MICHAEL MOORER: HE DID IT HIS WAY

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“I’d like to break a man’s jaw and watch it just hanging there”. Michael Moorer gave this insight in to the vicious streak that bubbled below the surface of his calm spoken exterior when he was bludgeoning his way through the light-heavyweight division in the late 80’s and the start of the 90’s. The late great Emanuel Steward, the Kronk guru and Hall of Fame trainer who managed and trained Moorer for the first incarnation of his career, told a story of how his charge would watch violent films, rewinding the brutal parts, and chuckling as if he was watching cartoons. Back then, a darkness ran through Moorer that fueled a vicious knockout artist. But the man known as “Double M” evolved in to a careful fighter, one who had to be cajoled to fight, to train, and who drove such esteemed trainers like George Benton, Teddy Atlas and Freddie Roach crazy with frustration, such was the complex nature of this history making two-weight champion.

He was born 12th November 1967 in Brooklyn, New York, but was raised in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He played American football as a youngster, but his mother Paulette noticed that despite this outlet, he was an unusually hyperactive child. She sought professional help and came to the conclusion that he needed a more demanding type of release. Moorer’s grandfather, Henry Smith, had been a former fighter and local boxing trainer, who had reportedly once sparred with ring legends Charley Burley and Archie Moore. He started teaching the youngster how to channel his aggression and Moorer, naturally adapting to a southpaw stance, started accompanying his grandfather to the gym.

Smith instantly noticed his grandson’s ability and potential, nurturing and developing him to a solid level. However, both realised that for Moorer to progress to the top he would have to relocate. So Moorer moved to Detroit, teaming up with the legendary Steward at the famous Kronk gym. And he instantly made his presence known in one if the toughest environments for ANY fighter. The ring wars were the stuff of legend, and Moorer wanted to establish who he was and what he could do, cementing his own reputation in the gold, red and blue colors of the gym.

He became chief sparring partner for middleweight contender Darnell Knox, who was preparing for an NABF title shot against the undefeated and up and coming Michael Nunn. Knox was 23-1, 18 ko’s, as a professional, but according to gym reports, he was severely out of his depth with the young Moorer, taking beating after beating in their sessions. By the time he faced Nunn, he was damaged goods, being hammered in four, and never entering the ring again. Moorer’s reputation was growing.

With his style and development the decision was made to bypass the Olympic Trials to make the team of 1988 and focus on turning over to the paid code, finishing his amateur career with a record of 48-16. Steward had no doubts that Moorer would become world champion at 175 lbs and more.

He made his professional debut on 4th March 1988, stopping Adrian Riggs in the first round. Activity was the key, and he was back in the ring just twenty one days later, stopping Bill Lee in one, before scoring a further nine consecutive inside the distance wins. This run of form put him in line for a shot at a “world” title, being pitted against the tough top ten contender Ramzi Hassan.

World Champion

250px-michael_moorerHassan was a durable fighter from Jordan, who had previously extended WBA champion Virgil Hill the full twelve rounds. Whilst not a noted puncher, he had accumulated victories over future world titlist Jeff Lampkin and top contender Uriah Grant, on his way to building a 25-4 record. But in Moorer, he was facing one of the hardest punchers in the division’s history.

The newly formed World Boxing Organisation’s vacant crown would be on the line. During its infancy, the WBO would align itself with the Kronk fighters, hoping their reputation would help garner it some much needed credibility, what with the sport already having three championships to aim for, although a few used it as a springboard to a shot at the more established titles.

Moorer controlled the fight from the start, dissecting Hassan before ending matters in round five. In just under a year as a professional, he had become “world champion”, with his record standing at a perfect 12-0, all by stoppage. Now though, it was time to start raising the level of competition and send a warning to the divisions big guns that a new threat had arrived. And a frightening one at that.

