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Michael Moorer: A Paradoxical Hall of Fame Career

BY Greg Smith ON April 26, 2005
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“Michael Moorer was definitely one of the greatest light heavyweights, I felt, in the history of boxing.”

---Emanuel Steward, 2003

“People take the easy, conventional look at it and they say he’s lazy. But sometimes it’s because a person isn’t sure of himself. And they’re looking for an excuse to lose, if they lose.”
---Teddy Atlas, April 1994

On April 22, 2005, exactly eleven years after winning the lineal heavyweight title from Evander Holyfield, Teddy Atlas informed the boxing public of Michael Moorer’s retirement on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights. For various reasons, the announcement of Moorer’s retirement hasn’t been met with reminiscent praise from the boxing elite. To be sure, in a sometimes obscure and anarchic career, Moorer’s actual accomplishments merit more respectful attention because he’ll probably end up in the Hall of Fame.

To understand the depth of Moorer’s career, it’s necessary to review his formative years. Moorer was born in Brooklyn, New York, but grew up in the gritty western Pennsylvania mill town of Monessen, Pennsylvania. At first glance, Monessen was not the optimal place to start a boxing career. After all, western Pennsylvania peaked as a boxing nerve center decades before when Zivic, Greb, Conn, and Burley dominated the headlines.

Football, not boxing, was the epicenter of western Pennsylvania sports culture when Moorer was growing up one hour south of Pittsburgh. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Jack Lambert were bringing NFL championships home to the Steel City. Joe Montana grew up ten minutes away from Moorer. Marino, Namath, Kelly and Unitas all grew up within one hour of Pittsburgh. As accurately depicted in the 1982 movie All The Right Moves, when the steel industry spiraled into decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the accepted way out of the mill towns for young men was to get a football scholarship. Michael played football like most kids in the mill towns lining the Monongahela River, but an unexpected turn would change Michael’s life.

In a great 1990 The Ring magazine interview titled Violence is Golden: The Inner Rage of Michael Moorer, Steve Farhood illustrates the pivotal point in Moorer’s choice of a main sport. Moorer was an unusually hyperactive child, and Michael’s mother, Paulette, actually sought professional help. “He was more daring than most boys. I was told that it would be good for him to go into a violent sport.” Bluntly put, football wasn’t enough. Boxing would be the ticket.

Family ties superceded any geographic disadvantages Moorer might experience in starting a boxing career. Moorer’s grandfather, Henry Smith, who passed away in his early 80s in 2003, was a former fighter and local boxing trainer who reportedly once sparred with Charley Burley and Archie Moore. Smith epitomized the rough, blue-collar, alpha male mentality of the Mon Valley. He taught Michael the finer points of the game at a young age, and Michael began to accompany his grandfather to the gym.

Smith saw potential in Michael early and put him through his paces. Moorer, who was known for inconsistent training habits throughout his career, sometimes relented, but Smith quickly took control and steered his grandson on the right path.

As Moorer’s amateur career progressed, however, a cold reality set in. Smith and Moorer knew that continuing to fight out of the Mon Valley possessed intractable limitations. As Moorer’s amateur career was peaking, he relocated to Detroit and joined Emanuel Steward at the Kronk Gym. Moorer, a 1986 National Amateur Champion at 156 pounds, began preparing for the 1988 Olympic Trials.

In 2003, HBOs Legendary Nights beautifully depicted Moorer’s adjustment to the crucible of Kronk. When asked about his early experiences in Detroit’s famous gym, Moorer responded in a steely eyed manner: “When you fought inside the gym, you gained a lot of notoriety, recognition on what you did in the ring. And I kicked a lot of a** in there.”

Indeed, Moorer’s gym reputation at Kronk started immediately. Moorer was a lanky southpaw at the time, and Steward assigned Moorer as a key sparring partner for middleweight contender Darnell Knox. Knox was preparing for a title shot against Michael Nunn in October 1987. Knox was coming off a tenth round TKO of Alex Ramos, and boasted a record of 23-1 (18 KOs).

By Steward’s account, Knox was overmatched against Moorer in sparring, In fact, Steward asserted that Knox proved to be easy pickings for Nunn partially because Knox was depleted from the beatings he took from Moorer.

Knox never fought again after being stopped by Nunn in four rounds.

Witnessing Moorer’s gym prowess, Steward never allowed Moorer and Thomas Hearns to spar at Kronk. In proper context, Steward never conceded that Moorer would draw a bead on the aging Hearns. Rather, Kronk was known for macho gym wars, and Manny felt it was too much of a risk considering that both would experience difficulty holding back.

