One evening last week 8,327 live fight fans and some 20 million TViewers around the country watched the Garden debut of old Archie Moore, the goateed tumbleweed from San Diego, St. Louis, Toledo, Baltimore, or wherever the pickings look good. As debuts go, it was eminently successful, for the oldest headliner in the business caught up with his number-one challenger, 26-year-old Harold Johnson, in the 14th round with a series of beautifully timed and perfectly thrown right hands that reminded one of well told stories, short and to the point.
The only trouble with this debut is that Moore was closing in on that age at which Dr. Pitkin argued, questionably, that Life Begins. Archie Moore had to wait until he was 37 years old to see his name go up on a Garden marquee. It had taken him almost 19 years of barnstorm campaigning, from North Adams, Mass. to Panama, from Newark to Tasmania. The boxing story today is often told through likely looking preliminary kids a year or two out of the amateurs who are hustled into Garden main events to keep those razor blades moving. But there was nothing hurried about this maiden appearance of our light-heavyweight champion. Behind him were 141 battles with the toughest middleweights, light-heavies and heavyweights of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Putting Archie Moore into his first Madison Square Garden main event at the age of 37 is something like signing Caruso into the Metropolitan in 1920 instead of 1903 when he actually scored the first of his New York triumphs. If Caruso had had to tour the tank towns in moth-eaten opry houses for petty cash while third-raters unfit to carry his music case were pulling down the big notices and the heavy sugar at the Met, he would have become as cynical and money-hungry and un-thrilled as Archie Moore seemed to feel in the Garden last week.
When Moore first climbed through the ropes as a pro back in the middle 30s, a 22-year-old Joe Louis was waiting for his shot at Braddock's heavyweight title. FDR was still promising to pull us out of the depression. Carole Lombard was a national idol. Adolph Hitler was training his Arbeitssoldaten with shovels. Mussolini was kicking up a rumpus in Ethiopia. People were singing "Goody, Goody!" The Oakies were pushing their rattletraps along Highway 66. Mickey Mouse and Joe DiMaggio were hitting their strides. And when you said McCarthy it meant little Charlie.
Nearly all the people who were making history when Archie was fighting up and down the West coast in the late 30s and early 40s have gone back into the ground and the history books. The men who were in there with Moore in the years before Pearl Harbor are old men with stomachs hanging over their belts, and balding heads, living off their scrapbooks and their memories of trial and glory.
Watching old Archie coming on in the later rounds against a clever, prime opponent who had taken Ezzard Charles and Nino Valdes and who was nine years old when the champion was belting out tough boys for peanuts in San Diego, you had to admire the old-time moves, the way he got up from an off-balance knockdown and took the fight to the younger man, careful to offer only the smallest pieces of himself and watchful for mistakes on which he could capitalize.
Years ago he had crowded Charles and knocked out Bivins and worked with the tough ones nobody wanted, Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Curtis Sheppard, Billy Smith. He was good enough in those days to be the light-heavyweight champion of the world but everybody was looking the other way.
If it had been tennis, his ranking would have top-seeded him into a shot at the champions. But this was boxing, a bitter and slippery business, where the challenger your manager picked for you was the one who guaranteed the high money—and who didn't figure as tough as Archie Moore. An aging Lesnevich would rather have the build-up kid, Billy Fox, or the run-down limey, Freddie Mills. And when Mills got his hands on the title would he rather fight Archie, still the number-one at age 33, or Joey Maxim, the Kearns' concoction, who never resembles a fighter so much as when he's sitting down between rounds.
It was 1952 and Joey Maxim was in the book as the light-heavyweight champion of the world. At an age (36) when the best fighters in the world can't find their legs or their reflexes, Moore finally got Maxim into the ring with him. The expected happened. It was one of those nights when Moore was in there for the glory alone and Maxim and Kearns got all the money. There wasn't another light heavyweight around who could bring in a dollar, so the Moore-Maxim thing became a traveling circus—in Ogden, in Miami. And now they're talking Omaha. And six figures for Archie.
At the end of his long and rocky road Archie is finding the golden vein that eluded him through the best of his fighting days. Last week he and Manager Charley Johnston were calling the turn and taking home all the money—around $40,000, including, rumor had it, a fistful out of Johnson's purse.
Moore didn't bother to pick up his check. He's off in his Cadillac and his black cowboy outfit, a dark-skinned, pugnacious Burl Ives, gypsying around the country and talking about fighting Rocky Marciano. Or the top heavyweight contenders Valdes and Cockell.
What he's really saying is that after all those years in the financial desert he'd like to linger around the I.B.C.'s oasis. More pay nights like that debut in the Garden. There were times last week when he walked back to his corner like an old man waddling home from a tour of the gin mills. But he's the last of the great journeymen and it's still a pleasure to watch someone who knows his business in a day when underdeveloped and oversold kids bob up and down the ladder like the popular songs you can never remember once they've slipped off the hit parade.
IMMORTALITY AND BOOS
Though battered and bloody, Henry Armstrong (right) took the lightweight championship away from Lou Ambers 16 years ago this week and became the only fighter to hold three world titles simultaneously. In 1937 Armstrong had knocked out Petey Sarron for the featherweight title, and just three months before the Ambers bout he had bludgeoned the welterweight crown from the head of tottering Barney Ross. But against Armstrong, Ambers fought fiercely, coming back after being knocked down twice to win four of the last five rounds. He cut Armstrong's mouth so badly that Henry became nauseated and dizzy from swallowing blood. Still Armstrong kept bobbing, weaving, twitching ahead and punching. The 19,000 fans cheered Ambers, 3-1 underdog who was fouled several times by his groggy opponent. And when a trembling, gasping Armstrong, winner by a split decision, stumbled to the center of the ring as new lightweight champion, they booed and threw newspapers and cigar butts at him.