The writer George Plimpton pitched a baseball to Willie Mays. He played goalie for a day with the Boston Bruins. He was in a pro-am golf tournament. He tried out for quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He played percussion with the New York Philharmonic. He performed as a trapeze artist in the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. Interesting though these experiences were, Plimpton’s first foray into the wild blue yonder of “participatory journalism” interests us most.
In 1959 George Plimpton – an intellectual heavyweight but pugilistic lightweight – challenged the Old Mongoose, Archie Moore, to three rounds of sparring. Moore was light heavyweight champ from 1952-1962 and a cunning ring presence. His record at the time of Plimpton’s challenge was 171-22-9 (123 KOs). Plimpton’s record was 0-0-0 (0 KOs), but he wanted material for a Sports Illustrated feature, which was later included in his book Shadow Box (1977), and that meant taking a risk.
“There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante,” Plimpton said in an interview several years ago, “because it looks like I’m having too much fun. I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.”
There was precedent for famous writers getting hit by famous fighters. Sportswriter Paul Gallico got dropped by Dempsey in 1922 during an exhibition. Gallico wrote: “All I knew about boxing was to keep my left arm out. I knew the position. Dempsey came in, bobbing and weaving . . . There is one photograph in the News . . . I am bent over and Dempsey’s left hook is whistling over my head. I have no recollection of ducking that one. But I didn’t duck the next one. I found myself on the floor. Everything went sort of black. I held on to the floor with both hands, because the ring and the audience outside were making a complete clockwise revolution, came to a stop, and went back again counterclockwise.”
In the spirit of Paul Gallico, George Plimpton decided to spar with Archie Moore. Despite Plimpton’s pluck, the odds of his hurting Moore were next to nonexistent. One glance at Boy George said it all: “I am not properly constituted to fight,” he wrote. “I am built rather like a bird of the stiltlike, wader variety – the avocets, limpkins, and herons. Since boyhood my arms have remained sticklike: I can slide my watch up my arm almost to my elbow. I have a thin, somewhat fragile nose which bleeds easily.”
In addition to a nose which bleeds, Plimpton had eyes that tear.
“I suffer from a condition which the medical profession refers to as ‘sympathetic response,’ which means that when I am hit or cuffed around, I weep. It is,” according to Plimpton, “an involuntary response. The tears come and there is nothing I can do except dab at them with a fist.”
Skinny guys with noses that bleed and eyes that tear are a dime a dozen in the fight game. The late great boxing trainer Charlie Goldman once said, almost as if alluding to Plimpton, “You know them fighters with long necks and them long, pointy chins. They cost you more for smellin’ salts than they do for food.”
To prepare himself for his epic three rounds with the light heavyweight champ, Plimpton, at the recommendation of Ernest Hemingway, contacted the trainer George Brown to help get him in shape. “Hemingway spoke of his skills with awe,” Plimpton wrote, “saying that he could never remember having landed a good punch during a sparring session with Brown.”
Plimpton telephoned Brown, mentioned the fight with Moore, and the trainer wanted no part of what sounded like a dangerous stunt.
“Well, what am I going to do?” Plimpton asked. Plimpton told Brown that Martin Kane over at Sports Illustrated suggested he go to Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue and try to find himself a trainer. Plimpton asked Brown if he thought that was a good idea.
Plimpton described the trainer’s reaction: “Brown was appalled. ‘Stay out of Stillman’s,’ advised Brown. ‘You’ll get some awful disease fooling around there. Stillman and his people don’t know what a mop looks like, much less how to push such a thing through the crud in that place . . . Listen, most of the trainers you’ll find as Stillman’s don’t have the brains God gave a goat. Maybe they’ll give you one lesson – how to lace on the gloves – but then they’ll get you up there in the ring for their bums to maul you around so you can “learn experience.” You’ll get ruined.’ Brown paused before continuing. ‘Listen, if you have to go to Stillman’s, go and work on the light bag, the heavy bag, but don’t get yourself pushed into the ring if anyone else is fooling around in there. Go into the ring when it’s empty – alone – shadowbox, get the feeling of the canvas, and get out if anyone starts climbing through the ropes. I don’t care if it’s Lou Stillman himself, or someone who looks like your grandmother . . . get out!’”
“They’d really tee off on me?” Plimpton asked nervously.
“In the ring with those guys you’re fair game,” Brown said. “Those guys’ll hit anything moving – the timekeeper, if he got in there; a handyman sent in to check the ring posts; anybody. And as for a writer, those guys’d smack a writer on the beak just to see what would happen.”
