Television not only opened up boxing like a flowering rose to millions of fans, many, who wouldn’t have known the difference between a left hook and a sky-hook, but it also introduced viewers to lots of fighters with colourful nicknames, the likes of Sugar Ray, the Bronx Bull, Bobo, the Rock and the Cuban Hawk among them.
- Then of course during the same era, the Old Mongoose and Ancient Archie, the nicknames given to the amazing Archie Moore, a boxer who had one of the most bizarre careers in ring history.
To start with there has always been some confusion regarding his exact date of birth. Moore always insisted that he was born on the 13th December 1916, but many historians accept his mother’s contention that he was born three years earlier in Benoit, Mississippi, U.S.A.. Whatever the case, he became world champion late in his career, having boxed professionally for over 17 years before winning his first crown, the world light-heavyweight title. When assessing the extraordinary career of Archie Moore you eventually run out of superlatives, for he broke so many records and achieved so much in a career that spanned three decades, that he must rank as one of boxing’s genuine legends. A professional at the age of 19, he fought at welterweight, but he proceeded to gain bulk as the years went by and he ultimately challenged for the world heavyweight title, which was the only goal that eluded him, for he twice failed to lift sport’s premier prize.
He became a knock-out specialist and throughout his career of 234 professional bouts he produced a staggering 145 knockouts
His real name was Archibald Lee Wright and he followed a typical boxer’s road of poor home, running wild and reform school, where he began boxing. He had such a reputation as early as 1940 as a knockout specialist, that champions were reluctant to fight him, even though he was ranked number four middleweight in the world. Disgracefully side-tracked for years, he eventually got his first world title chance against Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight crown in 1952 and won on points. Then he had to outpoint him on two other occasions at six-monthly intervals before he could call the title his own.
Moore was the complete boxer now, and at the age of 36 or 39 depending on the source, he had vast experience after 159 fights. He was brilliant defensively, and by developing his arms and shoulders by doing some 250 pushups per day and walking on his hands he had great arm strength. He became a knock-out specialist and throughout his career of 234 professional bouts he produced a staggering 145 knockouts, by far the record for any professional boxer. However, despite such impressive statistics, he was anything but an out-and-out slugger. With his unusual cross-armed defence and his ability to hit his opponents with pin-point precision, he was one of boxing’s great craftsmen.
If good things indeed come to those who wait, Ancient Archie is the classic example, for he held the world light heavyweight title for over nine years which is a record. He didn’t even lose his title in the ring - the N.B.A. withdrew recognition of him as champion in 1961 for his failure to defend against number one contender Harold Johnson, a boxer he had already beaten in four of their five meetings.
During the early days of his reign as light-heavyweight king the Old Mongoose even fancied his chances against the top heavyweights of the day. He staked his claim for a shot at the title by beating top contender Nino Valdes on points. However, Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion at the time didn’t want to know, so Moore wrote letters to newspapers pressing his claim. He bombarded the press with ‘Wanted’ posters in the name of sheriff Archie Moore for the “capture and delivery of Rocky Marciano to any ring in the world”. Under heavy pressure, the champion agreed to defend his title against the ageing Moore at Yankee Stadium, New York, on 21st September 1955. Moore floored the rough, tough, champion in the second round but the referee gave Marciano, who was groggy when he got back on his feet, a mandatory eight count, which wasn’t in the rules, and allowed him time to recover. Marciano eventually won with a ninth round knockout. This was Marciano’s last defence before retiring undefeated.
Moore immediately challenged Floyd Patterson for the vacant title, and if you believe Archie’s mother –and she should know-, he was 43 years of age at the time. He found the speed and power of Patterson’s punches too much to handle and was knocked out in the fifth round. Patterson at 21 became the youngest boxer to win the heavyweight crown. Moore was still the light-heavyweight champion, and in December 1958 he travelled to Montreal to face the Canadian Yvon Durelle.
It turned out that Archie fought the greatest fight of his life against the rock-hard challenger who had the champion on the canvas three times in the first round, and almost counted out. Amazingly Moore staged an astonishing comeback to hammer Durelle to defeat in the 11th round. The fight goes down in ring history as one of the must exciting ever, alongside Dempsey vs Firpo, Graziano vs Zale, Hagler vs Hearns, and the 2005 battle between Diego Corrales and Luis Castillo.
When the N.B.A. took Moore’s title off him in 1961 he was still considered the champion by other boxing authorities and made his final defence out-pointing the Italian, Giulio Rinaldi.
On the 15th November 1962 Moore stepped into the ring for his 233rd contest. He was believed to be 49 years old and his opponent was the 20 year-old Olympic gold medallist, Cassius Clay, who had been trained by Moore for a while, but they had split when Clay wouldn’t do as he was told. One thing Moore couldn’t do was alter the rules of physics. As a light-heavyweight he was unbeatable; and he showed once again that as a heavyweight he was human. Not able to cope with young Clay’s dazzling footwork and ripping punches he was stopped in four rounds.
He had one more fight and stopped Mike Di Biase in March 1963, before closing the curtains on a brilliant career. After his retirement Archie lived in a beautiful red-bricked house in San Diego, California, with a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove.
When he passed away on the 9th December 1998 no one was sure whether Archie was eighty two or eighty five. But one thing was certain, boxing had lost one of its all-time greats.By George Reed
This article appears in the print edition 608 of Island Connections