The Final Chapter: Pryor-Argüello I – Panama Lewis and the Black Bottle
Alexis Argüello needed Aaron Pryor the same way Pryor needed him. They both wanted to prove something to themselves, and to each other…
“Pryor was fighting for everything. This was his ticket to stardom. I am not saying he wanted it more than Argüello, but he would have beaten the Incredible Hulk that night.”—Steve Farhood
When Roberto Duran walked out of the ring in New Orleans in 1980, his decision was a direct result of what he couldn’t do to Sugar Ray Leonard over the first seven rounds. In contrast, the “black bottle” controversy that stirred boxing fans in the Orange Bowl on a Friday night in November 1982 was ignited by what Pryor wouldn’t do—fall.
And fall he wouldn’t. After Pryor drank the corner concoction, which notorious trainer Panama Lewis mixed between the thirteenth and fourteenth rounds in the Orange Bowl, Pryor, who often charged out of his corner like a madman, came out with a renewed vigor. After taking right hands that jolted his head back like a Pez dispenser in the previous round, Pryor was just as focused and controlled as he had been in the middle rounds. Thus, whether Panama’s magic potion had a direct effect or not, Pryor, now dancing and jabbing, finished off a listless Argüello with as vicious a beating as one could imagine.
Critics look to Pryor’s performance in that round and, to this day, wonder how such events were allowed to unfold. While Argüello stayed out of the fray, Bill Miller, a brash, but honest boxing manager, vehemently questioned the actions of everyone from trainer Panama Lewis to the Miami boxing commission. Eventually Miller was pushed aside, never heard back regarding his formal protest, and told to accept the rematch as the only concession that would be doled out to his camp.
It did not help Argüello’s cause that an entirely different dialogue superseded the “black bottle” episode when a fighter died in the ring a day later.
“It was hard to tell during the fight about any controversy or if the guy was mixing anything in the corner,” said boxing journalist, Ed Schuyler Jr. “It would have been a greater controversy if Duk Koo Kim didn’t just get killed in the ring. That death took all the play. So the conversation quickly turned to people wanting to ban boxing. Kim’s death wiped it clean off the sports page.”
While Argüello supporters felt their fighter was regaining momentum leading into that final round, Pryor advocates look to the fourteenth round as confirmation that their guy was merely closing out a virtuoso performance in typical fashion—facing the fire and heading directly into Argüello’s comfort zone.
From the outset, Pryor fearlessly set a pace that no fighter could possibly acclimate to. Early on, he tormented Argüello by standing in front of him and landing pinpoint combinations; by the sixth, Pryor masterfully switched tactics and boxed.
Heading into the fourteenth and final round, Pryor was ahead 127-124 on two scorecards; the third judge, Ken Morita, had it 127-125 for Argüello. The scores did not accurately reflect the damage Pryor had inflicted upon Argüello during the previous thirteen rounds. Medics closely monitored a deep gash over Argüello’s left eye between rounds that would require eight stitches. Although Argüello had begun to fight at a quicker pace in the later rounds, it was still Pryor’s fight to lose.
Not everyone accepted that theory.
“[Going into that bout] Pryor was not yet thought to be a great fighter. He was devastating, but flawed,” said Steve Farhood, who covered the fight for Ring Magazine. “... the fight remains one of life’s mysteries. Was it something Pryor was on? Was it the five pounds? We’ll never know.”
The bottle controversy did not taint Pryor’s already sordid reputation. Did Pryor come out unscathed? No. But he was not brutalized in the press. Boxing purists knew what Pryor was capable of, and were used to the startling ebb and flow of his bouts. What the “black bottle” incident did accomplish was to reaffirm people’s belief of what a sycophant Lewis truly was.
As for the stimulant question, Lewis would never reveal what was in the bottle. He claimed to have mixed Perrier water to settle Pryor’s stomach, which countered the assertion of cornerman Artie Curley, who said he mixed in peppermint schnapps. To this day, reports even suggest that there was a mixture of cocaine, honey and orange juice in the bottle. What was probably more realistic testimony came from a former Lewis fighter, Luis Resto. In the documentary, Assault in the Ring, Resto asserted that Lewis used to crush antihistamine pills and dissolve them in his water to expand his lung capacity in later rounds.
“I put a lot of credence in Panama Lewis’s actions. I don’t remember exactly, but we referenced it on air as it happened,” said boxing analyst Larry Merchant. “It was there to hear and to question. It wasn’t until later on that we learned how notorious Lewis really was. So at the time there was no reason to be overly suspicious.”
Watching the deterioration of a boxing hero is one thing, but few knockouts compare with how hard Argüello went down in the fourteenth round. He would never recover from the beating. Two schools of thought surfaced after the fight. One being that Pryor didn’t need any extra aid to best Argüello that evening, and whatever Lewis and Curley concocted was unnecessary. In other words, Pryor would have kept forging ahead, daring Argüello to land those seemingly destructible right hands, even without the extra “stimulant.” The other camp subscribes to the notion that Panama Lewis was capable of anything, and stole any chance Argüello had to win a close fight (his record fourth title) by illegally energizing his fighter.
Unlike most boxing mysteries, the facts were indisputable. Panama Lewis cheated; the debate raged as to the impact of his egregious actions.
Before sending Pryor into the middle of the ring, Lewis broke an ammonia capsule under his nose, and screamed at him, “Six minutes. You got to punch back. Win these last two rounds. You can fight for six minutes. We go all day in the gym.” And then Pryor went out and destroyed a boxing icon with a multiple-punch barrage that should have been stopped earlier.
In Nicaragua, they recognized the implications of what was occurring.
“After the sixth, Pryor was stronger and Alexis was no longer at his best. Each round was harder and harder for Alexis,” said Nicaraguan journalist Edgar Tijerino. “The people looked at both fights as something tragic. But the second fight was worse because of the way he looked physically. The hardest part was when Alexis said, ‘I cannot do this anymore.’”
As Argüello’s handlers cradled their fighter, the Miami Commission members should have already been at their posts preparing for post-fight responsibilities. Instead, no fighter provided a urine sample after the fight; ironically, the members were diligent enough to take samples prior to the bout. Both fighters waited patiently in their respective dressing rooms, but no official came to take the samples. Even though the World Boxing Association did not mandate a urine analysis, it was agreed upon by the newly formed commission that one would be done for each fighter.
When the commission regrouped, manager Bill Miller emphasized the WBA guidelines that nothing but water could be used in the corner for that fight, and received little support when he placed a formal protest against the commission and the WBA: “The basis for the protest is that obvious misconduct took place either before the contest in the dressing room and/or in the corner where champion Aaron Pryor was administered obvious foreign substances against the rules.” Without the samples, it was impossible to confirm what Lewis had mixed.
Even though the mystery of the black bottle will forever rage on in late-night boxing lore, the courage of these men can never be questioned. It is impossible to know how the fight would have changed by taking Panama Lewis out of the equation. What is clear is that two men put on a show that may never be equaled. Deep down, Alexis Argüello needed Aaron Pryor the same way Pryor needed him. They both wanted to prove something to themselves, and to each other. In the end, they did just that.
The First Chapter: Countdown to Pryor vs. Argüello I
The Second Chapter: Pryor vs. Argüello 1 – Preparation for Battle
The Third Chapter: Pryor vs. Argüello I – The Fight
The Final Chapter: Pryor-Argüello Saga – Panama Lewis and the Black Bottle
Christian Giudice is the author of Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello and Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran. His website is christiangiudice.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.