On an old record, Dizzy Gillespie was imitating Louis Armstrong. Gillespie's voice, the throb of a bass and the faint, wailing brass had yanked Archie Moore out of an intense discourse about his 1955 fight with Rocky Marciano.
"Hey, listen to that," the former light-heavyweight champion said, closing his eyes and smiling broadly. "Isn't that some sound?"
He listened a moment longer. Moore had put on a stack of his prized jazz records (mostly Gillespie and Yusef Lateef, whom Moore calls "the greatest saxophone player alive") in his downstairs den before reminiscing about old battles.
Gillespie finished his Armstrong imitation, and Moore let his mind return to Sept. 21, 1955, in Yankee Stadium. For an instant that night, it looked as if, at 38, The Mongoose was about to become the heavyweight champion of the world. On the floor, in the second round, was the champion, Rocky Marciano, stunned by a short right to the jaw.
"When I look back on it now, it seems like for two or three seconds," Moore said. "After 20 years in boxing, my life had finally pivoted in the right direction. Then Harry (Kessler) got in my way, and . . . well, he just turned it around, that's all "
Kessler was the Marciano-Moore referee. The standing-eight count had been waived for the bout, but in the excitement of Moore's knockdown of Marciano, Kessler apparently forgot. As Marciano rose shakily to his feet, he grasped the top rope for support and gazed through foggy eyes at the Yankee Stadium crowd. At that point, Kessler first held Marciano's gloves, then began a standing-eight count. At the three count, Kessler appeared to remember the eight-count waiver, and in a confused manner summoned the two to begin fighting.
Moore has maintained for 31 years that those half-dozen seconds were enough for Marciano's head to clear. Marciano survived the second round and went on to knock out Moore in the ninth, retaining his championship. Seven months later, he retired, undefeated.
Dizzy Gillespie was singing in the background, but Moore was working himself into a fury again.
"The thing that's always hurt me was that I'd known Kessler for 20 years," he said. "I used to fight for Kessler and his brothers when they were promoters in St. Louis, when I was an amateur. I've never said that Harry owed me any favors that night, but my gosh--I deserved to be treated fairly.
"The whole thing is, when I knocked Rocky down, he (Kessler) became a confused man who didn't know what he was doing. When you look at the movie today, Harry looks kind of funny running around in there, but it cost me the title. If he'd done his job properly, I could've knocked Marciano out."
Archie Moore's place in the Ring Record Book is an inspiring sight. Nearly four full columns of type. When Moore started, Franklin Roosevelt had been President for two years. Moore retired during the Lyndon Johnson administration. He fought 234 times and won 199 times. He knocked out 145 opponents, more than anyone in the history of the sport.
Still, after a 30-year career and 234 bouts, Archie Moore's mind is clear, sharp, retaining half-century-old minutia.
In the Moore section of the Ring Record Book, the first line of type is under the subhead 1935, and reads:
"Piano Man Jones, Hot Springs . . . KO 2."
"That's wrong," Moore said. "His name was 'Piano Mover Jones.' I was living at a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camp in 1935, in Poplar Bluff, Mo. In fact, I can even tell you which camp it was: Camp 3760."
The CCC was a Franklin Roosevelt program to help the country get over the depression. The government provided jobs, mostly through the construction of buildings and roads.
"Anyhow, I'd had some amateur fights in St. Louis, and a promoter from Hot Springs, Ark., wanted me to turn pro there. He offered me $9 plus room and board if I'd go down there and fight Jones, so I did.
"Piano Mover Jones was a black Hot Springs heavyweight who'd beaten up everyone in the area. He weighed 195, I weighed 150. We fought in a school gym, and I remember there wasn't a black face to be seen in the crowd. I could hear white farmers at ringside, betting bushels of corn on the outcome.
"Early in the first round, I feinted at the Piano Mover, and he lunged. I knew then I had him. I knocked him out in the second round."
There's also a line that says Moore was born Dec. 13, 1913. If that's correct, it means he was 41 when he fought Marciano (sportswriters called him 39 at the time), and 48 when he boxed Cassius Clay, in 1962. Archie's mother said in 1955 her son was born Dec. 13, 1916. Archie's always been a bit sensitive about his age. He'll only wink when the subject comes up.
At 70, 71, 72 or 73, Moore still lives in the same two-story brick home with the spiraling chimneys in San Diego he built in the early 1950s. He lives with his wife, Joan, and children Reena, Hardy, DeAngelo, Jay Marie, Anthony and Billy. He has lived in San Diego since 1938.
