By Thomas Hauser: Archie Moore was a self-educated man who brought a philosophical veneer to a hard brutal sport. He’s revered today, not for a handful of signature fights but as a symbol of skill, craftsmanship, and boxing genius who persevered in the face of adversity and overwhelming odds.
Moore represents the greatest of boxing’s great and also the thousands of faceless fighters who toiled in his time. Late in life, he reminisced, “In the beginning, I fought for 10 dollars a fight. Sometimes I was given a promise, nothing more. Guys like me, we were always marching, fighting, marching, fighting. Most of the time, it wasn’t much fun.”
Moore fought professionally from the 1930s into the 1960s. For years, The Ring Record Book listed his first pro fight as a knockout on an undetermined date in 1935 over an opponent named Piano Man Jones (possibly a misnomer for Piano Mover Jones). BoxRec.com and Moore’s autobiography (The Archie Moore Story) reference his first opponent as one Billy Simms and say the bout occurred on September 3, 1935.
The Ring Record Book credits Moore with 199 wins (145 KOs), 26 losses (seven KOs by), and eight draws. BoxRec.com (now a more reliable source) lists 185 wins (131 KOs), 23 losses (seven KOs by), 10 draws, and 1,474 rounds boxed. Those are staggering numbers.
Facts blur when discussing Moore. He was a teller of tales and even his date of birth is subject to conjecture. His mother said he was born on December 13, 1913. Moore claimed it was three years later. Information in a 1920 census report supports the 1916 date but is not fully dispositive of the matter.
What’s known with certainty is that Moore was born in Benoit, Mississippi, the son of Thomas and Lenora Wright. His mother had previously given birth at age 15 to a daughter named Rachel. Two years later, Archibald Lee Wright was born.
Archie’s parents separated when he was 18 months old and he was sent with his sister to St. Louis to live with his aunt and uncle, Cleveland and Willie Pearl Moore. At that time, he later explained, “I became Archie Lee Moore, for it saved many questions put to my aunt when we moved from house to house. Moore is my name and it is the name my children have.”
“I idolized my uncle and wanted to be like him,” Moore continued, “and I adore my auntie. Although she never had children of her own, she was a great mother in every sense. She gave us love and affection and taught us all the things a good mother should teach her children.”
Moore went to Dumas and Jefferson grade schools and the Lincoln School, an all-black junior and senior high school in St. Louis. He learned the rudiments of boxing on the streets from friends and enemies alike. Then tragedy struck.
Cleveland Moore died as a consequence of injuries suffered during an initiation rite into a fraternal organization. Soon after, Moore’s sister, who had married a man named Elihu Williams, died while giving birth to twins. One of the twins, a boy, died four months later. Auntie Willie took the other infant, a girl named June, in and raised her as her own.
Meanwhile, Moore’s life was taking a downward turn.
“Moral character is a very pliable thing,” he later noted. “It bends to circumstances. After my uncle’s death, I began to run wild. I turned to petty thievery for personal monetary reasons. Stealing was such an everyday way of life that it was accepted by all of us. We reasoned that it was a matter of survival, a way of life in tough Depression times. I knew that eventually I would be caught but the desire to have a little spending money forced me to overlook this.”
Moore began by stealing lead pipes and copper wiring out of empty houses and selling the material for scrap. Then he graduated to bolder crimes. He was arrested three times. On the third occasion, a friend named Arthur Knox disconnected the pole from which a streetcar drew electrical power from an overhead power line. The streetcar came to a halt; the motorman got out to put the pole back in place and Moore ran onto the car to steal the change from the cashbox. Given his previous arrest record, he was sentenced to three years at the Missouri Training School in Booneville. He was 15 years old.
The reform school was largely self-sustaining. It had a stone quarry, brickyard, orchard, dairy, butcher shop, bake shop, and laundry. In Booneville, Moore later said, he reached a “personal crossroads.”
“I had burned the bridge of formal education behind me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I now had a choice of which way to go and what to do. Either I could continue stealing, in which case I knew that I would eventually be caught and sent back to reform school or prison when I was older or I could try to get out of the ghetto by pursuit of an honest living.”
Moore boxed while in reform school. By his own count, he registered 16 knockouts in his first year, which gave him a reputation that the other boys respected.
