said.
"Better watch out for that right hand!" Roger Leonard, Sugar Ray's brother, called to Pryor after the fight.
"He better watch out for my right hand," Pryor said.
Teddy Brenner, who made this fight for Top Rank, said mischievously, "Aaron, you might have to train for this fight." Replied Pryor, "If I get hit with one of those right hands, I can forget it. But it'll be a challenge for him to make my bell ring."
Rooney was no challenge for the 135-pound champion, and for him the bell tolled loud and dolorously. The fight was to serve as a test for Arguello at 140 pounds, a weight at which he had never fought. The 30-year-old Nicaraguan expatriate began his career as a bantamweight—when he was 16, almost 14 years ago—and has gradually moved up in weight class, along the way winning world titles as a featherweight, a junior lightweight and a lightweight. He is one of only six fighters in history to gain championships in three divisions. Should he pry Aaron from his title, he will become the only man ever to win four.
"This is a thermometer for me," Arguello said before the fight. "To see if I can resist a punch, to see if my punch can damage. To feel my strength. I've been training to feel those kinds of punches. But it is different to be in training and be in a fight. Right now I feel faster, and stronger. When I fight at 135, I have to lose five pounds. My doctor told me that my body [5'9�"] is built to support 160 pounds. Right now I make 140 normally. I think I can do it at 140."
The 26-year-old Rooney, who had been fighting as a welterweight, (147 pounds) and had slimmed down to 140 for Arguello, had a 19-1 record as a pro (he was 60-10 in the amateurs). He was chosen to test Arguello because, Brenner said after the fight, of his "iron chin—never been knocked down in 20 pro fights." That's almost true. Rooney says one Clyde Graves had him on the canvas "for a second" two years ago. In his only loss, Rooney had a fight of it for almost seven rounds against future WBA junior middleweight champ Davey Moore, losing when the bout was stopped because of cuts.
For Rooney this chance was what he had been working toward for the last seven years, ever since veteran trainer Cus D'Amato had rescued the high school dropout from a rough and tumble neighborhood of Staten Island, put him up in his three-story, 14-room house in the Catskills overlooking the Hudson River, and installed him in his boxing school. "It turned my life upside down," Rooney says. "It gave me a chance to do something. I figured, 'Hey, this is a chance to make something of myself.' I figured I'd chase a dream."
D'Amato also insisted that Rooney attend college, and three years ago he graduated with a degree in human services from Columbia-Greene Community College. With that behind him, Rooney turned pro, and when Brenner called D'Amato with the offer to fight Arguello, Cus jumped at it, surprising many people. "I've never made a match unless I thought my fighter could win," D'Amato said before the fight. "If he does what he's capable of doing, he'll win. We'll see if he has the emotional maturity to withstand pressure of this type."