He works with federal anti-drug programs as a community relations specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Los Angeles, living during the week at the Compton home of his older brother, Jackie.
For a couple of hours recently, the former light-heavyweight champion talked about Marciano, boxing's critics, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, old age, and the shortage of capable instructors of boxing (such as Moore) in boxing today.
On Mike Tyson, the unbeaten New York heavyweight prospect:
"The thing I like most about him is that he's fighting so often, as often as once every two weeks. That will make up for a lot of his inexperience when he gets in there with guys who can really fight.
"Yeah, he's short, but so was Joe Frazier.
"There's no substitute for boxing frequently. The trouble with a lot of fighters today is they're not in fighting trim. They may be in shape, but that's not the same as being in fighting trim. . . . Another good thing about boxing frequently is it keeps the weight off you. That's why Tyson looks so sharp most of the time--he's in fighting trim."
On Rocky Marciano:
"Aside from Kessler having a bad night, Rocky's conditioning beat me. He was the best-conditioned boxer I ever faced. I underestimated him. I wasn't at all afraid of him, I was very confident of beating him that night. I went in there with the idea I could make him miss for a half-dozen rounds, then knock him out. To me, he was just a hard-hitting guy who'd been built up and overrated by the press. "But I couldn't keep him off me. He was in such great shape. Afterward, I'd wished I'd trained harder."
On Yvon Durelle, the Canadian light-heavyweight who nearly knocked Moore out early in a 1958 fight, but who was swallowed up in an inspired comeback by Moore, who knocked out Durelle in the 11th. Historians have called it one of sport's greatest comebacks. Moore has the Dec. 11, 1958, San Diego Union sports section front page framed on his wall, the headline reading: "MOORE GETS OFF FLOOR, KNOCKS OUT DURELLE IN 11"
"Durelle surprised me, too--by how hard he could hit. The first time he knocked me down in that fight, my feet went up in the air and I landed shoulders-first on the canvas. I could hear the referee counting over me and I could see Durelle coming after me again, but I didn't want to lose that fight.
"I have films of both the Marciano and Durelle fights, and I take them to groups to speak. You know what? More people want to see film of the Durelle fight than the Marciano fight, and that's always surprised me."
On the American Medical Assn. and other boxing critics who wish to see the sport abolished:
"Don't those people have anything better to do than pick on boxing? Wouldn't they feel more useful to themselves if they put their energy into solving the awful problems we're having with drugs and our kids? Look at the awful things that have happened in the world lately--all those people who're going to die at Chernobyl, the astronauts who died in that explosion . . . and they're picking on boxing? What's boxing done, except to entertain millions of people, given so many people so many good memories?"
On the comeback of ex-heavyweight champion George Foreman:
"In 1968, George Foreman knocked on that door right over there. I was in Pennsylvania at the time, but my wife was home and George said to her: 'Mrs. Moore, I'm George Foreman and I just won the Olympics. I want your husband to train me.'
"George eventually hooked up with Dick Saddler, and I came into the picture with him several years later. I had an excellent relationship with George. He's called me several times recently about his comeback, and he wants me to work with him again. I told him to get a contract drawn up, and we could get together. If he'll come to San Diego to train, I'll build a ring in the back yard.
"He'd do well against the current heavyweights. He's only 37. He's heavy (270), but he can take that off easily. George is a clean liver. He's a preacher in Houston, you know.
"Henry Winston, one of George's people, called me once in the early 1970s and asked me: 'Archie, if it was your decision and you were handling George and he had an opportunity to fight either Frazier (who was the champion at the time) or Ali, which one would you have him fight?'
"I told them Frazier presented far fewer problems, that I felt George could handle him easily. Three weeks later, they asked me to join their camp in Hayward.
"The night before the fight (in Jamaica, in 1973), I told George: 'Frazier will come right at you. I want you to jab-jab-jab him. Then he'll bend down in a crouch and show you the top of his head. George, when you see the top of his head, use that right hand and put some thunder on it.'
"Look at the film. That's what happened. He put that big right on the top of Frazier's head and he went up in the air like he was doing a jackknife. Nobody, but nobody, hits harder than George Foreman.