Moorer kept active throughout 1989, defending his title on six occasions, all by the short route. Victor Claudio was stopped in two, Frankie Swindell was rescued in six, and Freddie Delgado had his unbeaten record destroyed in one. But he was extended and tested in his fourth defence against the former WBA titlist Leslie Stewart. With a record of 27-4, Stewart had mixed in superior company than anyone Moorer had faced, and his defeats were all to men who were, or had held, versions of the world crown. Moorer was forced to be patient as Stewart worked the angles. He become braver in an exciting fourth round though, planting his feet and attempting to back up the young champion. But by the end of the round, he felt the sting of Moorer’s sharp punches as he was forced to retreat. Working behind a snappy jab, Moorer gradually wore down Stewart, finally flooring him with a heavy left in round eight. Stewart arose, but it wasn’t long before a short right sent him down again. He bravely got up, but it was a brief respite as a heavy combination forced the referee’s intervention. It proved to be a valuable learning curve for Moorer.

Jeff Thompson was dropped twice and stopped in one round next out, before Mike Sedillo was halted in six. But weight making was becoming a huge issue. He was entering camps at a reported 206 lbs, and was 181 lbs on the day prior to defending his title against Marcellus Adams. He eventually made 175 lbs, but only after shadowboxing in his hotel room for several hours with all the hot water running, creating a steam room effect. And it was no surprise when he boxed lethargically against Allen before stopping him in nine.

After the fight, the talk turned to a unification tournament against fellow champions Hill, “Prince” Charles Williams (IBF), and stablemate Dennis Andries (WBC). He knocked out Mario Melo in the first round in his second appearance of 1990, before appearing on the same card as Williams in a bid to stoke up interest in a fight between the two of them. Both scored third round wins in non-title fights, Moorer stopping former title challenger Jim MacDonald and Williams hammering journeyman Bert Gravely. But the tournament came to nothing as terms with each team couldn’t be agreed. Unable to prove himself the best light-heavyweight in the world, he made his ninth and final defence against Danny Stonewalker, stopping him in nine, ending his time in the division with a perfect 22-0, 22 ko’s record.

With his frame, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and with a 75 1/2 inch reach, the decision was made to bypass the cruiserweight division and focus on targeting boxing’s premier title. Gone were the days of controlled meals and sweat suits, it was now time to chase sports most prestigious title: The heavyweight championship of the world.

Bigger Fighters, Same Results

Moorer made his debut against trial horse Terry Davis, stopping him in two, then followed that up by halting Levi Billups in three. Both were fights were to help ease him in to the higher division, but his next fight would showcase both his strength and vunerability when swapping blows with the big boys.

Alex Stewart had started off his career with twenty four straight knockouts, before stepping up in class and being stopped by former undisputed cruiserweight, and future four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in eight competitive rounds. Comebacking former champion Mike Tyson had blown him away in one round in his only other defeat. Despite these losses, he was still ranked in the alphabet organisations top ten, and would provide an indication as to where Moorer’s place in the que to a title shot would be.

Stewart came straight at Moorer and the pair swapped leather throughout the opening two minutes. But Moorer’s power surfaced towards the end of the round, a succession of short punches stunning Stewart, before a right uppercut sent him to the canvas. He pulled himself up, but it wasn’t long before a left hand sent him down again. He arose on shaky legs as the bell ended the round but still looked unsteady coming out for the second. He was taking a lot of clean shots from Moorer, but then Stewart stopped Moorer in his tracks with two heavy right crosses. Moorer bent forward, stunned, before regrouping. The moment passed before Stewart could repeat his success, and by the end of the third he was starting to take a lot of punishment. And it didn’t take long before Moorer closed the show, two crushing right uppercuts sending Stewart face-first to the canvas. Once again he bravely got up but, now bleeding from cuts around both eyes and on wobbly legs, the referee mercifully waved it over. Moorer had delivered a statement that he was a force to be reckoned with, and was a welcome addition to a division blossoming with Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and George Foreman taking centre stage.

