"I never wanted him to knock anybody out. He was a beautiful boxer, beautiful moves, but he just couldn't help it, he kept knocking guys out. I told him, 'Aaron, if you keep knocking all these guys out you'll only get fights in the tournaments when they can't avoid you.' He was a great little kid, he really was. His only problems are girls and telling time."
Later Smith moved his boxers to Lincoln Center in downtown Cincinnati. "Our first night there some kid who had fought in the Golden Gloves the year before challenged Aaron," says Smith. "I told them, 'No, that's honky-tonk stuff. We don't need that in the gym.' So they went outside. Five minutes later Aaron came in. The supervisor came over and said, 'Hey, what's going on? One of your kids just beat up a guy outside.' So I told Aaron, 'Hey, cut that stuff out. You can go to jail for that.' Right then he quit street fighting altogether."
Frankie Sims was once Pryor's best friend, roommate and assistant trainer. "Aaron loves a challenge," Sims says. "I remember the time a girl where we lived was locked out of her apartment on the fourth floor, but she had left one of her windows open. To get up there you had to climb between two pillars and then swing over to reach a window. I went up but said there was no way I was going to let go of that pillar to swing to the window. So Aaron went up. I kept yelling for him to get down because if he fell he'd sure as hell break something. He yelled down, 'I'll be O.K. if you just let me alone.' Sure enough, he got in the window. It was just something he wanted to do because it was a challenge."
As Pryor's amateur career flourished, he was offered the challenge of international competition. His first trip was to Moscow. He had to lie about his age, change it from 16 to 17 to qualify. As an opponent he drew Valery Solomin, then rated No. 1 in the world at 132 pounds. The 29-year-old Solomin was considerably taller than the 5'6" Pryor and had had more than 300 fights with a 90% knockout ratio. During one round Solomin forced Pryor into a corner and fired a volley of 20 punches, all of which missed their bobbing and weaving target. The crowd stood and gave Pryor an ovation. He won the fight.
This is the contradiction in Pryor's life: erratic, antisocial behavior outside the ring and professionalism inside it. Rollie Schwartz, who supervised many of the U.S. teams' trips abroad, has followed Pryor's career almost from its start. "I've heard all the stories about him," says Schwartz. "But I have a great feeling for him because he represented the United States 21 times in international competition, always with honor and dignity. And he won all but one fight, and in that one he got shafted."
When Pryor was 16, Schwartz introduced him to Elkus, the owner of Dino's, a men's clothing store in Cincinnati. Along with his father, Max, Elkus had managed heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles. Elkus gave Pryor a job in the stockroom of his store and later made him a salesman.
"I had nothing but good dealings with Aaron," says Elkus. "Unfortunately, he's his own worst enemy. He isn't a bad kid, and he's a kid even though he's 27. I don't think Cincinnatians look at him as a professional athlete. I think they look at him as a kid from the ghetto who had the gall to say, 'I'm going to turn down a $500,000 offer to fight Ray Leonard.' Now they like to hear that Aaron had a paternity suit, that his attorney sued him, that he fired his business manager, that he doesn't want Buddy LaRosa in his corner anymore. But all that doesn't mean anything. The guy can fight. Aaron has his minuses, but he has a lot of pluses you never hear about."
In 1976 it was a given that Pryor would make the U.S. Olympic team in the 132-pound class. The Trials were held in his hometown. Then Howard Davis decided to move up from the 125-pound division, and he defeated Pryor 3-2 in the finals. He beat Pryor again by the same score in a boxoff at the Olympic training camp in Burlington, Vt. There are those who'll say that because of unbridled off-hours behavior, Pryor was penciled out of the decision. "We had one Leon Spinks to deal with," admits a U.S. boxing official, "and we sure didn't need another."
"There's no doubt," Schwartz says, "that if Aaron had been an Olympian, he would have won the gold medal."
Instead, Pryor, without the Olympic fanfare, turned pro on Nov. 12, 1976, making $400 for knocking out former kick boxer Larry Smith in the second round. Davis became a professional two months later. He earned $250,000 for decisioning an inept José Resto. The difference, Pryor noted, was $249,600.