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Archie Moore still doesn't pull his punches

A few rounds with the Mongoose

Archie Moore, 1985. The swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove is empty now, and I-15 traffic rumbles constantly alongside Moore’s weedy lot.
  • Archie Moore, 1985. The swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove is empty now, and I-15 traffic rumbles constantly alongside Moore’s weedy lot.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

“You’re like my opponents. Inquisitive. But they are not to touch me.” — Archie Moore

Archie Moore was true to his words. I never really touched him. You don’t touch the Mongoose, by consensus the greatest light-heavyweight boxing champion of all time; Archie Moore touches you. In 228 professional bouts between 1936 and 1963, he touched 140 men unconscious, a knockout record that many boxing experts believe will never be broken. He won a total of 193 fights and lost only 26. A San Diego resident since 1938, Moore is now probably seventy-two – he has never revealed his true age – but he belies the image of the old boxer as punch-drunk palooka. His mind is sharp, his memory intact, his face and body smooth and firm. Both in and out of the ring, he has defied time. And as always, Moore reveals himself now only when he’s in action.

Moore's scrapbook. The pictures are grainy black-and-white blowups, the kind of old boxing photos in which the white fighters have pale spud bodies. Moore knocking Yolande Pompey senseless in London. Moore standing over a decked Rocky Marciano.

Moore's scrapbook. The pictures are grainy black-and-white blowups, the kind of old boxing photos in which the white fighters have pale spud bodies. Moore knocking Yolande Pompey senseless in London. Moore standing over a decked Rocky Marciano.

“These are his hammers, his hatchets, his saws,” Moore explains as he wraps aspiring-boxer Manuel Morrow’s fists with strips of protective fabric. “He’s like a mechanic, and his hands are his tools. He has to take care of them.” Moore and Morrow and another young man, Ramon Cervantes are standing behind Moore’s famous brick home in Southeast San Diego, which Moore built almost thirty years ago. The house is an anomaly among the industrial plants and storage yards that have grown up around it. The swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove is empty now, and I-15 traffic rumbles constantly alongside Moore’s weedy lot. Morrow works at Active Auto Wrecking, just a few miles south of Moore’s home, and began training as a boxer under Moore last March. He calls his trainer “Mr. Moore.” At twenty-eight Morrow is way past the age when most boxers begin their careers. But then again, Archie Moore didn’t get his title shot until he was 39, and he remains the oldest fighter to ever hold a title belt. “I may not have as much time as younger guys,” says Morrow, “but I got the best teacher.”

Rocky Marciano vs. Archie Moore, Sept. 20, 1955. Although Moore lost that 1955 heavyweight title fight to Marciano in a ninth-round knockout, boxing enthusiasts still debate the match.

Rocky Marciano vs. Archie Moore, Sept. 20, 1955. Although Moore lost that 1955 heavyweight title fight to Marciano in a ninth-round knockout, boxing enthusiasts still debate the match.

Ramon Cervantes works for the billboard company that has leased space to erect a billboard on Moore’s property. Just that morning, Moore had taught Cervantes how to throw a jab. “This morning he was absolutely harmless,” Moore says. “Now he’s dangerous.” It’s quitting time for Cervantes and the four other men putting up the billboard, and as Moore runs Cervantes and Morrow through warm-up drills, the construction crew sits around the crane and watches. “On your toes, on your toes!” Moore calls to the two men as they skip in a circle around the eighty-pound punching bag hung from an iron post. Moore jumps in to lead them, alternating between hops and skips, and he still moves with an economy and light-footedness any man would envy. Finally, he stops them and orders Morrow to do some jabbing on the bag. Cervantes butts his shoulder behind the bag and absorbs the quick blows. Then Moore tells the men to trade places, and Cervantes, who just began boxing this morning, jabs awkwardly at the heavy bag, snorting with each punch. Moore stops him.

“Why do you snort through your nose like that?” Moore demands in a threatening voice. He asks the question three times, as Cervantes stands bewildered and panting.

“Habit?” the young man finally offers.

“No, no, no! Not habit.” Moore’s eyes burn with a dark fire. At times his face takes on a demonic intensity that must have been the last thing many of his opponents saw before stars replaced consciousness. “It’s not habit. It’s because you’ve seen other fighters do it and you think it’s cute. Real fighters don’t do it. They go about their work silently.” He goads Cervantes into hitting the bag with more force. “Harder, harder! You can’t hit no harder than that?”