George Plimpton could take a hint and steered clear of Stillman’s Gym. But he had to prepare himself for the Old Mongoose, so he “fell back on the theory that I could teach myself what to do from books and a self-imposed training program.”
He visited the Racquet Club library on Park Avenue where there were a few books on boxing and arbitrarily pulled one from the shelves. It was The Art and Practice of English Boxing from 1807. Plimpton settled into one of the library’s large leather chairs in preparation for his fight with Archie Moore. He read:
“One of the chief studies of a pugilist of character is to know where he can most successfully plant his blows. The parts of the body in which a blow is struck with the greatest probability of terminating the battle, are on the eye, between the eyebrows, on the bridge of the nose, or the temporal artery, beneath the left ear, under the short ribs, and in the pit of the stomach . . . a blow under the ear forces the blood back which proceeds from the vessel to the heart . . . so that the vessels and sinews of the brain are overcharged, particularly the smaller ones, which being too delicate a texture to resist so great change of blood, burst . . . and an effusion of blood succeeding from the apertures of the head completes his business . . .”
The trainer George Brown thought learning to fight by reading a book was the most ridiculous thing he ever heard, so he agreed to teach Plimpton what he could in the little time allotted.
“George Brown went to work,” Plimpton wrote. “The reading tapered off. He got me to stop smoking – from two or three packs to nothing, cold turkey, pointing out that it was not likely that I would ever find a better excuse for quitting (short of lung disease) than having to get into condition to fight the light-heavyweight champion. In the Racquet Club gymnasium he began showing me the boxing fundamentals themselves – how to throw the jab and duck slighting behind the right to protect oneself from the counterpunch. Though he taught me one or two combinations, and we worked on the heavy bag, he said we would ‘rely’ mostly on the jab. ‘No man, I don’t care who he is,’ Brown explained, ‘likes to have a glove flicking around his eyes. It’s like a fly up there. So we’re going to stick him – peck, peck, peck; just keep that glove in his face.’”
In addition to working out in the gym, Brown had Plimpton do roadwork: “He ordered me out into Central Park to run in the early morning. I hated getting up to do it. It was certainly one of the burdens of a fighter’s life. In my Racquet Club reading I had read that Willie Pep once caught Jake LaMotta spiking his premorning-run orange juice with a jigger of brandy to make the exercise more palatable. ‘Hell, Willie,’ LaMotta said, ‘I don’t run good, but I’m the happiest guy in the world.’”
Although difficult for a man his age and from his background, running through Central Park at dawn was one of the things Plimpton liked best about training, and he told Brown how beautiful the park was at that time of day.
Brown was not impressed and “made a face and said I was not tending to business. Always I had to remember why I was out there – and that I should try to work up a controlled rage against Archie Moore, seeing him always in my mind’s eye, shadowboxing as if his presence were just beyond reach . . . He told me that when Gene Tunney was training for Dempsey, he would take time off to play golf, but even on the course he would tag after his drive, shuffling and feinting and shadowboxing, and his caddy, hurrying after him, could hear him muttering between his teeth, ‘Dempsey . . . Dempsey . . . Dempsey.’”
Plimpton took Brown’s words to heart and began muttering “Moore . . . Moore . . . Moore” during his morning jog, “but the picture that hastened into my mind was not a reassuring one at all: a mental vision of Archie Moore glowering down over his gloves, and enormous, dwarfing the ring as if he had been pumped up with helium and steadied in his corner of the ring with guy ropes.”
George Brown enlisted a former Golden Glover named Peter Gimbel, who was also Plimpton’s friend, to introduce George to sparring. Brown insisted on concentrating on the jab: “peck! peck! peck! come on now! come on now! peck! peck! peck!” When the bell sounded to end the round, Plimpton “would stand ashen-faced and gulp in sweat-tainted draughts of gymnasium air.”
After one of their sparring sessions, the three men rode uptown in a taxi, and Brown and Gimbel engaged in the age-old game of What If? “The two of them would argue about boxers,” Plimpton wrote, “most often about the relative merits of Joe Louis versus Jack Dempsey. George Brown said that Dempsey could have licked anybody in the modern era easy as pie; he was just the greatest tiger there had been, ‘except for this tiger we got sitting here in this cab,’ and he would laugh and dig me in the ribs. ‘Why this tiger could take Dempsey and Louis in one afternoon and chew up Gene Tunney in the evening time,’ and I would look out the window at Third Avenue in the rain and think how much I enjoyed being called ‘Tiger.’”
