It has been said that Moore was more than a fighter. But that’s true of all boxers. What separated him from other fighters (and athletes) was that, in addition to his skills, he fervently wanted to be recognized as a thoughtful multifaceted man. And he was.
Moore had a way with words. Recounting how his half-brother, Louis, was arrested, Archie explained, “Louis was light-fingered by nature. Somehow, a man’s watch got tangled up in his hand and the man sent the police to ask Louis what time it was.”
Very few writers can craft phrases like that.
“I liked him very much,” Jerry Izenberg says. “His demeanor always matched the occasion. He was a terrific fighter and a fascinating guy. And I’ll tell you something else; he was better than [Muhammad] Ali at conning someone. With Ali, you laughed and you knew he was conning you. With Archie, you didn’t always know that you’d been had.”
“I met him several times,” Emanuel Steward reminisced. “He was a wonderful man. Talking to him was like talking with a college professor.”
Following his victory over Durelle, Moore’s cachet was such that Samuel Goldwyn cast him as Jim, the runaway slave, in a 1960 film version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“I was intrigued at the idea of making myself into another person,” Moore said of his film role. “I wasn’t put in the picture as a freak attraction to sell tickets. I honestly think I turned in a performance and not an appearance.”
Hollywood agreed. In the ensuing years, Moore would have roles in “The Carpetbaggers” (starring George Peppard, Carroll Baker, and Alan Ladd), “The Fortune Cookie” (with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), and television shows ranging from “Perry Mason” to “Batman.”
Meanwhile, Moore’s ring career went on. On August 12, 1959, he fought a rematch against Durelle in Montreal. This time, he was properly prepared and knocked the Canadian out in the third round.
There were more over-the-weight non-title bouts. Moore discovered Texas and fought there three times in addition to doing battle in Italy and the Philippines. On October 25, 1960, the National Boxing Association stripped him of his championship for refusing to defend the title against a credible challenger. That left New York, Massachusetts, and California as the only jurisdictions to recognize the legitimacy of his championship claim. He had one final title defense, a 15-round decision over Giulio Rinaldi at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 1961. Then those three states also withdrew recognition of his crown.
Moore’s last six fights were fought as a heavyweight. He scored knockout victories over Pete Rademacher, Alejandro Lavorante, and Howard King. Then, weighing 201 pounds, he battled to a 10-round draw against future light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano.
Pastrano later recounted that, at the pre-fight physical, Moore couldn’t read the eye chart: “He was saying ‘A…B…C…D.’ The doctor says, ‘For Chrissakes, Archie; that’s not right.’ Archie says, ‘Well, Willie ain’t gonna be that far away from me.’”
By then, Moore had bought 120 acres of land near San Diego and built a training camp called “The Salt Mine.” In addition to preparing for his own fights, he’d begun working with other boxers. One of the young men he trained briefly was an 18-year-old heavyweight with a 1-and-0 record - a former Olympian named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Their union lasted about a month in late-1960 before Clay rebelled against the discipline and housekeeping chores that Moore imposed on trainees and returned home to Louisville.
Two years later, on November 15, 1962, Clay and Moore met in the ring. Their confrontation was typical of boxing, a young, up-and-coming fighter against an over-the-hill, “name” opponent. Moore was being paid for his marquee value yet elements of the match-up were intriguing. Clay had been in 15 professional fights. Moore was a veteran of more than 200. And more important from a promotional point of view, they were boxing’s greatest outside-the-ring showmen.
As expected, Moore-Clay was preceded by verbal pyrotechnics. Cassius predicted that “the old man” would fall in four. Moore responded, “I don’t enjoy being struck by children,” and added, “I view this young man with mixed emotions. Sometimes he sounds humorous but sometimes he sounds like a man that can write beautifully but doesn’t know how to punctuate. Clay can go with speed in all directions, including straight down if hit properly. I have a good solid right hand that will fit nicely on his chops. The only way I’ll fall in four is by toppling over Clay’s prostrate form.”
