ONE of the larger than life characters the sport has produced, ‘Ancient’ Archie Moore had to wait until he was 36 to win the world light-heavyweight title… but once on top, he stayed there for the next ten amazing years.
Moore’s age has been open to question since his days as champion. Some said he was born in 1912 or 1913, but the evidence provided by the 1920 US census shows 13th December 1916, the date he gave in his autobiography, is correct. That official record has him as a three-year-old living in St Louis, Missouri, with his uncle and aunt, Cleveland and Willie Moore. Archie’s birth name was Archibald Lee Wright but he was raised by his aunt and uncle and took their name.
He grew up in St Louis, was sent to Reform School when he went off the rails, following the death of his uncle and his older sister, and it was there that he began to box. He had his first professional fight when he was 19 in 1936. It was a long road from there to the light-heavyweight championship of the world.
By the time he was 21 he had moved to San Diego, California. He held the Californian State middleweight title for a while, but learned the hard way against classy operators like Eddie Booker, Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams and Ezzard Charles. It must have seemed as if his chance would never come, as he passed into his mid-thirties. In 1950 he could get only two fights and made his living hustling with his pool cue in whichever town he found himself in. “I was disgusted,” he said. “I couldn’t get a shot at the title.” He wrote letters to sports editors around the country. “I pleaded, I cursed, I demanded a shot at [Joey] Maxim‘s crown.”
Eventually, at long last, it worked – in December 1952, four days after his 36th birthday, he outboxed Joey Maxim for the light-heavyweight championship of the world in his old home town of St Louis. Maxim was managed by the influential, cunning Doc Kearns, who somehow insisted that Moore’s first two defences would be against Maxim.
Archie beat Maxim in Ogden, Utah, in June 1953 and again in Miami, Florida, in January 1954. “For so many years I couldn’t get near him,” said Moore. “Now I can’t get away from him.”
In August 1954 he stopped Harold Johnson in the 14th round but in between title defences he was looking at the heavyweight division. In May 1955 he upset the big Cuban, Nino Valdes, over 15 rounds in Las Vegas, which put him in line for a shot at Rocky Marciano.
After knocking out the former middleweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olson in a light-heavyweight defence, he took on Marciano in Yankee Stadium in September 1955. It would turn out to be Rocky’s last fight, and in the second round Moore floored him and hurt him with a clean shot, but Marciano got up, shook his head and ploughed on. Archie tried all his tricks, but said it was a waste of time. “Marciano didn’t know enough boxing to know what a feint was…” Gradually Rocky pounded the resistance out of Archie’s 38-year-old legs. Marciano won in the ninth.
Moore kept winning in 1956, including another light-heavyweight title fight in London against Yolande Pompey, and then fought 21-year-old Floyd Patterson for the vacant heavyweight championship in Chicago in November 1956. He was a month short of his 40th birthday – and went over rather tamely in five rounds.
He didn’t get another heavyweight chance, but he was far from finished. Moore was unbeaten from 1957 through 1959, although he came terribly close to it when he defended his title against the Canadian, Yvon Durelle, in Montreal in December 1958. Durelle knocked him down three times in the first round, and again in the fifth. Archie hung in, turned the fight around, dropped Durelle in round seven and at the end of the 10th. Two more knockdowns in the 11th – and Moore had kept his title in one of the most sensational fights of the era. It was, he said years later, his greatest sporting moment. In a rematch he did the job in three.
Moore lost a decision to the Italian, Giulio Rinaldi, in Rome in 1960, but when they fought with the title on the line in New York in June 1961, it was ‘Ancient Archie’, by now also called ‘The Old Mongoose’, who earned the 15-round decision. It was the last of his world title fights. He was 44 years old.
Not that anybody beat him. The authorities just grew bored of him and found reasons to strip him. The NBA began the process in October 1960 and the New York Commission and European Boxing Union followed in February 1962.
He wasn’t ready to go, but looked forward to the day he was done with boxing. “When I retire I want to get very, very fat just once… I’m gonna stay up late and inhale the fumes of good jazz in nice, smoky night clubs with good jazz combos. I’m gonna sleep late in the mornings and never run again. I’ll burn all my training clothes and hang my gloves way up high out of reach… My wife will hide my dusty scrapbooks and my picture albums and I’ll have to walk down to the gym every day and shoot the bull with the other old-timers, as I watch the kids and think to myself that I could’ve beaten all of them in my time. That’s an old fighter’s privilege.”
When he drew with Willie Pastrano in 1962, Pastrano remembered the medical examination and how bad Moore’s sight was. “He couldn’t even see the eye chart. He was saying A…B…C…D and it was like, P, Q, R. The doctor says ‘For Chrissakes, Archie, that’s not right.’ He says, ‘Well, Willie ain’t gonna be that far away anyway.”
His last major fight was when he was knocked out by the 20-year-old sensation that was Cassius Marcellus Clay, in Los Angeles in November 1962. Clay even picked the round – the fourth.
Archie’s last fight was a win in Arizona in 1963. He’s fought more than 200 times. with well over 130 knockout wins.
Out of the ring he was happy playing trumpet or tea-chest bass with jazz bands. He acted in the film Huckleberry Finn, worked with the Boy Scout movement and trained a fighter or two here and there. In the 1990s he liked to be around the fight scene, and worked with George Foreman during the big man’s comeback. Moore seemed a fixture in the press rooms for those years, but in 1995 had a triple bypass operation, and died on 9 December 1998, just short of his 82nd birthday.