The blows phump into the bag and chink the chains it’s suspended from. “Harder, harder!” Phump-chink, phump-chink, phump-chink. “Bust the bag! Hurt the bag!” Phump-chink, phump-chink, phump-chink. “Tear it open! There are no soft punches. No soft punches!”

Moore steps up to demonstrate. His jabs are still short, extending only six or eight inches, and they pop with authority. Phump-chink-phump-chink-phump-chink-phimp-chink.

He has the two men alternate on approaching the bag and slugging it. “The approach is everything!” he yells as Cervantes shuffles clumsily toward the imaginary opponent. “Hold it, hold it.” Moore demonstrates, gliding in like a cat, swerving, sliding, machine-gunning his jab. Cervantes tries again. “Make it exciting, make it exciting!” Moore tells him. Cervantes coworkers lean back and cackle.

Morrow and Cervantes are sweating profusely. Moore stands before them, feet spread, fists at his side. “Are you tired?” he yells to Cervantes. The young man just pants. “Are you tired? Say ‘I’m not tired.’ Say it!”

“I’m not tired.”

“Say it!”

“I’m not tired!”

Cervantes coworkers burst out in laughter. “You lying sonafabitch.” “He’ll sleep tonight.” “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Moore says, smiling broadly and congratulating the two boxers on their short workout. It’s evident that Moore is deeply enthusiastic about teaching, and although he’s helped train many established prizefighters, few of the countless beginners he’s taken on over the years have amounted to much. Still, watching how alive Moore becomes in the presence of sweat and dreams, this fact seems beside the point.

The workers and young boxers all go inside Moore’s house, taking his lead by carefully wiping their feet before entering the rumpus room, where the walls are lined floor-to-ceiling with plaques and pictures. The construction crew treats Moore with submissive deference, even though a couple of them are too young to know what he was and what he did. In the middle of the room is a professional-style pool table, off of which Moore and Morrow roll a plastic cover. The cover is placed on the floor. Morrow lies down on it, and Moore stands with his feet straddling the boxers head. Morrow raises his legs toward Moore’s chest and tries to resist as Moore pushes them hard toward the floor. Moore does this twenty-five times. Then it’s Cervantes’ turn. But Moore is called away by one of his sons: someone from heavyweight champion Larry Holmes’s office is on the phone. While he’s away, we all inspect the room.

The awards are so numerous as to be almost meaningless. The Southern California Boxing Writers Association. The Blood Indian Tribe of Cardston, Alberta, Canada. The Optimist Club of Fresno. The Insurance Brokers Association of California. The Sports Broadcasters Association. The pictures are grainy black-and-white blowups, the kind of old boxing photos in which the white fighters have pale spud bodies. Moore knocking Yolande Pompey senseless in London. Moore standing over a decked Rocky Marciano, before Marciano got up and KO’d Moore in the ninth. The room is oppressive with past greatness. It crowds you the way Moore used to crowd his opponents, supplanting your strengths with his own. Moore was once a world figure, but he carries his greatness unselfconsciously, a trait that only enhances his greatness. He returns to the room in his trademarked jumpsuit and watch cap, and he holds court with the assembled admirers. He and I agree to meet here in the morning and drive up to Los Angeles, where he works with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s a chance to see him on a turf outside his own – or so I believed at the moment.

Early the next morning I discovered that Moore carries his turf with him wherever he goes. People show an immediate and automatic respect for him, and he’s usually the center of attention. I first saw this at Jim Galloway’s Pharmacy on National Avenue in Southeast, where we stopped in the early morning so Moore, looking dapper in a tailored gray suit, pale yellow shirt, red suspenders, and his ever present watch cap, could pick up some rub down liniment.

“Jim, I’d like you meet, uh, Bob…”

“Neal,” I corrected. This was a correction I was to make at every introduction during the day.

Galloway is a kindly gentleman fight fan, and his pharmacy’s soda fountain is a source of delight to the old boxer. When Moore meets with long established friends like Galloway, he seems constantly to be “on,” and stories tumble from him in endless succession. This morning, at Galloway’s prompting, Moore tells the one about how he first met Eva Peron at a state dinner in Buenos Aires. He speaks in animated tones, his voice rising and swelling and whispering, his face a mural of expression. He mimics Peron’s manner of looking in the mirror and powdering herself while she didn’t know the boxer could see her, and he re-creates her polite greetings. Galloway steers him into the story about the time some Marines ran Moore off the road and challenged him to a fight, not knowing who he was. The two old friends laugh heartily, and Moore’s unmistakable charm and charisma are at full voltage.

