Hawk descends upon Hall

Fame beckons a proud Pryor


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the police came for Aaron Pryor, he was lying in the hall of a crack house in Walnut Hills. Their first instinct was to arrest him, but his pain steered them instead to the hospital.

''My ulcer had erupted,'' Pryor recalled, ''and I was hurting so bad I hadn't been to sleep for 10 days. When I went in for surgery, I knew it was a good time to die. I prayed that God didn't let me come out alive the (same) way I was living.''

Not so long ago, Aaron Pryor's life was one long death wish. Cincinnati's prodigal boxing champion courted danger and contemplated suicide. The same man who had fought for millions of dollars and funded an elaborate entourage found himself alone and broke, addicted to cocaine, nearly down for the count.

That was four years ago.

Today, in Canastota, N.Y., the wondrous junior welterweight will be inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In the biggest upset of his boxing career, Aaron Pryor has lived to see his own immortality.

''Many times the phone would ring in the middle of the night and I thought it was someone calling to say that Aaron was dead,'' said Ken Hawk, Pryor's long-time confidante. ''The reason he's alive is God has another mission for him. I think he can save some kids. Otherwise, he'd be gone.''

Aaron Pryor has proven that a fight is never finished so long as a man has the will to climb off the canvas. He has been shot at and strung out and locked up, but those days are beginning to grow distant.

At age 40, Aaron Pryor has recovered from his chemical dependency to be ordained a deacon at New Friendship Baptist Church, to be made a coach at Buddy LaRosa's Millvale Golden Gloves Boxing Club, and to become a published author (Flight Of The Hawk). He submits to monthly drug tests, and has resisted relapse.

''I did thousands and thousands of dollars of cocaine,'' he admitted. ''But it didn't take no money for Aaron Pryor to get high. Everybody wanted me to come to their crack house. They still do today.

''But there's another person in me that I wanted to know, that I lost touch with. I loved (cocaine), but I love me more.''

For all his famous ferocity in the ring and his notoriously wayward ways, there's another person in Aaron Pryor who is gentle, humble, meek and - here is a role reversal - punctual.

He arrives for an appointment at Fountain Square ahead of schedule, and meanders among the lunchtime crowd largely unrecognized. Disguised by sunglasses, and the 30 pounds he has put on since he pulverized the 140-pound class, Pryor retains his anonymity until a photographer poses him for a picture. When a man refers to him as ''Champ,'' Pryor is openly grateful.

Boxing titles are a mediocre commodity anymore. Any fighter who pleases the right promoter and can stay on his feet for eight or 10 bouts can usually lay claim to some spurious belt.

Being champ meant a little more in Pryor's prime. He won 39 of his 40 professional fights, 35 of them by knockout, losing only a lamentable comeback bout to Bobby Joe Young in 1987. Pryor beat Antonio Cervantes for the World Boxing Association's junior welterweight belt in 1980, successfully defended his title 10 times, and twice knocked out Alexis Arguello, himself a Hall of Fame fighter.

Pound-for-pound, Pryor may have been the finest fighter of his time, and he was certainly the most relentless. He would spring from his corner at the opening bell and literally sprint toward his foe to launch furious fistic fusillades.

Other people may have packed more punch, but no one connected on more dazzling combinations.

On June 23, 1979, Pryor dispatched Jose Fernandez with a right uppercut in a 45-second fight at Cincinnati Gardens. Pryor might have made shorter work of his opponent, but he had promised Enquirer photographer Michael Keating the knockout would come in the cameraman's corner.

''Aaron was an unbeatable warrior,'' Hawk said. ''And I don't think we'll ever see anything like him again. He represents the greatest fighter that Cincinnati has ever known, and I don't mean that as any disrespect for Ezzard Charles or anyone else.''

The money is long gone now, and so are most of Aaron Pryor's possessions. His title belt is held in a bank vault, but his funds are so scarce that he needed financial aid to pay for his mother's funeral last week. Marshall Terrill, who co-authored Pryor's autobiography, says all the book's proceeds will go to get the boxer ''out of the ghetto.''

''I'm just an average fighter - broke at the end of my career,'' Pryor said. ''Every now and then a call will come for me to fight in Africa or somewhere, and Ken (Hawk) says, 'You do that and you'll disappoint me.' But I always think about it - one more fight. Going into the Hall of Fame has kind of killed that dream.''

Other dreams have lingered. Pryor imagines a career counseling school children about the dangers of drugs, another training the champions of tomorrow, and a legacy like Ezzard Charles' - a Cincinnati thoroughfare that bears his name.

''I don't know if they're going to name a street after me one of these days,'' he said. ''But if they do, I hope I'm still alive. And I hope it's not an alley.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 9, 1996.