But trouble outside of the ring was raising its ugly head again. The first incident had occurred back in 1989 when he had become involved in a brawl and was arrested. This time, just days after the Stewart fight, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer. Reports stated that he had been drinking heavily at a basketball game and was angry at being asked to leave. He subsequently ended up at his grandfather’s house, and smashed his mailbox and windows before entering. The police were called and an altercation took place, where an officer suffered a broken jaw. The charges were serious, but after an 18 month period the case was eventually settled out of court and Moorer placed on probation. It appeared that, at times, he could be his own worst enemy.

Another concern seemed to be his relationship with Steward. Cracks were appearing and Moorer seemed to be listening less to the man who had guided him and become a father figure. In his next three fights, admittedly against inferior opposition, Moorer seemed a little soft in condition, and also less motivated. Bobby Crabtree was halted in the first, whilst Mike White, despite being dropped three times, became the first man to take Moorer the distance. Then against Everett Martin, he was just plain poor, suffering the first knockdown of his career, before winning a lethargic ten round decision. But now he was in line for a title shot, in the form of the vacant WBO crown. Whilst Evander Holyfield was considered the true champion, the title would elevate Moorer in to the upper echelon of the division. Opposing him would be Smokin’ Bert Cooper, who in his last fight had almost unseated Holyfield from his throne. A convincing win here would speak volumes about Moorer’s status.

Extinguishing The Smoke

Cooper was once a world rated cruiserweight who was, for the early part of his career, trained by former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, affectionately adopting his ring moniker. But he struggled to land a title shot, and moved up to heavy, annihilating Willie Dewitt in two rounds, before he was stopped in eight by Carl Williams. He captured the NABF title but lost to Olympians Ray Mercer (a brutal points decision) and Riddick Bowe (KO 2) and seemed to fall in to the role of gatekeeper, although his penchant for partying and drugs did little to help take his career seriously. But his most recent fight had seen him, after coming in as a second short notice substitute, climb off the floor to issue the first count of Holyfield’s career, before courageously being stopped in seven for the heavyweight championship. That one punch had altered his career path and with 24 ko’s in his 27-8 record, it was accepted that on any given night, the “Smoke” was certainly no joke.

Cooper jumped on Moorer from the opening bell, driving him to the ropes whilst hooking to head and body with both hands. Moorer punched with him, but was nailed by a big right hand. His legs shimmied as Cooper went for the finish, driving in several rights before Moorer dropped to his knees. He was hurt and sensibly took the eight count. But the fuse had been lit, and Moorer dug his toes in to the canvas, blasting back at Cooper with short, sharp punches. Cooper was stung, and an explosive double right hook sent him careening to the canvas. The crowd erupted at this sudden change of fortune. Cooper pulled himself up but was in trouble. Another combination bent him over and it looked like Moorer would end this early, but Cooper landed another strong right hand that sent Moorer back in to the ropes. The bell sounded to end one of the best rounds ever seen in the heavyweight division. In the second Cooper kept pounding away, driving Moorer to the ropes and forcing him to fight his fight. But Cooper had a big round in the third, a flurry forcing Moorer down for the second time in the fight. But Moorer rattled off crisp shots, letting Cooper know he was still there. Coming out for the fifth, Moorer started to find more space for his punches as Cooper started to appear slightly ragged. Potent straight lefts connected as Cooper started looking weary. But then Moorer exploded, the sound of his punches resounding around the arena, before a vicious right uppercut straight left combination sent Cooper down, his head hanging over the bottom rope. Eyes glazed and cut around his right eye, he bravely got up, but the referee had seen enough. Moorer had captured a version of the heavyweight title, creating history as the first southpaw to achieve this feat, and only the second light-heavyweight champion to reach this goal too.

But it would also be his last fight under the banner of the Kronk gym. His working relationship with Steward had broken down completely. As always there were two sides to the story; One had Moorer feeling that Steward was not dedicating enough time to him and was spreading himself too thinly with other fighters, whilst Steward felt that Moorer’s attitude changed when he moved to heavy and he was listening less to his long term trainer. Either way, Moorer felt a change in direction was needed.

