SAN DIEGO — 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.