But in the car, on the road to Los Angeles, Moore shows himself to be easily capable of irascibility, as if be interviewed were for him similar to being boxed. There are three things you don’t do around Archie Moore: ask about his financial well-being, inquire about his wives and children, and drive unaggressively.

“Let’s get on up there,” Moore commanded somewhere near Carlsbad. “You’re bullshittin’ and lettin’ everybody in, and we’ll be forever behind these damn trucks so you can’t see nothin’.”

Later, as we approached Santa Ana, Moore acknowledged, “Yeah, I had a way with sports writers, and some of ‘em made me mad, like you.”

“I ask too many questions. I’m sorry.”

“No, you don’t ask too many questions, you drive too sloppy.”

“How many sportswriters have you driven with?”

“A lot of them. You’re the worst.”

Moore laughed in a high, cackling giggle, as if to apologize for his back seat driving. But he never laughed off his rebuffs to questions about family or money. My query about how many children he hays (his autobiography says six) caused him to stare glumly out the window, and he didn’t speak for several minutes. When he finally began talking again, it was about his idea for solving the traffic problem by building toll roads on columns above Interstate 5 all the way up to Los Angeles. (“Fifty cent to go all the way, twenty-five cent for halfway.”) I was curious about his family because he has had five marriages, the last of which, to the former Joan Hardy, is a strong and permanent one.

To a question about his earnings, he snapped “Look, don’t bullshit and ask me those kinds of questions! I don’t ask what you make!” According to people who knew him when he was boxing, Moore didn’t earn much money in the ring by today’s standards. Boxers didn’t begin to command millions of dollars until the 1970s, and this seems to be a sore point for Moore. Now he makes about $38,000 a year from his job with HUD, which involves teaching ghetto youth how to use formal boxing skills to help themselves avoid drugs and other illicit temptations. “Archie doesn’t need to work,” explains Lou Lake, an old San Diego friend. “But the poverty he experienced as a young man, and what was done to him as a boxer, made him security-conscious. He’s just a hard-working man.”

Even by professional boxing standards, it took an enormous amount of work for Archie Moore to become and remain a champion. He fought professionally for sixteen years, averaging about twelve fights per year, before he finally got a shot at the light heavyweight title, which he took from Joey Maxim in 1952. For at least ten years before that fight, Moore proved himself to be the number-one contender by beating the best light heavyweights of his time. Reasons for that wait abound: poor management, boxing’s corruption and control by hoods at the time, racism. The pat answer given by people who were around Moore is that he was just too good a boxer to be allowed a title shot by the boxing moguls. To get the fight, he had to guarantee Maxim $100,000, and Moore himself would only receive $800. Plus, if Moore won, the deal was that Maxim’s manager, Doc Kearns, would go with the title and become Moore’s manager. Kearns was a mixed blessing because, although he succeeded in getting big fights for Moore, such as heavyweight title shots with Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson, hefty amounts of Moore’s winnings always went to Kearns. “It was just like it always was,” Moore says, still seething over his long struggle for the title. “The white man would step in and take a black man when he’s in the stage where he looks good. But he won’t fuck with him when he’s out there scuffling and groveling in the dust.”

Moore finally secured a title fight by orchestrating a public relations campaign. Always popular with sports writers, he began writing letters to them in a lobbying effort that produced dozens of columns asking why he was being denied his rightful shot. “He was always his own best P.R. man,” says Ernie Fuentes, now a respected matchmaker who helped train Moore for the Maxim fight. “He wrote to all the sportswriters clamoring for a chance. Everybody knew who Archie Moore was.”

Moore trained for the Maxim fight in a basement gym near the old Mexicali Bar on Fifth Avenue downtown. By that time he had transcended his reputation as a local San Diego fighter, having demonstrated his intelligent fighting style all over the United States, South America and Australia. He had arrived in San Diego in April of 1938 rather inauspiciously; the day he got here the boxing coliseum at Fifteenth and E Street burned down.

Moore was twenty-five years old when he came to San Diego with his manager, a black mechanic named Felix Thurman. Thurman lived in La Jolla with his wife, who was a domestic worker for La Jolla’s wealthier residents. The mechanic had gone to St. Louis to help start a taxicab business for a friend, and he came back to San Diego with his own fighter. “Since Joe Louis became heavyweight champion, every black businessman’s goal was to have a fighter,” Moore explains.

