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He Laughed Even When It Hurt Him

November 12, 1987|JIM MURRAY

Art Aragon's big trouble as a prizefighter was, he never wanted to be Jack Dempsey, he wanted to be Jack Benny.

He never could resist a quip. Art was, as it happens, a pretty good fighter, but he'd rather be remembered for one-liners than one-rounders.

To hear him tell it, he never had an honest fight in his life. When he did, he got slaughtered. He says.

When the ref stepped in to stop his fight with Carmen Basilio, Art was not too far gone to protest: "Why? I had a no-hitter going!"

Later, in a locker room crowded with process servers, his wife's divorce lawyers and assorted creditors, Art was indignant. "They shouldn't have stopped it," he said. "The fight could have gone either way: He could have killed me or crippled me."

Once when Art was in the throes of a paternity suit and the court wanted a blood test, Art had a suggestion: "Just bring a bucket to my next fight," he recommended.

When a doctor took the stand to testify that Art couldn't possibly be the father, Art rose in his seat. "I want a second opinion," he said.

The girl in the case waited 18 years to bring suit. "I became a father and a grandfather the same day," said Art.

When Art went on trial in a farcical fight-fixing trial--for a fight that never came off--the prosecution witness testified that Art gave him $50 to take a dive in the third round, Art leaped to his feet. "That's a lie!" he shouted. "It was the fifth round!" Adds Art: "I got five years."

The verdict was reversed in the appellate court. "I called my lawyer, Paul Caruso," recollects Art, "and I told him, 'Justice has triumphed!' and Caruso says, 'Appeal at once!' "

Art was never ranked higher than No. 5. He never got to be--never would let himself be--champion. Art wanted laughs, not titles. Even in the ring, he'd rather opponents laughed than bled.

Someone once said Art was like baseball's Wee Willie Keeler, a master at hitting 'em where they ain't. Someone else--me--once said, "If you throw a punch at him and miss, it ain't Aragon." He was as easy to hit as 23 in blackjack.

Most of his energies in the ring seemed to be devoted to hitching up his pants to keep them from falling off, although he admitted, when asked if they had ever fallen down, "Only when I went with them."

He was a million laughs, Aragon. Dempsey-Tunney was a million-dollar fight. Aragon's were million-laugh fights.

When someone once asked him if there was something positive to be said about his fighting, Aragon thought a minute, then answered, "I never missed a punch in my life. Every one of them landed right on my chin."

When someone asked if he was a hard hitter, Aragon quipped, "I never found out."

Some fighters telegraph their punches. Aragon mailed his. "Fourth class," he adds. "I should have put, 'Please forward,' on them or they'd come back, 'Not at this address.' "

When Art threw a punch, it was like dropping a note in a bottle at sea.

"And those were my good points," claims Aragon.

He fought for 16 years. He was the greatest drawing card in L.A. history. They called him Golden Boy, from the Clifford Odets play and movie of the same name. That was because he sold out every main event he was ever in.

He was the biggest draw, not the most popular. Art was 20 years ahead of his time. Long before Muhammad Ali, Art wised up to the fact that villainy paid. The more people hated you, the more they would pay to see you get what was coming to you.

He alienated Chicanos by making it clear he was born in New Mexico, not Old--he was actually raised in Cincinnati by an aunt--and he alienated the rest of the population with the same degree of skill and will. Art was an equal-opportunity offender. He offended people regardless of race, creed or color.

Not even his own profession escaped. Art offended boxing by pushing for its abolition. Every time a boxing fatality occurred, Aragon could be counted on to make every television panel examining--negatively--boxing's right to exist.

He took so many rights to the Adam's apple that his voice on the phone sounds like a cross between the Lindbergh kidnaper and a guy trying to talk under water. "Boxing should be abolished!" he says. "Look at me--I coulda been Ronald Colman!"

Was he as bad a fighter as he would have you believe? Well, he had 114 fights. He lost 19. He was knocked out in 3.

"One was stopped because I couldn't see and the other two because I couldn't move," explains Aragon. "One of them, they brought in the eye doctor. The others, they brought in the coroner."

Adds Art: "All my life I was scared I'd kill somebody--me."

He beat five world champions but never for a title.

The Golden Boy is 60 this week. His bail bond business is flourishing--"I'll get you out if it takes 10 years," his cards promise.

It's an exciting business. Bail-jumpers are as hard to lay a glove on as any other of Art's opponents, but Art has developed one hankering: "I'd like to be in the Boxing Hall of Fame," he complains.

He deserves to be. He won 95 fights. He had 12 one-round knockouts. "But I always came to!" protests Art. Actually, he won all of them. He had 61 knockouts.

He was part Henry Armstrong and part Henny Youngman. Lord Bryce said of Napoleon's career that it would be the funniest comedy of modern times if it weren't caked in human blood. So would Aragon's. Only, it's his blood.

He still thinks it's funny, the original only-when-I-laugh guy in prize ring history. He was a lot more fun than Sugar Ray Leonard or any other pug who takes himself too seriously.

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