George Plimpton finally made it to Stillman’s: “The fight, or exhibition, or what people later called ‘that time when you . . .’ took place in Stillman’s Gym, the famous and rickety boxer’s establishment on Eighth Avenue just down from Columbus Circle. A dark stairway led up into a gloomy vaultlike room, rather like the hold of an old galleon. One heard the sound before one’s eyes acclimatized: the slap-slap of the ropes being skipped, the thud of leather into the big heavy bags that squeaked from their chains as they swung, the rattle of the speed bags, the muffled sounds of gym shoes on the canvas (there were two rings), the snuffle of the fighters breathing out through their noses, and, every three minutes, the sharp clang of the ring bell. The atmosphere was a fetid jungle twilight.”
Stillman’s was called the University of Eighth Avenue, among other things less flattering, because it was, in addition to being the best place to study boxing in the world at the time, a complete and utter dump. When Gene Tunney trained at Stillman’s he could not believe the stench. “‘Let’s clear this place out with some fresh air,’ he said, and everybody looked at him as if he was nuts. Johnny Dundee, the featherweight champion at the time, made one of those classic boxing remarks: ‘Fresh air? Why, that stuff is likely to kill us!’”
The owner of the gym was Lou Stillman. Stillman’s real name was Lou Ingber. He changed his name to Stillman after he won the gym in a game of cards. Stillman was a capital-C Character and had what Budd Schulberg described as a “garbage-disposal voice.” He also had a way with words: “Big or small, champ or bum, I treated ‘em all the same way – bad.” Describing his derelict institution, Stillman said “The way these guys like it, the filthier it is, the better. Makes them feel more at home.”
Plimpton told Stillman that he and the Old Mongoose needed the gym for an hour. “I told him about Archie Moore and what we hoped to do,” wrote Plimpton. “Sports Illustrated would pay him a small sum for the inconvenience. He did not seem especially surprised. An eyebrow might have been raised. It turned out that he condoned almost anything that would break the dreary tedium.”
Probably because Archie was involved, Stillman “agreed to turn over his premises, though he told me what a businesslike establishment he was running there, and what a considerable inconvenience it was going to be to stop operations for the hour or so of the exhibition. Couldn’t Sports Illustrated come up with more scratch? I said that I would see what I could do. I told him, frankly, it was the least of my worries.”
Even while lunching with fancy friends at this club or that, Archie Moore was never far from Plimpton’s mind: “During lunch I kept wondering what Archie Moore was up to. I knew that he was in town, not far away. I thought of him coming closer all the time, physically moving toward our confrontation, perhaps a quarter of a mile away at the moment, in some restaurant, ordering a big steak with honey on it for energy, everyone in the place craning around to stare at him, and a lot of smiles because a month before he had won an extraordinary fight against Yvon Durelle, a strong pole-axer French Canadian, in which he pulled himself up off the canvas five times, eventually to win, so the applause would ripple up from among the tables as he left the restaurant.”
Literary flights of fancy are great on the page, but not so good in the squared circle. While Plimpton was soaring on the wings of his fertile imagination, Archie Moore was across town asking Peter Maas, another friend of Plimpton’s: What’s with this guy George Plimpton? Maas had a sense of humor and told Moore that Plimpton was an “intercollegiate boxing champion . . . He’s a gawky sort of guy, but don’t let that fool you, Arch! He’s got a left jab that sticks, he’s fast, and he’s got a pole-ax left hook that he can really throw. He’s a barnburner of a fighter, and the big thing about him is he wants to be the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Very ambitious. And confident. He doesn’t see why he should work his way through all the preliminaries in the tank towns: he reckons he’s ready now.”
Plimpton wrote that “Maas told me all of this later. He said he had not suspected himself of such satanic capacities.”
After hearing Maas’ description of Plimpton, Archie Moore said, “If that guy lays a hand on me I’m going to coldcock him.” Then Moore cracked his knuckles.
The day of the fight arrived. Plimpton and his trainer arrived at the gym and “Lou Stillman led us through the back area of his place into an arrangement of cubicles as helter-skelter as a Tangier slum.” Brown sat Plimpton down and started wrapping his hands. Plimpton worried aloud that maybe Moore wouldn’t show.