The Thurman’s lived on Cuvier Street, behind the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, in a two-bedroom house. Moore slept on a sofa bed in the living room and became part of the family. On our drive to Los Angeles, Moore was moved by the memory of the first people to help him in San Diego. “Mrs. Thurman was a good woman, oh!” he exclaimed. “She was just a delightful woman to be around. And their daughter, Hortense, who was nineteen, was just like a sister to me.” Though I figured he’d bridle at the question, I asked what became of his adoptive family. To my surprise, he became quite emotional and explained that Hortense died just a few years after he arrived in San Diego. “Hortense died young. Never had a child. Never married. I don’t know how she died. I never investigated it. God knows what he’s doing, you know.” Moore turned very sad but remained animated, “She didn’t make thirty. It tore Mrs. Thurman up, and Mrs. Thurman died. It was the saddest…” His voice trails off and he stares out at the glass and steel of Irvine. “I think she died because of Hortense. It was her only child. Felix died years afterward. He was eighty-four, and he lingered for so long.”

It was nearing lunch time when we arrived at the HUD offices in the Wilshire District near downtown Los Angeles. Moore hailed acquaintances on the street and in the offices and introduced me as Jim to his closest associates. They call him “champ.” He hadn’t been to his own office in several weeks because he’d traveled to St. Louis to espouse HUD’s Project Build, a youth program he runs almost single-handedly.

Project Build is really just a government –funded version of Moore’s Any Boy Can (ABC) program. When his boxing career ended in 1963, Moore had a brief fling in Hollywood, making appearances in television series such as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and The Carpetbaggers. But his heart was always in the ABC program, which he preached all over the country and practiced in various venues, such as Boys’ Clubs, jails and reform schools. Essentially the program consists of Moore expounding against drugs and giving discipline and boxing training to underprivileged kids. His program had informal ties to the state government when Ronald Reagan was the governor of California, and in 1983 HUD secretary Samuel Pierce put him on the federal payroll to operate a similar program in HUD-built housing projects. “I work in some scary areas,” Moore says, sitting at the HUD public relations desk. HUD has used Archie Moore’s name to gain a lot of publicity for the social service program. “I teach self-defense so the kids won’t be bullied into trying drugs and things like that.” We’ll head over to the Imperial Courts housing project later, but lunch comes first.

Moore has been looking forward to fried chicken from Jacob’s café all day. Always a great eater, Moore operated a restaurant called the Chicken Shack in the early 1940s on land where he later built his house. “If I’d gone against Col. Sanders, I’d have probably knocked him out,” he says. He often had to los twenty or thirty pounds in order to make weight for his fights, and he swore by a technique he picked up from the aborigines in Australia: chewing meat for the juices, but spitting out the bulk.

Jacob’s is a corner café at Griffith and Twenty-second, on the edge of Watts. Moore had grown quiet and seemed discomfited before we entered the restaurant, and I soon understood why. I was the only white person present, and from all the stares I surmised that it had been a long time since other whites had eaten there. We sat at the counter and Moore became flustered when he saw that I was taking notes. “Man, put that notebook away!” he commanded. “People will think you’re an FBI agent or something.” The waitress gave him a warm welcome, and the rest of the dozen or so patrons stared and murmured and looked honored by Moore’s presence.

But this was not fried chicken day. We had the choice of short ribs, pig’s tails, or hogs’ maws. Moore ate his short ribs in glum silence, speaking only to answer a waitress’s question about when he started boxing professionally.

“Now drive fast down through here, or you’re liable to get a brick through your window,” Moore said as we headed down Central Avenue through Watts. He was more talkative, but he still seemed ill at ease. As we passed boarded-up buildings and groups of idle men, I made a comment about San Diego’s current urban development efforts. I didn’t know whether to believe him when he said he was unaware that a new shopping center had opened up at Horton Plaza.

Imperial Courts is a 490-unit HUD funded housing project made up of cinder block buildings painted institution yellow and divided by small strips of community lawn. Moore’s small apartment has an Operation Build sign on the door, and we went inside to wait. He explained that the neighborhood kids come to him (he’s there several days a week), and he gives them a soda or a hot dog and counsels them. Within minutes an adolescent black boy appeared, and he and Moore greeted each other excitedly. Moore clearly has a special way with kids, and the two of them chatted about the doings of other boys and families in the neighborhood. Ollie Joe Craig is fifteen, shirtless, with a California Angels cap perched atop a sizable Afro. Moore called him to attention in the small living room, told him to imagine that four other boys are standing beside him, then the two of them repeated a ritual series of commands and answers.

Moore made the letter A by bringing together the index fingers and thumbs of his two hands. “Explain what this triangle means,” he barks.