Tony Ayala Sr was in his corner for his next fight, a two round win over Billy Wright, but it was a one fight deal. Moorer had also relinquished his WBO title and set his sights on the more recognised “big three”. He turned his attention to veteran trainers George Benton and Lou Duva. The pair had produced world champions Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, and Meldrick Taylor, to name a few, and were highly respected within the industry. Benton had been a world rated middleweight and was known for his refined technique and brilliant defence, traits he encouraged with certain fighters. Moorer had three fights with the duo, outpointing former WBA titlist James “Bonecrusher” Smith and stopping both Frankie Swindell and James Pritchard. But he felt his natural style was being restricted and so he parted company with them.

Teddy Atlas was brought on board next. Atlas was someone who it was felt could keep Moorer focused whilst channeling his aggression, especially as he had been instrumental in the early developmental stages with a similar character in “Iron” Mike Tyson. It would prove to be an eventful and successful partnership.

Heavyweight Champion

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A ten round points decision over Mike Evans put Moorer in line for a shot at the WBA/IBF champion Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield. Holyfield (30-1, 23 ko’s) was in his second reign as champion, having regained the titles from previous conquerer Riddick Bowe. Both fights were tremendous and added further to Holyfield’s burgeoning reputation as one of the games most exciting fighters. A former undisputed cruiserweight champion, and the greatest fighter in that divisions history, he had knocked out James “Buster” Douglas to win the title, then made three defences before losing the title to Bowe in one of the greatest fights in history. He turned the tables last time out and Moorer would be the first defence of his second reign.

Wearing dark green trunks, Moorer fought conservatively in the first as Holyfield looked to land heavy hooks. The second round followed the first, until a short left hook deposited Moorer to his knees. It was a flash knockdown, but Moorer now knew that Holyfield could hurt him. But towards the end of the third, Holyfield started to appear tired as Moorer started racking up the points behind his jab. By the fifth, it looked like Holyfield had grown old overnight, with all of the wars throughout his career catching up with him. But Moorer seemed reluctant to excerpt himself fully and look for the stoppage win that seemed to be staring him in the face. Atlas was urging and encouraging him with everything, even sitting on the corner stool as Moorer came back after round eight and asking if they wanted to swap places! This was the frustrating side to Moorer who refused to listen and followed his own trail of thought. Nevertheless, after twelve rounds, Moorer had done enough. A majority decision deservedly went his way. He was now the WBA & IBF, but most importantly, lineal heavyweight champion of the world.

But his style and surly personality wasn’t fully grasped by the boxing media and fans alike. They preferred the destructive knockout artist who left opponents spread eagled across the canvas, not the cautious fighter he had evolved in to. And it didn’t help his image when Holyfield was diagnosed afterwards as having fought with a noncompliant left ventricle which caused him to retire. But, like him or not, he was world champion and for his first defence, he chose one of the most popular fighters in the game: Enter “Big” George Foreman.

The First Loss

Foreman had reigned as heavyweight champion during the golden era of the 1970’s, famously winning the title from Joe Frazier and then becoming part of boxing folklore when losing to Muhammad Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle”. He had retired in 1977 after losing to Jimmy Young before embarking on a comeback ten years later. Like Moorer, he had been a moody and fairly unapproachable champion during his first reign. But during his hiatus he had become a warm and jovial individual, reborn as a preacher, and his comeback was originally to help financially aid his church and its causes. His unbeaten run lasted four years, earning a shot at then champion Holyfield where, in a highly entertaining fight, he gave an inspired effort, making a mockery of his forty two years, before losing on points. In a second title shot (WBO) he was outpointed by Tommy Morrison and it appeared his dream had come to an end. But he fought on and, in one of his most recent fights, struggled to win a ten round decision over former Moorer victim Alex Stewart, finishing with both eyes badly swollen. Now aged forty five, it appeared the end was nigh indeed. But one last chance, and payday, was offered and the fight was on.

