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Moore packed a lethal punch
By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com
"He was traveling from one southern state to another for a fight. It'd gotten late at night and he knocked on a door. There was a young Caucasian lady there and she said he could sleep in the barn. After a short period, he heard some voices and looked out. It was a lynch mob on the way to get him," says Archie Moore's son Billy about his father on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Archie Moore was an enduring sort in the most literal sense.
Endurance was all too necessary for "The Ol' Mongoose," whose rise to the light-heavyweight championship was slowed by racism. But what also endures is Moore's record of 141 knockouts, a mark that still stands today.
He fought his early bouts in "tank towns" all over America, trying to carve out a living and make a name for himself. "Nothing ever came easy to me," Moore said, "except ulcers."
He became a fixture on what became known as "The Chittlin' Circuit," an unending string of boxing honky-tonks open to "colored" fighters who couldn't break into the white man's big time.
Moore also battled physical adversity - a severed tendon in his wrist, acute appendicitis, an organic disorder of the heart and a perforated ulcer that was life threatening. A prominent surgical scar would become an unintended trademark.
It wasn't until 1952, almost two decades after he started fighting professionally, that Moore got his shot at the light-heavyweight championship. Once he took the crown from Joey Maxim, he would never lose it in the ring. And he would defend that crown even as he approached a half-century of life.
Many think of Moore because of his longevity, but his style was much more memorable to those who saw him fight. He wore long shorts decades before today's NBA players made them fashionable. Instead of fighting with fists raised at his opponents, Moore often would cross his arms and form his famed "armadillo curtain," a precursor to Muhammad Ali's 1970s "rope-a-dope." Moore would feign nonchalance and then blister an opponent with a punishing right jab.
He also talked a good game - even during his fights. He once told a soon-to-be-vanquished opponent, "You're looking great. Keep up what you're doing. You're the next champion."
Archibald Lee Wright was born on Dec. 13, 1913, in Benoit, Miss. (according to Moore's mother and Ring magazine). Or maybe Dec. 13, 1916 in Collinsville, Ill. (according to Moore).
Asked why there was so much doubt about his age, Moore said, "I've given this a lot of thought, and I've decided that I must have been three when I was born."
With his mother being 13 when she gave birth to Archie and his father being a traveling kind of guy, Moore was raised by an aunt and uncle.
After spending 22 months at Missouri's Booneville Reformatory in the thirties, Moore he took up boxing and fought as a welterweight as a teenager. He made his professional debut in 1935, when fellow Civilian Conservation Corps workers near St. Louis passed the hat and collected a few coins to pay Moore for his knockout of Piano Man Jones.
Skeptical of the white men who managed him, Moore often correctly figuring they were exploiting black fighters for the money they were earning. He went through eight managers in his career.
Moore successfully defended the championship against Harold Johnson in 1954 and Bobo Olson in 1955 as he ran his winning streak to 21. But he wanted more. He wanted the heavyweight championship, and he audaciously campaigned for a shot at 48-0 Rocky Marciano.
Moore seemingly wrote to every sports editor of every newspaper in the United States, reportedly spent $50,000 on advertising and even had "Wanted" posters made up portraying himself as sheriff to Marciano's villain. Finally, on Sept. 21, 1955, before 61,574 fans in Yankee Stadium, Moore got his shot.
The fight started out promisingly enough for Moore, whose right knocked down Marciano in the second round. Some observers felt the fight should have ended there, because referee Harry Kessler gave Marciano a standing eight-count. The only problem was Kessler forgot such a mandatory count was waved for this fight. The extra time allowed Marciano to regain his senses enough to survive the round, though he was bleeding from the nose as well as a cut on his left brow.
Marciano, in his last fight, recovered and sent Moore to the canvas four times before knocking him in the ninth round. Moore fought a series of non-title fights before putting his light-heavyweight championship on the line on June 5, 1956, in London against Trinidad-born Yolande Pompey. Moore's first title defense in almost a year lacked any action for nine rounds, and both boxers were warned they could be simultaneously disqualified.
Moore responded with a burst in the 10th, knocking down his fatigued foe three times before the referee stopped the fight.
Again, the heavyweight championship proved tantalizing for Moore. He was perhaps twice as old as 21-year-old Floyd Patterson when they met for the retired Marciano's vacant title on Nov. 30, 1956, at Chicago Stadium. Again, Moore was knocked out, this time at 2:27 of the fifth round.
While Moore never took another shot at the heavyweight championship, he won four more light-heavyweight title fights. He beat Tony Anthony in seven rounds in 1957 and then went more than a year before fighting French-Canadian fisherman Yvon Durelle on Dec. 10, 1958. Coming off the canvas three times in the first round, Moore recovered to register an 11th-round knockout.
"I have fought smart men before," Durelle said, "but never anyone as smart as that fellow."
Their August 12, 1959 rematch was no contest as Moore knocked out Durelle in the third round. "You should not enter a mule in a race at Santa Anita," the champ said.
Moore went Hollywood and played the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in the 1960 movie "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Tired of enduring Moore's all-too-frequent gaps between defenses, the National Boxing Association stripped him of his championship in 1960. Although the organization carried cachet at the time, most boxing experts - as well as the New York and European boxing commissions - still considered Moore the champ when he defeated Italy's Giulio Rinaldi in a 15-round decision in his last title fight on June 10, 1961.
But the next year he had the championship stripped for good, again for inactivity. But Moore kept fighting, even taking on up-and-coming 20-year-old Cassius Clay, whom he gave lessons to a year earlier, on Nov. 15, 1962 in Los Angeles. Earning $75,000, Moore lost to the future champ on a fourth-round TKO after being sent to the canvas three times in the round.
After one more bout, Moore left the ring in 1963 with a record of 194-26-8 and one no-contest, according to Fight Fax.
After retiring as a fighter, Moore pursued a career in show business while living in San Diego. But he did not drift far from boxing, serving as a trainer and manager. He was George Foreman's advisor and cornerman when he took the heavyweight championship from Joe Frazier in 1973. Three years later, he served as the coach of the Nigerian boxing team at the Olympics.
Moore had seven children and was married five times. His last marriage was to Joan Hardy, a New York model, in 1956. They were still together 42 years later when he died on Dec. 9, 1998, at a hospice in San Diego after a lengthy illness.
Archie Moore was 84. Or maybe 81.
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