“Suddenly, Archie Moore himself appeared at the door of my cubicle. He was in his streetclothes. He was carrying a kit bag and a pair of boxing gloves; the long white laces hung down loose. There was a crowd of people behind him, peering in over his shoulders – Miles Davis, the trumpet player, one of them; and I thought I recognized Doc Kearns, Moore’s legendary manager, with his great ears soaring up the sides of his head and the slight tang of toilet water sweetening the air of the cubicle (he was known for the aroma of his colognes). But all this was a swift impression” wrote Plimpton, “because I was staring up at Moore from my stool. He looked down and said as follows: ‘Hmm.’”
Archie Moore started to undress. He put on his foul-protector. He put on his boxing trunks and shoes. He began taping his hands. Then “he offered us a curious monologue, apparently about a series of victories back in his welterweight days: ‘I put that guy in the hospital, didn’t I? Yeah, banged him around the eyes so it was a question about whether he could ever see again.’ (Moore) looked at me again. 'You do your best, hear?’ I nodded vaguely. He went back to his litany. ‘Hey, Doc, you remember the guy who couldn’t remember his name after we finished with him . . . just plumb banged that guy’s name right out of his skull?’”
That was not what George Plimpton hoped to hear.
“I looked at George Brown beseechingly,” Plimpton wrote. “He shrugged. ‘Don’t let it bother you. Just remember what we’ve been doing all this time. Move, and peck at him.’”
The two men met at the center of the ring and Plimpton was resigned to his fate: “I had read somewhere that if one were doomed to suffer in the ring, it would be best to have Archie Moore as the bestower. His face was peaceful, with a kind of comforting mien to it – people doubtless fell into easy conversation with him on buses and planes – and to be put away by him in the ring would not be unlike being tucked in by Haitian mammy.”
The bell rang to start the action: “He came at me quite briskly,” Plimpton remembered, “and as I poked at him tentatively, his left reached out and thumped me alarmingly. As he moved around the ring he made a curious humming sound in his throat, a sort of peaceful aimless sound one might make pruning a flowerbed, except that from time to time the hum would rise quite abruptly, and bang! He would cuff me alongside the head. I would sense the leaden feeling of being hit, the almost acrid whiff of leather off his gloves, and I would blink through the sympathetic response and try to focus on his face, which looked slightly startled, as if he could scarcely believe he had done such a thing.”
Moore had no problem knocking men out. Making them cry was another matter.
Plimpton continued: “Halfway through the round Moore slipped – almost to one knee – not because of anything I had done, but his footing had betrayed him somehow. Laughter rose out of the seats, and almost as if in retribution he jabbed and followed with a long lazy left hook that fetched up against my nose and collapsed it slightly. It began to bleed.”
The writer George Plimpton was now crying and bleeding in front of Archie Moore and a gym full of giddy spectators.
“We went into a clinch; I was surprised when I was pushed away and saw the sheen of blood on Moore’s T-shirt. Moore looked slightly alarmed. The flow of tears was doubtless disarming. He moved forward and enfolded me in another clinch. He whispered in my ear, ‘Hey, breathe, man, breathe.’ The bell sounded and I turned from him and headed for my corner, feeling very much like sitting down.”
George Brown, Plimpton’s cornerman, offered the same old advice: “just jab him, keep him away, keep the glove in his snoot, peck, peck, you’re doing fine.”
Moore toyed with Plimpton in round two. “In the third round Brown began to feel that Moore had run through as much of a repertoire as he could devise, and that the fighter, wondering how he could finish thing off aesthetically, was getting testy about it.”
An early bell ended the “fight” and saved Plimpton from any more damage.
“That round seemed awfully short,” Plimpton said to Brown.
“I suppose you were getting set to finish him,” Brown replied.
George Plimpton and Archie Moore returned to their cubicles and a mob filled the cramped space.
“The character of the crowd had begun to change,” Plimpton wrote. “The word has gone around the area that Archie Moore was up in Stillman’s, and the fight bars down the avenue had emptied. A whole mess of people came up Stillman’s stairs, some of them in time to see the final round, other pushing against the striped-tie crowd leaving. ‘It’s over? What the hell was Arch doin’ fightin’ in Stillman’s?’
‘I dunno,’ one of the other pushing up the stairs said. ‘I hear he kilt some guy.’”
The exhibition was over. Stillman’s Gym cleared out. One of Plimpton’s supporters, a perfumed lady who arrived in a Rolls, came late and peered into the empty space.
“Where’s everybody?” she asked.
Lou Stillman answered, “Everybody is not here.”