Shortly after the Knox incident, a tough decision was made. Steward realized Moorer’s massive potential. They decided to skip the Olympic Trials and Michael turned pro. Moorer opened his pro career at 172 pounds with a first round stoppage of Adrian Riggs on March 4, 1988.

Moorer’s rise in the light heavyweight ranks was meteoric. After his pro debut, he ran off a series of ten consecutive knockouts in eight months, and signed to face Ramzi Hassan for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title in only his twelfth pro fight.

Moorer faced Hassan on December 3, 1988 outside of Cleveland, Ohio on national television. Moorer was unusually poised despite his relative lack of experience. He surprised the veteran with his vicious arsenal of compact, precision bombs. Moorer absorbed Hassan’s return fire without blinking, broke him down, and ruthlessly stopped him in five rounds. It was a great performance that injected new life into the division. The precocious 21-year-old was already being mentioned as a serious threat to the more seasoned belt holders less than one year into his professional career.

Moorer proved to be an active champion. In 1989, he defended his title six times with six knockouts. Some of his performances were characteristically savage and impressive. At times, however, cracks appeared in his armor as well. Experienced opponents like Frankie Swindell and Leslie Stewart exposed some of Moorer’s weaknesses and inexperience, and experts began to wonder if Moorer was moved too quickly and hadn’t served a true apprenticeship.

On the flip side, intrigue surrounded the career of Moorer at the same time critics questioned his worth. After the Stewart bout, Michael ledger read 16-0 with 16 knockouts. Michael Moorer didn’t just win; he knocked out all of his opponents. In boxing, fans love to see knockouts, and when Michael Moorer fought, fans took notice. Even if Moorer was behind in a fight, he could turn the fight around with a 6” shot that would disconnect the nervous system of his most experienced opposition.

To his credit, Moorer improved after the Swindell and Stewart bouts. He showed more upper body movement and better defense, became more proficient offensively, and destroyed fighters like Mike Sedillo who went the distance with fellow belt holder Virgil Hill.

To add to Moorer’s image as a merciless knockout artist, a perceptible, lava flow of emotions seemed to be raging to the surface behind the scenes. In 1989, he was arrested for his participation in a brawl in the town of Charleroi across the bridge from his hometown of Monessen. In interviews with boxing journalists, Moorer talked about his cravings for violence, and pondered what it would look like when he broke the jaw of an opponent. He began to take on the persona of an antisocial destroyer who didn’t take prisoners; both in the ring and on the street.

Michael Moorer was becoming the light heavyweight version of Mike Tyson.

After proposed bouts with Virgil Hill and Prince Charles Williams failed to materialize, Moorer and Steward began to both argue and ponder Michael’s prospects as a heavyweight. Moorer reportedly weighed 206 pounds prior to training camp for some of his defenses. One day before his uncharacteristic, lackluster February 1990 ninth round stoppage of Marcellus Allen, Moorer weighed 181 pounds. He sweated off the weight by turning on all of the hot water on his hotel room bathroom, and shadowboxed for hours.

Something had to give.

Moorer defended his portion of the light heavyweight title for the ninth and final time at the Pittsburgh Civic Center on December 15, 1990 with a ninth round stoppage of Danny Stonewalker. Moorer was completely dominant throughout the bout, but the wear and tear of making 175 pounds was evident. He ended his career as a light heavyweight with a record of 22-0 with 22 knockouts.

The decision was finalized. He bypassed the cruiserweight division, and set his sites on the big boys.

As a heavyweight, Moorer’s rise in the ranks was as quick and lethal as his right uppercut. He fought seven bouts under the tutelage of Steward from April 1991 until May 1992. His heavyweight record was 7-0 with 5 knockouts. Two of his knockout wins were among the greatest heavyweight brawls of the last twenty years: Alex Stewart and Bert Cooper. He won the vacant WBO title with his classic fifth round stoppage of Bert Cooper.

After the Cooper fight, Moorer was mentioned among the elite, and some speculated that he might end up as the top dog in the division. He possessed the uncanny knack of teetering on the edge of defeat, only to devastate his opposition with superior power. In short, you could never count Moorer out because of his recuperative powers and knockout power.

Unfortunately, behind Moorer’s success, trouble was subtly mounting.

Moorer experienced curious lapses. He weighed a whopping 231 pounds when he bombed out hapless Bobby Crabtree on the undercard of Holyfield vs. Cooper in November 1991. He weighed a soft 225 pounds when he went the ten round distance for the first time against Mike “The Giant” White in his next fight. He appeared out of shape and unmotivated while suffering the first knockdown of his career against perennial journeyman Everett “Big Foot” Martin on St. Patrick’s Day in 1992. Moorer might be part of the elite, but he would need to be more consistent to land a big money fight.

