Unbreakable Bond: Don Kahn and Alexis Argüello
When Kahn called Argüello in 2009 and asked him to introduce his new Alexis Argüello Boxing Academy, there was no hesitation…
“I want to keep the name going. I don’t want to let the name die.”—Don Kahn on his Alexis Argüello Boxing Academy in Carolina, Puerto Rico
The same old smile. The confidence. Even the old charm had returned as he joked with old friends and danced the night away. It was late-June 2009 and Alexis Argüello, then mayor of Managua, had come to Puerto Rico to pay tribute to the great Roberto Clemente, and inaugurate a gym bearing his name for his close friend and former trainer, Don Kahn.
To those in attendance, this version represented the new and improved Argüello; no longer was he struggling against his demons. No longer was he trying desperately to find himself. No longer was he trying to fill the void that came with retirement.
By all accounts, the old Argüello was back.
After a glorious weekend filled with bouts of nostalgia, Argüello returned to Nicaragua early Monday morning. Days later, he was gone.
To truly understand the real Alexis Argüello, who died three years ago today, one must understand the depth of his friendship with Kahn.
Relationships initiated through the sport of boxing don’t always withstand the intensity, pressure, and unpredictability of the fighters’ careers. However, the bond between Kahn, who currently trains fighters in Puerto Rico, and Argüello was different.
The relationship began in 1977. Kahn and Argüello met in New York City, when Kahn was doing work for Madison Square Garden. Argüello was in town to fight Cocoa Sanchez and Kahn became his unofficial tour guide for the weekend.
From that point on, they were inseparable.
“It started in New York the first time against Cocoa Sanchez,” said Kahn. “I was sent by Madison Square Garden to pick him up at LaGuardia Airport. I was telling him about the New York experience in boxing. We started to get to know and like each other. He liked the way I worked. I ended up taking him to the gym. We were always joking and talking.”
Soon, Argüello brought Kahn on as a trainer. Affable and kindhearted, Kahn lightened up a tense camp when necessary and instinctively read his friend’s emotions at every juncture. If Argüello wanted to be alone, Kahn knew how to politely close out an interview and give him space; if Argüello was lonely on the road, Kahn never left his side; if Argüello had become depressed and down, Kahn helped revive him with jokes. If Argüello was disgusted with the “Yes” people surrounding him after a fight, he expected Kahn to tell him the truth.
“Alexis always wanted Kahn around,” said Argüello’s longtime friend and manager Eduardo Roman. “Don was Alexis’ second and he used to go with him everywhere. He enjoyed having Kahn in camp and it kept Alexis happy. Don was crazy and he used to say things to keep Alexis loose.”
Argüello worked with numerous different trainers from the strict Mexican trainer, Arturo “Cuyo” Hernández, to the beloved Eddie Futch, but there was only one man who stayed the course. Kahn was more than just a friend on the road to comfort Argüello; he also was a respected voice in the corner to help balance him. In the first fight against Alfredo Escalera in 1978, Argüello returned to the corner after the second round to hear a familiar voice.
“After Argüello knocked him down in that second round, I told him in that first bout, ‘Flaco, don’t take any chances with this guy. He’s still strong,’” Kahn recalled. “It was a difficult fight and I told Alexis to fight smart and don’t let up until you see him go down.”
It would take Argüello eleven more rounds to stop Escalera on that evening. With each fight, he grew closer to Kahn.
“Yes they were real close, [even with] Don being a Puerto Rican. Alexis trusted him blindly. They complemented each other immensely,” Escalera’s manager, Paul Ruiz, recalled. “Alexis listened to his corner advice…
“I do not know of anyone—not even Alfredo—that held a grudge for him working against a compatriot. I did not share a lot with him and just met him briefly. But in my opinion he truly loved Alexis as a brother.”
As Argüello grew in stature, a steady stream of trainers circulated in and out of his corner. When Argüello couldn’t effectively communicate with his lead trainer, he relied on his friendship and trust in Kahn for relief. Kahn proved to be a fine counterpoint to Argüello’s agent/manager, Bill Miller, who was more of a protective figure in the camp.
“I would take photos of Alexis at the Main Street Gym,” said photographer Carlos Baeza. “Kahn was always open. It was like a father and son relationship. I did notice that. Kahn would invite me to the hotel to spend time with them. That was the type of guy he was.”
Unlike a lot of high-profile fighters, Argüello never relied on an entourage. He trusted three main figures—Miller, Roman, and Kahn. Although other trainers and managers figured in to his life, that nucleus provided him the most comfort.
“Alexis and I were together for 24 years. I miss him like I miss a part of my life. We spent so much time together,” said Kahn. “After fights he would only take two weeks off and then we were back together again. When he moved back to Nicaragua, we would have to meet in New York or Puerto Rico, but always it was like a brotherhood.”
During the 1980s, the Arguello camp had reached its zenith, and everything was moving smoothly. Roman stayed behind the scenes to handle the business side; Miller handled the logistics of each upcoming bout; while Kahn managed Argüello in the ring, and kept him balanced outside of it.
Since Argüello valued his privacy and was uncomfortable in the spotlight, he needed someone to help him cope with the newfound fame. Whether Argüello was dealing with the backlash of his struggle with the Sandinistas or having difficulty making weight, he knew where to turn.
“He trusted me like I was his father. He would never hide anything from me. Even his personal problems,” said Kahn. “He came to me quite often. I would pick up the phone and Alexis would be here.”
When everything began to unravel after the first meeting with Aaron Pryor and the subsequent retirements and comebacks, both men headed in different directions in their lives. But the relationship never strained. So when Kahn called Argüello in 2009 and asked him to introduce his new Alexis Argüello Boxing Academy, there was no hesitation.
Just like old times, the friends were back together again. If only for a short while, Arguello and Kahn were back in the corner reliving some of the unforgettable ring moments. Alexis was himself again, and there were no signs that he was suffering.
In the end, Kahn could take solace in one fact: “Some people say he just came to Puerto Rico to say goodbye to me.”
(Christian Giudice is the author of “Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello”)