“During my thinking hours, and I had plenty of them,” he later reminisced, “I decided to make fighting my career. I determined to learn as much as I could, strengthen myself, and turn pro as soon as I was of age. I was paroled after 22 months and made a vow that I would never again do anything that would cause me to be sent back to reform school or jail.”
Moore left the Missouri Training School at age 17. But as he later recalled, “My boxing aspirations, unfortunately, were all my own. No one shared them. I was 17, muscled, and totally without experience in the eyes of the men who made matches or managed fighters.”
It was a condition of his parole that Moore get a job. His first employment was as a delivery man for an ice and coal dealer but he quit after the first day when the dealer shortchanged him for his work. Next he found part-time employment as a household domestic. Then he joined the Civilian Conservation Core.
The CCC was a federal program that was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Workers (mostly young men at risk) were paid 30 dollars a month, 25 of which was sent home to their families. They also received Army-barracks-style room and board.
Moore was assigned to Camp 3760 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri and worked in the forestry division, cutting down and removing trees so roads could be carved out of the wilderness. He also helped organize a camp boxing team and further developed his own skills.
On September 3, 1935, some CCC workers including Moore attended a professional fight card in Poplar Bluff. In one of the preliminary bouts, a local fighter named Billy Simms fought an opponent who Moore later described as looking “like he had just jumped off a freight train.”
“The boy quit in the first round,” Moore recalled. “The crowd booed the fight and Simms made a plea from the ring saying it wasn’t his fault. My pals hollered back, ‘We got someone to fight you.’”
Moore borrowed a pair of gloves, sneakers, and trunks from the promoter, stepped into the ring, and knocked Simms out. No weights are listed for the bout. What’s known is that Moore was five-feet-11 inches tall and fought his next two bouts the following year at 148 and 145 pounds.
Moore was honorably discharged from the CCC in early 1936 and returned to St. Louis, where he worked briefly for the federal Works Progress Administration. Then he began to pursue his ring career in earnest.
The world was different then. Boxing and baseball were America’s two national sports. A fighter’s trunks were black or white. There were no round card girls or ring-walk music. Boxers didn’t need a TV date to fight. In fact, there was no television. There were eight weight divisions with one champion in each division. Unlike today, a loss wasn’t seen as removing a fighter from title contention. Winning a world championship was akin to becoming a made man.
For years, Moore was forced by circumstances to campaign as a vagabond boxer. Between 1935 and 1937, he compiled a 20-1-2 record, fighting in Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ohio. Then he moved to San Diego, where he won nine fights in a row before returning to St. Louis at the end of 1938. He won five fights in a row in his hometown to bring his record to 33-2-2 before losing a 10-round decision to veteran Teddy Yarosz. After that fight, Ray Arcel (Yarosz’s trainer) said of Moore, “He’ll be a great fighter a year from now. All he needs is experience.”
Moore moved from manager to manager and trainer to trainer during that time, as he would for much of his career. He hustled pool to make ends meet and studied boxing history, reading whatever he could find. After losing to Yarosz, he went west again for eight fights. Then, on January 4, 1940 (three days after marrying Mattie Chapman), he journeyed to Australia on what he later called “my solo honeymoon.”
Moore was in Australia for eight months. His marriage failed to survive the separation. Three later marriages also ended in divorce but he was undefeated in seven fights down under, winning six of them by knockout. There were four more fights in San Diego. Then near-disaster struck.
In February 1941, Moore suffered a perforated ulcer, underwent surgery, and (by his account) was “in a coma for five days, hovering between life and death.” Peritonitis set in, extending his hospital stay to 38 days. He later claimed that, during his time in the hospital, his weight dropped from 163 to 108 pounds. Midway through his recovery, Moore suffered an acute appendicitis. He was out of the ring for 11 months before returning to action on January 28, 1942, with a third-round knockout of Bobby Britt. It was the only recorded bout of Britt’s career.
Twenty-two more fights on the West Coast followed. Then Moore journeyed east, winning a 10-round decision over Nate Bolden at St. Nicholas Arena in New York. Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Oregon, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington, Washington D.C., Utah, and Florida were added to his itinerary. He also fought in Panama, Argentina, and Uruguay.
