In 1990, Cincinnatti native Aaron Pryor was a cocaine-wasted ex-boxing champion barred from fighting in California, New York, New Jersey and Nevada because he was legally blind in one eye.
"If he’s blind in one eye, he’s still got another eye," said self-styled sports agent Diana Lewis in announcing that she was bringing Pryor to Madison to box on May 16, and thereby thrusting Wisconsin into the big time boxing spotlight for the first time in 40 years. But the attention was hardly flattering.
Pryor – who died Sunday at age 60 in his hometown of a heart condition – had precipitously hit the skids after his two epic and winning junior welterweight title fights with Alexis Arguello in 1982 and ‘83. Cocaine was one reason. The other was a detached retina in his left eye that left him, according to a Madison eye doctor, with only 25-35 percent vision in the affected peeper.
In Wisconsin, there hadn’t been a boxing commission since 1980. Since then, the sport has been under the purview of the State Dept. of Licensing and Regulation, and on May 7, 1990, DLR Secretary Marlene Cummings declined to halt the fight because "handicapped people should not be penalized for their handicap. They should be allowed to do the same thing non-handicapped people can do."
Her decision touched off a firestorm of criticism and ridicule. "This defies logic," said Chuck Minsker of the Nevada boxing commission. "Doesn’t health and safety supersede discrimination in this case?"
"If you go into the ring with one eye," warned Don Muse of the California boxing commission, "you’d better be prepared to get a guide dog."
Randy Gordon, chairman of the New York fite board, publicly appealed to Gov. Tommy Thompson for "a stay of execution for Aaron Pryor."
But all the alarm turned out to be for naught. Pryor was in no danger in the ring at the Masonic Temple on May 16. In his 1996 autobiography, "Flight of the Hawk: The Aaron Pryor Story," the former champion disclosed that he was allowed to choose his own opponent for the fight, "and I thought it would be good to fight someone that I knew so that we wouldn’t hurt each other."
Handpicked Cincy homeboy Daryl Jones obligingly collapsed in round three of the bout that almost didn’t happen because on the morning of the 16th, the belabored DLR said that promoter Lewis hadn’t filed incorporation papers in time and tried to pull the plug. But at 6 p.m., Judge John Alghrimm called that "abuse of discretion," and the fight went on before about 300 spectators and a press row occupied by more out-of-state reporters than not.
Pryor celebrated his victory by going on a cocaine toot. In December of ’90, he had the final fight of his career in Oklahoma (another commissionless state), and in a victory even bigger than the ones over Arguello, he kicked his drug addiction in ’93. Three years later, he was deservedly enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.