To add more trouble to the fray, Moorer’s combustible mentality was again manifested outside the ring during his rise in the ranks. Days after stopping Alex Stewart during the summer of 1991, Moorer was booked and arrested for assaulting a police officer in his hometown of Monessen. Newspaper reports indicated that Moorer was intoxicated at a basketball game, and departed in a rage when convinced to leave. He appeared at his grandfather’s house, smashed a mailbox, and broke windows once he entered the house. Police were called to the scene, and an altercation ensued. In the end, officer Carl Fronzaglio suffered a broken jaw.

The charges were obviously very serious, and the case loomed over Moorer’s head for about a year and a half. Prison time was likely. Ultimately, Moorer paid an out of court settlement and was placed on probation.

But the trouble continued.

While Moorer was establishing himself as a heavyweight threat, Moorer and Steward were actually drawing apart. Steward contends that Moorer changed psychologically when he became a heavyweight. Michael was less apt to listen to Steward, and that contributed to the quick deterioration in their relationship. Conversely, Moorer felt he was the top fighter at Kronk, and Emanuel was spreading himself too thin as a manager and trainer. Additionally, Moorer believed Emanuel was spending too much time with new prospects like Gerald McClellan.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. After the Cooper fight in May 1992, Steward sold his rights to Moorer’s contract, and the relationship ended.

The normally active Moorer fought only once more in 1992, when he stopped “Rhino” Billy Wright in two rounds on the undercard of the first Holyfield vs. Bowe fight. Experienced trainer Tony Ayala Sr. worked Moorer’s corner for that fight, but things just didn’t seem to be the same.

Moorer joined the Duvas in early 1993, but the change in management didn’t signal the end of Moorer’s professional drift. Georgie Benton took over most of the training duties, and attempted to round out Moorer’s style by teaching him the fine art of defense. Moorer respected both Duva and Benton, but seemed frustrated with the stylistic transition. Moorer was 3-0 with 2 KOs under Duva and Benton, but critics began to question Moorer’s status as a top heavyweight. He was becoming a boring and less marketable fighter. Moorer eventually parted with the Duvas during the summer of 1993.

Moorer’s life and career would change forever months later. Moorer wanted a trainer who would enhance his aggressive style, and Teddy Atlas fit the bill. Moorer was still undefeated with a record of 33-0 with 30 knockouts when Atlas entered the scene. They spent about two months together before they closed the year with a ten round decision over journeyman Mike Evans.

The relationship between Teddy Atlas and Michael Moorer is one of the most interesting in heavyweight history. The relationship is best described as deep, but ambivalent. Both are strong willed and emotional. The interactions between the two, both in and out of the ring, are well documented.

In 1994, Moorer won the lineal heavyweight with a controversial twelve round decision over Evander Holyfield.  Critics pointed out that Moorer’s performance was lacking in aggression, and Michael became an unpopular champion. Moorer added to his unpopularity by being averse to media attention, and the heavyweight division seemed to be in a state of inertia. Tyson was in prison, Bowe was inactive, and Lewis was still a stiff, upright European-style fighter.

Seven months later, Moorer lost his title to George Foreman after slamming Foreman with unusually stiff right jabs and powerful combinations. Moorer’s stock plummeted, while Foreman became wealthy almost overnight.

Moorer briefly announced his retirement after the Foreman loss, but Teddy Atlas stood by Moorer’s side and refused to abandon him. They tried to get Foreman back in the ring, but failed.

After a layoff, Double M began to resurrect his career. Eventually, Michael’s perseverance paid off when he won the vacant IBF heavyweight title in Germany with a 12 round decision win over Axel Schulz in 1996.

Moorer would defend his version of the title twice. He stopped Francois Botha in twelve rounds of a great action fight on the undercard of the first Holyfield vs. Tyson fight. A few months later, Moorer appeared distracted in a desultory twelve round majority decision win over Vaughn Bean in his next defense.

Atlas left the scene after the Bean fight. He had grown tired of Moorer’s lack of focus, and moved on. Michael Moorer was still a champion, but trainers weren’t breaking down the door to replace Atlas.

In his next fight, Freddie Roach was in Moorer’s corner when Moorer attempted to unify the IBF and WBA belts in a rematch with Evander Holyfield in November 1997.

Moorer weighed-in at a soft 223 pounds, but the bout was fought on even terms going into the fifth round. As Moorer seemed to be taking control of the action, Holyfield floored Moorer with a combination. Moorer got up, took heavy shots from Holyfield, and fought back.