"Actually, George won the fight at the weigh-in. We deliberately kept Joe waiting 45 minutes. We strolled in real nonchalant, and Joe was wild. 'Who do you think you are, keeping me waiting!' he was screaming. He walked right up to George, looked up at him and yelled: 'You're nothing but a second-rate contender! Don't you dare keep the champ waiting!'
George looked at him and said, very quietly, 'Down, boy.' That got Joe even hotter, and he started screaming that he was 'Comin' out smokin'.' George put his face right in Joe's face and said: 'Don't you know smokin' is bad for your health?'
"When we walked outside, I hugged him, and said: 'George, you just won the fight.' "
On his nickname: "A long time ago, I was telling Jack Murphy (the late sports editor of the San Diego Union) that in the ring I tried to be like a small, amazingly quick and fierce little animal called the mongoose. He wrote a column about it, and it stuck."
On a shortage of capable boxing instructors:
"There are two reasons why so many boxers today look sloppy in the ring. First, they're not sharp because they don't fight often enough. Second, there're too many trainers around today who don't know much about boxing. And I'm talking about simple fundamentals. It's shocking to me how many rated boxers there are today who don't even know how to properly deliver a left jab.
(At that point, Moore delivered a 15-minute lesson on how to properly deliver and retract a left jab. When the lesson was completed, Moore said: "See? When you came here, you were nothin'. Now you're dangerous.")
On Muhammad Ali and his famed "rope-a-dope" defense:
"It's always bothered me that people think Ali invented the 'rope-a-dope.' He not only didn't invent it, he never used it at all. All he ever did was lay on the ropes and cover up. That's not rope-a-dope.
(Moore is on his feet now, dancing around his den, leaning on walls as if they were ring ropes, pivoting and flicking out short, chopping punches.)
"This is rope-a-dope, going into and coming off the ropes with dozens of different moves. Kid Chocolate was a rope-a-dope master. Sugar Ray Robinson was, too. So was I. But Ali never used the rope-a-dope."
On the hardest-hitter:
"Hatchetman Sheppard was the hardest hitter I ever faced. When the Hatchetman hit you, it was like an electric shock going through your body. He knocked me down one time so hard I bounced. I decisioned him twice (in 1946 and '47), mainly because I made him miss a lot. The best-conditioned fighter I ever met, by far, was Marciano. The most underrated, a guy who never really got the credit by the press he should have, was Harold Johnson--a fine, fine fighter."
Cruisin', with The Mongoose. He's recognized, everywhere in San Diego. He visits friends who own a music store on El Cajon Boulevard. Moore owns numerous musical instruments--guitars, banjos, a bass--but admits he can't play any of them. At the music store, he's introduced to a startled woman who says: "Archie Moore? My God, does anyone have a camera? My husband won't believe I met Archie Moore."
In a coffee shop, during lunch, a man appears and says: "Aren't you Archie Moore? Say, do you remember shooting pool with me at Tower Bowl one evening about 40 years ago? I beat you, remember?" Moore politely informs the fellow he doesn't remember.
At a flower shop across the street, he buys a $3.77 pot of carnations for his wife, and a man in the back shouts: "Archie Moore! I've lived in San Diego almost as long as you have--I knew sooner or later I had to run into you."
University Pool, on University Avenue. Five tables, in good condition, some old Archie Moore clippings on the wall, no booze, no food. There's a game at every table, but it's uncommonly quiet for a pool room. Plainly, these are no-nonsense shooters.
Lefty Barton, a friend of the owner, is minding the store this day. Somewhat suspiciously, he sizes up the unfamiliar visitor who'd just come in with Moore.
"This is a place for serious pool shooters," he said. "No food, no beer, no wine . . . and no dope, or we run your ass out of here right quick."
Lefty gestured toward most of the players and about a dozen spectators.
"Most of our shooters are pensioners, old guys who've shot pool all their lives, and now they're fixed-income guys. But that guy in the plaid shirt over there, he's a millionaire several times over. He likes to shoot pool and he comes here to relax."
Archie is welcomed with friendly greetings and handshakes and almost immediately finds himself in a game with a friend, James Miller. It's eight-ball bank.
Moore moves deftly about the table, sinking an array of bank shots. He's a deft needler, too.
"James, your game's come apart since I last played you. You been sick?"
Barton watches the Moore-Miller game and talks about Moore.
"Like I said, a lot of these guys are on fixed incomes and havin' a tough time. You know what Archie does, every once in awhile? He'll come in with a whole box of pastrami sandwiches for everybody. He's a real man, Archie is."