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Foreman entered wearing the trunks he wore during his title win over Frazier. With 68 ko’s in a 72-4 record, he was still one of the hardest punchers in history. Moorer entered wearing gold trunks, reminiscent of his days at the Kronk. Moorer dominated the fight behind his jab. For round after round, Moorer’s shots thudded in to the larger challenger, raising bumps and swellings on Foreman’s face. After nine rounds, Moorer was well ahead on the scorecards as Foreman struggled to pin down the younger champion. But instead of keeping his foot on the outside and moving to his right, Moorer kept moving to his left and in to the path of Foreman’s right hand. And in the tenth, this would be punished in devastating fashion. Foreman finally found the range with a left right combo. But then he repeated the move, this time the right landing with crushing power. Moorer sank to the canvas, finishing flat on his back, eyes glazed and senses separated from normality. He lay listening to the referee go through the formality of the count, instinctively trying to rise before he reached ten. But it was not to be. Foreman became the oldest world champion in history as Moorer joined the ranks of ex-champions. But how would this complicated character handle his first defeat, and a high profile one at that?

Comeback

A brief retirement followed before Moorer returned on a mission to exact revenge. But efforts to entice Foreman back in the ring came to nothing, so Moorer pressed on, outpointing Melvin Foster over ten. But then a series of results followed that put him back in title contention again. Foreman had already given up the WBA trinket before making the maiden defence of his IBF belt against German Axel Schultz. He won a controversial decision, prompting the IBF to order a rematch. But Foreman declined, opting to relinquish his title instead. Schultz was paired with unbeaten South African Frans Botha to contest the title, Botha winning on points. But Botha tested positive for steroids and was promptly stripped with the result being turned in to a no-contest. So Moorer found himself facing Schultz, with a chance to once again hold a piece of the heavyweight crown.

Champion Again

Battling Schultz (23-2-1, 10 ko’s) on his home turf in Dortmund, Germany, Moorer dominated the early rounds, outboxing his iron chinned foe. But Schultz came on strong over the second half of the fight, outhustling Moorer to make the decision a close one. A split decision went the way of Moorer, making him (technically) a three-time heavyweight champion and, once again, a major player in the division.

Two defences followed, highlighting the dual personality of Moorer. The first, on the undercard of Holyfield’s first historic win over Mike Tyson, saw him impressively dissect Botha, ending matters in brutal fashion with a last round stoppage. But then he was completely uninspired in his second defence against Vaughn Bean, winning a desultory decision. For trainer Atlas though, it all became too much. Frustrated at, he felt, constantly having to motivate and encourage Moorer to train, he decided enough was enough and walked away. A colourful partnership had come to an end.

Respect Regained

Freddie Roach stepped in to take care of training duties. A former fighter, he had learnt how to handle fighters under the great Eddie Futch, who had also managed and trained him. However, his chance to make an immediate impact would come in arguably Moorer’s biggest fight to date: A unification and rematch with WBA champion Evander Holyfield.

Holyfield had caused one of the biggest upsets in history when, after being thought of as a “shot” fighter, he had produced a breathtaking and inspiring display to hammer Mike Tyson to an eleventh round defeat. He had then followed that up with another win over Tyson, this time by third round disqualification after the infamous ear biting incident. After appearing at the end of his career against Moorer he had consulted a faith healer whom he claimed had cured his “heart problem”, and now he was back on top and looking as good as ever.

For Moorer, this was a chance to prove his worth as the best fighter in the division, WBC titlist Lennox Lewis aside, and a win over the reborn Holyfield would cement this.

In defeat though, a fighter can sometimes earn the plaudits and admiration that are not appreciated in victory. For Moorer, this was never truer than on this night.

