Obituary: Archie Moore

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The Independent Culture
ARCHIE MOORE fought as he lived, with method, determination and skill, but at his own pace, as if he had his own time-frame, as if fights were not confined to the then championship distance of 15 rounds and life itself had no specific beginning and end. "I geared my way of living and my boxing style to last," he said.

His philosophy was probably in-built. He didn't know exactly when he was born, but grumbled for years that people wrote that he was older than he said. When he once insisted, "Take my word for it. I was born on 13 December 1916," he was contradicted by the one person who knew best, his mother Lorena. She said Archie was three years out - it was 1913 - but even she seemed sketchy.

The result was that nobody could really be sure about when he was born, just as nobody knows how many fights he had. Researchers are still scouring old newspapers and finding "extra" fights for him back when nobody bothered too much about keeping records. The latest estimate is 229 between 1935 and 1963.

He had an elder sister, Rachel, born when his mother was around 15, but his parents separated when Archie was an infant and he was raised by an uncle and aunt, Cleveland and Willie Pearl Moore, in St Louis. He took on their name. Cleveland Moore, a solid, dependable labouring man, was his inspiration, although he remembered being sent on summer holidays to his grandparents in Mississippi: "In the summer the fish were jumping and the sweet, fresh smell of melons on the vine was in the air. We had chickens, corn and white fresh butter. When company came a hog was killed . . . there was a swimming hole and long hours spent wading in the creek."

When his uncle died, the teenage Archie took to stealing in order to buy a trumpet, was caught and sentenced to three years in reform school. He was released after 22 months, and put his life in order.

In the 1930s black fighters earned pin money, were exploited, avoided, robbed of decisions, in effect mercilessly suppressed. They knew this, and most went nowhere. Moore stuck at it, even when it must have seemed plain to everyone else that he belonged to the "too good for his own good" club. Years of fighting where he could for whatever pay he could hustle somehow hardened rather than deadened his spirit.

He moved to San Diego in the late 1930s, spent 1940 fighting in Australia in spite of a perforated ulcer, won and lost the California State middleweight title in 1943, and slowly grew into a light-heavyweight. Out of the ring, he ran a fried chicken business.

He fought the great boxers of his weight and time, many of whom were similarly condemned to the wastelands by a corrupt system unduly influenced by gangsters of one description or another. The extent of Mob influence is still not fully understood, but one middleweight champion of the time, Rocky Graziano, was banned by the New York State commission for failing to report a bribe attempt, and another, Jake La Motta, admitted at a senate investigation in 1961 that he had been forced to pay in order to receive a title fight.

Most black fighters were of little interest to those intent on controlling the scene in the 1940s and, even when more opportunities did arise in the 1950s, it is likely that their careers were manipulated according to the gambling whims of shadowy figures in the background.

Moore and world-class black fighters like Charlie Burley, Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall and Jimmy Bivins simply had to wait. "I was fighting for peanuts," Moore said. Even when he had a good gross purse, his manager - there were several along the way - would cream most of it off in expenses. At one time, he said he earned more by hustling with his pool cue than boxing.

His turn finally arrived in 1952 when he was a veteran of, at a conservative estimate, 170 contests. He had enlisted the help of leading writers to campaign on his behalf. The world light-heavyweight champion, Joey Maxim, was an Italian-American whose real name was Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli. Maxim's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, who had managed the great 1920s heavyweight Jack Dempsey, insisted on Maxim's being paid $100,000 in return for allowing the fight to go ahead in St Louis. Moore took what was left, which turned out to be $800. By the time he had paid off his sparring partners and other pre-fight expenses, there was nothing left.

Nevertheless, he won the world light-heavyweight title at the age of 39. After the decision, he walked over to Maxim, but was brushed aside by Kearns. "Never mind the condolences, kid," said the old man. "We've got all the money." More than that, Kearns had threatened to pull Maxim out of the fight unless Moore cut him in as his co-manager. Moore had signed - and then discovered Kearns had also negotiated a rematch clause. As a result, Moore had to beat Maxim twice more. Kearns earned a fortune.

In between defending the light-heavyweight title he boxed as a heavyweight, with a hungry eye on the great world champion, Rocky Marciano. In 1953 Moore beat the dangerous Cuban Nino Valdes, in 1954 stopped another leading big man, Bob Baker, and in 1955 beat Valdes again.

He hounded Marciano into fighting him with a systematic campaign of advertising, issuing "Wanted" posters to the New York writers and eventually embarrassing the champion into giving him a chance.

Their fight at Yankee Stadium, New York, in September 1955 was bitterly controversial. In the second round Moore floored Marciano with a perfect right uppercut. The champion's nose was bleeding and his eye was bruised as he hauled himself up at the count of four.

He was ready for the taking, but Harry Kessler, who was known as "The Millionaire Referee", gave Marciano precious extra seconds to recover, dusting him down and generally hesitating before allowing Moore to go back in. The chance was lost. Marciano recovered his senses, survived and eventually knocked Moore out in round nine. It was one round too many. After eight, he was effectively finished, but he refused to accept the doctor's suggestion that he quit. "I'm happy it ended the way it did," he told reporters. "I wouldn't want to lose sitting in a corner."

It's easy now to forget just how big fights like this were. The paying attendance was 61,574, and the gross receipts including radio and television rights were more than $2m. Later that night "Ancient Archie" (another nickname, earned in his younger days, was "The Mongoose") with one eye shut behind a huge purple shiner, took himself out on the town and played his beloved string bass with a jazz band. In old age he would still remind anybody who would listen that Kessler robbed him of the heavyweight championship.

He had another chance when Marciano retired in 1956 and they matched him with 21-year-old Floyd Patterson for the vacant title in Chicago. Patterson knocked him out in the fifth.

In spite of increasing bulk, Moore continued to make the light- heavyweight limit (175lb) when he had to, spinning a line that he used a diet given to him by Australian aborigines. At restaurants he would order rare steaks, chew the blood from them and spit the meat back on to his plate. At one time the authorities threatened to take away his title: with a typical flourish, he appealed to the United Nations. He was almost knocked out by a Canadian, Yvon Durelle, who floored him three times in the first round in Montreal in 1958, but recovered and won in the 11th.

Eventually he was stripped of his championships in 1962 because he ignored the demands of the governing bodies. By then he was 48. In May 1962 he was good enough to draw with Willie Pastrano, a future champion, although the young Cassius Clay knocked him out in four rounds. Archie Moore's last official fight was in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1963. He won by a knockout.

He trained fighters - famously falling out with Cassius Clay when Clay discovered that in Moore's training camp even he had to carry out household chores - and once acted in a movie, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). "I didn't have time to read when I was a kid. Now that I've found books, I'm really living," he said. For a time he trained the world heavyweight champion George Foreman and coached the Nigerian amateur team in the 1976 Olympics.

He remained in good health into sprightly, well loved, old age, but eventually needed a triple heart bypass in 1995 and was frail for some time before his death.

Bob Mee

Archibald Lee Wright (Archie Moore), boxer: born Benoit, Mississippi 13 December 1913; World light-heavyweight boxing champion 1952-62; married five times (four sons, three daughters); died San Diego, California 9 December 1998.

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