One can only begin to imagine what went through Moore’s mind as he moved from town to town and fight to fight, winning most, losing some, for over a decade. Late in life, he looked back on what he called “the sad lonely days when hardly anybody knew who Archie Moore was. I was just another name in small print on a fight card, just another black kid spilling his blood to make a few bucks to stay alive in the hope that there were better days ahead. I would fight for short money in little towns. Then, my body, still clammy with sweat because the little arena had no showers and I couldn’t afford a hotel room, I would ride a dusty, dirty bus or freight train to the next town, still hurting and bruised from my last fight. I thought of the filthy, rat-and-bug-infested, two-bit flophouses I had stayed in and the cheap starchy foods eaten in crummy restaurants and I thought of even leaner days when I didn’t have a cent in my pocket and I was so hungry and cold and tired that even the cheap food and dirty flophouses would have been welcome.”
The heart of Moore’s problem, legendary trainer Eddie Futch noted, was that “Archie was too good for his own good. He was victimized by his talent. No manager wanted to risk the title against him.”
Veteran promoter and matchmaker Don Chargin puts Moore’s dilemma in further perspective. “If you were a black fighter in those days,” Chargin recalls, “the people in charge would tell you that you had to lie down or you didn’t work. One reason that Archie fought so many tough black fighters early in his career was that neither guy would have to lie down for the other.”
Thus it was that Moore fought 20 fights against Charlie Burley, Eddie Booker, Jack Chase, Lloyd Marshall, Jimmy Bivins, and Ezzard Charles, men he branded along with himself as “the killing row of Negro middleweights.” His composite record against them was 10 wins, seven losses, and three draws.
In 1945, 10 years after Moore’s pro debut, he moved up to the light heavyweight division. “I was eaten with ambition and bitter because I never seemed to get my due as a fighter,” he said. But he kept winning, following a simple battle plan.
“When I went into the ring,” Moore later recalled, “I kept my thinking calm. I would plan a fight according to my opponent, his abilities and his style. Every move I made was carefully calculated and planned. Even during the heat of battle, I usually managed to keep my thinking organized and follow my plan.”
That plan had a simple foundation.
“A good jab is an absolute must if you want to be a good fighter,” Moore explained. “If you can’t master a good jab, you might as well give it up. A hard body shot will do more damage than one to the jaw. Try to hit your opponent high on the rib cage. When you do, you will hamper his movements on whichever side you hit him, and then you can work on that side more freely. I know it looks sensational to keep hitting a guy in the face but believe me; it’s body punching that wins fights.”
And there was another essential ingredient.
“I’ve seen many excellent fighters but the only ones I would bank on would be finishers,” Moore declared. “Without that ability, you just aren’t cut out to be a fighter. In [Jack] Dempsey’s day, they used to call it the killer instinct.”
How good was Moore?
“He was great,” Emanuel Steward said shortly before his own untimely death. “Some fighters intimidate opponents with a big punch. Moore intimidated fighters with his skills. He was a thinking fighter, very intelligent and analytical. He was patient. He took his time. There was very little wasted energy or movement. As a fight went on, he’d analyze his opponent, find his weaknesses, and figure out what he had to do to break him down. He was very strong physically, crafty, not particularly fast. He’d slip, parry, throw a stiff up-jab, get in close. He was always in range where he could make a move and punch. Then, at just the right moment, he’d let that sneaky, hard right hand go and knock his opponent out. He knew how to fight. And he had a lot of heart.”
“Moore didn’t have the sheer natural ability of guys like Sugar Ray Robinson or Ezzard Charles,” trainer Don Turner adds, “and he didn’t have the greatest chin in the world. But his defense was so good that he didn’t get hit on the chin that much. He was crafty; he was cunning; he was elusive. He could punch and hurt you in a lot of different ways. The physical conditioning for elite fighters today is better than it was when Moore fought but the technique that fighters had in those days was much better than it is now. Moore knew what he was doing in the ring. He could set you up, tie you up, do whatever he wanted to do. He had more ways to survive than anyone in the business. He could outthink anyone. He had endless determination and he used everything he had.”
Moore added victories over light heavyweight contenders Holman Williams, Bob Satterfield, and Harold Johnson to his résumé. But his championship quest remained unfulfilled.
“I fought many years longer than I should have had to before I got a shot at the title,” he later wrote. “I felt like a guy trying to climb a glass mountain. I would climb two steps up and then slide four steps back. I scratched and clawed my way up that glass mountain until I could almost touch the peak with my outstretched fingertips. It was like a bad dream where you’re trying to reach something but never can.”