The fight started at a fast pace with both men having their successes. Holyfield (34-3, 24 ko’s) looked a lot sharper than before. But Moorer flashed his power when a short right hook momentarily buckled Holyfield’s legs as the round unwound. The next three rounds were hotly contested as both men couldn’t be separated. Despite appearing slightly softer looking against the chiseled Holyfield, Moorer was boxing superbly, and he looked more confident and assured in his ability and strategy, even opening a cut above Holyfield’s right eye. Round five was going the same until a right hand buckled Moorer, sending him down on all fours. He got up and dug his toes in to the canvas, letting Holyfield know that he wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. The sixth was just as competitive with the fans being treated to a fantastic spectacle, and the early part of the seventh continued the pattern. But then Holyfield broke through with a short left hook, briefly buckling Moorer’s legs. Moorer punched back and it seemed the moment had passed. But with a minute to go, a powerful right uppercut sent Moorer to the canvas. He got up, battling back bravely, but Holyfield continued his pursuit, another uppercut sending him down for the second time in the round. He arose, frustrated at being sent to the canvas again, and beckoned Holyfield back in, once again displaying tremendous testical fortitude. He survived the round but the fight was gradually being pounded out of him. Midway through the eighth, a three punch combination sent him down for the fourth time. Once again he pulled himself up, cursing at himself in frustration. Again showing true fighting spirit, he fired back at Holyfield, his punches still carrying menace. But as the round wound down a heavy combination sent Moorer crashing to the canvas, his head resting under the bottom rope. It looked all over, but incredibly Moorer dragged himself up as the bell went. However, the ringside doctor had seen enough, motioning to the referee that it was all over. Moorer protested that he was ok to continue but to no avail. He was once again an ex-champion, although no one would forget the bravery and character he had displayed in this fight.

It would be three years before Moorer returned to the ring again. He had never had a prolonged break since he was a teenager and he felt it was time to make up for this. But he was drinking heavily, and his weight ballooned up to 270 lbs. On top of this his grandfather tried to sue him for a percentage of his past earnings, a case in which Moorer prevailed victorious. He knew he had to gain control of his life, and he once again returned to the only place he knew how to.

Comeback…But The Road To Nowhere

He returned on the 17th November 2000 against journeyman Lorenzo Boyd, scoring a fourth round stoppage. His weight was a hefty 247 lbs and he knew that he needed to become fitter and sharper if he was to regain his former status within the division. But four fights later (two points wins, one KO and one technical draw) he found himself up against one of the most devastating punchers at ANY weight.

New Zealander David Tua had racked up 35 ko’s in a 40-3 record. Standing just under 5 feet 10 inches tall, Tua was built like a spark plug, and possessed an iron jaw to go with his heavy hands. He had lost only to Ike Ibeabuchi, Lennox Lewis and Chris Byrd, all on points, with the last two being for different versions of the heavyweight title. Among his knockout victims were future world title holders John Ruiz, Oleg Maskaev and Hasim Rahman. He was an extremely dangerous opponent for any heavyweight.

Any thoughts Moorer had of returning to the top table were extinguished in a savage and devastating fashion. Quite simply, Tua blew him away, a right hand left hook right hand fusillade knocking him clean out in just under thirty seconds. It was completely the wrong fight, and style of fighter, for Moorer at this stage of his career and hammered home the reality that his days as a force were over.

But he returned the following year, racking up three victories, before he was soundly outpointed by Eliseo Castillo. But in his next fight he turned back the clock to produce a crunching knockout of former IBF cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov. From there he fought just five more times, all wins, before finally, aged forty, hanging up the gloves for good. His final record reading 52-4-1, 40 ko’s.

Moorer has since turned to training fighters, including a stint alongside Freddie Roach at his famous Wild Card gym. But most importantly, he has mellowed. This has been evident in recent interviews where he has expressed an openness and honesty that were missing during a period of his career.

So where does Moorer’s place in history lie? There is no doubt that at 175 lbs he was one of the most devastating punchers in history. And given the chance there is every reason to believe that he could well have been undisputed champion. He was also one of the very few who took his punch up with him against the big men of boxing, underlying the fact that he could have been a three-weight champion had he had a pitstop at cruiser. Had the WBO carried the recognition it does today, his achievements, while still highly impressive, would have carried greater weight. He was the first ever southpaw heavyweight champion, and the first one to regain it. Surely a plaque in the Hall of Fame is in his future.

In his career, Moorer provided thrills, spills, excitement, frustration, and some of the best knockouts you could wish to see. But one thing is for sure, no matter what anyone’s opinion was, he certainly did things his way.

Dean Berks