Moorer would hit the deck four more times before the bout was halted after the eighth round. He would almost surrealistically rise after each knockdown, and showed tremendous fortitude as he absorbed numbing combinations. Despite being hopelessly behind on the scorecards, Moorer vehemently protested the stoppage. It is one of the gutsiest performances witnessed by this writer in the last decade.

Ironically, Michael Moorer was a hero in defeat.

Moorer took a three year hiatus from the ring after the Holyfield bout. During that period, his grandfather attempted to sue him for a percentage of past earnings, but Michael prevailed. By his own admission, Michael was attempting to make up for lost time during his time from ring. He never had a significant break from boxing since he was a teenager. Ultimately, Michael’s drinking got out of control and he ballooned to 270 pounds. He quit cold turkey, and attempted to regain control of his life by embarking on a comeback.

A slow, 247 pound Moorer began his comeback in November 2000 with a fourth round stoppage of Lorenzo Boyd. He gradually lost weight and put together a few wins. He was dominating Dale Crowe before the bout was declared a technical draw on an accidental butt. A few wins later, he was quietly reemerging as a possible player in the division.

Moorer’s comeback crashed when he made the huge mistake of signing to fight David Tua during the summer of 2002. Styles make fights, and it seemed inevitable that Tua would get to Moorer. I picked Tua on a fifth round knockout, but he proved me wrong. Moorer lasted only thirty seconds into the first round.

Stubborn and resolute, Moorer continued to fight. He put together three wins against nondescript opposition, but weighed a career high 251 pounds in losing an embarrassing ten round decision to Eliseo Castillo during the summer of 2004.

In his last fight a little over ten years after losing his heavyweight title to Foreman, Moorer faced former cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov. Moorer fell far behind in the fight, but was setting traps in the process. When Jirov tired, Moorer opened up and pole-axed him with a tremendous straight left. Jirov struggled to his feet on unsteady legs, but the bout was correctly stopped in the ninth round. It reminded many fans of Foreman’s win over Moorer. In that sense, it was a poignant way to end a career.

After the fight, a relaxed, but tired Moorer answered questions from the media. His answers were respectful, thoughtful, and refreshingly honest. It was in stark contrast to the brooding, edgy Moorer of the past. Michael Moorer had not only come full circle in his career, he had come full circle as a person. The career of Michael Moorer was a long, circuitous journey. He saw the ultimate highs and deepest abyss in the toughest profession on earth. He grew in the process.

Michael’s final record reads 46-4-1 (37 KOs).

In evaluating Moorer’s career, Michael Moorer will not be a first ballot inductee into Canastota. I believe Moorer will be inducted several years after he becomes eligible, but some will protest because he is remembered as a classic underachiever. They’ll remember the inaccessible, taciturn Moorer who shunned the media at his peak. They’ll remember the controversial win over Evander Holyfield and the loss to Foreman. They’ll remember him being knocked out by another underachiever, David Tua.

A deeper look reveals that Moorer holds some startling distinctions.

Moorer is the only champion in boxing history to have a completely umblemished record and a 100% knockout ratio at the time he left the light heavyweight division. Additionally, he is the first southpaw heavyweight champion. He is also one of only four light heavyweight champions in boxing history to win a heavyweight title. He is one of just a few heavyweight champions to win a piece of the crown three times.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Moorer is the light heavyweight champion who brought his power with him when he moved up to the heavyweight ranks. Moorer’s heavyweight record of 25-4-1 with 14 KOs seems not to support that assertion, but Moorer scored over twenty knockdowns against heavyweights in his career. Early in his heavyweight career, some experts deemed him the hardest puncher in the division outside of Tyson and Foreman.

In short, Michael Moorer’s actual accomplishments leave him more qualified for Canastota than some inductees of the past.

All told, the sixteen year professional career of Michael Moorer is a study in multiple contrasts. For instance, Moorer is known mostly for his accomplishments in the heavyweight division, but he was a better fighter as a light heavyweight. In the same vein, as a heavyweight Moorer is recognized most for winning two heavyweight titles with Teddy Atlas at his side, but he was more explosive and compelling when he knocked out Alex Stewart and Bert Cooper with Emanuel Steward in the corner. He is the first southpaw to win a heavyweight title, but he is a natural right hander who chose to fight from the southpaw stance. He made more fans in his loss to Holyfield in 1997 than he gained when he took the title from Evander in 1994, and lost it to Foreman the same year. Moorer won several belts in his career, but some experts, including Al Bernstein, believe Moorer might’ve been at his best in a division he never competed in: The Cruiserweights.

It was an interesting, unique, and often misunderstood career.

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