“This is an A, or triangle, made up of three parts,” Joey says in a quick monotone. “The bottom part is the balance, or foundation. One side is correct delivery and recoil. Part of the other side is step in, jab, and drag. The remaining portion is still a mystery.”

“What is the first thing taught in this class?”

“Good sportsmanship at all times.”

“Good sportsmanship can mean many things but first it means…”

“You play fair and square at all times.”

“And if you play fair and square at all times, then you’re clean…”

“Inside and outside.”

“And a good student does not…”

“Lie, cheat, steal, smoke, drink, do drugs, or play dice.”

Moore chuckles, and Joey relaxes. The boxer tells the boy that if he doesn’t see him the following week, it’s because he’ll be helping to train Larry Holmes for the heavyweight champion’s upcoming fight with Michael Spinks. “You know who Larry Holmes is?” Moore asks the boy.

“Famous boxer,” Joey say, smiling bashfully. Moore laughs.

“On the way back to San Diego Moore took a cat nap, snoring fitfully. When he awakened he seemed revitalized, and he apologized, in his fashion, for his earlier snappishness. “I love you,” he said at one point, but I knew that he meant that he pretty much loved everybody, in the way that only a renowned person can love the mass of adoring humanity. The subject turned to Larry Holmes and Moore’s assistance as a strategist for the champion’s upcoming fight. “Will Larry Holmes break Rocky Marciano’s record?” he asks, in the tones of a revivalist preacher. If Holmes wins, he will tie Marciano’s record of forty-nine consecutive title defenses. He fights light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks (who is moving up in weight class) this Saturday, September 21, at the Riviera in Las Vegas. “What makes it so historic is that Marciano’s last fight was against the light heavyweight champion.” Moore is talking about himself, or course. “How beautiful that is! How beautiful that is! How beautiful for Holmes to come out and beat Spinks!” I ask him if it doesn’t make more sense for him to be helping Spinks, a fellow light heavyweight, rather than Holmes. “You gotta go where the money is,” he says matter-of-factly.

Although Moore lost that 1955 heavyweight title fight to Marciano in a ninth-round knockout (he retained his light heavyweight title), boxing enthusiasts still debate the match. In the second round, Moore dropped Marciano with a right uppercut to the chin, and the referee started counting. But he continued counting after Marciano struggled to his feet, which Moore claims was a violation of the rules. “The referee counted twice while Marciano was standing. But we had agreed that there were to be no mandatory counts, and the three-knockdown rule was waived. It was a technical violation.” The referee, Harry Kessler, also shook Marciano’s gloves before allowing the fight to continue, and some observers think this helped Marciano to recover. Moore, always known as a great “finisher,” believes that if he’d been allowed to continue punching Marciano after the knockdown, he would have been crowned heavyweight champion of the world. His anger at the referee, whom he calls “prejudiced,” still rises easily.

But Archie Moore’s greatest fight, and one remembered as a classic worthy of comparison to the great “Thrilla in Manila,” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, occurred in 1958 when Moore met Canadian champ Yvon Durelle in Montreal. The bout was nationally televised. Jack Murphy, the late sports editor and columnist for the San Diego Union, wrote that this was the “most exciting fight of the electronic age.” Moore was at least forty-five years old, was knocked down four times, but managed to use all his strength and wile to come back and knock Durelle out in the eleventh round. The fight landed him an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and made his reputation as a fighter for the ages. It was his finest hour, a most public hour, but for Moore it has become a very private possession. Not once during our hours together, in which we discussed many of his matches, did he volunteer any information about the Durelle fight.

Yvon Durelle is being flown into San Diego by the organizers of the Archie Moore Testimonial Banquet, scheduled for October 11 at the Hotel Inter-Continental. A recently established publication, Boxing News, will be presenting small statuettes called “Archies” to outstanding Southern California fighters. Publicity releases claim that many boxing luminaries, including Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ken Norton, and Sugar Ray Robinson, will attend. A film compendium of Moore’s boxing career is to be shown, and the boxers, as well as entertainment figures, will be paying tribute to the old Mongoose.

On the way back to Moore’s house we stop at the junkyard where Manuel Morrow, Moore’s new prospect, works. Moore introduces me to the owner, as uh, Bob, and makes sure Morrow is planning to come by later for training. “Oh yes, Mr. Moore,” Morrow says, his hands black with grease, “I wouldn’t miss the opportunity.” But driving the few blocks to his home and listening to him talk about his young boxer, it’s clear that the opportunity is all Moore’s.

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