Clay was a three-to-one favorite. The fight was contested in Los Angeles, where 16,200 fans paid a California indoor record of $182,600 to see the bout.
“My plan when I went into the fight,” Moore later explained, “was to move around and catch him with hooks to the body because no one had hit him to the body much. Slow him down and then maybe get him with a sneaky right hand. But his speed was too much for me and I was made for him in that I used a wrap-around defense to cover up. I would leave the top of my head exposed and that’s what he wanted. You see, he had a style; he would hit a man a lot of times around the top of the head. And if you hit the top of a man’s head, you disturb his thoughts. A fighter has to think. But if someone is plunking you on top of the head, you cannot think correctly. And this is what he did. He made me dizzy and he knocked me out.”
Four months after losing to Clay, Moore entered the ring for the last time. On March 15, 1963, he fought 39-year-old professional wrestler named Mike DiBiase, who had issued a challenge to Moore after Archie refereed one of his matches.
Only 800 fans attended Moore-DiBiase. The gate was under 2,000 dollars. It was DiBiase’s first pro fight and it wasn’t pretty. Moore ended matters at 20 seconds of the third round.
After retiring as an active fighter, Moore faced new challenges. “Twenty-nine years of a man’s life aren’t dumped that easily,” he wrote. “I had so many memories that, when I thought of having left the ring forever, it gave me a kind of empty feeling.”
But he soon found other horizons, becoming actively involved with a number of youth programs. It was more than a hobby or public relations gesture. He took the work seriously and invested an enormous amount of time and energy in helping to mold young men and women. There were various business ventures and he continued training other fighters, most notably, George Foreman.
Moore was with the Foreman team when George upset Joe Frazier in Jamaica in 1973 to claim the heavyweight crown, and also one year later when he lost to Muhammad Ali in Zaire. When Foreman began his comeback in 1987 after 10 years away from boxing, he again sought Moore’s counsel. Given the need to slim down from 300 pounds, Big George considered the merits of Moore’s “Aborigine diet.”
“I would try some of the things, chew the meat and not swallow it, things of that nature,” Foreman said afterward, “but when Archie wasn’t looking, I’d eat it.”
Moore had aged well as a fighter and that continued to be the case long after his ring career was over. He remained mentally sharp in his old age, no mean achievement for a man who’d had more than 200 professional fights.
Late in life, reflecting on his ring accomplishments, Moore saw himself in the arc of history. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he observed. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity.”
And he expressed pride in what he’d accomplished as a boxer.
“It makes me proud when someone mentions that they would sit by the radio and listen to my fights or when someone is excited just to shake my hand,” Moore declared. “I’m proud that I beat fighters who were young enough to be my sons. I am very proud of being able to say that I dropped Rocky Marciano when I fought him. Life’s road is not always smooth but if you haven’t had any bad times, how can you appreciate the good ones? My rugged road was very interesting and rewarding at the end.”
He often travelled with a 16-millimeter film of his first fight against Yvon Durelle and showed it to anyone who was interested if a film projector was available.
In 1994, Moore underwent triple heart-bypass surgery. He died in San Diego on December 9, 1998.
Archie Moore knew the craft of boxing as well as anyone. He had remarkable skills. But what sets him apart from other fighters is his longevity.
Fighters got old younger in those days. Joe Louis won his last championship fight at age 34. Rocky Marciano fought for the last time 20 days after his 32nd birthday. There were no modern conditioning techniques, no miracle surgery, and no performance-enhancing drugs to prolong an athlete’s career.
Three fights stand out in Moore’s legacy: his winning the title from Joey Maxim at age 36 (or 39), his unsuccessful challenge against Rocky Marciano three years later, and his first fight against Yvon Durelle, when, by any count, Moore was well into his 40s. The victory over Maxim was vindication for past wrongs. His efforts against Marciano and Durelle were flawed but heroic performances.
“I always went into the ring feeling that I could beat my opponent,” Moore said of his ring career. “It didn’t always happen that way but I have a gift for understatement when talking of my losses. I recall the determined feeling I had to do better the next time when I lost and the wonderful feeling I had when I won.”
