Sitting at a desk in his dimly lit bail bonds office, Art Aragon flips through an appointment book, stopping at a page crammed with jokes.
"Did you hear about the man who swallowed a bottle of varnish?" he asks.
"Had a horrible death but a beautiful finish."
"Two old guys are talking. One says to the other, 'What do you owe your longevity to?'
"I don't argue," says the guy.
"What do you mean? It's probably because you don't smoke or drink."
"Maybe you're right," he says.
Aragon, 70, lets out a labored laugh. The Northridge resident, a former prizefighter with sharp fists and a sharper tongue, is hurting and trying not to show it.
Nearly four decades removed from his heyday, Aragon is clinging to the survival lessons drilled into every champion and stiff who ever stepped into a ring. He's clinging to a badge of courage that served him well but can't block every painful blow.
Since his wife, Billie, died in December, Aragon says life hasn't been a joy ride. His oft-quoted zingers are little more than a defense mechanism.
"It's all phony," said Aragon, tears rolling down his cheeks. "I'm acting happy but I'm not. . . . My mind is shot. The day my wife died, my mind went out the door."
No one who knew Aragon in his prime as a boxer would have mistaken him for a sensitive soul.
A tough customer with a mouth and a will that wouldn't quit, Aragon was born in New Mexico but grew up in East Los Angeles. He came out of Roosevelt High in the late 1940s bent on going places in boxing.
By the 1950s, when the fights were among the few spectator sports in town and bouts were staged at different arenas almost every night, Aragon ruled the local scene.
"Before the Dodgers came [in 1958], this was my town," Aragon said.
But he wasn't the people's choice. Billing himself as "The Golden Boy," Aragon fought as a lightweight and was called names and jeered routinely by the predominantly Mexican crowds at the Olympic Auditorium, where he fought most frequently.
Years later, when someone mentioned that Aragon was booed but nobody actually hated him, he was ready with a typical reply: "Nobody except for my four wives."
The strained relationship with fans started early in his career, Aragon said, after he twice pounded Enrique Bolanos, a popular fighter. A black-and-white photo of the first bout, showing a black-eyed Bolanos heading for his corner after a round, hangs on a wall in Aragon's office.
"That's what made me the villain," Aragon said. "Bolanos was an idol [with the Mexican community] but I killed him. God, they hated me."
But he reveled in the catcalls.
Outside the ring, Aragon was an enigma, his tumultuous life a peculiar mixture of fury and levity. Wherever he was, trouble was never far behind, but he loved to party and could poke fun at himself.
He once called a reporter and said: "This is Aragon. Remember me? Let me give you a hint: ' . . . Eight, nine, 10. He's out!' "
His escapades were notorious and invited constant headlines.
There was New Year's Eve in 1951, when Aragon went into a Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard and started a fracas with fellow lightweight Lauro Salas that police had to break up.
"I walked in and he said, 'Arturo, mi amigo,' " Aragon recalled. "I said, 'Get away from me, you ugly. . . . ' He was there with two gorgeous [women] and I guess that [ticked] me off.
"Then I took a punch at him and damn it, I missed. Big mistake. Never miss a little guy. He was so small I couldn't find him."
Aragon, on the other hand, could be located easily. His hangouts were gymnasiums, nightclubs, strip joints and, with astonishing regularity, the courthouse.
In 1957, Aragon was sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to fix a fight. The verdict was overturned on appeal. Aragon said he told his opponent not to foolishly get up if he knocked him down, and the guy mistook it for a bribe.
That one, of course, made the papers. So did his divorce from his first wife. Aragon admittedly slept around and ran in fast company that included Hollywood starlets Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren.
The banner headline over a story about his first divorce read: "Wife Sues Aragon, Names 15 Women."
"She missed three," Aragon said.
Those who disliked Aragon had a picnic on Sept. 5, 1958, the night Carmen Basilio nearly put the Golden Boy in the morgue.
In old Wrigley Field at 42nd Street and Avalon Boulevard, in front of 22,500 who paid a then-Los Angeles boxing record $236,000 to watch the carnage, Basilio battered Aragon and won by technical knockout in the eighth round.
Aragon, who was carried to the dressing room by his handlers, in later months was flippant about the beating he absorbed.
"The bell rings for the first round and I rush to the center of the ring and throw two left jabs, a hard left hook, two right hands and an uppercut," Aragon said. "Then he comes to the center of the ring."
The Basilio debacle netted Aragon $104,000, his biggest payday. Not two years later, Aragon was finished, bowing out after 97 victories, 61 by knockout, in 115 fights. He was never ranked higher than No. 5 in the world.
Aragon, of course, had different numbers.
"It was 27-0," he said. "That's 27 arrests and no convictions."
A large window in his well-worn Van Nuys office allows Aragon a view of Victory Boulevard, but he seldom looks out through his oversized glasses, his attention directed elsewhere.
The place, "Golden Boy Bail Bonds," is a combination business and gallery. An oil painting near the front door shows Aragon, wearing gold trunks, in a fighting pose. Photos of friends, boxers, starlets and other scantily clad women cover the walls.
Aragon opened shop in Los Angeles in the 1960s, moved to another Van Nuys spot and to the current address about 15 years ago. His motto is, "I'll get you out if it takes 17 years."
Brad, Aragon's son from his second marriage and one of seven children he fathered or adopted, handles the paperwork.
"It's a trip being with him," said Brad, who put himself through law school working for his father and will take the bar exam in June. "He does all the court motions and I do the financial end of it. He has more stinking energy than me."
Aragon has never been great at paperwork, which is how he met Billie Dallum, his fourth wife.
Late in the 1980s, Aragon contracted her answering service but failed to send her advance payment for the first month, as she required. A month later, after not getting a dime, she cut off the service.
When she bought another service, Aragon's name was on the client list but she told him to find another outfit. Instead, he found her.
"Out of the blue, he walks right into my office one day, sits down and says to me, 'All right, is it my money you want or my body?' " she said in an interview years ago.
Billie's death from cancer after a five-year struggle was the latest blow for Aragon, whose son, Art Jr., was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1988.
His indiscretions helped crumble his first three marriages but he and Billie were on solid ground, Aragon said.
"She did everything for me," Aragon said. "She practically dressed me in the morning. She was the closest of my wives. She was my friend. We were more than husband and wife.
"She died [three] months ago. It seems like yesterday."