On July 24, 1950, Joey Maxim won the World Light Heavyweight Championship with a 10th round stoppage of Freddie Mills.
“We ducked Moore just like everybody else was doing,” Doc Kearns (Maxim’s manager) later acknowledged in his autobiography. “He was too smart, too skillful, too experienced, and carried too many blockbusters in his arsenal to take him on before we were forced into it.”
Instead, Maxim fought a series of non-title fights, challenged Ezzard Charles unsuccessfully for the heavyweight crown, and prevailed over Sugar Ray Robinson, when Robinson wilted in the 104-degree heat at Yankee Stadium and was unable to come out for the 14th round.
Meanwhile, Moore had come to understand that, to force a championship fight, he had to create a public persona and get public opinion on his side.
“When Maxim won the title,” Moore later recalled, “I really began to campaign in earnest. Eddie Egan was commissioner of boxing in New York State. I ran into him in the lobby of Madison Square Garden. He had been a great amateur light heavyweight and I thought he would be in sympathy with my plea. I approached him and told him who I was and what I wanted. He almost snapped my head off with a surly reply, saying he was a commissioner and not a matchmaker. He swept me aside like a bread crumb on a waiter’s tip.”
Undeterred, Moore mounted an extensive letter-writing campaign to sportswriters around the country, penning as many as 30 letters a day. Typical of these missives was one sent to Dan Parker of the New York Mirror:
Dear Mr. Parker,
Knowing of your unbiased reputation as a top sports writer, I felt I could appeal to you. As the number one contender for the light-heavyweight title held by Joey Maxim, I am avoided by him. He steadfastly refuses to fight me, choosing instead men who are in the second division. In addition to being unfair, this casts a negative light on boxing. Please use your column to tell your readers of the state of affairs in professional boxing.
It was also around this time that Moore began referring to himself as “The Mongoose,” explaining, “The mongoose is a cagey and fierce animal, so fierce that he will fight the dreaded cobra, depending on technique, to combat the cobra’s swift and deadly blows. The mongoose is faster and he can feint the cobra out of position by waiting until the very last moment to move, making the cobra miss and miss and miss until he fails to retract effectively. The mongoose then moves in for the kill, seizes the cobra under the throat, and crushes his skull.”
In 1951, Robert Christenberry succeeded Egan as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. Christenberry was more receptive than Egan had been to Moore’s pleas. The National Boxing Association also supported Moore’s cause.
More significantly, Moore agreed to retain Doc Kearns as an advisor and pay him a portion of his future earnings in exchange for a title opportunity.
“Doc Kearns is a sentimentalist about money,” Archie noted.
And Moore agreed to a bout contract that guaranteed Maxim a $100,000 purse. Given the economics of the situation, that meant Moore would receive virtually nothing. Ultimately, his purse for the fight was 800 dollars.
On December 17, 1952, at age 36 (or 39) in his 160th professional fight, Moore finally got the opportunity to fight for a world title.
“It’s hard to describe my feelings when I fought Maxim for the championship,” he wrote in his autobiography. “In a way, it was almost anti-climactic because, when I received the word that I was to fight him, that was really the climax. I was sure I would win, and yet I wasn’t sure. It’s like a student who is about to take an important examination. He is confident that he will pass, but he isn’t sure because he’s not certain what questions will be thrown at him. That was the way I felt about Maxim. I knew I could beat him if I didn’t get careless. Any fighter can be knocked out if hit hard enough in the right place, and there was always that possibility against a first-class opponent like Maxim. So while I was sure I would win, I wasn’t sure. Anything could happen in a fight.”
Maxim-Moore took place in St. Louis. Moore dominated throughout the bout and won a lopsided unanimous decision.
In his dressing room after the fight, Maxim told reporters, “These guys don’t grow old. They just get better as they go. Moore is a better fighter than Ray Robinson. That sneaky right hand that he throws is murder. I knew he was good. I thought he would weaken in the late rounds, but he got stronger as the fight went on. Boy, is he tough.”
As for the new champion…
“I was happy and proud after beating Maxim,” Moore later recalled. “The morning after the fight, I bought the newspapers and sat there grinning like an idiot as I read that Archie Moore was the light heavyweight champion of the world.”
Part Two of “Archie Moore Revisited” will be posted on Wednesday evening.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (And the New…: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
January 30, 2013