Offering thoughts with regard to his place in boxing history, Moore declared, “I must admit that I feel Archie Moore ranked up there with the best. Joe Louis was the best heavyweight I’ve ever seen. John Henry Lewis was the best light heavyweight. But if anyone wants to dispute this and throw my name in, I’ll listen to the discussion with rapt attention.”
Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler, a student of boxing history, observes, “You look at films of fighters and you make allowances for different conditioning and how technique has evolved and you project in your mind what someone like Jack Johnson would be a hundred years later. But at the end of the day, either a fighter has it or he doesn’t have it. Archie Moore had it. He could fight.”
Emanuel Steward proclaimed, “Archie Moore was incredible, one of the all-time greats. They don’t even teach what he could do anymore. To be as good as he was for as long as he was, he might have been the greatest light heavyweight of all time.”
As for Moore, the person, Archie could be irascible, stubborn, prickly. But he was also capable of great kindness. After Floyd Patterson was knocked out by Ingemar Johansson in 1959, Moore sent the following letter to the man who had crushed his own heavyweight championship dreams three years before:
The first bout is over. I know how you must feel. I hope you don’t continue to feel bad. The same thing has happened to many great fighters. I hated to lose to you, and fate decreed it that way. Fate does strange-seeming things. If you are a believer [that] things happen for the best, listen to this and you can find your way out of a seeming tunnel.
Johansson was not so great. You fought a stupid battle. Look at the film. Evaluate it. Never once did you lead with a jab. All you did was move your feet and try to leap toward him. Now this man could bang a little. You gave absolutely no respect to your opposition. If you concentrate on your jab and move around this guy, you will be the first one to regain the crown. You can do it.
Working off his jab, Patterson knocked Johansson out in the fifth round of their rematch the following year.
“Moore was someone you wanted to be around,” promoter Don Elbaum remembers. “He was a very classy guy who treated everyone with respect. I sent him a telegram wishing him a happy birthday one year. People did that in those days. And he sent me a telegram back, thanking me.”
Writer W.C. Heinz called Moore “the most scientific fighter of my time and, outside the ropes, the most inventive.”
Al Bernstein recalls, “Archie Moore was the most interesting athlete I’ve ever met. In fact, he was as interesting to sit and talk with in casual conversation as any person I’ve ever known. He had a lot of respect for boxing history and the people who made boxing what it is. He told me once about meeting Jack Johnson in a gym in Los Angeles. He said it was like God walking in. He was a good storyteller but never tried to dominate the conversation. He was self-educated, very well-read. It wasn’t a put-on. He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t by throwing out the names of a few writers he’d heard about. There was some double-talk from time to time but you could discuss anything with him. If he didn’t know about a subject and you did, he’d ask the right questions to learn about it for himself.”
And Larry Merchant, who first encountered Moore as a young sportswriter at the Philadelphia Daily News, reminisces, “I received several long letters from him, letters that went beyond the entreaties for a fight against Marciano or whoever it was he wanted to fight that year. Those letters were one of the things that created a context within which I covered boxing and, to a certain degree, all other sports. He was a man of dignity. He had great pride and grace. Over time, he evolved into a philosopher and, in some respects, an intellectual. Despite all the injustices that were heaped upon him as a black man and as a fighter, he always seemed to be smiling at the world rather than snarling at it. He influenced my life and I don’t say that lightly. He showed me that writing about sports could be deep and he showed me that writing about sports could be fun.”
“When Archie Moore came around,” John Schulian wrote, “the fight racket never seemed like the sewer it was.”
After Moore died, there were myriad tributes. One of the finest came from George Foreman, who wrote in Time magazine, “In all the years we talked while Archie was teaching me, he never complained about the years of being the number one contender [when he couldn’t get a title shot]. When he talked of the night he won the light-heavyweight championship but no money, there was that gleam in his eye. When he uttered the word ‘champion,’ that made me too want to be a champion. Archie stands as a tower for all athletes, saying, ‘If you want it, leave your excuses behind and come get it.’”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (And the New…: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
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