IN June of 1990, the boxing world was still coming to grips with Mike Tyson’s upset loss to Buster Douglas four months earlier, shattering the aura of invincibility many believed “Iron Mike” would own forever.
And while you would assume that the mantle of “Baddest Man on the Planet” would go to Tyson’s conqueror, as the dust settled, those in the know in the fight game gave that description to a 22-year-old light heavyweight from Detroit who was described by that month’s KO magazine as “Boxing’s Most Violent Man.”
Michael Moorer remembers those days, and that moniker. But he didn’t let it define him then.
“That was a life outside of me,” he said. “I had to carry that chip on my shoulder, and most athletes do. And other athletes can and will understand that’s what happens. That’s what people do.”
In other words, to train and fight another man often takes you to places other people are afraid to go and forces you to show sides of yourself you normally wouldn’t in polite society. Boxing is no game. And no one knew that better than Moorer, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania who grew up literally and figuratively when he moved to Detroit in 1988 to turn pro under the auspices of Emanuel Steward in the Kronk Gym.
Among that Class of ‘88 was Gerald McClellan, Oba Carr and Frankie Liles, and there was still future Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns as the unofficial king of the toughest gym in the United States.
“Kronk was an experience,” Moorer said. “It was like a surreal moment because when you’re there, it’s like you’re at a fight, a championship fight. You have one ring, a small gym, and every time I got in the ring and I sparred, the whole gym would stop. And when it stopped, I had to show. I had to show people that I could fight and the Kronk taught me how to fight better and how to be a man in the streets.”
Steward’s motto was always that the best defense is a good offense, and as they knocked out opponent after opponent with a brutal finality, Moorer and McClellan became fast friends – and roommates.
“Gerald and I used to live together in Detroit and that was my dude,” he said. “We would always go out and do things and hang out. It was always us. That was the best part.”
Moorer grows quiet when talking about the former world middleweight champion, whose life was forever altered in his 1995 bout against Nigel Benn. In talking with McClellan’s sister Lisa a few years back, she said one of the few fighters from that era to reach out to Gerald after the Benn bout was Moorer.
“When I heard Gerald got hurt, that messed me up,” he said. “Gerald was my dude and I was just so hurt. It was so wrong that that had happened.”
Such a stark reminder of the dangers and seriousness of this sport came after Moorer lost the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles to George Foreman in November of 1994. But when he was young and invincible, Moorer’s attitude was unchanged. Nothing personal, but on fight night it was kill or be killed.
“You have to understand something,” he explains. “That was back in my days when I was a fighter, where I had a stigma about myself where I was a badass. I had to go out there and fight to defend my name. I’m not that way now. I’m just a regular human being now, where I don’t have the pressures of everybody wanting me to do this or do that. I don’t have all that now. I’m a teacher. I teach people how to fight. And if someone wants to hold on to something where I was caught up in a moment, I had to be cocky, I had to be ignorant, I had to be nasty. I had to be. That was my persona. People knew me for that. I wasn’t the dude to mess with. Michael Moorer was serious. That’s how I was. Boxing’s a serious business. So they fault me for being serious? That’s okay, then.”
These days, Moorer, a father of four, lives in Florida and works as a private investigator when he’s not training people. He doesn’t refer to it as training either, instead describing himself as “a teacher of the art.” And despite turning 49 in November, he says he sticks to between 230 and 238 pounds.
Sounds like he’s bragging.
“Absolutely,” he laughs.
Gone is the surly Michael Moorer, though he remains serious when talking about a serious sport, and he is as candid with his opinions as he was when he was fighting, even if that insistence on telling it like it is might have hurt him when he was an active boxer.
“I think people didn’t respect the fact that I spoke my mind, and the way I spoke my mind is that I didn’t bite my tongue for nobody,” he said. “I’m a real person, I don’t sugar coat anything, and I’m just honest. I’m too honest at times.”
Maybe that’s why Moorer’s name wasn’t called when inductions for the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017 were announced. Moorer was far from a slam dunk like Evander Holyfield or Marco Antonio Barrera, but being one of four fighters to win world heavyweight and light heavyweight titles, as well as the first southpaw to earn the heavyweight crown gives him a decent case, especially over some current inductees.
Yet what really sets Moorer apart was his run at 175 pounds, where he was a force of nature, going 22-0 with 22 knockouts. Along the way, he won the WBO light heavyweight crown, which he successfully defended nine times. Eventually, though, the heavyweights beckoned, with the big fights and big money certainly an allure, but not as enticing as the idea of not having to make weight.
“At 175, it was rough for me,” he admitted. “I was walking around at 206 pounds and getting down to 173 all the time. And I told Emanuel I want my body to mature into being a man and I’m tired of losing weight. I can’t eat, I’m irritable, I’m nasty, and I don’t want to be that way. He said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ And we did it. I turned heavyweight and I felt good.”
At heavyweight, the world outside the boxing bubble got to know him in a hurry thanks to victorious brawls against Alex Stewart and Bert Cooper that Moorer says are the fights he would put in a time capsule as his best ever.
By 1994, he was the WBA and IBF champion after beating Evander Holyfield, a win more remembered by new trainer Teddy Atlas’ incendiary between round speeches. And when he lost his titles to Foreman via 10th round knockout after dominating all but the final ten seconds, it was another bout where fans forgot how good Moorer looked before the epic finish.
But he’s not bitter about how things went in a 52-4-1 career that saw him win the IBF heavyweight title in 1996 and that ended on a six-fight winning streak in 2008.
“I won a title three times,” he said. “There was nothing else. Everybody else wanted me to do it (continue fighting), but I didn’t have nothing to prove.”
Then or now.
“I am happy with the way things went in my career,” Moorer said. “If I changed anything, for what? Then I wouldn’t have any learning experiences. I wouldn’t have been taught about life. So I’m glad things weren’t handed to me. I’m glad that I had some defeats, I got my ass whipped a couple times, but that’s a part of life. And I knew going into a fight that it was either going to be me or that guy – we were just gonna fight. And if we fight, it was about who was gonna be in the best shape.”
I remind Moorer of something he told me before his 2001 win over Terrence Lewis when I asked him how he wanted to be remembered.
“Michael Moorer was always in shape, he was a good fighter, a good left handed fighter, and he was hard to fight,” he told me then. “I’m satisfied with that.”
Has that assessment changed as we head into 2017 and he’s nearly nine years removed from his last fight?
“A hundred years from now I’ll be remembered as the first southpaw heavyweight champion in the history of boxing,” Moorer said. “So that’s the record book right there. I was also one of the baddest light heavyweights that ever fought, having a one hundred percent knockout ratio. So I’d have to be known as one of the best light heavyweights ever and one of the top contenders in the heavyweight division and the first southpaw heavyweight champion. So I have to have some recognition in some kind of way.”